Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during August-99, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

We all know from the how-to books, the articles printed in terrific journals like this, and the talks and round tables for which development officers and other nonprofit managers gather, that the most effective way for a charitable organization to raise money from individuals is to ask them personally for gifts.

When I took my present position as Director of Development at the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) in 1993, some of the necessary material for building an individual giving program was already in place. The Center’s director and a small core of board members were committed to such a program. We also had a prospect list consisting of friends and colleagues of board and staff members, and individuals who had attended the Center’s fundraising events (the most recent of which had been four years earlier).

At the beginning, NCYL’s director and I met with a development committee, which included some board members, and laid plans for a personal solicitation program. We had training with a consultant in which we did a role-playing exercise about asking people for money. We put together lists of five (or fewer) people whom each committee member would ask personally for a gift.

But, after several months of talking about personal solicitations, only one member of our group, our director, had actually committed someone to a gift. And only one. At that point, I faced the sad truth that we were not very likely to mount a successful individual solicitation campaign beginning with personal calls by our board and committee members.

I don’t honestly know whether many organizations with a one-person (or no-person) development staff get their volunteers to make an assigned number of personal solicitations. I suspect that we talk a lot about doing this because we know that if we could do it, we would raise significant gifts. I think the people who actually succeed at it, however (and make the rest of us feel guilty because we don’t), are major gifts officers whose primary responsibility is to identify and cultivate individual prospects. Those people tend to work for large institutions, rather than grassroots organizations.

Very few of the rest of us can hope to devote the amount of time necessary to building relationships with enough volunteers to drive an organized, comprehensive personal solicitation agenda. I, for example, spend most of my time on grant seeking and reporting. I also do a certain amount of program and public information work. Even though I would prefer to be working on individual giving, I actually spend less than a third of my time on it.

In my organization’s case, there has been a very specific impediment to getting people to make personal solicitation calls. All of our volunteers, and the great majority of our prospects, are attorneys. Without getting too deeply into the sociology of it, there is among the legal community great reluctance to systematically schedule and participate in fundraising calls.

What our first development committee members were willing to do, however, was write notes, sign letters, make informal phone calls, and talk to other members of their law firms outside the formality of a solicitation call. In other words, they were willing to communicate as they do in their ordinary business life regarding everything besides matters of great significance in a legal case. Once it became clear that this was the circumstance with which we would have to work, it made more sense to work with it than to complain or fight about it.

Relating to Writing

One obvious fact about the law is that it is written. In fact, law codes are among civilization’s oldest written artifacts. Attorneys use and pay attention to writing. Even though we at NCYL didn’t make a conscious decision to rely increasingly heavily on writing to get our message across to our prospects, at some point it must have dawned on us collectively that writing was the appropriate means by which to communicate with them.

It also dawned on us that our writing for fundraising needed to be as personal as possible, particularly when we were dealing with prospects who knew our director, or one of our board, committee, or staff members. By personal, I do not mean chummy or colloquial. As closely as possible, we wanted our fundraising communication to be appropriate to each individual to whom it was addressed.

In the beginning, we were dealing with a prospect list of about 1,300 names. It is considerably larger now, but even 1,300 names were far too many to enable us to tailor each letter thoughtfully to each prospect. What we could do was compose a letter that was appropriate to the sensibilities of our prospect group as a whole and then adds personal touches to as many individual letters as possible.

The character of our basic letter has changed over the six years in which we have been mailing. Our earlier appeals began with stories about individual children who were representative of the groups of children for whom NCYL advocates. However, this approach was slightly disingenuous in that our direct client base is really the lawyers and advocates who work with those children, not the children themselves.

Over time, we have shifted to the less poignant, but more realistic, approach of describing the overall situation facing low-income children and families in this country, and then describing what the Center is doing to try to improve it. We attempt to be clear and concise. There is nothing fancy or flashy about our letters, but I think that as basic communication they are appropriate to pretty much everyone to whom we mail them.

Making It Personal

We supply personal touches to our basic letter in several ways:

  1. Notes to “Known bys”: Board, development committee, and staff members have all supplied names of potential prospects that they know, and they attach personal notes to our mail appeal letter to those prospects. Of our original prospect list of 1,300, NCYL’s director knew about 300 people. He has consistently added notes to the letters to these individuals, added new names to the list, and checked additions to the list from other sources to identify anyone he also knows. Our list has grown from the original 1,300 names to more than 5,000, and the individuals now coded as “known by” the director has more than doubled to 700.
  2. Notes to donors: Once a person has made a gift to NCYL, the fact that the person is a donor is mentioned in every subsequent letter we send; the director or another person who knows the donor adds a personal note.
  3. Champagne segmentation on a beer budget: In addition to segmenting our list according to “Known Bys” and donor status, we have two other categories of prospects that we treat a little differently, although in a very simple manner. One is the group of people who get our substantive publication, Youth Law News. The other is a group we call our alumni: former employees, board members, law clerks, and volunteers. Early in the letters to those groups we include phrases such as, “because you read our publication Youth Law News,” or “because you have shared in our work here at NCYL.”
  4. Envelope presentation: We send our letters first class, and laser-print the envelopes rather than using labels, just as we would if someone at NCYL were mailing the prospect a personal letter about another matter
  5. Prompt and personal gift acknowledgment: We acknowledge gifts as soon as we receive them, and we mention the gift amount. And, in addition to signing the letter of thanks, our director adds yet another personal note.

