(Derrick Feldmann is president of Achieve, a creative research and campaigns agency based in Indianapolis. In his previous post, he blogged about the fundraising secrets of internationally focused nonprofits.)
As the dust settles on another hectic fundraising season, I've been taking some time to sift through the direct mail and e-mail donation requests I received. It seems like the past year was extra busy for many organizations, and there was a lot of competition for my attention and charitable support as the year came to an end.
When analyzing the various pieces, I typically start with design, putting those that stick to a basic black-and-white format and avoid graphics other than an organization's logo in one pile and those that incorporate the latest design trends and National Geographic-quality photographs in another.
I also sort the pitch letters based on degree of personalization. A lot of them start with a generic salutation like "Dear Friend…," which always makes me smile and think: How can we be friends when I don't even know you? Then there are letters that address me as "Derrick" – well, because apparently we're on a first-name basis.
As someone who deals on a regular basis with fundraising campaigns, direct-mail appeals, and e-mail solicitations, I can almost always spot the pieces that were done in-house, as opposed to those created by an agency or outside contractor. In most cases, there's a certain polish to the latter, and you can tell the organization has paid good money to achieve that look and feel.
But does it matter? Do sharp, well-designed pieces lead to more and bigger donations than bland, generic pitches created by an in-house team?
Actually, not so much. As a number of recent studies show, a simple direct-mail or e-mail pitch is likely to raise just as much money as a well-designed piece. Indeed, according to fundraising expert Rachel Beer, A and B testing demonstrates that "something plain, functional, and straightforward will often out-perform something that is beautifully art directed or conceptual."
So if the design of your fundraising solicitations doesn't really matter, what does matter?
Brand. Your nonprofit's brand is what matters.
As the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations' Nathalie Kylander and Christopher Stone put it in a 2012 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, "Strong brands in all sectors help organizations acquire financial, human and social resources, and build key partnerships. The trust that strong brands elicit also provides organizations with the authority and credibility to deploy those resources more efficiently and flexibly than can organizations with weaker brands."