May 23, 2011

Charity Wins Donors With Promise Never to Ask for Another Gift

I couldn't resist opening an appeal that landed in my mailbox the other day from Smile Train, a charity that provides surgery to correct cleft palate in children worldwide.

What intrigued me was the message stamped on the outer envelope of its solicitation: "Make one gift now and we'll never ask for another donation again."

Really? That's not how most direct mail works. In fact, making a gift almost ensures that you get bombarded with additional mailings.

So I called Brian Dearth, Smile Train's chief marketing officer, to find out how the charity came up with its unusual approach—and more to the point, whether it actually helps raise money.

It does, Mr. Dearth says. In fact, he told me, the "one gift" offer, as the solicitation is called, proved so effective in 2008 tests that it's now used in all of Smile Train's mailings to recruit donors. He declined to provide specific figures but says the appeal is a "significant improvement" over the charity's previous approach to winning new donors.

The idea for the offer, Mr. Dearth says, did not come from a direct-mail consultant but from a brainstorming session among staff members.

"We provide free surgery to cure children of cleft palate that is permanent," he says. "So this is a way for us to convey that permanence. We provide donors with a similar opportunity to make a permanent change and be done with it."

Donors who respond to the mailing are given a reply slip with which they can tell the charity they never want to be asked for a donation again, they want to receive limited communications from Smile Train, or they would like regular updates from the charity.

So if I made a donation and said that I never wanted to be asked for another gift, does that mean I would never hear from Smile Train again? Not exactly, Mr. Dearth says.

All donors, even those who check the "never" box, receive a thank-you note and a receipt in a follow-up mailing, but it does not ask for a repeat gift, he says.  And donors who don't want any more solicitations also receive another mailing containing a photograph of a child helped by the organization.

But, he says, the charity sticks to its promise of not asking for money again after the first gift.