We mail twice a year, in early summer and late fall. We do not mail again in the same year to donors who have given in response to our most recent mailing. Over five years, most of our regular donors have sorted themselves into end-of-year donors and summer donors.

Of our current prospect list of about 5,000 names, roughly 2,000 require some personalization, whether a reference to their past giving, or to the fact that they are alumni or Youth Law News readers, or because their letters need to get to a board, committee, or staff member for a personal note. (Our director alone adds notes to as many as 500 letters in a given mailing. Our board president adds notes to another 100 or so.) All of these approximately 2,000 letters need to be produced in-house because a mailing service could never keep all the subsets of them straight.

The rest we do send to a mailing house. We generally get a response rate between .5% and 1% on those mailings, which are enough to justify continuing to send them, because the twenty or thirty prospects who do respond for the first time join our growing list of donors and enrich that pool. The first mailing we did in 1993 brought in gifts totaling approximately $5,000. In 1994, two mailings raised $14,000. A year later total mail gifts exceeded $20,000. Over the last three years, the total has grown more gradually, reaching $27,000 in 1998.

Making It More Personal

As our mail program developed, we never totally gave up the idea of personal solicitation. In the beginning, we developed a list of prospects each year and when it became apparent as the first week of December ebbed away that we were not going to get an appointment to talk to them about gifts that year, our director would telephone some, and we would send our mail appeal letter to the rest. The prospects he telephoned generally ended up being sent some version of the letter in any event. Either he would get their voice mail and send the letter to follow up on the message he’d left, or a prospect reached in person was likely to say, “Send me the letter.”

Rather than send our mail appeal letter, which, however, we personalize it, is still pretty clearly a mail appeal, we decided to use a much briefer letter to prospects or donors in the $500 to $1,000 range that presumed close acquaintance with, and loyalty to, our Center. We cut the list of donors whom our director would telephone down to a realistic dozen for whom we felt the call was essential. For the rest of our “personal solicitation” donors, we made sending this brief letter to them the first priority of our mail program.

For the last three years, this combination of a one-page letter, several telephone calls, and luncheon dates with two or three people in November and December has yielded gifts approaching $30,000, in addition to the other gifts we raise by mail. Using this approach, we are renewing our current donors in the $500 to $1,000 range and seeing a certain amount of growth.

Between 1993 and 1998, the total amount of gifts from this combination of mail appeal and personal solicitation has grown from about $8,000 to $53,000. That is good growth, but still not a large portion of our total budget. Furthermore, although the total amount has increased each of the last three years, it has not increased greatly.

What has happened, however, is that gifts from other sources, not necessarily attributable to our mail program or our end-of-year personal appeal, have started to materialize, including new substantial commitments from individuals totaling $75,000 in 1997 and $120,000 in 1998.

One source of this funding was very likely connected to our mail appeal. For the last three years, an individual to whom we originally mailed our standard appeal has directed $15,000 in grants for general support from a family foundation. Also, in 1997, an anonymous donor made a $10,000 grant through a donor-directed foundation. Last year, that grant tripled to $30,000. These contributions may or may not be directly connected to our mail appeal.

The other thing that has happened exemplifies what I think of as the cumulative but somewhat mystical effect of all our efforts. Throughout all of the process I’ve been describing, we have continued our efforts to involve board and development committee members in individual solicitations where it is appropriate and everyone is comfortable participating.

Two years ago, one of our newer board members accepted the assignment of development committee chair and has seriously dedicated herself to becoming an effective fundraiser for the Center. She developed her own prospect list, which happened to include a married couple whom we had identified as prospects but had never succeeded in approaching. Our board member was able to provide entree to these individuals, and accompanied our director on the first bona fide major gifts call either had ever made. They asked for, and were given, a $50,000 gift. These donors have since become even more interested in the Center’s work and our director talks to them frequently. In 1998 they increased their gift to $75,000.

Although this couple’s substantial gifts are not directly attributable to our mail appeal, I know that neither the possibility of calling on them, nor the gifts they have made, would ever have materialized had we not made a long-term commitment to seek gifts from individuals, and carried through on that commitment as best we could give the nature of our program and community. The total financial result of that effort is that giving for general support has increased from virtually nothing in the early 1990s (when NCYL had no individual giving effort) to more than $200,000 in 1998.

In our case, we used the mail, but in using it over the last several years, we have done a number of things that correspond to and lay groundwork for major gifts fundraising. We ask people whom we know. We pay attention to them as individuals, even if only by addressing them personally. And our solicitations focus upon our issues and our agenda.

Clearly, we have not given up on personal solicitation. Having had some success, we are eager to do more when, where and with whom it is appropriate. For the most part, however, the mail remains our primary means for communicating with and soliciting our donors and prospects. Equally important, however, it also provides us with a foundation upon which we can build a major gifts program.