Year-end Appeal Checklist
Maya Gasuk is a senior consultant at West Wind Consulting Strategies in Fund Raising LLC, a firm dedicated to helping nonprofits build the capacity, culture and resources to serve their communities. Prior to joining West Wind, Maya was a fundraiser for over 20 years, which regularly included writing and editing direct mail, and at times licking stamps and stuffing envelopes. She still uses a checklist for every mail project she is involved in.
In the hectic environment of nonprofits approaching fiscal year-end, whether you have done mailings all your life, or this is the first time, a checklist is an essential tool for anyone producing a direct mail campaign. As someone who has worked on direct mail campaigns for over 20 years, this is my distilled list which is still my go-to today.
• Set goals for your mailing (ASAP! Like, right now, GO!)
This time of year, I start to feel like fundraising is a race, and I’m getting pretty exhausted. What makes it all worthwhile is getting over the finish line. Of course, to meet a goal, you need to set one—and there’s a lot of strategy involved.
First of all—decide when to send your mailing. Sounds like a simple decision, but it isn’t. The goal is to time the mailing to capture the maximum number of gifts before the end of the tax year. You need to know the response curve for your mailings to determine how many weeks from drop date it takes to receive the bulk of your returns, and then use that date to work back from year-end.
To do this, look at the appeal code reports and the gift date or process dates for some of your mailings and see how long it takes for 75-80 percent of the donor returns to come in. For many organizations, it varies from four to six weeks—knowing your curve will help you know how much time you need to give your mailing to get the maximum performance.
Who is it going to? Think carefully about the purpose of this solicitation. Is it dollars? Donors? Both? That can determine whether you will mail to loyal donors, past donors, potential donors, or some mix of all three.
As the saying goes, the best predictor of future behavior is past response. To set goals for donors and dollars—do an initial pull of data to get an estimate of people in each segment. Then apply a similar percent response as the prior year mailing to that audience—that will give you the donors. Then look at the average gift for each of those segments and multiply it by the number of donors to get the dollars raised. If you do this in excel, you can make a nice spreadsheet out of it, and drop in the mailing costs to calculate ROI later.
If you have no historical record, make your best guess on percentages and average gift—and figure out how to pull reports to tell you the answer from this mailing. You’ll be doing your program a great service by putting this in place.
• Solidify your plan (8-10 weeks before drop)
Once your goals are set, it will be easier to plan the appeal and decide who will sign the letters, what letterhead to use, what the inserts (if any) will say and the size and design of the outgoing envelope (plus a business reply envelope that will fit inside). Put in requests for supplies, proofing after each new set is received until final signoff.
Now is the time to start conducting any needed background research for your letter, scheduling interviews, or reviewing/taking photos for material design or letter content.
• Put your ducks in a row (8-10 weeks before drop)
If you use an outside mail house, secure commitment from them now—otherwise you’ll be at the back of the line. If you have to do your work in-house, give your colleagues and volunteers a heads up, and schedule a space, time, and food to bribe everyone. Don’t forget stamp orders and make sure the inventory will be delivered on time.
This is also a good time to make sure you’re all set with National Change of Address (NCOA) standards—either your mail house can help, or you can send the file out to any number of services. Remember, you have to certify you’ve checked your addresses for accuracy every 95 days.
Since you’ve also set goals for your mailings, you’ll want to track your results, so now’s the time to set up campaign, solicitation or appeal codes, if you haven’t already.
• Tell your story (7 weeks before drop)
Some people are fortunate enough to have others write letters for them. Most of us don’t, or even if we do, we aren’t always happy with the first draft. There is so much to say about this topic, it’s enough for another article. Suffice it to say as a trained copywriter, I believe Tom Ahern’s book “How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money” is my bible. If you haven’t read it, get it.
• Count and manage your blessings (6 weeks before drop)
Now that the masterpiece has been written, it has to be blessed. Map out a clear routing plan for review and approval, and give your volunteers at least five working days to approve. You will also want to secure their signatures and have everything in place two to three weeks ahead of time.
• Pull your list (3 weeks before drop)
Whether you pull this list yourself, or work with someone who manages your database, think through each audience, and all the ins and outs of the list. I’m a big fan of using a “data request form” to help think through the logic and document what I did. Don’t forget to add a “seed list” to the data including volunteers or staff you want to get a copy or verify time of delivery, and a sample or two to keep on file.
• Details, details, details (2 weeks before drop)
Does it bug you when someone you’ve met a few times before still says your name wrong after you’ve corrected them? Of course it does. And your donors feel the same way about you when you get it wrong. In fact, studies have shown that inaccurate data is the single greatest thing that impacts donor retention rates. It’s up to you to proof your data—line by line. Set aside the time to do it, because it really counts. Things to check are: if the target asks are correct, if spouses and partners are joined correctly, messy salutations, incomplete or missing addresses. Now is also the time to verify the right list is matched with the right letters—and that any deceased or special situations are out of the data file.
• The final sprint (2 weeks before)
Now is the time to send data, approved text, signatures, and supplies to mail house and start proofing samples—or start the process of overheating your in-house printer. This is your last chance at quality control, so spot check letters to be sure there are no typos, that the ask amounts are right, that the signature quality is good, and that the letter has a 12-point size font or higher—remember, most of your best donors are over 40, and I can tell you, we don’t like tiny fonts. It’s more important to be readable than to squish onto one page. Either edit, or go to page two.
• Crossing the finish line- Drop date
YAY! It’s out the door. Do the happy dance. Then make sure your team knows the appeal has dropped-and provide a sample. Then watch the checks roll in. It’s a fun time—enjoy it, and know you’ve worked hard to make your organization a better place.
• But it’s not over!
Ahh...those pesky mail returns. Make sure returned mail is updated in your database, otherwise you are paying twice. Put a complete sample mailing package in a binder along with the mailing list, so you have a historical record. Then as you run your analysis report, you can keep the whole package together because by next year, if you are anything like me, you’ll have forgotten what happened :-)
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