Viewpoint: So can you justify all these pens and umbrellas?

The use of free gifts in direct marketing packs is a proven way to increase response rates, but donors don't always like it.

Imagine the following conversation taking place at your charity:

Supporter: "You used to send me letters, then you started putting pens in them. Why did you do that?"

Fundraiser: "It works. Pens raise response rates."

S: "OK. I don't mind the pens; they can be useful. But now you've started sending me personalised stickers, greetings cards, coins and even gloves and umbrellas. Isn't it all a big waste of money?"

F: "On the contrary - it works. We make more money when we send you this stuff."

S: "But now I'm getting all kinds of strange items from different charities - everyone seems to be doing it."

F: "Well, it's a competitive world. Charity direct mail volumes rose by 11 million in the run-up to Christmas last year, to 132 million packs."

S: "So?"

F: "So it's like The X Factor. If you don't have the best voice, you have to find a gimmick to make yourself stand out. These items are our gimmicks."

S: "But I don't like it. I think it's a guilt trip. I think it's a waste of time, energy and money."

F: "The small percentage who respond to our mailings love these items. They want more. It works."

S: "Really?"

F: "Really. The more we offer, the better the response."

S: "What do the people who don't respond think?"

F: "You can't please all of the people all of the time. It works."

S: "It doesn't seem very green, does it, sending out all that plastic stuff? Aren't you playing into the hands of that government minister who wants a 'war on junk mail'? And what about people who say it should be illegal to put unsolicited marketing material through domestic letter boxes because of the damage done to the environment by creating and disposing of it?"

F: "We aren't a green charity. The bigger our response rates, the more people we can help. It works."

S: "But it doesn't seem right that charities are doing something that irritates many people and might be bad for the environment."

F: "Maybe, but are you saying we should stop using techniques that work well and go back to ones that don't? We would raise less money and have to reduce the number of projects we fund. Tell that to the people we help."

S: "So you are saying that the ends always justify the means?"

F: "I'm not a moral philosopher. I am a fundraiser. Putting promotional incentives in direct mail packs works."

OK, so this is fictional, but the issues are real. If your charity was challenged in this way, would you be able to justify yourself convincingly? One thing's for sure: as a sector, we need to be very clear about our stance on this and get ready to join the inevitable debate.

- David Burrows is head of fundraising at direct marketing agency TDA.

Five more things ...

The Institute of Fundraising is expected to open a 12-week consultation this month on a draft version of its new direct mail code of fundraising practice. The new rules are expected to include guidelines on the inclusion of promotional incentives such as pens and umbrellas in direct mail packs.

The new code will ensure robust standards, according to the institute, which has pledged to make sure the rules "do not stand in the way of innovation".

Member charities will be expected to comply with the new code, as well as the Advertising Standards Authority's British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (otherwise known as the CAP code) and the Direct Marketing Association's code of practice.

Charities were the third biggest senders of direct mail last year, after banks and mail order companies.

Amnesty UK ditched pen packs from its supporter recruitment campaigns in 2004 after two campaigns lost money. The organisation claimed recipients were starting to see promotional incentives as gimmicks and their inclusion as no longer worthwhile.

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