Stephen Pidgeon: Our direct mail is more creative than in the US

Much of the material they use across the pond simply wouldn't work over here, writes our columnist

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

I'm just back from the US, where I'd been invited to speak to neighbouring chapters of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the US equivalent of our Institute of Fundraising. I was reminded of the different status fundraising holds in the US, where local charities provide many services that are provided in the UK by local or national government.

So the local library is funded voluntarily by the local community – it always has been. When I asked a largish audience how many were subscribers, about 15 per cent raised their hands, though most of them rarely cross the library's threshold nowadays. Another charity provides free items for babies – diapers, formula milk, clothes – but only up to 18 months. From 18 months to five years, another charity takes over.

I'm not advocating the system, but I'm certainly impressed by it and I warmly welcome the acceptance of the right to ask that goes with it. Nobody thinks fundraisers are begging – the root of so much antagonism in the UK.

But Americans' natural commitment to charities is also the reason their minor donor fundraising hasn't changed in 30 years. In the UK, we now have to catch people's attention before we ask, and we've seen the rise of added-value propositions – for example, where people text charities such as Alzheimer's Research and Breast Cancer Now to indicate they want a free guide. The charities then call these people back to get the address for the guide and to sign them up for a monthly donation. Most charity advertisements on television are now two-stage. You are asked to "text just £3", then you await a call for the bigger ask.

In the US, most direct mail is still premium-led, much of it devoid of creativity and lacking any proposition. It is purchased, in effect, off the shelf. Public broadcasting in the US – their equivalent of our BBC and widely acknowledged to be the only television worth watching – relies on the support of individual viewers and listeners. Donations are sought many times each year, either through "pledge breaks" in the broadcasting or by direct mail.

The direct mailshots are created by four or five agencies and are purchased by the number – "we'll test letter 38 this time against our control pack, which is letter 26," they say. Nothing is bespoke or based on the local community. Nothing has a proposition or even a story. Response is low and the renewal rates one year later are abysmal. That stuff simply wouldn't work in the UK and, interestingly, it's beginning not to work in the US either. They are now seeing the rise of the creative agency as we understand it – fundraising copy-writers who understand that an ask that engages a donor's emotions rewards their philanthropic soul and is likely to lead to further gifts. My trip reminded me how sophisticated, how ground-breaking, we are in minor-donor fundraising in the UK. I'm hopelessly biased, of course, but we should be immensely proud of our work.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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