Cover Story : Prospecting for Smiles
Smile Train cuts direct mail fundraising costs with a prospect databaseAugust 2012 By Heather Fletcher
Talking with Priscilla Ma, it sounds as if she wishes for a utopia where no child would be born with cleft lip or palate. And that would mean the world wouldn't need Smile Train. But the executive director of the New York-based nonprofit knows children are born with facial deformities, so she just wants her organization's mission to come true: a world without visible cleft lip and palate.
"Some of the villages where I visited, the parents didn't even know that their children could be helped," Ma says of her time in Indian villages outside the city of Varanasi. "They thought that they were cursed. And the entire family, especially the mother, is shunned and sent away. Sometimes to alleviate the so-called curse, the parents are asked to abandon the baby. … There are about 6,150 cleft births a year in the U.S., but you don't see children walking around with a facial deformity because they're helped as early as three months."
So that wish of hers is amended—to bring smiles to the faces of children in the developing world just as quickly as they're brought to the faces of American babies, and with the same standard of care. But that hypothetical needs money behind it to become a reality. So when soft-spoken Ma firmly states that her purpose ever since joining Smile Train seven years ago has been to grow the donor file, there's almost no jolt in hearing that the file grew from 335,000 donors in July 2005 to more than 2.6 million during her tenure—a nearly eight-fold increase in seven years.
However, as donor acquisition costs rose, Smile Train wanted to cut costs. Ma looked for options and successfully negotiated lower printing costs, but she needed to do more. That's when, in discussions with Smile Train's list broker and manager since 2009—Papillion, Neb.-based data provider Infogroup—the two entities created Smile Train's prospect database.
In the fall of 2010, Smile Train implemented the program on half of its 98.9 million pieces of direct mail sent to prospects and saved 40 percent on list costs for fiscal year 2011. What's more, Ma says "a significant portion" of the 300,000 donors acquired during that timeframe resulted from using the prospect database.