Nonprofits, Donors See Year-End Appeals

October 22, 2007
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WALKER — Mark Petz knew the border collie would do the trick.

This collie didn’t sit, speak or fetch slippers. But it did convince donors to the Humane Society of Kent County to open their wallets when its picture appeared in a direct-mail piece earlier this month, said Petz, development and marketing director.

For nonprofits, the last quarter of the year is when donations peak in response to a frenzy of appeals, mostly by direct mail.

“Nonprofits, as a rule, are going crazy with mailings from about this point through the middle of December,” Inner City Christian Federation CEO Jonathan Bradford said. “Why did we fall into that pattern? The answer to that question is really a presumption that a lot of giving is income-tax-planning motivated.”

Alpha Dog Marketing, which specializes in animal shelters, picked the photo of a particularly winsome pup for the outside of the envelope for the Humane Society’s October mailing, Petz said. This year is the second that the organization has enlisted Alpha Dog for fundraising help. A three-month, four-piece direct-mail fund drive, one of six appeals over the course of a year, began with a postcard thanking everyone who donated in 2007.

“The vast majority of people are in a spirit of giving with the holidays coming,” Petz said. “They’re also considering the tax implications of giving, so people want to take care of that by Jan. 1. I think it’s even become part of our culture as people become more savvy about giving.”

Petz last year raised $565,000 toward the Humane Society’s $1.1 million in revenue with the help of two part-time staffers, the marketing consultant and the purchases of mailing lists, such as subscribers to pet magazines, to cull for new donors.

At the North Kent Service Center, where the mostly part-time staff has lived with pay freezes and without benefits for several years, executive director Sandy Waite doubles as fundraiser-in-chief.

With Thanksgiving and Christmas just a page-flip away on the calendar, Waite is faced with as many as 1,800 families seeking holiday food baskets. The center, located in Rockford, not only hopes to capitalize on the giving spirit, but aims to fill that immediate need, Waite said.

“We are hearing stories of people that were here last year, being able to give to us, and this year are in line asking for assistance,” she said. In 2006, North Kent distributed 500,000 pounds of food for the holidays.

While many nonprofits run fundraising events outside the year-end cash gift cycle, the 34-year-old center, which has a $380,000 annual budget, has hosted several of its 14 annual events this month to support the demand for its services around the holidays: a chili dinner, an open-to-the-public sale, a silent auction of cookie jars that have been donated to the center and of quilts handcrafted by a pair of volunteers.

“Year-end is huge,” Waite said. The center mailed more than 1,000 letters in a September direct-mail appeal. In 2006, the year-end campaign collected $74,000, but Waite said she was unsure of the response rate.

At ICCF, which is devoted to construction of affordable housing in Grand Rapids, fundraising takes on a personal touch, Bradford said, with personal visits, meetings, tours and special correspondence for the most generous and consistent donors.

“We have a high-touch, personalized approach to a number that runs a bit over 100 people,” said Bradford, whose organization relies on donations for about a third of its $4.5 million annual budget. “The low touch would be direct mail.”

ICCF uses direct mail three times per year, produced by the development staff of “3.2 full-time equivalents.” Response to the letter mailed annually around Thanksgiving “is really very good,” Bradford said. “When I say we mail to 3,000, everybody who’s on that list has given at least once in the last 24 months. I think the response rate is over 20 percent.”

The development staff also runs special events to raise money, such as an annual spring concert. With a fiscal year that ends May 31, “We must be at 75 percent of our philanthropic goal for the fiscal year by Jan. 15,” Bradford said. “This year our goal is just under $1.6 million; we need to be at $1.2 million by the middle of January. December and January will produce 40 percent of our needs.”

Back at the Humane Society, Petz said planning for the current direct-mail campaign began last summer. He said hiring a marketing firm has been a good move for the nonprofit.

“A lot of it is the time consideration, the time in producing and creating mailed packages,” Petz said. “It can be very staff intensive, and it can be rather draining. It’s definitely a science and art to create a good direct-mail piece. I have experience in that, but it can bog me down for weeks.”

The biggest cost hit with direct mail, Petz noted, is postal charges, which are the same no matter where the collateral is produced. Staff time has now been redirected toward producing timely thank-yous and meeting with donors.    

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