6 things fundraisers can learn from political direct mail

by guest blogger Andrew Rogers, Senior Writer at TrueSense Marketing

I served my apprenticeship in the political world many campaigns ago, and the lessons I learned there still shape how I do my job as a copywriter. Nonprofit direct marketers can learn a lot from that world — travesties like this notwithstanding.

If you’re not already sick of politics this year, here are my suggestions for some of those lessons we can learn.

1. Donors are activists too

Not everyone wants to be a lobbyist or a candidate for office — and having been both, I don’t blame them. But most everyone has a set of values they live by, and a vision of a better world they’re trying to create. The single most important lesson I took from my years in political direct marketing is that writing checks to support a cause is a valid and valuable form of activism, and often one that is deeply meaningful to the donor.

In my experience, too many nonprofits see donors — particularly low-dollar ones — as second best. “Maybe you can’t do the life-changing things our staff and volunteers do, but at least you can send money.” This is not only wrong, it’s insulting. They also serve who give the funds that make it all possible.

2. The campaign is a tool

Except for the small world of professional campaign managers, a political campaign isn’t an end in itself. The point of a campaign is to achieve a goal: the election of a candidate, the passage or defeat of a ballot measure. The mechanics of how that’s done are essential to the pros, but almost irrelevant to the cause-minded voter or donor, who is driven, I repeat, by a vision and a cause.

When you communicate with your donors, are you getting caught up in the back-room details of how a campaign works? Or are you speaking to their dreams for a better world?

3. Time is of the essence

Political work is driven by the calendar: filing deadlines, scheduled votes, legislative recesses and adjournments, election days. Political fundraisers can’t afford to buy into the “too much mail” fallacy: Miss this chance now, and we won’t get another shot for two, four, or even six more years!

On the plus side, this means there are lots of natural peaks in the political cycle when it makes sense to update supporters on what the campaign or organization is doing in their behalf. Does your mail schedule paint a true picture of the work you’re doing and the world you live in? Or are you obsessed by the fear your donors are secretly sick of you?

4. Governing is campaigning

Politicians are frequently criticized for an overreliance on polls, focus groups, and media advisors. President Clinton famously even used focus groups to help select his family vacation spots. But at least since the days of FDR’s fireside chats, savvy politicos have understood that communicating with voters, and particularly their own dedicated base of supporters, cannot wait for election years. A dialogue between governors and governed is an essential part of a functioning democracy.

How does that translate to nonprofits? By making sure donor communication is not something that happens off in a corner of the organization, but is fully integrated into the daily effort of planning and carrying out your mission. If, as I argued above, your organization is your donors’ tool for building the world they want to live in, donor-centered communication that speaks and listens is your donors’ seat in your boardroom.

5. Get local

File segmentation based on donor behavior is a key to harnessing donor power. But political campaigns and organizations do a lot of communication based on geography, keyed to a donor’s state, district, precinct, or even block. ( Here is a fascinating article on how interest-based data segmentation to a very local level drove the early success of Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.)

If yours is a community-based organization, you have an incredibly powerful selling point for your donors: They are helping their neighbors in need at the shelter or food bank right around the corner! If you’re a larger organization, do you have local events you can report on, or stories you can tell in a locally-targeted “special edition” of your newsletter? Don’t just be in your donor’s mailbox. Be in her neighborhood.

6. Donors have their own motivations

Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly was quoted, perhaps apocryphally, as saying “I’m very open-minded. I’ll let people oppose the E.R.A. for any reason they want to.”

Political parties, candidates, and organizations recognize that people support them for reasons as diverse as the people themselves. There’s no “one best reason” to be a Democrat.

That’s why, as Jeff has written many times, trying to “educate” your donors into giving is a recipe for failure — as if the beauty of your processes or the multi-faceted complexity of your issue is the “right reason” for donors to give. Instead, accept the compliment that they are willing to invest their resources in you because you share their values and are working to achieve their dreams.

There’s no better basis for a lasting partnership than that.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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