Woman receiving non-profit marketing mail

There's a podcast we listen to called "No Stupid Questions." This blog is about one of their podcasts we found interesting about non-profit marketing, so we're summarizing it here.

It asks (and answers) the question "Is It Worth It for Charities to Harass Their Donors?" As we've all experienced, some charities send us lots of emails, and stuff in the mail we didn't ask for. Things like return address stickers and greeting cards (which can't be cheap to print and send). Why do they do this, and does it work?

Non-profit marketing case study from an organization called "Smile Train"

You might be aware of a non-profit called "Operation Smile" which sends American surgeons to developing countries to perform, free of charge, to perform surgery on kids who have cleft palettes. In 1998, an offshoot of "Operation Smile," called "Smile Train" (who this blog is about), decided it'd be more sustainable to train surgeons in those developing countries – or nearby countries – to do the surgery instead of sending American doctors overseas.

before and after surgery for child's cleft palate

Testing options to increase donations

The reason folks give to charities are fairly obvious: it's their altruism to help others. (Other reasons are virtue signaling, social pressure, or a theory called "warm glow altruism.")

How SMILE TRAIN set out to increase donations:

Turns out Smile Train sends out 18 solicitations a year to their donors and prospects. However, Smile Train was getting complaints from their donors about being hassled so often. So they tried an experiment.

SMILE TRAIN offered 3 options to hundreds of thousands people in one of their mailings:
  1. For option 1, donors could check: "This will be my only gift, please do not contact me, or ask for another donation." (They were calling this option "one and done.")
  2. For option 2, donors could check: "Here's my donation. I would prefer to receive only 2 solicitations from Smile Train each year." 
  3. For option 3, donors could check: "Here's my donation. Please keep me up-to-date on the progress you're making around the world."
here's what happened:
  • Only one-third of the recipients went for the "one and done" option.
  • The average donation of the "one and done" donors was 10% higher than usual first-time donors
  • Smile Train was able to secure new donors: the ones who knew they could send a donation and not be contacted again.
  • The folks who received this mailing and checked option 1 were twice as likely to become first-time donors as people who received Smile Train's traditional fund-raising letters.
  • Overall, the mailing effort raised donations by 46%, equaling millions of additional dollars from what they would have ordinarily received from a traditional mailing.
  • Smile Train also saved a lot of money by NOT sending out additional mailings to those tens of thousands of folks who went with the "one and done" option.

So this experiment yielded millions of dollars more in donations, as well as securing new donors. And they didn't even have to send out those sheets of return address stickers!

Do those return address stickers, calendars, dollars or magnets really work?

woman opening non-profit marketing pieceWhen we get letters in mail from charities with, say a dollar in the letter, compared to non-monetary incentives, how does that affect the response? Turns out, more often people will open a mailer with something in it. But research has shown that it doesn't affect how much they'll donate. So not offering any incentives can be just as effective as offering something.

When you subtract the cost of the giveaway, and potential additional postage, turns out it's cheaper to just send a request for a donation. Of course, your message and imaging need to be spot-on and appeal to your audience's altruistic side. It's not rocket science. Emphasize how a donation affects the lives of people or causes the people receiving the request care about.

As a side note, the best incentive from one non-profit marketing effort (highlighted in the podcast) was one done by a high school. They were selling 12" pieces of duct tape for a dollar. Each piece of duct tape was intended to help tape the principal of that school to the wall. (Not sure exactly what they did to him once he taped to the wall.) Because there was an element of knowing exactly what would happen with your donation, and where the money raised would go, this promotion in particular worked very well.

How to find out if charities sell your information

It's common that websites we sign up with resell our data, but we don't often think that non-profits do that as well. However, many do because it's a source of income, and non-profits, like many organizations, need as much cash flow as possible.

How do you find out if a non-profit is selling your information? Simple. When you fill out your name on a non-profit's form, use their organization's name as you middle name - as a hyphenated first name. For example, for "Outward Bound," John Smith would use his first name as "John Outward," and of course, use his regular last name, Smith.

Then should you ever receive a non-profit marketing email or direct mail piece that your first name is (in this example) "John Outward," you'd know Outward Bound has sold your data. Of course, you can do this with any company you provide your information to.

You can listen to the entire "No Stupid Questions" podcast about non-profit marketing here.