Straight Talk: How the Canadians Do Direct Mail
A direct mail veteran of more than 30 years, Stephen Thomas heads the first Canadian-owned and -operated agency specializing in fundraising communications: Stephen Thomas. He paused recently to talk with Inside Direct Mail about reactivating lapsed donors, higher-education direct mail and a pathetic local appeal that somehow won him over.
PB: What was your most memorable moment in direct mail fundraising?
ST: As trite as it may sound, every single mailing is memorable to me, because I still consider it a miracle that we send out letters and people actually send back money without getting anything for it.
PB: What are some current challenges facing direct mail fundraisers in Canada and abroad?
ST: Acquisition; the aging of the donor base; [and] the whole effect of premiums. From an agency side, I would say short-sighted clients who are fixated on the current year's budget rather than the long-term value. We now are able to know long-term values. Organizations will quite often not invest in the type of donor that will bring them the most money over the next five years.
PB: What appeal strategies have been successful recently?
ST: We still are having great luck with questionnaire packages, particularly for advocacy-type clients. Recently we got into doing nostalgic university pieces, which have been very successful. University fundraising is a whole new growth area for us here in Canada. Just by sending a beautiful package that brings back memories of [a prospective donor's] campus and good times is bringing great response.
PB: The letter: long or short?
ST: It really depends on the client. We've tested this for advocacy and political clients, and longer letters definitely work better. But for the Canadian Cancer Society [CCS], we are basically using slip-packages for acquisition, which are two little paragraphs. And even in the house copy for CCS, we don't write too much. It's like people don't want to read too much about cancer. Show the research. Cancer's terrible. Send money.
For other things that people really care about viscerallylike advocacy causes, the environment, politicsthe longer the letter and the more nitty-gritty stuff you can give them, the better. With some of these organizations, you are selling information, really. The trouble is, the longer the letter, the tougher it is to get approvals ...
PB: It sounds like acquisition currently presents a greater challenge to Canadian fundraisers than retention.
ST: Definitely. It's easier to retain a donor than acquire a donor. Quite a bit of our acquisition is actually mailing to [lapsed donors]. For most of our clients, we know when it's more cost-efficient to send an acquisition package rather than a lapsed package. We might do this 18 to 24 months after they stopped giving. We still go after outside lists, but a lot of organizations are sitting on a vast number of [lapsed donors] and are not mining them properly.
PB: What are some things U.S. fundraisers can learn from Canadian fundraisers?
ST: I feel very strongly that our creative is better. My apologies, but I think American direct-response fundraisers are lazy and formulaic. One of the reasons is you have the cheap postage rate, which we don't have. Therefore, we really have to make things sing. We have a smaller market with not as many lists available. So I really do think our creative is betterit has to bebut I don't think it's the best in the world. The best in the world is in the U.K.
PB: What about U.K. creative do you find compelling?
ST: There was a time in the U.K. when there was no need for fundraising because the state took care of everythinguntil [Margaret] Thatcher. Then they had to learn how to [raise funds] really quickly. So they went to commercial direct marketing agencies. Whereas in North America, there are more firms like mine and Craver, Mathews & Smith that specialize exclusively in the nonprofit world. The firms in the U.K. don't do that. They work both sides. So there has always been more of a commercial feel to charity direct mail: more color, better art. When we discovered that, we used some of those tactics here in Canada, and they seemed to work well.
PB: What was the last piece of direct mail you responded to?
ST: An appeal from a local organization called Downtown Caring that works with homeless people in Toronto. It was absolutely pathetic in terms of direct mail fundraising. But because it was pathetic, it got my interest. It was black and white; it's counter to what I just said about creative. But what came through is that this is a poor, struggling organization that needs my help. So I turned around and gave them some money.