Editorial; SOS Children UK.
Well I never. We have just reached the year end and realised we did not do any direct mail appeals in the whole of 2007. I am not talking about no cold direct mail, we gave that up in 2004 but last year we didn't send any general warm appeals out to our donors at all. They got two newsletters and a Christmas card, sponsors got updates of their projects or children but no appeals, not even at Christmas. Just to be clear we also didn't telephone canvas, didn't run TV adverts, didn't spend money on internet adverts and adwords (Ok, we ran two small paid adverts on a charity site), and did not do "face to face" (chugger) fundraising nor send out email appeals either.
How lazy, but at least it kept our costs very low. And of course the results show the fruits of our inactivity. The 2007 books aren't quite closed but UK income is only just about £3.2m, half of which is from committed giving (mainly individuals). The only odd thing is that £3.2m is actually triple what we were raising five years ago in the UK when we were basically just doing Direct Mail: and spending a small fortune on cold and warm direct mail at that. Our committed giving is up by a factor of four since we stopped Direct Mail. These extra funds have made a huge impact helping orphans in the field and yes, it was a very busy year which is why we never got around to a "warm" Christmas appeal.
Nobody likes Cold Direct Mail
Of course, we all felt good about stopping cold Direct Mail. I do not believe any charity really feels comfortable with the cost levels this incurs and I am not sure any donor would be happy either if the full economics (without any funny little accounting tricks) were transparent. Also a little like the restaurant manager on "Gordon Ramsay in the USA" whose only idea seemed to be bigger and bigger signs, Direct Mailing (and TV adverts for that matter) seems to have been getting more and more intrusive and offensive in recent years (I am just waiting for a journalist to coin "Chate mail" for "charity hate mail" to go alongside "Chugger" for "charity mugger").
As an illustration, I am no doctor but as far as I can tell from the stats several hundred expectant mothers and unborn babies die each year in the UK from stress related conditions like high blood pressure. How sad. If ever there was a vulnerable group deserving our protection from stress, "expectant mothers" must be the one. Yet charity mailshots apparently specifically targeted at distressing expectant mothers do not even seem to raise an eyebrow. Pardon? As a father of young kids myself, all my protective instincts are outraged. Perhaps New Philanthropy Capital or Intelligent Giving will pick up on the issue but I doubt anyone else will. Lets face it, charity Direct Mail has gone too far and we cannot be as proud of the charitable sector as we would all like.
Why internet fundraising is so cool
So what were we busy doing in the time we used to spend discussing direct mail appeals and handling all the responses? As well as managing extra projects from the extra income as effectively as possible, we were dealing with new inquiries and new sponsorships generated by a website which has never stopped buzzing.
Not that our website is particularly special. It is cheap and cheerful and is far less sophisticated than the old one it replaced. Far simpler but when we changed them over the donation and new commitment rate went up twenty times overnight (that's really 20x not 20%). Now we get about 4000 unique visitors a day (plus more than this on our Schools Wikipedia site) half of whom bookmark and who in total contribute millions of pounds a year. That's on a website which had a one off development cost of £4k a few years ago to put it on an easy content management system (thanks to Dspoke) and on which our odd attempts to advertise have never crept over £10k a year. Less than 1% fundraising costs for new donors versus perhaps 40% by Direct Mail.
Why does the internet suit SOS Children UK?
Of course, not everyone has been as lucky with the internet and the question of why the internet particularly suits us is an interesting one.
A large part of it is because we have a very good story to tell. Direct Mail seems to be more about an emotive response to a picture or story. Online people have far more access to check everything about us. Not just "poor child" but "actually how does this charity help find a proper fix for this problem" or "how much money is spent on fundraising and advocacy rather than helping the children". And of course we welcome this scrunity as proper fixes are very much what we are about. Most people realise giving a few pence to a child on the street doesn't actually really "change a life". This is confirmed by the donation size: most people take out regular donations but the average one-off donation on the website is around £110 or ten times industry figures for Direct Mail. We get very important income from "first bouncers" who weren't happy with what they discovered or could not find on another charity's website.
Advice for Internet Fundraising
It seems churlish not to round this up with some advice for others. What I have learnt is:
Keep any website(s) technically simple.
Do not be tempted to use Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) companies. Concentrate on human visitors and let Search Engines do their job.
Never underestimate the surfers' time and intelligence. Internet donors read more, think more and give more on average.
To get links to your website, ask your supporters. If you don't ask you don't get.
And do I really believe that Direct Mail is dead? Hmm. Well, I wouldn't rule out warm appeals in the future (they were, after all, reasonably economic) but I doubt very much we will ever try cold mailshots again. There will always be donors who will respond to an emotive photo with a small gift and there will always be charities who care more about the micro-rules than a broad brush assessment on whether they are doing the right thing. Therefore there will always be cold direct mail. Alas.