Rochelle Nolan investigates how MLC School Foundation combined incentives, recognition and a capital ask to achieve a 290% increase on previous direct mail campaigns.

MLC is a private girl’s school located in Burwood NSW, catering from pre-Kinder to Year 12. Though the school itself was established in 1886, the MLC School Foundation was only formed around ten years ago.

For many years the foundation did no professional fundraising, says current chairman Bob Woods. “There were fetes and raffles – but not much money was raised. There was no philanthropic philosophy at all. Parents paid their school fees; they weren’t asked for anything else and they didn’t expect to be asked. No one really knew about the foundation.”

Raising profile

Over the past three years, the foundation has focused on building its profile within the school. This has been achieved through activities such as a foundation member attending the initial ‘meet and greet’ for new parents, as well as a father daughter breakfast which provided an opportunity to simply ‘meet the foundation’. As of around nine months ago, MLC Foundation appointed its first foundation officer.

Venturing into direct mail

The foundation ran its first direct mail campaign in 2008, and in the years since, has run annual tax and Christmas appeals. These campaigns asked donors to choose between either donating to a general building fund or to scholarships for disadvantaged students.

These previous campaigns targeted three segments – a few hundred people who already supported the foundation through memberships; around one thousand parents of current students; and the alumni database of 7,000. While the parent segment was always profitable, the foundation was losing money on the alumni category.

A ‘capital’ new approach

In the 2010 tax appeal, MLC School Foundation engaged Focus Fundraising to help it take a new approach. This time the ‘ask’ was of a capital nature, aimed at making up part of the shortfall needed to complete a new middle school building, which was 80% funded through Rudd Government stimulus money. “I think people reacted well to that project as it was tangible. It was a building the students could walk into,” says Woods.

Targeted mailing delivers more funds

The appeal was sent to previous donors, parents and alumni aged 40+. In total, the mail piece was sent to 4,700 people – which was 15% less than the previous volume mailed. This was based on a decision to eliminate some of the alumni base the foundation knew would likely not donate.

The creative was very similar to previous mail outs: a two-page letter featuring copy in a similar style, with a tear-off coupon on the first page. It also displayed images of the school and current students. The donation grid was fixed between $250 – $5,000.

As fewer people were mailed, the cost was down – but total funds raised jumped to $65,000 (up from $17,000 at Christmas 2009). The average gift was $870, compared to a previous average of $181.

Strategic decisions

Vic Zacharias of Focus Fundraising says a significant difference in the campaign was that it encouraged people to make donations of $5,000 or more. “Most $5,000 gifts came from parents of children in junior or middle school. This is probably because the campaign was for a middle school building – so their children are the ones who will benefit.”

Recognising a desire for recognition

Another change in this campaign was the level of recognition for donors. People who donated $5,000 or more were to be recognised by having their names inscribed on a special plaque on the building. Donations of $2,000 or more incurred benefits such as membership upgrades.

Zacharias says the option to be recognised played a significant role in the success of the campaign. “People like recognition. It’s true that there are some donors who prefer to remain anonymous, but for every one of those, there’s another who likes to be recognised.”

Woods agrees that recognition played an important part. “As chairman, I donate to the foundation myself and have sometimes found you could be left wondering whether anyone noticed you actually donated. This time, apart from the incentives and recognition that kicked in for higher donation levels, our foundation officer called every donor to say thank you.”

Higher donations – but slightly reduced responses

Though funds raised far exceeded previous campaigns, there was a slightly reduced response rate, which Zacharias attributes to a much higher ‘ask’ level. “It may have deterred a dozen or so gifts of less than $50. We had seven donations of $5,000 and six of $2,000 – which was where the benefits and recognition kicked in. We also had four gifts of $1,000. There were only two gifts below $50.”

Tax 2010 Appeal Tax 2009 Appeal Difference %

Donors mailed (unique) 4,701 5,538 -15%
Number of responses 75 93 -19%
Response % 1.6% 1.7% -6%
Total Income $65,735 $16,855 290%
Average donation $876 $181 383%
Total cost $12,180 $14,205 -14%
Net return $52,925 $2,650 1897%
ROI ($ raised / $ spent) $5.13 $1.19 331%
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