Online case study: how Friends of the Earth reacted to the fundraising crisis

The environmental group decided to contact its supporters in the wake of the Olive Cooke case - with some surprising results

The Friends of the Earth's letter
The Friends of the Earth's letter

At this year’s I Wish I’d Thought of That event earlier this month, Paul Amadi, director of fundraising at MS Society, presented a letter from Friends of the Earth to its supporters as the campaign he had recently found most inspiring.

Amadi said FoE had debated what it should do after the widespread coverage of the death of Olive Cooke, whose death was initially linked by the national media to excessive appeals by charities.

The supporter care team were concerned that contacting supporters might lose time and money, Amadi said, but Joe Jenkins, director of engagement, had decided to ask them if they were happy with the way FoE communicated with them.

Jenkins, who was at the time acting chief executive at FoE, sent the letter to 52,000 donors by email and to a further 67,000 donors by mail on 22 June, just over a month after the 92-year-old poppy seller’s suicide was first reported. The letter was headed: are we getting it right?

In response, FoE received as much correspondence from donors in three weeks as it normally received in three years. The letter also provoked one of the highest legacy pledge response rates the charity has ever received from a non-legacy mailing, as well as more than £5,000 in one-off donations and direct debit sign-ups and upgrades.

Amadi said he had been inspired by the story, which Jenkins spoke about at a recent conference. "As a sector we were taken aback by the sustained and vitriolic coverage about us," he said."Some of us were forced to respond, while others kept their heads down. FoE showed leadership and bravery."

The letter said that although FoE had not been directly involved in the tabloid investigations which followed Cooke's death, the situation had made it reflect on its own approach and make sure it was acting in a way that its donors appreciated.

More than 90 per cent of the letters and emails FoE received in response  were positive or neutral in sentiment, said Jenkins. As well as ticking the legacy pledge box on FoE’s response envelope, many respondents also mentioned their intention to leave a gift to the charity in their will.

He said that a cash appeal launched by the charity a fortnight after the letter was sent out also exceeded all of its targets and that the charity was in the process of analysing the impact of the letter on the lifetime value of the charity’s donors.

Jenkins said the primary purpose of the letter was to reach out to the charity’s supporters and respond to their feedback rather than to fundraise from them, and declined to give further details about the results it generated. "I’m cautious not to frame this as a fundraising appeal, or to give the impression that our motivation was to generate a financial response either to the letter, or the subsequent appeal," he said.

"Every additional, spontaneous gift that we’ve received has been fantastic, and I’m really chuffed the cash appeal that followed was successful, but I’m most proud of the engagement we achieved through authentic dialogue with our supporters."

I Wish I’d Thought of That is an annual event by Sofii - the Showcase of Fundraising Ideas and Innovation - where 18 fundraisers are invited to give presentations on the campaigns they think changed the face of fundraising.

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