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Ask Mal Warwick
Mal Warwick

March, 2008

Ask Mal:  Since 1994, when the Mal Warwick Associates Web site went online, Editor Mal Warwick has answered fundraising questions posed by visitors to the site. In this new feature, we'll spotlight a couple of Q&A’s from Mal.

Question: How do "fake" direct mail surveys impact an organization?

The good news is we have an acquisition control package that has resulted in the strongest response rates we've had in six years. So why do we need advice from Mal?

Well, some of our marketing colleagues are concerned that the survey included in our acquisition package is not a "real" survey but rather a solicitation device. Let me assure you, we in development have attempted to explain the purpose of this particular engagement device. However, our marketing colleagues feel that using this strategy has a negative impact on our brand. To support their belief, they are quoting research gathered from individuals who received a direct marketing survey from a financial institution (we know, not comparing apples-to-apples). The research was conducted on non-responders to the "fake" financial services survey.

These non-responders felt so negative about this financial institution's fake direct marketing survey that they said they would never give their business to this particular financial institution. Have you ever encountered concerns about the negative impact a direct mail survey has on an organization? Its brand? Has any research been done on this subject?

Mal Answers: These fake surveys are often a good news/bad news proposition. They almost invariably boost overall response, but the long-term impact of their use is uncertain.

In one sense, surveys that are designed purely as involvement devices are similar to front-end premiums in their effects. That is, they increase response and often (not always) lower the average gift, but frequently the combined effect is to lower the acquisition cost. That's why they're so heavily favored by direct marketers. However, like many front-end premiums, such surveys might bring in donors of lower long-term value—and they might do damage to an organization's brand.

There has been extensive study of the long-term effects of premiums but, to the best of my knowledge, not of fake surveys.

To my mind, this question boils down to what might be termed an ethical question: Should your organization conduct its fundraising efforts in a totally honest manner? If you subscribe (as I do) to the belief that successful fundraising rests on honest, mutually supportive relationships between an organization and its donors, then you're likely to answer the question in the affirmative. That would mean avoiding the use of such devices as phony surveys.

Can I prove that such practices damage a nonprofit's brand? No. I can only speculate that those in your organization who fear the long-term
effects of your survey are in the right.

Question: What advice do you have for creating a first planned giving program?

I am developing my organization's first planned giving program. I have zero experience in this area and would like to make it the simplest and most efficient program possible while still recruiting new donors. Can you recommend any good "how to" books for someone at my level as well as any seminars in the Chicago area that are not conducted by a bank or someone marketing planned giving software? Thanks for your help!

Mal answers: You may want to check with someone else as well after you read this. As you'll quickly see, I depart from the conventional wisdom on this matter of "planned giving."First of all, that phrase, commonly applied in this country to the field of legacy giving, is unfortunate.

Why? Because it almost invariably conjures up in fundraisers' minds the sort of complex trusts and other tax-avoidance schemes favored by millionaires and requiring the ministrations of lawyers, accountants, financial advisers, and "planned giving" specialists charging hundreds of dollars an hour. And that's only the tip of the iceberg in legacy giving.

Fact: At least 90% of legacy gifts are simple bequests in wills or living trusts. They require no more than a quick check with a lawyer to be certain you have the language to conform to the laws in your state. While bequests are typically much smaller than charitable remainder trusts and other complicated instruments, there are so many more simple bequests than any other type of legacy gift that the income tends to dwarf what comes from the rest. (The average bequest in the USA is $35,000, I'm told.)

Fact: There is absolutely no correlation between wealth and the propensity to leave a legacy. In truth, people of lesser means may be more likely to leave bequests.

Fact: Donors in the USA and Canada are very receptive to learning that a charity accepts legacy gifts. That's basically all they need to know—that, and the fact that the easiest way to leave a legacy is by adding a bequest to a will or living trust.

Now, if you talk to most people who specialize in "planned giving"—the same people who offer most of the training sessions in the field—you'll probably hear a different story. Their professional interests are at stake.

And, it's certainly true that if there are multimillionaires among your constituents, you might get really lucky and (eventually) receive one of those seven- or eight-figure trusts. However, if your organization is like most of the other 1.5 million nonprofits in the USA, you'll be far better off starting with a simple effort to promote legacy giving by bequest through the mail.

If that last statement sounds self-serving (I am, after all, a direct mail specialist), please check out the available market research data that shows direct mail is by far the best-received and, in most circumstances, the most effective way to market legacy gifts. Again, you'll find disagreement on this point.

There are telemarketers in the business who swear their results are superior. I don't believe it.Unfortunately, there is no book of which I'm aware that will lay all this out for you and give you a step-by-step introduction to how to promote bequests. I've written a little about it in my book, How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters, Revised Edition. But I don't know of anything in print that details what I regard as the fundamentals in this matter: emphasizing the mission, avoiding mention of taxes or tax savings, focusing on case studies of donors who have already pledged bequests, and paying special attention to long-time and regular donors, including those who have lapsed as they aged.

Mal Warwick is Founder and Chairman and Dan Doyle is President and CEO, Mal Warwick Associates, 2550 Ninth Street Suite 103, Berkeley CA 94710, phone (510) 843-8888, fax (510) 843-0142, Web, e-mail The authors are deeply indebted for assistance in preparing this article to Peter Schoewe (Mal Warwick Associates), Lincoln Pain (Effective Assets), Michael J. Peri (SmithBarney), Melissa S. Brown (Giving Institute/Indiana University Center on Philanthropy), and Jan Alfieri (Association of Fundraising Professionals Resource Center)


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