Kiss Your Competition

Ask 1000 charities what their number one concern is and you’ll hear the same answer: The competition.

In the summer of 2005, United Way of the Lower Mainland (UWLM) in British Columbia, the third largest United Way in Canada, was no different. And leading up to their annual direct mail campaign that fall, they felt they had even more reason to be concerned.

The international Make Poverty History campaign had just been launched. There’d even been an attendant Live 8 rock concert at a Canadian venue that summer. Everywhere donors turned there were celebrities urging them to help eradicate poverty around the world.

The immediate question in the minds of people working on UWLM’s direct mail campaign was: Is the fight against global poverty going to affect our ability to raise funds for combating poverty at home?

But that was looking at the relationship between the two causes as a competitive one. When it was viewed as being a symbiotic one – where each party has the opportunity to benefit from the activities of the other – there was no reason to worry. If anything, there was reason to celebrate.

So rather than either fear or ignore the Make Poverty History campaign, UWLM decided to embrace it and use it to their advantage. The strategy was spelled out in the headline of the letters:

“With the recent Make Poverty History rock concerts, kind-hearted people offered their help to needy children in various parts of the world. Today, I’m asking you to also have a positive impact on some children in your very own community who need your help.”

United Way’s Peter Coombes says, “The wonderful thing about the symbiotic strategy we employed is that it allowed us to promote our cause while saluting theirs. And by doing that, we were able to more clearly position ourselves in donors’ and prospects’ minds.”

No One Foresaw The Hurricane

Everyone involved with the campaign was feeling confident and was looking forward to the September 2nd drop date. But on August 29th, Hurricane Katrina struck.

Like people all over the world, residents of B.C.’s Lower Mainland area donated generously to Katrina relief. The new question for UWLM became: Having just given to help Katrina victims, will these donors still be willing to support us?

The disturbing fact was that 37% of Canadian non-profits had stated that the 2004 Tsunami had impacted negatively on their final campaigns of that year*. And that tragedy struck after most donors had made their December contributions. Katrina hit before UWLM’s campaign had even been mailed.

Because the letter’s headline addressed the need for people to support local causes as well as international ones, UWLM decided to stick with the mailing schedule. As it turned out, they couldn’t have made a better decision.

The Results

United Way of the Lower Mainland’s direct mail campaign that fall attracted a record number of donors, both renewals and prospects. In addition, it generated record-setting average gift amounts.

Coombes adds, “If we’d sent out a typical mailing, Make Poverty History and Katrina would likely have hurt our ability to raise funds that season. But the type of message we presented really resonated with donors and prospects. So they just dug deeper into their pockets.”

With the approach having worked so well, UWLM decided to test a modified version of it the following spring. It, too, outperformed previous mailings. And the situation today? Their support-international-causes-but-don’t-forget-the-folks-at-home message is the centerpiece of the organization’s control mailings.

For its success, the charity owes thanks not just to its generous donors, but to its competitors. That’s something that should give solace to any non-profit concerned about the competition these days.

*Association of Fundraising Professionals “State of Fundraising 2004” Survey