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Inform. Ask. Repeat. - A Petrus Development Show on Communications Planning

The Development Communications Cycle

We return this week with a Petrus Development Show episode on communications planning for development offices.  Rhen is joined by Andrew Robison, our Petrus president, and the two share their ideas on strategic communications for the second half of this year.  They outline monthly goals for newsletters and appeals, and they offer tips on how to create successful communications pieces.  



Show Notes:

A successful development communications plan is often an intentional cycle of informing and asking.  We inform through our newsletters and ask through our appeal letters.  Andrew and Rhen suggest a schedule for communications pieces for August through December, and they encourage listeners to start planning ASAP!


In this episode, Andrew and Rhen answer the following questions:

  • What is recommended communications schedule for the 2nd half of the year?

  • What kind of planning and preparation goes into each communications piece?
  • Why do we put so much emphasis on direct mail?  Couldn't we just send electronic appeals?

If you're interested in checking out of the templates that Andrew and Rhen discuss, please click here for more information. 



Well, howdy everybody! Welcome back to the Petrus Development Show. I am Rhen from Petrus, and joining me today is Andrew Robinson, owner and president of Petrus Development. Howdy, Andrew!

Howdy, howdy! I like that you're saying howdy now. It's only taken 8 years of pestering you with howdies to get you to finally start saying howdy back to me. That's good.

I'm doing my best. It's not very common in the Upper Peninsula. A little bit.

Ah, no, no. It's more like "uffda" and "hey yous guys." Is "yous guys" Midwestern? Okay.

It's a lot of "heys" and "ehs." It's kind of the go-to. There's not much cowboy culture here. I remember you wore your cowboy boots here one time in the winter, and they had zero traction. It was pretty hard to get around in the snow and ice.

I managed. But yeah, it was not me being aware of the situation. Let's just say that.

Exactly. So we're into July, we're coming up on the Fourth of July. Your hat is... if you're watching this on YouTube, you can enjoy Andrew's American flag fish hat. I always appreciate that one.

Any memorable experiences from past Fourth of Julys? Or any big plans for this year?

Oh my gosh. Um, no, we haven't figured out our plans for this year yet. We usually get together. My kids like fireworks, but I don't like keeping them up late enough to enjoy fireworks, if you know what I mean.

Annabelle, she's 14, so she can stay up late. She'll usually go over to her friend's and they light fireworks late. But memorable Fourth of Julys... I remember when I lived in Colorado, and we could go into town and buy, like, you know... I lived at... I worked at a camp with a bunch of other numbskulls all my age, and so we'd go buy like $100 worth of fireworks. This was many years ago when $100 worth of fireworks actually got you a lot of fireworks.

I remember we would go up into the mountains and find a parking lot and just set them all off. The Saturn missiles were always my favorite because you light them and it's like, you know, "pew pew pew" for like a minute and a half. I remember one year, though, we saved the bottle rockets and the Roman candles, and then... this is again, I am a self-proclaimed numbskull at this stage of my life... but we got all of our bottle rockets and our Roman candles out, and we had a little war. We got on either side of the outdoor basketball court up in the mountains and we'd shoot the bottle rockets at each other.

I don't know how none of us died in any of these silly things that we did, but I do remember that incident. I would not recommend it, and I would never let my kids do it knowingly, but it was fun when we were doing it, for sure.

I hundred percent agree. I grew up in Minnesota and I live in Michigan. I think you can only buy like the showering ones in both of those states, but Wisconsin sells like everything that's lethal. So everybody would always cross the border to Wisconsin, load up on their fireworks.

And I've seen enough near misses and bad things happen that my kids... they're getting the most boring... We'll go to the big show in town. We're not... I'm the boring dad now. So what do you do? It's all fun.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. They love throwing those little popping things on the ground, which you can do in the middle of the day. So I usually buy a couple of bags of those and they like that.

