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How to Reverse Direct Response Decline

Nonprofit organizations are lowering direct response expectations for 2023 after 2022 numbers declined from the pandemic-era highs of 2021. Avoid the trend towards donor decline with the tactics outlined in this post.



In an era of innovation where AI-enabled tools like ChatGPT provide untold potential to create, distribute, and personalize content, it should come as a surprise that many annual giving programs remain so locked in the past. Conventional wisdom dictates that direct response faces inevitable decline as supporters become increasingly distracted and less responsive to traditional tactics, like large-scale direct mail and calling programs.


And there is data to back up these concerns. According to a Nonprofit Alliance survey “Nearly two-thirds (65.64%) of direct response fundraising consultants said their nonprofit clients met or exceeded projections for 2022. However, an even greater number (68.75%) said the results fell short of 2021’s outcomes and nearly half (43.75%) said their clients have lowered expectations even more for 2023.”


But make no mistake, annual giving decline is not inevitable and new technologies combined with all channels, including direct mail and phone, are critical components of a high performance annual giving program. The problem is that those traditional tools, when combined with stale tactics, no longer align with the habits of modern consumers and donors. Integration, innovation, and personalization are the core tenets of a successful modern program.


Consider these questions:


Are you providing donors and prospects with meaningful content and stories at least six times before solicitation?


Are people warm and excited to give when you make the ask?


Are all of your channels – email, direct mail, text, phone, web – aligned in message and brand?


Are you able to quickly and continuously produce new video content to tell your institution’s story in a way that is both authentic and professional??


Can you distribute personalized messaging and content across channels in a way that engages people with your story and mission?


As universities build programs that allow them to answer ‘yes’ to more of these questions, they can experience dramatic results. One of firstname.co’s client partners, a large public university, launched a Donor Engagement Center featuring authentic student content and experienced their best ever online giving days:

  • 2021 – 763 online gifts during the giving day (before hiring firstname.co to build a Donor Engagement Center)

  • 2022 – 2,652 online gifts during the giving day (firstname.co DEC launched three months before the giving day)

  • 2023 – 2,684 online gifts during the giving day


Not only did the authentic video-driven approach lead to a spike in giving activity in 2022 over 2021 levels, but the increase appears to be sustainable with an even larger giving day result in 2023.


To inspire donors with a compelling, modern engagement and direct response program, consider the following:


Commit to producing more authentic video


Hire and train a team of students to produce new video content on a weekly basis. Tell the story of the institution through the students’ eyes. Allow authentic student storytelling to inspire nostalgia in your donor base. Study after study and real-world example after real-world example reinforces the simple fact – when prospects watch authentic video content, they become donors.


Lean in to technology


Use AI-tools, such as Jasper, to scale your content production – from email and social media copy to video script writing, low-cost AI tools help you pump out far more creative content in less time than ever before.


Personalize at every step


94 percent of companies report an increase in conversions after personalizing their website experience. (Source: Econsultancy) One of the factors negatively impacting direct response fundraising is the often impersonal nature of email and direct mail. Again, with the tools at hand, this doesn’t have to be the reality. Use technology to send donors content that matters to their unique philanthropic passions. From email to personalized microsites to fund-specific direct mail, each touch point should speak to the individual's connection to your institution.


Also remember, personalization doesn’t necessarily mean saying a person’s name. Sending a segment of donors dynamic content that matters to them, based on their giving history, is another level of personalization. Create video that demonstrates the impact of past giving while making the case for future philanthropic support. Helping donors see the specific impact of their gifts, through dynamic video content, is another way of showing you care about their support.


How are you personalizing your donor engagement at scale? Are you producing enough video content to change the trajectory of your annual giving program? Let us know in the comments below!


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