Arts charity raises money year round: Pick a day, any day. And fund it.
It was the last month of 2009.
Hard to imagine a worse time to raise money, you'd think. Especially for an arts group, almost unknown to the public. Especially in Rhode Island, the smallest and second hardest-hit economically of all the United States.
Unemployment raging ... the newly homeless and the newly hungry front-page news ... the perceived wealth of the middle class - property values that had doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in a half decade - vaporized in a seeming blink when the real estate bubble burst.
You'd think: Terrible time to fundraise.
Yet the Steel Yard, an arts organization, had a bright new idea that succeeded.
The Steel Yard created a direct mail appeal so intriguing ... so beautifully executed ... and so sensible that it proved once again that you do NOT need massive mailing lists to make direct mail work, you just need an innovative brain. A brain thinking unusual thoughts, a practice known as "doing something different."
The enemy of direct mail is sameness, especially if you're a small, struggling organization like the Steel Yard. Your appeal needs to explode from the daily mail stream like a superhero busting through a brick wall. Here's the Steel Yard's un-ignorable outbound envelope:
Immediately, it challenges the recipient (a person who has somehow joined the mailing list: either by signing up for the Steel Yard's abundantly entertaining e-newsletter; or by attending one of the Steel Yard's flaming, community-embracing events; or by taking a [life-enhancing or -changing] art class) to confront her/his values. "Are you a true believer?"
Remember: the ONLY purpose of a direct mail envelope is to get opened. If the mental answer to the BOLD question posed by that envelope teaser is mostly "yes," then the opening rate will be high.
The letter got right to it...
Or should I say, Dear Steel Yard True Believer....
I am writing to ask you to buy a day ... of the Steel Yard's future.
In 2010, a full day at the Steel Yard will cost $131 more than we are sure we can raise right now.
Every day the Steel Yard opens for classes ... makes well-equipped, affordable space available to artists and start-up businesses .. throws one of its super-memorable events will require $131 in philanthropy.
The Steel Yard is donor-dependent. It thrives -- and survives -- because True Believers like you are willing to invest in our mission and in our vision. [etc.]
The letter was dramatic. It had emotion. It offered an easily understood rationale for giving. In a few strokes in paragraph 4, it reminded people why the Steel Yard is so special. The letter was authentic and candid, too: it revealed that the staff was voluntarily working without pay some days just to keep the place open.
One donor bought a dozen days.
A group of friends got together to collectively buy a week. (The buy-a-day concept is well suited for fundraising via social media, where you can spread the $131/day cost across many wallets.)
Just two weeks after the mailing, this new idea had already raised $18,209. And a month after the mailing, Drake Patten, the executive director, reported, "The 'days' are still pouring in."
Three years later (2012)...
The Steel Yard's buy-a-day campaign proved to be the perfect "eventless event." Like an event, it brought lots of people together for a single purpose: to raise annual operating funds. Like an event, it was fun to participate in. Unlike an event, it cost almost nothing in staff time.
The buy-a-day campaign quickly became the Steel Yard's flagship appeal. By 2012, the program was fully evolved. People who participated got "I bought a day" buttons they could proudly wear at Steel Yard events. And prominently featured around the Steel Yard site were picture frames where a printed sheet of paper was changed daily, bearing recognition messages like: "Today, May 21, at the Steel Yard was paid for by a loving gift from the Bonnanno family in tribute to their hardworking Nana."
>>> Takeaway >>> The secret of direct mail success? The industry mantra goes like this: "Put the right offer in front of the right audience at the right time ... and you've got a winner."
The Steel Yard put the right offer (a tangible, easily understood way to make a meaningful difference: keep us open for a day of your choosing) in front of the right audience (the thousands of Steel Yard participants, supporters, and familiars) at the right time (as one tough year ended, when the idea of doing something special to make the next year a little better felt especially good).
It did for me, anyway. I funded two days.
Tom Ahern is just plain great! I could go on and on but - all you have to do is go to his website and see for yourself - http://www.aherncomm.com