Exactly. That keeps them happy. Excellent. Well, and now it's... we're in the middle of summer here. So it's hard to start thinking about fall. But when it comes to your nonprofit communications, you have to start thinking about those communications now to be ready for them in fall, or you're going to be way behind the eight ball. Things aren't going to happen on time. Bad things. It's just bad. So guys are planning it now. So let's talk about what a communication schedule should look like for the second half of the year here as we come up on it. What's a typical calendar for nonprofit communications look like? What do you recommend? At least if you're early on in the fundraising.

Sure, so a lot of organizations, a lot of nonprofit organizations that we work with have some connection to the school year. But even if you don't have a connection to the school year, that is still a good sort of calendar template for you to follow in terms of planning your communications. So if we look at the fall, and by fall we mean let's start in July or August, right? So we're starting now like you said. It's not too early to start planning.

But in August is when kids start going back to school, and so what that means is that families aren't traveling for vacation as much anymore, and so they're back home. So they're checking their mail, they're checking their emails, and you don't get out-of-office on everybody. And so your summer newsletter, that's a good time for your summer newsletter, is like late July, August. Most people, most clients that I work with, I advise them to do an electronic summer newsletter. Number one, it's cheaper, saves you a little bit of money. Number two, like I said, people are back in August, but they're still kind of trickling in, and so mail is not going to get opened as quickly, if at all, and so you're more likely just to get it delivered and for them to see it with an electronic summer newsletter. So you're looking at, you know, August for summer newsletter.

Can I mention... yeah, right, that and so if you're looking at a newsletter, it's late July, early August. You've got to be... that needs to be in progress right now, right? It usually takes two to three months of lead time to get a newsletter altogether. Especially if you're working with, say, a designer, a printer, mailer - each of those parties needs a week or two, all right? So that backs you up a month, and then you need the time to write articles, write good headlines for the articles, which cannot be overstated. Spend time writing 20 or 30 headlines for each article.

Whittle it down to the best one, finding good pictures and pictures that line up, that are high quality, that'll line up with your story, writing good captions for those pictures. All of those things, it just takes time, so you got to have it in progress now. And we'll have a resource at the end of this episode that'll hopefully make it a little bit easier for you to put those together.

Awesome! Yeah, so you get your summer newsletter out and then kids start going back to school, and so it's a good time for a back-to-school themed or even just a fall appeal letter. And so if you do align with this, or if your nonprofit does have an association with school in some way, then talk about students going back to school and we have a new school year, line out kind of what's coming up, and then ask for their support to help you through that year. If your organization doesn't have any connection to school year, then you're talking about, you know, the fall going into... you know, summer's over, you're kind of back into the office or you're back into your programmatic sort of area, and so what does this next year look like. It's a very kind of forward-looking appeal letter. And again, appeal letters, we talk about letters meaning direct mail, but every appeal letter that you send out in the mail should also be complemented with either the identical appeal letter or a very similar thematic appeal letter sent digitally by email as well.

And that's a great time, I think, in the fall. In my experience, what I've always done is a matching gift challenge with that fall appeal letter, and that really gets people... it open. Doubling somebody's gift is the best way to encourage them to make a gift. That's been shown that doubling is the biggest bang for your buck. And so if you can find some challenge gifts to offer with that fall appeal, it can really bring some results in. It way more than doubled the fall appeal where I used to work. I think we went from ten thousand a year to 30 or 40 thousand a year, and I think they did more than that this past year. I think they did 60 thousand this last year. So that's a good time to pull out a tool like that, that match and gift challenge to augment an appeal.

Yeah, so now we've got August, we've got a newsletter going out. September we've got a fall appeal letter going out. Then we're back into October where we're putting out another fall newsletter. And so fall newsletter can be sent by mail and sent digitally by email as well and posted on your website and linked up on your socials. But all the same rules about your appeal or your newsletter that you talked about earlier - good pictures, good captions, good headlines, good stories - all of that applies for your fall newsletter as well.

