Merchants Quay Ireland in Dublin is a charity serving homeless people, the hungry, and those with addiction problems. In September of 2008, just before the bottom fell out of the economy, they hired US-born Denisa Casement, CFRE, as their Head of Fundraising.
Casement is one of those fundraisers who “gets” direct mail – and the supreme importance of building a relationship with your donors. Mentored by a founder of one of the oldest development consultancies in the US, she’s worked with both Habitat for Humanity and Ronald McDonald House charities.
But when Casement accepted the lead fundraising role at MQI, one of her first and biggest challenges was simply getting their direct mail program “bedded in.”
This meant gathering the random spreadsheets that were serving as an ad hoc donor database…securing companies that could handle data clean-up, printing and mailing…and starting cold with no contacts, getting direct mail ready less than 12 weeks after she’d arrived.
It also meant new creative. With everything under the microscope from direct mail appeals to newsletters, Casement decided that she needed to outsource both design and copywriting services.
At first she looked to agencies.
But for MQI – a nonprofit that wanted to innovate while remaining rooted in traditional copywriting and direct response principles – big agencies weren’t the right fit.
Says Casement, “Many agencies use a boiler plate approach and that can make it difficult to develop your own voice. They are also interested in up-selling a larger package so they aren’t always helpful in keeping costs down.”
So Merchants Quay Ireland began investigating non-agency sources.
Casement wanted someone who could focus on only the creative, and help her develop a clear, consistent voice across all of MQI’s communications. Because of guest articles in The Agitator and on website SOFII, she chose my one-woman copywriting shop, Lisa Sargent Communications.
We started with MQI’s fall appeal letter.
Following is a summary of several creative challenges faced by Merchants Quay Ireland – common to many nonprofits – along with three effective solutions.
In addition, and with abundant thanks to Denisa, Dermot and Tony – MQI’s other leaders – I’ve been given permission to share early results that Merchants Quay Ireland is enjoying so far, along with a sample of the actual fall appeal letter that was sent.
II. Challenges and Solutions:
Starting from Scratch, Staying Cost-Effective
Working in a tight timeline, agency or non-agency?
When Denisa first contacted me, we had about ten working days to formalize our transatlantic working relationship, do the background research, conceptualizing, proofs and revisions... and get a persuasive letter to the print shop.
In truth there are many reasons for short deadlines: from transitioning to a non-agency source for creative services, to the loss of an in-house creative team member, to simply being between agencies and without a back-up plan until the Board approves something new.
But deadlines still loom – as they did for MQI – so transition can’t clog the communications stream, or donors suffer.
Consider small-shop services,
and prioritize donor communications to get them out on time.
With their low overhead, small creative shops and freelancers can often accommodate tight deadlines and interim “employee fill-in” arrangements... minus the premiums.
There is a drawback: like other nonprofits, MQI had to do the legwork when it came to design, mailing lists and print shops.
This wasn’t a problem for Casement, thanks to her “nuts and bolts experience” in direct marketing. And she admits that small-shop outsourcing saves money.
With a caveat: “I would caution trying to handle too much yourself if you are not experienced,” says Casement. “I would break it into three sections. Find a company to handle printing and mailing (and data prep if possible). Hire creative. Then find a company to buy your rental lists through. This may be an agency, ask around at AFP for recommendations.”
A second solution when faced with a parade of demanding deadlines: begin with priority donor communications projects, accept that there will be a crunch, and work through it. (Two priorities: donor thank-you letters and appeals.)
Then, as happened with MQI’s fall appeal, once the do-or-die projects are completed, deadlines loosen, and there’s time to look deeper into other and upcoming donor communications.
Implementing a story-based fundraising style.
Through a number of telephone and email conversations, along with an extensive review of prior year efforts, Denisa and I decided that Merchants Quay needed to make the switch to “story-based appeals.”
Story-based appeals work for almost every organization. The trick is getting enough background material to bring a story to life – which can be difficult when you’re starting from scratch in an organization that hasn’t been regularly generating that kind of content.
Merchants Quay Ireland was no exception. Background material for stories was not only scarce but, as you can understand, the men and women served by MQI were reluctant to come forward.
Don’t proceed until the right details are in place.
The solution here was not to rush things. Though we were eager that the Fall Letter be their first story-based appeal, the initial copy seemed to “work too hard” around a story from MQI’s current newsletter.
Additionally, in any story about an MQI client, Denisa smartly gives him or her final approval: this way it’s clear that clients come first, building trust for future fundraising efforts.
So we changed course: sifting through several years of annual reports, we used an approved client testimonial in the opening paragraphs of the Fall letter, and built the appeal around it.
Then weeks later, we prepared for the next appeal: customizing a series of client interview questions especially for MQI’s Christmas Letter, which ultimately became their first, true story-based appeal.
Creating the right “voice.”
As a freelance copywriter from Connecticut, I don’t sound or write like someone from Ireland, or even Illinois.
Yet I often write in someone else’s “voice,” which means the letters I pen for nonprofits are signed by someone besides me: CEO, president, or for special appeals, a staff member working in the field.
Each one has a different way of writing (voice). But the executive signer’s voice is paramount: because that voice is the voice of the organization... the personality, if you will.
So, two considerations here. The signer must be comfortable that what I write sounds at least a little like him or her, and that voice must work for most donor fundraising and development communications.
Because Merchants Quay Ireland didn’t yet have an established direct mail voice, Casement and her team were keen to get it right.
Fine-tune voice by studying, then combining the best of,
four key sources.
Thanks to Denisa’s diligent efforts, I was given full access to a stack of communications, from appeals to press releases to annual reports. These are the top four I used (and four that I recommend to any nonprofit):
• Website: MQI’s website gave me a real-time look at the ‘voice’ already in use, and it’s a good springboard for discussion – what’s good about it, what needs improving
• President’s letter and anything directly written by the signer: if the signer is the CEO or president, for example, the “executive greeting” at the beginning of an annual report or newsletter is a good place to see a sample of a nonprofit leader’s writing style. Here, I look for – and often make a list of – key phrases, punctuation preferences and overall tone.
• Prior year appeals: this is important because as mentioned earlier, donors equate voice with personality. So I study prior year efforts in order to “see” what donors see. (Another springboard for open collaboration.)
• The appeals and communications of others: When Merchants Quay finds an appeal they like, they send me a sample. But if you don’t regularly maintain a samples swipe file of your competitors, the website SOFII has more than 200 exhibits, available to fundraisers at no charge.
In the end we married the clear, down-to-earth writing style of Merchants Quay’s dynamic CEO, Tony Geoghegan, with a warm and friendly (but not too casual) conversational tone, tops for direct mail.
Results of the Fall Appeal and the Road Ahead for MQI
Preliminary results from the Fall Appeal have been solid: so far the letter has raised as much in six weeks as MQI's June mailing did in fourteen.
Revenue growth aside, the new donor communications strategy has been helpful to Merchants Quay Ireland in other ways, too. “My staff and clients were very hesitant to share their stories in public but they have been so pleased with the tone and content of the communications that more people are volunteering to tell their stories,” reports Casement.
In fact, thanks to this new willingness, the Merchants Quay 2009 Christmas Letter is a true story-based appeal. It's scheduled to mail just before the holidays.
And with more staff and client stories coming her way, Denisa Casement predicts a robust, multi-faceted donor communications program for this time next year: from a Welcome Package to increase donor retention, to regular newsletters and mailings, to informational progress reports for major donors.
For the homeless men and women helped by the dedicated folks at Merchants Quay Ireland, and for the generous donors who make it all possible, that’s very good news indeed.