Charity: Water – Missing Direct Mail Giving Opportunities?

Let me first say – I have the greatest respect and admiration for Charity: Water. Their business model, their passion and their commitment to what they do – and of course their entrepreneurial spirit – are infectious. And the founder, Scott Harrison, (incidentally a graduate of my alma mater – NYU) is an incredibly dynamic and inspirational leader. To be his age and have that kind of charisma and passion is very, very impressive.

In my experience as a fundraising and nonprofit consultant serving many nonprofit organizations in the US and Canada, ranging in size from $1.0 million to well over $100 million in annual revenue, I see a wide range of online fundraising effectiveness.

Some nonprofits I’ve served raise a very small percentage of their annual revenue online, while others are raising a much more substantial amount in the range of 15%-20% or even higher. For those with a strong online presence the percentage is increasing every year. And this trend will continue. It is the future and nonprofits will need to adopt or die.

Granted, many of these particular organizations were in existence before the Internet became embedded in our daily lives and during a time when direct mail was the primary means of ongoing communication with a donor. But its been over twenty years since the first graphical websites were even introduced – thanks to Netscape and the other GUI browsers of the time (around 1995 for those young folks out there)….so why hasn’t online giving outpaced direct mail?

Why is it that in spite of the Internet 20+ year tenure some organizations are achieving only a 10-20% of online revenue while other Internet “pure-plays”, like Charity:Water are raising 100% of their funds online?

This is a fundraising conundrum to put it mildly. If a traditional off line nonprofit is raising approximately 90% of their funds offline through traditional means such as major gifts, planned giving and direct mail; is it possible that an online pure-play, like Charity: Water, could be raising substantial amounts more through off-line methods such as direct mail.

The reality is that direct mail still works. It’s that simple. The vast majority of funds being raised by nonprofits are still raised through direct mail, major gift solicitation, planned giving and grants/foundation work – not the Internet or other online channels. Will this change over time – of course it will and it is growing everyday. Substantial forces are at play including: cultural, behavioral, demographic, human habits, paperless society concepts, globalization, and so forth.

Online initiatives play an important part for most organizations fundraising and communication and represents a substantial growth area for for most organizations; but not the area of revenue sustainability – yet, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a TOTAL evangelist of online efforts, especially New Media, including online donor acquisition, donor cultivation and donor stewardship and awareness building through websites, blogs, social media and other digital methods.

Back to the main point of the blog post.

Is Charity: Water leaving money on the table? Are they, perhaps, missing a HUGE opportunity to increase the funds raised if they adopted direct mail tactics?

I would venture to say – yes – they are missing a rather significant opportunity for revenue growth. I can only speak from my own personal experience and what I have read about other organizations and the case studies I have followed. And all indicate Charity: Water could benefit, perhaps substantially, from developing an off-line direct mail fundraising and marketing strategy.

One minor example is that I gave a gift to Charity: Water online and never received any follow-up solicitations or communication (other than the online automated receipt for the initial gift) – no correspondence – not online or off-line. This defies all basic nonprofit fundraising best practices. We still live in a multi-channel world. It’s that simple. People are not single channel communicators.

There are some great studies out there from the Case Foundation, Network for Good and Blackbaud  – they are well worth exploring to better understand the trends that are taking place in the online/offline fundraising world.

What do you think? Should Charity: Water embark on a direct mail fundraising strategy?