And then in your newsletters, it's not... There's usually not a direct appeal for gifts. There might be a development corner or development panel where you're talking about giving, just sort of reminding people that your organization runs on donations. But there's not usually a direct ask. But you should always include a remittance envelope, and that remittance envelope... There's a lot of fancy ways that you can print envelopes where it has a flap where the people can fill out. It doesn't have to be multiple sheets. It can just be an envelope, and that is just what we call a soft ask. And so the readers of the newsletter might get that and don't think, "Oh, they're always asking me for money," but the ones that do want to support can look at that and say, "Oh, this is really great. I love these stories. I'm going to send in a gift."

Exactly. And one thing maybe we should talk just for a second about why these newsletters are going out, you know, every other in between those appeal letters. The point there is to set up the appeal letters. It's to show the results that your organization is getting, the impact that it's making, and show how donors like you, the reader, are making that happen, right?

So I think an analogy that I really like to think about when I am writing stories for newsletters - and it's not a perfect analogy - but it's the story of the Good Samaritan. You have the Good Samaritan who's the hero of the story, who brings the beaten man into the inn and has the innkeeper take care of him. And when you think about that story and kind of frame how you're writing your newsletter stories, um, our natural tendency is to put our organization as the hero of the story, as the Good Samaritan in the story.


In reality, we're the innkeeper. We're the ones accepting the money from the Good Samaritan in order to take care of the beaten man. Usually, you know, our... here, the donors, the heroes of the story, aren't the ones bringing in the people that we're serving. Maybe for like the Humane Society or something that's true, but in most organizations, so it's not a perfect analogy, but we're the innkeeper. We're the ones who graciously accept the money and do the hands-on work to care for the people who are in need of the work that our organization does. Your donor, the hero of the story, is the Good Samaritan, so you want to frame your stories that way. This good thing happened because of you, the donor. You gave us the money to make this work happen, and so you have to keep that in mind as you put those stories together.

Yeah, I think that's a really good analogy. And, you know, ah, kind of a rule of thumb is it's okay to talk directly to your reader in your newsletters. Use the word "you," right? Use fewer "I," "we," "us," and use more "you" in your communications. Lots of pictures. So we've got August is your summer newsletter, September is your appeal, back-to-school appeal letter, October is your fall newsletter. So that must mean we've got what in...

Exactly, and lots of pictures. Lots of pictures in those newsletters show the good things happening.

November, two things. Oh, you throw me off here. So, two things. Yeah, there you go.

I would say two things actually for... for all... Yeah, for a lot of organizations, Giving Tuesday is usually... is your... ah, could be in late November, it could be early December, I guess. Um, so that's... it's going to be right in that same wheelhouse as our final thing there. But a giving day such as Giving Tuesday is... giving guests are preparing for early as well, and then the end-of-the-year appeal.

There you go, and so a lot of organizations, a mistake that they make is they wait to send that end-of-year appeal letter out until mid or late December, and that is a huge mistake. And the reason that's a huge mistake is because think of at your house, how many...


Letters from charities you get in your own mailbox and in your own email. It's a lot. Well, think about your donors who are receiving the same number or possibly more... the um, appeal letters from charities that they've supported over the years, especially your older donors who have a lifetime of giving. Well, if you wait until the end of December, then you may sort of miss the boat on their available funds to support organizations, support charities. And so the earlier you can get into their mailbox, into their hands, the more likely it is that they're going to respond. And so, um, sending out your fall or your end-of-year appeal letter... It should go out... a lot of... kind of a simple rule of thumb is that it should be mailed the Monday or Tuesday, which is Giving Tuesday, after Thanksgiving, and so that way it gets into their mailbox that last week of November.

In the US. Again.

And you don't wait until the end of December. So what that means is that, again, this is the point, purpose of this episode is so you can prepare and start planning. That means you need to start getting your appeal letter, your list done, all of that stuff far in advance. Don't wait until after Thanksgiving to start planning your end-of-year appeal, or you will miss the boat and your results will suffer as a result.

