Early in my fundraising career, I directed a mid-size university’s regular giving program. It was the first time I developed and managed the regular giving budget and determined the best use of those funds. I decided I would invest heavily in a fall appeal geared toward our most loyal donors.

Since we were asking our current-year donors for a second gift in the same year, I thought the package needed to be a real stand-out piece to impress them.

And that it did!

I worked closely with our marketing team to develop a piece that was very unique: an 8-by-8-inch square, full color with a custom velum envelope, so the donor could see the high-resolution photos peeking through. Seriously, you could see the sweat on the basketball players’ faces.

I alerted our gift processors to expect an uptick in activity as a result of this beautiful appeal.

But as you’ve probably guessed, that’s not how this story ends.

Days turned into weeks, weeks into over a month. When we passed the big target date—45 days following an appeal—I had to concede that the appeal had not been very appealing after all.

The response rate was far less than the average of 4%, and to make matters worse, it had been sent to our most loyal donors, so we should have seen better-than-average results.

As much as I wanted to put it all in the rearview mirror, I knew I needed to assess the process and, instead of thinking like a fundraiser, I needed to see things through the eyes of our donors.

From their point of view, I saw it all in a different light:

  • The appeal was flashy. So, rather than convey need, it seemed to say, “We have money to burn.”
  • The pictures showed college life, but didn’t express the positive impact donors were having on the university.
  • There was a pledge card—which implied an ask—but there was no clear call to action.

I learned my lesson.

The message of philanthropy … the power of philanthropy is that we are all in this together—donors, staff and volunteers. But it is the generosity of donors, not heavy cardstock and impressive printing, that makes the difference.

Janell Johnson

Janell Johnson
Executive Vice President
Wilmington, N.C.