The most successful direct mail appeal in Peter Mac’s history also kept faith with fundamental fundraising principles, says Carl Young.
Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre (Peter Mac) is Australia’s only public hospital solely dedicated to cancer and is the home of Australia’s largest cancer research group.
Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation is the fundraising arm of Peter Mac, and plays a critical role in funding the specialised technologies and resources needed to discover cancer cures. With a growth of both the size of Peter Mac’s research team and the cost of the specialised technology needed to undertake its work, there has been increasing pressure to rapidly grow fundraising income.
Changing fortunes in direct mail
Underpinning Peter Mac’s strategy for growth of its individual giving income is its direct mail program which, for many years, has played a key role in acquiring new donors; securing repeat gifts; upgrading donors; stewarding cash donors, regular donors and major donors; and identifying new bequestors and bequest prospects.
However, in recent years in what is an increasingly competitive marketplace, direct mail response rates have been falling and Peter Mac’s mail program was facing increasing challenges. Swaps and co-op donors, which had previously provided strong returns in acquisition, were decreasing, with lower than budgeted response rates and average gifts.
Our acquisition mailings in the 2015/2016 financial year had performed relatively poorly, impacting both income and the donor base available for future warm appeals. Most appeals within the first six months of the financial year had failed to reach target, and there was increasing pressure to reduce investment in direct mail, with growing speculation (internally and externally) that direct mail was perhaps a dying fundraising channel.
The tax appeal (targeted to warm donors) needed a change in fortune. Continued lacklustre results could impact not only on the direct mail program, but also on lead generation of major gifts and bequests, potentially placing the future success of the individual giving strategy in jeopardy.
Adding to these pressures were significant organisational changes. Peter Mac was undergoing a complete rebrand and logo change and the concern was that this could mean loyal supporters would fail to recognise our mail, or it might affect their trust and likelihood to donate to us.
Peter Mac was also about to relocate to a brand-new hospital and research centre. Other departments were keen to promote this within the appeal and to the public, however it was a message that would be at odds with the case for support.
Keeping faith with the fundamentals
Our approach was to draw on our fundraising experience and execute the appeal by keeping faith with strong fundraising fundamentals.
The strategy included:
• prioritising data selection over creative direct mail tactics, mining the database for new donors connected to our cause and the delivery of an emotive case for support and clear ask strategy
• mining the database for new cash responsive donors
• revisiting appeal content and copy to ensure we were maximising the impact of proven direct mail tactics
• developing a case study with a similar profile to a proven banker pack
• bringing down the cost of each pack to allow for wider data selection and targeting, and to maintain return on investment and net income, while simultaneously reactivating donors to make up for losses in early acquisition appeals
• ensuring broader organisational activities did not influence fundraising appeal principles
• producing an emotive case for support and creative, thus maintaining the appeal’s chances of success and connection with the donors.
To overcome the current trend of appeal performance, it would have been easy to justify using a number of expensive new tactics or focus more heavily on the creative elements of the campaign. However, despite the external gloomy direct mail climate, we still viewed these tactics as particularly risky, especially for our largest appeal of the year as neither were data-driven or had proven track records of success.
Therefore, we dictated that the primary focus should be on data selection, with an emphasis on better mining the database to locate potential donors.
Simultaneously, we worked with our processing team to review whether any of our back-of-house processes were creating obstacles for mailing to some audiences, such as invalid addresses, high volumes of return-to-sender mail, or inaccurate recording of do-not-mail or do-not-contact attributes.
The process resulted in improved mailing volumes, comprising the inclusion of:
• 21,963 lapsed and lapsing donors
• 395 return-to-sender donors who had previously been excluded due to an incorrect do-not-mail attribution
• 177 peer-to-peer donors
• 1,485 regular givers.
Close attention was also paid to ensuring:
• solid fundraising tactics within the letter copy were adhered to (such as including a clear, compelling ask in the ‘Johnson box’ and that the proposition was strong within the opening paragraph, reiterated throughout the letter and was focused on impact)
• investment in additional creative tactics were targeted to segments where these lifts had greatest potential for uplifting response and income and, naturally, asking donors to increase their gift amounts
• creative was personalised as much as possible, and directly linked the donor’s actions to tangible outcomes in helping people with cancer
• cost effective premiums were used to uplift response where return on investment could be maximised
• online and offline communications were closely integrated with pre-appeal donor care tactics, including events, used to add authenticity and trust to the ask.
Case study selection
We also selected a case study with a profile that was similar to that of a proven high performing banker pack. Rather than focusing on cancer research as the need, our appeal aimed to bring the cancer research story to life by creating a human connection with a single patient’s cancer experience. The cancer research need was then positioned as an opportunity to directly impact future patients similar to the person featured.
Drawing on learnings from our acquisition appeal program, a young female cancer patient who was also able to provide strong imagery to support the appeal and whose mother was well equipped to convey the emotion around her child’s diagnosis was selected. It created a strong personal connection with donors to the cause, which was specifically commented upon by many donors at their time of gift.
Another challenge was ensuring broader organisational pressures did not negatively influence the appeal and its chances of success. A potential problem for tax 2016 was the previously mentioned rebrand.
To minimise any potential negative impact of the rebrand, the fundraising team delayed the implementation of the rebrand collateral until after this appeal and financial year, to be implemented in a later low risk mailing such as donor care.
A second organisational pressure was a desire from other departments to include messaging about Peter Mac’s move to a new home within the appeal letter. The direct mail team resisted these requests to ensure the readers did not assume that a new, purpose built hospital and researcher centre meant that funds were no longer needed. The goal was to keep donors focused on one clear call to action: to donate and fund innovative cancer research.
Our primary objectives were to raise $952,534 for cancer research, deliver a response rate of 15.8%, and secure gifts from 9,925 donors at an average gift of $95.97. The secondary objectives included reactivating lapsing and lapsed donor segments, and maximising second gift rates of newly acquired single givers.
In the end the team delivered an integrated, well targeted, three-wave, multi-channel campaign. The strategy was highly effective and resulted in the most successful direct mail appeal in Peter Mac’s history. The results of the campaign included:
• $997,561 (over $1 million including miscellaneous direct mail donations returned on different direct mail response mechanisms)
• response rate of 17.48%
• 9,285 gifts secured at an average gift of $107.44
• 1,164 lapsed or lapsing donors reactivated
• nine new bequest leads
• second gift rate of 11.83% for newly acquired donors.
Importantly, the appeal also provided learnings that could be applied to future appeals and restored confidence in direct mail as a fundraising channel.
The campaign strategy to commit to fiercely upholding fundamental fundraising direct mail principles and tactics and not rely on creative testing as a solution to low response rates worked extremely well, but required great self-belief by the team. Sometimes we simply need to remember to trust and feel the fundraising force within us!
Historically, direct mail has been one of the most traditional and recognisable ways for charities to ensure annual contact with donors and a sizable volume of unrestricted funds.
Many may argue that with the diversification of channels, especially digital opportunities, direct mail is a thing of the past. Yet, despite the competitive market and rising costs, mail is still fundamental to communicating with all specific segments of our constituency on an annual basis and remains the most consistent source of bequest lead generation.
Image: Opposite Dr Vihandha Wickramasinghe’s paradigm-shifting research focuses on understanding the fundamental biology of gene expression and how it is altered in the development of cancer cells. Image Peter Mac.
Carl is Fundraising Director at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Foundation and has close to two decades of senior fundraising experience at some of Australia’s leading charities. He has extensive expertise across the key fundraising methodologies and is passionate in establishing effective business rules and processes to empower staff in strategic donor engagement.