As an adviser to 60+ nonprofits across the U.S. and Canada, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is, how can we better engage our middle and major donors through direct response to generate more revenue and deepen our relationships?
This is a question that my good friend, Dennis Van Kampen, President/CEO at Mel Trotter Ministries (MTM) in Grand Rapids, MI asked last year. The challenge that Dennis was trying to overcome was that he had roughly 5,000 middle and major donors who had traditionally received the same kind of tactical direct response experience that thousands of other less engaged, lower value donors also received. His highest value donor partners weren’t receiving a unique opportunity to engage with Mel Trotter Ministries in more meaningful ways. And the result was that these donors weren’t upgrading significantly, and MTM wasn’t able to grow their revenue fast enough to accomplish the organization’s strategic priorities.
To solve this challenge, we conducted a discovery process aimed at identifying a unique program at MTM that we could craft a compelling campaign around. After much discussion, the organization’s Pilgrimage Program was selected. The Pilgrimage Program provides addiction recovery, housing, and other critical services for chronically homeless men who have physical or mental limitations. Focusing on this program allowed us to create a more robust, in-depth campaign and fundraising offer than MTM’s traditional direct mail program that is primarily focused on a simple meal/shelter ask.
Effectively engaging these donors required us to cast a bold vision for the future, showcase the problem of chronic homelessness and the solution of MTM’s Pilgrimage Program in a way they had never seen before. And we needed to offer these key supporters an opportunity to actually solve this problem – even if only for a single person.
The Pilgrimage Campaign focused on roughly 5,000 donors. Broadly speaking, it included donors who had given a single gift of at least $250 in the past three years. These donors also needed to have given more than one gift in their lifetime. Included within that audience were 133 major gift prospects that the team at Mel Trotter hadn’t been able to get in front of personally in the last year.
Over a six week period these donors received a fully integrated, multi-touch campaign that included the following:
- A handwritten note card from MTM’s CEO/Executive Director introducing the campaign, telling the donors that there was a $300,000 matching challenge for gifts made to the campaign, and asking them to thoughtfully consider making a gift. The handwritten note card also included a P.S. statement that provided the name and phone number of a specific development officer at MTM that the donors could contact if they wanted more information.
- Prospectus Mailing: The eye-catching 9×12 package featured a highly branded, brightly colored outer envelope that enclosed a personalized four-page letter and program prospectus, a liftnote that shared the story of a man whose life was turned around through the Pilgrimage Program, an encouragement card for the donor to sign and return for a man in the program, and a full-page pledge form that included a stretch gift ask which was an upgrade based on each donor’s last gift amount.
- Phone Outreach: Several weeks after donors received the handwritten card, and right around the time they received the prospectus mailing, they also received a phone call. Major gift prospects received a call from someone on the development team at Mel Trotter Ministries, while all other middle and major donors in the campaign received a call from MTM’s telefundraising partner. The call was used to invite donors to participate in the campaign and encourage them to send a gift as soon as possible. This additional touch point served as a very personal reminder of the importance of the campaign and their involvement in it.
- Email: Donors also received a 3-part email series, each fully integrated with the print campaign elements, and scheduled to be in inboxes in coordination with the mail packages.
- Email #1 introduced the campaign and the goal to donors just as the prospectus mailing was in-homes and phone calls were beginning.
- Email #2 was delivered to donors toward the end of the campaign time frame and was a final reminder of the campaign deadline and goal.
- Email #3 was a campaign wrap-up that thanked donors for their generous support and reported back on the outcome of the project.
Given that this entire campaign strategy was a new approach for Mel Trotter Ministries in 2016, we set the campaign’s internal goal at $450,000. However, we boldly set our public-facing goal at $1 million.
Our bold approach paid off for Mel Trotter Ministries, as they raised over $972,000 from this campaign. Below is a snapshot of the results of the overall campaign, as well as results isolated for the 133 major donor prospects that were included.
|Total Campaign Performance||Major Gift Prospects Only|
|27% response rate||62% response rate|
|$452 average gift||$502 average gift|
|1.6 gifts per donor||3.0 gifts per donor|
|$14:$1 return on investment||$70.5:$1 return on investment|
You can see in the table above that Mel Trotter Ministries didn’t just generate more income with this approach. That did happen. But we also did it at a significantly higher Return On Investment (ROI) than most direct response campaigns are able to generate. And as the table also shows, this campaign was highly successful at engaging both their middle AND major donors.
This new approach helped Mel Trotter Ministries generate many sizable gifts (all through direct response channels), including:
- 65 – $1,000 gifts
- 9 – $5,000 gifts
- 11 – $10,000 gifts
- 1 – $20,000 gift
- 2 – $25,000 gifts
- 2 – $50,000 gifts
- 1 – $85,000 gift
Lest you think this campaign was an anomaly, or that something Mel Trotter Ministries did here was so unique it couldn’t apply to your organization, I want you to know that this type of approach to middle and major donor engagement has been replicated at least a dozen times in the last two years by other nonprofits, both large and small. In one case, another organization in a more rural market reached out to less than 3,000 qualified donors and raised $1.7 million from those donors in just six weeks – fully $1 million more than those donors had ever given in the same time period!
If you’re considering launching your own major gift program, get my Checklist for Major Gift Success first!