Mailbox / Nick Amoscato

July 30, 2016, Dallas Morning News

When you see RENEWAL NOTICE in red capital letters on the outside of an envelope, what’s your first thought? It is probably not for the care of people suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, even after you notice who sent the letter. It’s that word NOTICE. The word has several meanings, but when screaming from the outer envelope, it’s received as a warning to be heeded immediately to avoid unpleasant consequences.

One donor, Linda McFadin, thought so and complained to her local newspaper, the Dallas Morning News:

“I am concerned that older people [possibly with Alzheimer’s] might view this request like a magazine renewal and feel they must send a donation. To me, that’s for a magazine subscription. That’s not a donation. A donation should be from your heart and you want to do it, not because you think it’s a renewal.”

I admit if this notice came from another charity, I might not be sharing McFadin’s story. But this is a charity dedicated to eradicating, among other things, memory loss. It seems easy enough to fool someone into thinking they actually have a renewal due.

Besides, McFadin, who is a steady donor to the cause, received it twice.

Columnist Dave Lieber asked the director of the Greater Dallas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association for an explanation several times without response. After five email queries, Lieber was eventually granted a meeting. He consulted Lisa M. Dietlin, president and CEO of the Institute of Transformational Philanthropy in Chicago, beforehand just to make sure he was not overreacting.

“It’s not that it’s unethical,” Dietlin advised. “But it’s not necessarily appropriate. It’s a for-profit technique being used in the nonprofit world.”

Dietlin concluded that the vendor used by the national office “made a bad decision, but somebody at the Alzheimer’s Association approved that. What’s especially egregious about the situation was there was not full consideration of the audience receiving the mailing and how they were likely to respond. Maybe it’s a family member dealing with early onset.”

Lieber spoke to the head of development—the one who signed the offending letter—at the national office by phone, and met in person with the local association rep. In each case, the letter was defended and Lieber’s inquiry was rebuked. Here’s how Lieber describes his visit to the local chapter office:

She tells me my repeated notes to her were “rude” and calls The Watchdog an “interloper.”

“You’ve written several pretty darn rude emails,” she says. “And my way of handling things is I don’t usually need an interloper here in the middle of things. I go to the source.”

With McFadin’s permission, I give her the donor’s contact information so they could talk. I also presented McFadin’s view: “There’s no contract between you, so there’s no renewal. It’s not a renewal or a membership or a subscription.”

“It’s a renewed contribution,” Prince says.

“It’s not a renewal and it’s not a notice,” I counter. “And when you get the words ‘RENEWAL NOTICE,’ that means you’re about to miss your bill. You have a chance to rejoin the club, whether it’s AAA or the YMCA.”

“I beg to differ with you,” Prince says stubbornly.

RENEWAL NOTICE. Those two words may very well win an award from the Direct Marketing Association for its compression and simplification, its elegance. Direct mail is all about getting in and out fast, so as not to provoke second thoughts. Outer envelope brilliance is more important than almost any other feature of the appeal package because the first and most difficult challenge is to compel the envelope to be opened. However, the DMA has ethical standards. The “accountability” page on its website is subtitled, “Do not just what is legal, but what is right.”

Yes, direct mail has been refined to a science. Research and testing are the engines of effective direct mail. And, according to DMA’s findings, direct mail still remains a better bet than digital fundraising:

Direct mail response rates outperform digital channels by a long shot. Direct mail achieves a 3.7% response rate with a house list, and a 1.0% response rate with a prospect list. All digital channels combined only achieve a 0.62% response rate (Mobile 0.2%; Email 0.1% for a Prospect list and 0.1% for House/Total list; Social Media 0.1%; Paid Search 0.1%; Display Advertising 0.02%). Telephone had the highest response rate at 9-10%.

However, direct mail only makes sense if there is retention and especially if major gifts result over time. Gimmicks, especially when challenged by donors and by the media, do not inspire trust and loyalty. That particular national mailing may technically “pull” well in the short-term, but this scenario taken together does not make the Alzheimer’s Association’s other fundraising channels and strategies any more promising.

In all fundraising appeals, whether by mail or in person, the most important element is truth. The truth sometimes has sharp elbows, but it always looks after itself. Truth never works as a gimmick, but it sustains any cause in the long run.—James Schaffer