Characteristics of a good year-end fundraising letter

CBEAR Fellow John List

CBEAR Fellow John List

Another December day; another solicitation letter.

The end of the calendar year is approaching, and that means that fundraising letters compete with catalogues and holiday cards for space in the mailbox. Some fundraising letters are compelling. They make one want to immediately write a check, volunteer for community service or pledge some exceptional amount. And then there are those that get opened, quickly scanned and thrown in the trash. What we’re talking about here is the year-end solicitation letter, not the general fundraising letter. It is the letter that seeks to take advantage of the time of year when tax deduction just might be on the mind of the recipients.

There is some new research about what gets people to give to charities. Mentioning – no, even advertising – that a well-known person made a contribution will have a greater impact on the probability of the recipient of the letter making a gift. In an article in the December 15, 2014 Wall Street Journal by Anna Prior, entitled “How Charities Can Get More Out of Donors,” it was reported that “trumpeting the fact” that a big name donor also made a contribution can be surprisingly effective. The article discussed an experiment by John List, principal investigator at the Science of Philanthropy Initiative at the University of Chicago, and Dean Karlan of Yale University. They teamed up with TechnoServe, a charity that focuses on poverty reduction and international development. They sent direct-mail fundraising requests to people who had not previously donated to the organization. A portion of the mailings named the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a matching donor, while other mailings noted only that the charity had an anonymous matching donor. Naming the foundation as the source of matching funds increased the probability of an individual donating by about 22%—rising to 1.1% from 0.9%. Not only that, the effect continued after the matching period, meaning people continued to contribute more if they remembered that the Gates Foundation had once donated. Experts say that one of the reasons to mention well-known donors is that people do not have time to do research or evaluate charities. Thus, when they see that a big name made a donation they assume that the charity has been checked out.

In a similar vein, when prospective donors see a local name that they are familiar with they are more likely to contribute. Judging from the above-mentioned experiment it would be better to mention such a person as a contributor rather than having a letterhead listing an advisory board. One charity known to this writer even lists contributors by categories.

In this season of giving it is hoped that all worthy charities receive sufficient gifts to continue and expand their work.

By PHIL HARDWICK

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