As the parent of a Special Olympic athlete, I am a committed stakeholder with Special Olympics Maryland (SOMD). As a fundraiser with more than 20 years of experience, I figured that I could help in more ways than just promoting events and coaching. So I raised my hand offering the services of my firm (The Harrington Agency) to help SOMD improve their fundraising to meet their ever-increasing needs for delivering more services to athletes and families in my state.
Special Olympics Maryland has a unique fundraising challenge: they need to diversify their fundraising but without using direct mail, from which 20,000 of their donors are acquired. (Yes, this is not a typo – no additional direct mail fundraising is permitted due to a contractual agreement.) So what is a fundraiser to do? Be daring, be new and just do it!
Special Olympics Maryland agreed that testing an online monthly giving program was for sure the way to go – forgoing short-term dollars for long-term cash. Now it was time to get creative and a tad daring.
With SOMD, The Harrington Agency created a multi-layered strategy designed to emotionally connect the monthly gift to the athlete, engage the donor beyond just picking a monthly amount and cultivate the donor throughout the year—so that when SOMD went to upgrade monthly donors, ask for an additional gift or move them beyond monthly giving, the donor was properly thanked and stewarded.
First, we coupled THA’s relentless, innovative approach with my own parent and volunteer perspective – why not have an athlete (my son) pledge to “give an hour of his paycheck” each month and challenge others (donors, parents, coaches, volunteers and even athletes) to do the same? This would indeed be breaking all the rules – having a Special Olympic athlete not only give money, but actively solicit other athletes to give as well.
This tactic was built solely around authentic storytelling, delivered in the first-person. For Special Olympics Maryland, this meant that the story my son and other athletes were telling needed to be told in their words and not in the words of a skilled writer – simple words, simple sentences, simple ideas. Syd’s voice was so authentic in the emails that a planned gift donor who got Syd’s email called SOMD to make a substantial monthly gift in addition to an already-pledged planned gift. He told SOMD staff, “I really liked what Syd said.”
Second, THA worked with SOMD’s new CRM/ECRM partner, Charity Engine, to set up the donation form so donors could select not only how much they would give each month, but also the date of their donation. This made it very personal and real.
And, to connect donors even more to their local athletes, the forward-thinking SOMD leadership encouraged donors to select whether their pledge would support the entire state-wide program or would go to their local county program to benefit the athletes they know, train with and/or care about.
We also wanted to make sure that SOMD’s monthly giving campaign wasn’t just a “set it and forget it” fundraising program. We worked with PICO Greeting to create and manage a thank you card —a personalized card that included a punch-out paper medal noting the ‘day and hour’ of their gift, to be attached to the recipient’s computer monitor so donors could see a daily reminder of their gift. This card, combined with monthly emails connecting the donor to their gift, was all about stewardship and not simply treating monthly donors as an ATM machine.
The results? The most substantive result of the campaign was the realization that a high-risk, aggressive fundraising program can serve as meaningful donor touch-points and a revenue generator when the content is personalized and community-focused and coupled with telling the organization’s story in the clients’ (in SOMD’s case, the athletes) own words. Fundraising becomes predictable and bothersome when all donors hear about are laundry lists of facts, service statistics and programmatic milestones. Yes, the numbers are indeed impressive, but we all know that numbers alone do not raise money.
The Special Olympics Maryland sustainer pilot project, dreamed up and implemented in just a few weeks, will now be rolled out later this fall to a larger donor cohort with a more robust communications and solicitation schedule to strengthen connectivity with SOMD and increase results.