Gifts to bait would-be givers

Marketing: Sending tokens of thanks, such as labels, is such an effective way to garner donations, that more mailings are on the way, charities say.

March 17, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The personalized return address labels pile up in Helen Peterson's mailbox -- from the Disabled American Veterans, the American Lung Association, the U.S. Olympic Committee and others, all hoping their gifts to the 88-year-old retirement home resident will prompt her to give to them.

"I must have a thousand and I throw a lot of them away," said Peterson, going through the stacks of labels in her room in Columbia. "I feel sorry for them. But there is an end to what I can give."

Chances are, Peterson will see more labels coming to her mailbox. Experts in the field -- and recipients of their pleas -- say giving tokens such as labels, calendars and gift tags to entice potential contributors is on the rise, as charities multiply and vie for donors' attention.

Despite the frustration of some recipients, nonprofits say the technique is by and large the most successful way to pull in new donors -- more effective than phone calls or just sending a letter.

In the lingo of direct marketing, enclosures such as calendars and labels are called "front-end premiums" -- tokens slipped in with a solicitation letter, but without obligation for the donor to pay for them.

Despite the potential emergence of the Internet as a low-cost way for nonprofits to ask for money, fund-raising experts say old-fashioned paper mail has greater permanence -- lingering in the house just long enough that it might prompt a response.

Long a province of large health charities, return labels are being used by a variety of groups, said Neal Denton, executive director of the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers in Washington.

"Nonprofit organizations are finding such stiff competition to capture the attention of folks in their mailboxes, that many of them are trying to become more sophisticated in their marketing approach," Denton said. "Nonprofit fund-raisers are facing tremendous challenges."

Clearly, organizations hope people will feel they should give for what they get -- or at least take a second look at the charity's pitch.

Take a solicitation from Maryland Public Television, which is testing the premium concept in a mailing.

"Right now our records do not show you as an active member, and we need you with us," writes Janice L. Wilson, senior vice president of marketing and development. "That's why I'm sending you the enclosed personal address labels to encourage you to join."

At the end of the letter, she adds: "Why not use your first MPT address label on your response?"

Wilson said it's too early to judge the response from the mailing -- but "the hope is that it will allow us to attract those donors who respond to thank-you gifts."

The concept might be catching on at more charities, but it isn't new. Easter Seals started selling envelope seals to potential donors in the 1930s, after a newspaper cartoonist drew a sketch that encapsulated the organization's work to serve disabled children.

The seals grew into an identity for the charity, which started sending them as gifts to prospective and continuing donors to reinforce the Easter Seals image. Today, Easter Seals, which solicits about 17 million U.S. households a year through the mail, also sends calendars, greeting cards and mailing labels.

"Donors like them," said Chris Cleghorn, executive vice president for marketing at Easter Seals national headquarters in Chicago.

A mailing with gifts to people who have never given before typically garners a 5 percent response rate, he said -- about five times the rate of people who would donate if they got only a request for charity.

Bruce Campbell, a consultant to nonprofit organizations in Santa Maria, Calif., said that in focus groups he's conducted, many donors say they're put off by address labels and greeting cards that arrive unsolicited.

But actual behavior is a different story. On the whole, Campbell said, nonprofit organizations who track the success of the packages find they work.

"There's always a little difference between what [people] say and what they do with their donations," Campbell said. "Donors respond to premiums, and they're worth their weight, so to speak."

The Council of Better Business Bureaus, which evaluates charities through its Philanthropic Advisory Service, stresses that donors have no obligation to pay for or to return any of the labels, calendars, tags or cards that charities send. The council also advises charities to make that clear to would-be donors in their pitches.

The premiums are so effective, donors often respond to a mailed appeal without checking further into the organization's financial information, tax-exempt status and programs, said Bennett Weiner, vice president and director of the bureau's Philanthropic Advisory Service.

"We always have encouraged donors to look beyond whatever the enclosure is," Weiner said. "The more important issue is to look at what the charity is doing. Are they involved in an activity that you as an individual want to support?"

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