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Integrated Marketing Tactics for Donor Cultivation – A Case Study

By Jim Jacobs

There were many key takeaways from DMAW’s February Lunch and Learn, “The Value of Cultivation: an American Farmland Trust (AFT) Case Study.” First, is that the value of effective personalized communication with your donors, as well as showing appreciation, should never be underestimated. In addition, several other successful cultivation strategies and tactics were presented by Gretchen Mais (AFT’s Director of Development and External Relations) to a very engaged audience on February 19th.

Since 2008, Mais tackled many challenges and launching the highly successful America’s Favorite Farmers Markets annual contest program. Her vast experience within the organization was evident. During Mais’s first few years at AFT, they saw a dramatic downturn in donor retention due to a number of financial pressures, including their development budget. Beginning in 2012, donor retention became a top priority as AFT realized that their past donors could provide a greater impact on donation growth than new donors.

At that time, AFT was able to invest in a strong new membership development program. Their goal: to grow membership (active donors) from 12,000 to 35,000 in 3 years. This was a challenge for an organization not at the forefront of national charities. At the same time, their research showed that donor retention, on average, was dropping, and had the greatest effect from donors who gave less than $250 annually. AFT also learned that some of the top reasons for donor attrition included poor support and communication, not getting a proper thank you for their support, little information about how funds are used, and not feeling needed by the organization. All of these were issues AFT felt could be addressed with a new plan.

Gretchen walked the audience through a series of strategies and creative solutions that have successfully led AFT to meet their goals. The strategies that guided the plan included the following: Make loyalty something you measure and act upon. Be an active listener. Target your efforts. Leverage the ancillary benefits of upping your cultivation game. Be leery of “set it and forget it” thank you.

The below integrated marketing tactics impressed me the most.

Saying thank you in so many ways: An eye catching direct mail package for +$250 donors containing a non-cookie-cutter thank-you letter and a follow-up donation ask. This consisted of a Thanksgiving card from AFT’s president and staff for smaller donors, which limits its message to “well wishes” and “thanks for being a part of the organization.” Additionally, it offered a unique year-end thank you gift for +$1,000 donors, provided by corporate partners, which changed each year.

Showing impact, clearly: Updating communication tools to help convey AFT’s impact.  Included was a new content strategy for email news, and scrapping the monthly four-color magazine for a succinct four-page newsletter that focuses on the members’ priority needs for communication.

Using authentic voices: A storytelling campaign that got members to thank an individual farmer who directly benefited from AFT’s work, which in turn was leveraged for a successful donation campaign. This was made up of personalized welcome packages, written and signed by AFT staff working in the field, with a portrait photo.

Gretchen’s talk spurred a very lively Q& A session that inspired the audience to dig deeper into the campaign execution details and probe for further insights. In my mind, a case study presentation that provides insight into broad issues and shows how focused processes can improve the campaign is a home run.

Jim Jacobs

Jim Jacobs is the Vice President of Digital Services at PS Digital. He can be reached at (703) 734-4556 or at jjacobs@psmail.com