A Prescription for Empathy

13 May

The Whitman-Walker Clinic sends donors and prospects a unique prescription-bag format as a control mailing

In fundraising efforts, it’s always a challenge to produce an empathetic reaction in the benefactor, especially with a two-dimensional mail piece. That’s why mailers include testimonials from people the organization helps, photographs detailing the abuse or disease being fought, and sometimes even a note card to be signed by the donor and sent directly to an ailing patient or war veteran who benefits from the organization’s work. Such tactics can result in a high level of sympathy, encouraging donors to give.

Sending out its appeal in a white paper bag, oriented vertically with an RX symbol and the clinic’s logo across the top, the Whitman-Walker Clinic has found an avenue to empathy, putting the prospect in the clinic-goer’s shoes. The nonprofit health organization serves the HIV- and AIDS-affected population in the Washington, D.C. metro area and, for the last two years, has sent a 5¾˝ x 10¾˝ prescription-bag mailing to its donors and prospects.

The bag looks and feels like what you might take home from your local pharmacy. “By touching the white prescription bag, we’re hoping we can get the message across that HIV drugs are still very expensive and a lot of people cannot afford them,” says Robert Benish, director of annual giving for the Washington, D.C.–based organization. “I think it’s strong because people can relate to a prescription bag and the cost of prescriptions. I think it hits home with them.

The clinic’s related food bank program had been using a brown-bag mailer format since 2002. Then, in 2005, Benish says he saw an influx of brown-bag formats from other charities, including some that had no relationship to food at all. With the fundraising mailstream saturated with brown bags, he decided to design a variation of the brown-bag mailing. “I thought about drug costs; we have a couple of pharmacies in our clinics, and, as I was looking at the bag, I asked, ‘What if this was like a prescription bag?’” he recalls.

In the most recent drop this August, the mailing went to more than 125,000 donors and prospects within the D.C. metro area. Also, inside the package was a one-page letter from the executive director, a lift note from a patient at the clinic with facts about HIV/AIDS in the Washington metro area on its back, a reply slip and BRE. What began as a test against a note card control package in November 2006 has evolved into a co-control due to great response levels. “We tested this up against our control mailing, which was a note card package with five note cards of the Washington area with scenes of the monuments,” says Benish (Archive code #604-178113-0808).

Aside from finding a participating vendor to handle the unique format, Benish says the bag package is less costly to produce than the note card package. “Actually, it’s a little bit cheaper than when we do the note cards, but with the same response rate,” he reveals.

August’s mailing reflected the results of a test on whether or not to include the RX symbol on the front of the package, where the mailing with RX won. Testing also helps Whitman-Walker decide how to use personalization throughout its housefile mailings. For example, Benish tested versions of the headline and, “Prospect’s Name, please reach inside and give from your heart as prescribed,” performed the best. The ask string is also personalized on housefiles and tested using multiples of the prospect’s highest contribution. The highlighted amount was increased in this mailing from $42.50 to $45. “We’re always tweaking the ask, and for our donors, that seems to be the best way,” he comments.

The clinic doubles up its prospecting and renewal efforts, with four mailings a year alternating the co-control formats. “If we’ve got a prospect, and we’ve got an appeal or a renewal going out around the same time, we would do it all together as one printing to save money,” Benish says. “We try to flip-flop the control prospects with the bag and the note card to mix things up.” With an active donor base between 60,000 and 70,000, the mailings go out to prospects and lapsed donors in the greater Washington, D.C. area.“The demographic, surprisingly, is white women, in the 20- to 50-year-old range and, of course, the gay community,” Benish shares.

By employing a list broker and taking advantage of its creative firm’s, Adams Hussey & Associates, internal list management team, Whitman-Walker keeps its lists fresh and clean. “We’re constantly trading and exchanging names, and we’re always watching who’s doing well for us and who’s not. Everything is analyzed,” Benish says. “We’re lucky to have a great brand in the area here, and people tend to know us. We’ve got a great donor base, too; they consistently give at higher levels against most averages,” he says.

While it’s too soon to tell the success of this package, Benish says he expects to maintain the average response rate of between 0.8 and 1.2 percent and average new gift of $30. “I expect this one to continue going strong because just this week I’ve had two comments from board members where donors had talked to them about getting the recent mailing,” Benish shares.

In the works for the November mailing is a decal freemium test to see if it will boost response. “We’re going to add a decal promoting HIV awareness, education and testing. We’ve had luck with decals in other pieces, but we’ve never put one in the bag,” says Benish, who also plans to change the story on the lift note from the John-Manuel Andriote story that has been a constant in the last year. “They can see a person that we’re providing services for and helping. He was a good person to highlight, but I expect we’ll be switching that soon,” he says.

After another year or two in the mail, Benish plans to retire this package. “I just think they get stale,” he says. For now, the package remains a strength in its fundraising efforts. “It’s strong because people can relate to a prescription bag and the cost of prescriptions,” Benish concludes. IDM

  • Idea In Action: Keep Phones in Play – Don’t forget the telephone as a viable channel for donor response. Cultivating a telemarketing program can bring in those donors who do not prefer direct mail and e-mail. “We’ve got about 7,000 donors who give to us totally through telemarketing. It’s been going on for 10 years now,” says Robert Benish, director of annual giving for the Whitman-Walker Clinic. While the organization plans to increase its online giving, mail and telemarketing are currently working well with its donor base. “A lot of the people in our telemarketing track do not like mail, so we don’t send them mail. A lot of people in our direct mail track don’t like telephone calls, so we don’t call them,” Benish explains.

(Originally published in Inside Direct Mail, November 2008)

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