Exactly. It's... I mean, in the office I worked in in Upper Michigan, deer hunting's a big thing. It always opens November 15th. If the appeal letter wasn't to the printer on November 15th, nobody's allowed to go deer hunting. We had to have it in a couple weeks before it was set to mail. Or we all suffered because of it. That means you had to have it to the designer by the end of October, right? That means you have to have everything prepared well ahead of time, so you guys start thinking about those things now. And I think we should mention here, a few years ago in 2020, we did a virtual conference and we played Fundraiser's Feud.

I do remember that. That was awesome.

If you remember that, and kind of a Family Feud thing, and I remember one of the questions had something to do with which months of the year have the most philanthropic giving happen. And it basically just goes backward from the end of the calendar year. December is by far the biggest month of giving, November is by far the second biggest, and then everything just goes backward from there down to January's the smallest. So you want to be focusing your efforts hard on those last few months of the year. And I will also say, when I started working at the campus ministry I used to work at, they had been doing mailings for 20 years, and I was able to take the history of all the end-of-the-year appeal letters and match them up with how many dollars came in. So I looked at the mail date of each letter, which was all over the place, everywhere from November to January for the end-of-year appeal, and how many dollars came in as a result of those, and it was a direct correlation. The later it went out, the fewer dollars came in. So you just got to get it out early. In the US, you have that kind of barrier with Thanksgiving where people are traveling.

You don't want it to hit with all the big newspapers of all the Black Friday deals and stuff, so you want to get it right after Thanksgiving. If you're in Canada, which a lot of our clients and friends are, you have Thanksgiving in early October. That's not such a big deal there, so you can probably aim a bit earlier, maybe looking at mid-November up until the end of November to mail that out.

Yeah, a lot of really good tips on newsletters and appeal letters that we're talking about here. So let's just recap, right? So August newsletter, September appeal, October newsletter, November appeal. So then December is... we're not going to send out another newsletter, but a lot of organizations can send a Christmas card. So a Christmas card doesn't need to go out to everybody electronically. It can go out to your entire database. But what a lot of organizations will do is they'll kind of focus in on their top donors, top individuals, and the people that typically respond to their appeals and send a postcard. So it can be an inexpensive postcard Christmas card, but you want that to hit around December 10th, between December 10th and December 15th. And the reason for that is, number one, we want to wish our donors a Merry Christmas, but also that can be a trigger and a reminder for, "Oh yeah, that appeal letter came in two weeks ago. I need to go and send my gift in or go online and make my gift." And so the Christmas card is a great tool for inspiring and reminding donors to give.

Great. So I know a lot of listeners are probably thinking, "Okay, so you mentioned an electronic summer newsletter, but it sounds like everything else you're talking about here is direct mail, like physical printed mail, which is kind of expensive. Why are we focusing on that? Should we be sending things out digitally as well?" And actually, we're going to have an episode break down the numbers of why we're talking so much about direct mail, but let's focus in here now. What should we be doing for digital communications with these pieces going out?

Yeah, good question. So one statistic that I want to remind our listeners about is that 30% or 35% of all gifts that come in as a response to a direct mail piece are actually made online. So what does that mean? That means that your direct mail, even if people aren't sending their checks in with their remittance envelope, they are still responding with generosity by going onto your website and making a gift. And so there's a couple of things in there. One, direct mail is still effective. It still drives gifts, especially with our older donors. But even with younger donors, they get that and then they go online and they make a gift. Number two is that you want your website and your sort of digital appeal presence to mimic or to mirror your direct mail.

So a simple, very simple thing that you can do is, when you mail an appeal letter, you're going to go in and you're going to list suggested donation amounts, right? And you know, you start with $50, then you do $100, then you do $250, and then you do a $500 or $1000, just to kind of get people to think about making larger gifts. Well, when you mail that out and you email that out, it might have that. You want to have the same numbers. But then you go to your website and make sure that those suggested donation amounts match the direct mail because if somebody gets their letter and they say, "Oh yeah, okay, I'm gonna give $100," and they go on the website and the $100 isn't an option, then they might go up, but they're probably going to go down. And so then it's just a... you want everything to look like it's coordinated.

