When people think of direct-response fundraising—even those in other parts of the development profession—they tend to think of one thing: fundraising appeals. Their mental image is of a letter in the mail with a return envelope, a solicitation call, or now, as our inboxes fill up faster than we can empty them, an email seeking a gift.

The reality, however, is that actually asking for money is just one part of what an effective direct response program can do. In fact, “asks” are just one part of a successful, multi-touch engagement approach with donors and prospects. If the number of “asks” are out of balance with thank you and stewardship touches, the outcome in terms of gifts generated is likely to be less than it could be.

A direct response program built on best practices balances three key types of messages and outreach:

  • Appeal messages—directly making a clear and compelling ask for support (through mail, email, telephone).
  • Thank you messages—acknowledging a special gift (or action such as signing a petition, volunteering, etc.) and expressing gratitude.
  • Cultivation messages—engaging your audience in your mission by providing custom information, showing donor impact, and presenting opportunities to engage directly (website, apps, etc.)

Because fundraising appeals already get so much attention, I want to spend a few minutes spotlighting the other two essential components of a robust direct response fundraising program.

Did You Remember to Say Thank You?

The first thing to say about saying thank you, is do it and do it as quickly as possible given your resources. Yes, pretty much everyone already agrees on these points, but not everyone puts that belief into action as consistently as they should. And that’s a missed opportunity (maybe even for an unsolicited follow-up gift.)

By responding to donors immediately after they give, you communicate with more impact. A thank you message that comes within 48 hours of a gift shows you care and connects with people at a moment when the decision to give is still fresh in memory. It validates that decision and extends the warm feeling donors have from their act of generosity.

A thank you that comes even sooner is even better. It surprises and impresses donors, by exceeding their expectations. During a recent pandemic-related crisis appeal, one S&W client was reaching out to donors by phone minutes after their gifts electronically processed. People were caught off guard—in a wonderful way. They will not forget that organization.

This brings up a third important point: Sometimes it’s worth going above and beyond. The simplest of thank you messages will work quite well. But there can be value in doing more—opting for a phone call instead of just an email, or adding a hand-written note to a standard letter, or sharing a creative video featuring the grateful voices of people your organization helps. All of these efforts take an extra investment of time or money, but if you are looking to add impact to your donor engagement efforts and to stand apart in the competition for philanthropic dollars, focusing on your solicitations is not the only way.

Beyond Gratitude

Now for cultivation messages, those which neither make an ask nor say thank you (at least not for a specific gift). What do they do? They share news. They show impact. They help donors get a glimpse inside your organization and feel part of the mission and the work.

Many nonprofits traditionally rely on newsletters to accomplish all this. Many others are now becoming more resourceful and imaginative. A conservation organization emails audio clips of bird songs to members; a music school broadcasts a student quartet performance; a senior services organization shares a mini-video of their programming in action.

In spirit, this is the same kind of content that might have populated a traditional newsletter, but brought to life more vividly and typically broken into smaller segments, allowing more points of contact over time.

Why is cultivation so key? Without it, you open yourself to the age-old accusation of the underappreciated donor: “I only hear from you when you want money!” Whereas with good cultivation, you show your donors their investment at work and make them partners in your mission.

Donor cultivation happens in many ways, but right now cultivation messages integrated into your direct response program are playing an increasingly important part. After all, when a pandemic keeps families from visiting your aquarium, having a couple of charming penguins visiting those families via an emailed video can be the next best thing!