3 min Read
May 6, 2010

Cultivating strong relationships = big dollars

Going into the 2009 year-end fundraising season, no one knew quite what to expect. Would donors cut back in the face of a still-floundering economy? Would they give less, or just not give at all?

As it turns out, most nonprofits did encounter a decline in overall revenue, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual survey. But many saw a distant light at the end of the economic tunnel in the form of online fundraising, with overall online revenue up 14% from 2008 according to Convio’s 2010 Online Nonprofit Benchmark Study.

Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy (PPMD) , a long-time client of Big Duck’s, saw the story of the sector overall reflected in the returns from their integrated annual campaign–slight overall decline; big jump in online revenue. But their results tell another story, too, about the importance building strong relationships with your donors year-round, not just at year end.

Since 2007, we Ducks have worked with PPMD to create an integrated year-end campaign. At the core of the campaign is a non-traditional direct mail appeal (holiday card) and a series of emails (with supporting online components, like custom donation pages, blog and Facebook posts, and banners), united by a creative concept that plays out in the visuals and language. PPMD works to end Duchenne, a fatal genetic disorder that affects boys, so this year’s concept centered on a simple and compelling message: always remember. For a friend or family member of a boy with Duchenne, messages like this one are emotional reminders to cherish the time they have and to support organizations like PPMD.

Splash page posted at the end of December to trigger gifts from web visitors

The email series started with a Thanksgiving cultivation message from Pat, PPMD’s founding president, timed to hit inboxes just before the holiday card, which mailed the week of Thanksgiving, hit mailboxes. A week later, Pat kicked off the appeal series by introducing a $15,000 matching gift from a PPMD supporter and grandparent of a boy with Duchenne. All according to plan so far–but then PPMD’s donor community started to shake things up.

Within a few days, a family from PPMD’s community called: they wanted to see a more ambitious fundraising challenge, and offered an additional $30,000 to make it happen. A day later, another family stepped up with a similarly generous (and unrelated) offer to increase the match by a further $15,000. In just a few days, with just one email, the challenge match leapt from a conservative $15,000 to a decidedly ambitious $60,000. Exciting, and a touch nerve-wracking: could the rest of the donor community rise to the challenge?

They could, and they did–and then some. PPMD raised over $115,000 online during the campaign, nearly double the proffered match. Total online revenue reflected a whopping 88% increase from the previous year’s total.

But what about direct mail performance? Did we end up robbing Peter to pay Paul? Apparently not–although direct mail revenue declined about 22% relative to 2008 (a decrease almost full offset by the increase in online giving), the number of gifts stayed about the same. PPMD’s direct mail donors still gave in the same numbers, just not at the same level as previous years. Not too surprising, given the state of the economy. The real increase for PPMD came in the number of online donors–up 58% from the 2008 campaign.

They say that in hard times, you find out who your friends are, and the same can be true for nonprofits–when the fundraising climate is tough, you find out who your most loyal supporters are. And PPMD’s case, those supporters turned out to be even more generous and enthusiastic than they (or we!) could have imagined.

Of course, this kind of response doesn’t happen overnight–PPMD works hard all year to create connections donors and other audiences, from managing a custom community site that gives their audiences a place to connect 24/7 to hosting an annual conference that brings the whole community together for three days to share experiences and learn from the experts.

The lesson we learned? Don’t underestimate the power of your community. PPMD’s supporters pushed us to make a bolder ask, and the campaign flourished as a result.

For a closer look at PPMD’s annual appeal, including email statistics, images of the creative, and some examples of how social media (including a YouTube video that received over 1,700 views), text messages, and other online tools played a part in this successful campaign, check out our detailed campaign recap.