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‘You’ve got to spend money to make money.’ …or do you?

By July 29, 2020 No Comments

Asking for more budget in the current climate sounds like a fool’s errand, doesn’t it?

Many organisations have found themselves hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic—and not just by an onslaught of Zoom meetings. Financially, for many it’s been a challenge to simply stay afloat. Crisis mode set in, and any thought of investing money in activity deemed non-critical (rightly or wrongly) was swiftly sidelined.

But pandemic or not, that adage holds true. Even in times of crisis, you have to spend money to make money. Investing in your fundraising program is as important now as it has ever been, perhaps even more so. But what if you don’t have a lot of budget to invest? Or, none at all?

The good news is you can have a massive impact without needing to re-mortgage the office. How? By focusing on your most valuable donors. You probably know that on average, around 80% of your fundraising income will come from around 20% of your donors. Sometimes it’s even more skewed—as much as 95% from just 5%. So focusing on that small percentage is where you’ll get the best return for your effort.

The even better news is that making your most valuable donors feel special, appreciated and important is possible on any budget—even no budget at all. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. If you have a little time, a space (even a virtual one), and something interesting to share, host a donor event. We’ve been fortunate to partner with a number of amazing organisations who have hosted simple but powerful donor events such as morning teas and site tours. Budgets varied depending on what resources each had available—some hosted onsite, some hosted offsite at a rented space, some professionally catered, some served delicious scones provided by volunteers, some with guest speakers, some with beneficiaries donating their time.

No matter what size budget you have, hosting a donor event is still possible for you. And the impact is well worth the financial and time investment, because interestingly, it doesn’t really matter whether the donor attends or not. In a controlled testing environment (where 500 appeal donors received an invitation to a donor event, and 500 donors of similar value did not), we saw that the act of simply inviting donors along to an event has a positive impact on their support—in fact, we saw that the income from the group who received the invite was 25% higher than for those who didn’t receive an invitation.

The invitation itself is enough to make them feel valued, appreciated, and as if they are on the inside track, privy to what’s happening behind the scenes. Doing this before or as part of an appeal may give you the opportunity to capitalise on donors’ giving capacity, especially around a major appeal. These events are also incredibly powerful as part of wider bequest lead generation and conversion campaigns.

One of Royal Flying Doctor Service QLD’s wonderful morning teas, held in the hangar where donors were given a ‘behind the scenes’ opportunity to explore one of the aircraft and meet some of the incredible crew.

2. High-touch, personalised treatments in your direct mail packs. There are many, many opportunities to use varying pack treatments to make your most valuable donors feel special. Think first about what will make your donor notice and open the pack: larger formats, different stock types and colours, special messaging on the outer envelope, or different formats altogether (think postage boxes, Express Post envelopes, poster tubes to house building blueprints). Some of these have the added benefit of standing out more in the post, especially during peak mailing periods—#bonus.

Then think about what will make the donor want to read what you have included: a document folder, personalised communications, handwritten notes, ‘With Compliments’ slips, post-it notes. This highly personalised treatment always goes a long way.

An example of a really strong high value donor pack from Multiple Sclerosis Limited, which included a document folder housing a letter (on thicker, crème coloured stock), a ‘With Compliments’ slip, and an ‘Urgent Message’ memo with an update on their COVID-19 response. This was mailed in a C4, crème coloured envelope which was posted with live stamps and a handwritten address block—added by volunteers at MSL.


The PA Research Foundation posted this cute (and very clever) pack at Christmas. The kraft paper, coloured twine, and special mailing label made sure the donor knew this pack was made especially for them, and really stood out in the post during a peak mailing season.

3. Additional inclusions in your direct mail packs. Just as important as getting the donor to open and read your pack, is making them feel important for having received it. This is most easily done via additional inclusions that are being shared with only your most important supporters, and may include things like ‘special memo’ style lift pieces, merchandise (ideally relevant to the appeal, such as a teddy bear in an appeal featuring a small child or talking about the importance of friendship or companionship), or USBs with personalised videos from the signatory to that specific donor, addressing them by name. While it can be hard to quantify the impact given the relatively small volume of donors who receive these treatments, most if not all organisations we’ve worked with have seen a significant increase in the value from each donor. One example that sticks with me is a donor being asked for $5.5K and giving $25K after receiving their USB—probably the best $10 that organisation ever spent!

RMH USB

The Royal Melbourne Hospital Foundation sent out a personalised video on USB to their most valuable donors at Christmas, with a little handwritten tag addressed to the donor specifically.


MSL Teddy Pack

Multiple Sclerosis Limited mailed a teddy bear as part of their Christmas appeal, and posted this in a gift box which was then wrapped in brown kraft paper. It really stood out in the mail.


Womens and Children's Foundation

The Women’s and Children’s Hospital Foundation mailed blueprints of architectural plans in a poster tube, which is something the donors hadn’t seen before and were very excited to open!

4. Poor in budget but not in time? The phone is your friend. You know what most people have trouble doing? Asking people for money. Even for seasoned fundraisers, it isn’t an easy thing to do. But you know what most people actually quite like doing? Saying thank you. So why not run a ‘thank-a-thon’? Give everyone in your team a list of 20 donors to call and just say thank you. Doing this ahead of an appeal, especially around Tax or Christmas, can increase that donor’s likelihood of giving in that appeal because they feel that their support is truly valued and they are making a difference. One organisation we’ve worked with decided to call around 200 donors prior to their appeal, and found that those donors gave $21K more than they did the year prior without a phone call—including six major donors who hadn’t given at all the year prior. Not a bad investment of your time, eh?

Those who make the calls often feel happier and more grateful, too. And if you’re running an event, call those who haven’t yet responded in the lead up to the event to thank them for their incredible support, and to see whether they’re planning to come along?

5. Poor in budget and in time? Never underestimate the power of volunteers! Some of the pack treatments above might not be possible without additional budget, but there is plenty that is—and with volunteers to help you, anything is possible. Why not ask your vollies to handwrite the addresses on the outer envelopes for your most valuable donors, and apply a stamp rather than postage-paid like the example from Multiple Sclerosis Limited above? Or add a little handwritten note on the letter or post-donation receipt? Anything that gives the feeling of truly personal, high-touch treatment will go a long way. And don’t limit yourselves to just direct mail pack treatments—volunteers may also love calling donors to simply say thank you.

Things might be different over the next few months while we get back to a new ‘normal’. But that doesn’t mean you have to forego special treatment for your most special donors. Donor love is possible on any budget—even no budget at all.

Paige Johnson

About Paige Johnson