Cover Story: Food for Lucinia
Toddler Lucinia hides behind her sister, Netla, and coyly peeks at the camera with one dark mahogany eye. But when Netla shifts to the right, Lucinia is revealed and smiles shyly directly into the lens for a fraction of a second before looking away.
It's a moment anyone who's met a toddler for the first time knows and holds dear. But those six seconds are the only ones in the five minutes of video from Food for the Poor that may feel familiar. This toddler lives in a swamp in Prolonge, Haiti, and is among the sick and starving children helped by the Coconut Creek, Fla. charity.
Direct response television (DRTV) can tell Lucinia's story in a way that no other direct marketing channel can. That's why Food for the Poor started using DRTV for fundraising in 2011, says Angel A. Aloma, the nonprofit's executive director.
"Even for our regular donors, when they see a program on television," says Aloma, "unlike direct mail, they're seeing a more three-dimensional person, the poor themselves and the way they're walking and talking and looking for food in a garbage dump. And, although we can describe it in words, when they see it on video, they see the mother crying ... It becomes a stronger motivator when they get a piece of mail to answer back and to send a donation."
Even before considering the disconnected cross-channel impact of the nonprofit's DRTV, Aloma says this direct marketing channel he tested in 2011 has already had a trackable effect on Food for the Poor's donations via Web and the call center, as the program's call to action sends prospects online and to their phones (opens as a PDF).
Widely released in 2012, the 58-minute television program hosted by actress Cheryl Ladd immediately surpassed the charity's fundraising goals, Aloma says. Although the television program requested $19 a month, the average gift came in at $21. Among the 40 percent who gave once, the donations were much larger—about $60, he says. Aloma's expectation that DRTV revenue would grow as time went on became a reality during the first quarter of 2013. Plus, the desired outcome—that most of the donors stay long-term—continued.
During Q1 2013, the DRTV program titled "The Least of These" saw a $22 average monthly pledge, a $70 one-time gift and between 60 percent and 65 percent of donations come from monthly givers, says Amy Hunter, vice president and group director at Pasadena, Calif.-based Russ Reid Company. She worked with Food for the Poor to create the television spots and was helping create more as of presstime.
"I have to say that it has helped tremendously with promoting our brand," Aloma says of his charity that provides food, housing, medicine, education and more to people who need it in 17 Caribbean and Latin American countries. Chuckling, he adds, "Because when I go to different conferences … they don't ask me for a food pantry. They kind of know who we are now."
Lucinia Adds Dimension
"We have met kids that are really at the cusp of dying by the time we get to them," Aloma says.
There's that—an intellectual reason to give.
"Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and has one of the highest mortality rates of children," Aloma says. "Guatemala is a country in the Western Hemisphere with the highest degree of child malnutrition and stuntedness related to malnutrition … about 50 percent of their children are malnourished. And when you go into the mountains, you see it from babies up to 7-, 8-, 9-year-olds. We met a 7-year-old that weighed 29 pounds. So it's really severe, severe malnutrition—with all the different symptoms of kwashiorkor and marasmus and all of these different ailments that come from malnutrition that can often be deadly."
Hearing the disembodied facts—Lucinia is a toddler, living with her mother and two sisters in a parasite and bacteria-laden swamp in which she almost drowned—is far different from seeing the smiling little girl who hasn't eaten in three days.
"In this part of Haiti, over two-thirds of the children are malnourished," says the emotive female narrator in the video about Lucinia's family. While she adds another fact—"One in eight never lives to see their fifth birthday"—Lucinia's 11-year-old sister, Rosaline, is laying on her mother's lap. Guirlene stretches out her right arm to rub Rosaline's bloated stomach in a clockwise motion to put the girl to sleep, because the nap may stave off the hunger pangs.
"Basically, we used six stories from the field," Aloma says. "Three from Haiti and three from Guatemala. And we portrayed the situation in those countries, the poverty of those countries, the need. And we asked donors to give—for food and medicine—$19 a month as a sustaining gift."
This television program with children's stories, interspersed with donation requests from former "Charlie's Angels" star Ladd, represents one of the best ways to connect with long-term givers Aloma calls "sustaining donors."
This, even though direct mail is Food for the Poor's fundraising workhorse, being its main acquisition channel and bringing in just under half of the organization's income. DRTV is "nowhere close" to generating that kind of revenue, Aloma says, but it's a valuable acquisition tool.
Hunter says DRTV is the "best way to get to scale on sustainers," and Food for the Poor has already seen the majority of its "The Least of These" donors become monthly givers. Fundraisers, in general, appear to agree with Hunter and Aloma that DRTV pulls in loyal givers. The "Journal of Nonprofit and Public Sector Marketing" supposes that the donor recruitment channel's "healthy return on investment" is partly due to how fundraisers are treating it—as a way to find committed givers—and that donors now have convenient paperless payment options (opens as a PDF).