So back to your question, your digital presence... everything that you mail out, you can email out as well, whether that's a link, whether that's a PDF, whether that's something on your blog. You can also use it for social. And then you can supplement. Certainly end-of-year, we're not going to mail... we mail a Christmas card, we're not going to mail anything else out at the end of the year, but you can email. I tell clients to consider making a plan to send 3 end-of-year emails. And so that usually looks like a couple of days right before Christmas to wish Merry Christmas, a couple of days after Christmas to remind people it's the end of the year, and then a last chance to give email on December 31st. And you're not going to get 100 or 500 gifts, but you're going to get a couple, and typically those can be pretty big. I see almost every year, somebody that I'm working with says, "We got a $1000 gift from an email that we sent out on December 31st." Yep, that's great. That's what people want to do, is they want to see that and maximize their giving at the end of the year.

I was always shocked by how many big gifts came in on that December 31st email. My assumption was people have New Year's parties, they're traveling to meet with family. They're not reading our emails and thinking about it. I was very wrong. I was skeptical when I was first told to do that, I think by you, and I did it, and then some big gifts came in every year from that December 31st email. So definitely don't skip that one.

Yeah. So that's your plan. You're kind of going back and forth. Sorry, I messed that all up. So that's your fall communication plan, right? You want to focus on informing through newsletters and asking through appeals. And if you get into that cycle... We're talking about the fall, but that cycle applies for the entire year. If you get into that cycle, inform your donors and then ask them for gifts, then you will see your annual fund gifts and responses across the board - online, monthly, direct mail - all of those gifts are going to increase if you can stick to that and be consistent with that informing and asking cycle.

Exactly, and I just want to reiterate the point you made: you need to have a good, well-designed website to receive gifts for all these communications. Like you said, even a good chunk of gifts from a direct mail campaign are going to come in through your website. If your website looks like it was designed by a volunteer in 2003 and you lost the password and haven't updated it since, which I would say has happened... let's say I've seen that a couple times... okay, um, you know your donors are gonna get there and say, "Man, is this secure? Is this the right place to go?" You want them to feel confident that this is where good things are happening, this is where I make my gift, it's going to happen securely. So take the time to design that. If you don't know how to do it, our friends at On Fire Media will help you. I know I think their ad ran a bit earlier in this episode. We love them. Go give them a call and they'll help you get that all set up.

Yeah, couldn't agree more. It's not just about consistency, right? I talked about that you want your giving levels to line up. You want the stories to line up. You want the feel, the branding to line up. All of that creates consistency and it avoids confusion. I think it's Donald Miller who says in marketing, you want to avoid confusion because when you confuse, you lose. I think that's what he says. So anything that you do that confuses your donors or potential donors is going to cause them to stop giving.

And find other organizations to support.

Exactly. Great! Well, this has been excellent. I think hopefully it gives everybody a sense of how to plan out their communications for the fall. I mentioned earlier we have a bit of a freebie that you can use to help you, especially with these newsletters. We have a series of different newsletter templates in Canva that are actually editable. You can take them, download them to your own Canva account, and then edit them to create your own newsletter if you need something to use where you can just drop in pictures, drop in text, tweak things around a little bit and make it your own. That'll help your design process if you don't have an existing design set for newsletters. If you go to - this is episode 146 of the Petrus Development Show - to make it easy,, you'll be able to access those templates for free.

Yeah, I love those Canva templates. I know somebody on our team put those together, and I have seen, I have received many, many good-looking, well-designed newsletters and appeal letters from clients of ours that utilize those templates. And it's, you know, if you can get there, if you can get 70% of the way there with a template that you know is tried and true and proven, then I say go for it.

Exactly. Great. Well, we're out of time for today, but we'll talk to you again soon. Thanks for joining us, Andrew.

Yeah, my pleasure, Rhen. Enjoyed the conversation and look forward to getting lots of really great newsletters and appeal letters from all the great nonprofits out there that are listening to this. Thanks a lot, you two. Bye.

All right, have a great Fourth of July and make sure you keep all your fingers intact for your letters.


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