It probably also helps that Food for the Poor's DRTV is very on-brand—viewers see the starving, suffering children the charity is trying to help. It seems Food for the Poor is taking Russ Reid's advice—don't be afraid to make your prospects cry.
"No mother should have to live with the constant fear that her children might die," intones the narrator as a visibly depressed, worried Guirlene holds a sleeping Lucinia. "No child should have to suffer like this. There are thousands of children just like them whose lives are in danger right now. All it takes is a simple act of compassion to save them."
Now just Rosaline stares into the camera lens and, in the online version, the screen fades to black as the FoodForThePoor.org URL pops up, just above an ever-present donation button that reads "Become an Angel." That button leads to a landing page with a donation form.
How to Donate
Aloma knows Food for the Poor's donors don't always follow prescribed methods of reaching his organization. The television program directs viewers to donate by calling a traceable phone number, such as (800) 487-1158, or clicking on FoodForThePoor.org/Angels. That landing page is the donation form.
He and Hunter agree many prospects will, instead, use search engines to find the organization's site, then hunt through the home page to find the donation form. Aloma says that's why Ladd's image and the words "Angels of the Poor: Become an Angel" are so prominent there. Visitors who click on those displays land on a page bearing another likeness of Ladd, two donation buttons and two lines of hyperlinked text that lead to the donation form. "So whomever comes on the Web," he says, "from the very first moment they come on, they know that that's where they need to go to donate for that program."
At the moment, the organization doesn't have a breakdown of how many donors arrived through the Web vs. the call center. (Hunter says generally, 25 percent to 50 percent more DRTV viewers travel to the Internet than dial up the call center.) The charity also doesn't know how many viewers later donate via direct mail or another channel if the viewers don't use the direct response phone numbers or URLs.
"When we have the food program on television, we have direct mail appeals that come out, also promoting food," Aloma says. "We have a phone campaign, also promoting food. And we have radio programs and print ads that also promote food and hunger. So we have that kind of integration that helps to promote. … But the television program lifts—because they lift recognition of the name, it lifts the response of all other fundraising methodologies. In other words, from 7 percent to 12 percent [overall] lift can be gotten by direct mail and by phone work and by print and by radio, because people will recognize our name from television, and that gives us credibility. When they get a piece of mail from us or a phone call from us, they're more willing to respond positively, because of the publicity television has given us."
In the meantime, Aloma says, Food for the Poor is feeding the DRTV donor information into its database.
"Everyone goes into direct mail, eventually," he says. "Even someone who gives a donation to Web will eventually get some mail. It may be in reduced quantity, but, if you come in through the television, you're followed up with mail after that."
DRTV Is a Channel and So Is Oxygen
The television program runs on cable and broadcast channels all over the United States, Aloma says. But during the test year, 2011, he says Food for the Poor and Russ Reid examined seasonality, geography, time of day and television channel. After optimizing based on those results, Food for the Poor rolled out the program for a wider release in 2012.
"That [broadcasts] all through the year," Aloma says. "And that's what we determined the first year, which months to go heavier on. But there's never a month where there are no showings at all. Except [what] happened to us in November because of elections—television ads became so expensive in the fall, because of the election campaigns using up so much of the space, that we were not able to go on TV at that time."
Time of day didn't end up being as relevant as other factors, he says.
"What is more important is the type of programming that it follows," Aloma says. "And it's very difficult to pinpoint. … On Oxygen, you have these crime dramas and the program, sometimes, following that has done very well. And then, sometimes, following a more religious-type, family-type program, it has also done very well."
Food for the Poor values every viewer and every viewing, regardless of response. Because, Aloma says, "Sometimes, the second or third time they hear of us is when they decide, 'OK, it's time to answer. It's time to respond.' … Because, even for our regular donors, when they see a show on television, they may not give to that, but it touches their heart."
Hard at Work in June
"Right now, we're working on a new 58-minute program," Aloma says. "Because [Russ Reid says] that every three years we have to renew, because the audience may have seen that one numerous times already.
"As they're doing that, they're going to get out the two-minute program," Aloma continues. "It should be sometime towards the end of June/beginning of July that the new programs—both the two-minute and the new 58-minute—should be ready."
Simultaneously, Russ Reid is working with Food for the Poor to integrate all of its fundraising channels, he says.
Chances are, the new television programs will center on the charity's food programs again, because "food tends to be the most appealing item to our donors," Aloma says. "Because we started, basically, feeding the hungry. And we know that with food, they actually save lives."
Food for the Poor will also continue building homes, digging wells for clean drinking water, bringing solar-powered water purification machines to earthquake-ravaged areas of Haiti, offering education and medical assistance, and creating sustainable agriculture through projects like animal husbandry and fishing villages.
But, drilling down to the individual level and asking how Lucinia's doing, the charity provides this perspective: "When Food for the Poor representatives come across a family or a child in need, the charity makes sure their immediate and long-terms needs are met. The families and children featured in 'The Least of These' represent hundreds more just like them who have not yet been helped."