It's hard to raise money for charity these days, so fundraisers are looking for new ways to attract donors. And for-profit businesses are eager to help with that search.
One way is through personalized fundraising appeals. You may have noticed what looks like more handwriting on those letters you get in the mail asking you to donate — maybe Post-it notes personalized with your name, something that looks like it was created just for you.
That may be the handiwork of RST Marketing's latest product, Real Pen, a machine that can churn out hundreds of these fundraising letters a day. RST Marketing demonstrated the device at a conference sponsored by the Association of Fundraising Professionals last month.
"I think if you can't speak one on one with a donor, your next best option is a personalized, hand addressed-looking package," says RST Marketing's Keith Kanode.
But is it phony personalization?
"I hear that from just random customers, and some people it does offend. But I don't think so," Kanode says. "I don't think most donors can expect the president to hand address every note."
But clearly some do, or his company wouldn't have 81 machines working round the clock. Charities know they have to struggle these days for a donor's attention. There are 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S., all competing for funds. And despite signs that things are starting to rebound after the recession, overall giving has been pretty stagnant.
Jim O'Brien of ThinkShapes Mail in Tampa, Fla., says you can't really count on people opening letters. So his company offers postcard-like mailers in eye-catching shapes — something people might read and stick on a fridge. He holds up a paw-shaped card sent out by an animal society.
"So this is really getting noticed and getting looked at before they throw it away. Let's be honest, a lot of 'em go in the garbage," O'Brien says.
That's a fundraiser's worst nightmare. A survey released at the conference found that nonprofits that invested more in fundraising last year were more likely to see donations go up.
And there are so many opportunities.
Winspire is a California company that provides big-ticket items for charitable auctions for a share of the proceeds.
"We have things like tickets to the Country Music Awards and VIP experience for dancing with the stars," says Winspire's Scott Juhl.
Juhl says donors today are looking for something different.
"The last auction that I was at, there was a whole table full of baskets that were covered in cellophane and it was either local spa certificates or smelly soap," Juhl says. "What they really need is they need something that's a 'Wow!' experience."
At a nearby booth, Taline Levonian of PlaytoGive demonstrates a computer game called Jade Monkey. Her company helps nonprofits use online gaming to raise funds.
"It's kind of like a walkathon or a bowl-a-thon," Levonian says. "Same sort of concept, but instead of having a real event where you're actually participating, it's a virtual event, so it makes it a lot more convenient for people who are very busy these days."
And it reaches a younger audience. That was the big buzz at the conference: how to use the Internet to attract new donors and keep them engaged. People no longer just want to write a check.
"Online giving is about making people feel like they're part of a larger community that is taking action for your cause. Fundraising is just a piece for that," says Eric Rubin of Salsa Labs, a company that helps nonprofits manage their online activities.
"So if somebody shows up on your website, you create a Salsa user engagement page or a signup page or a fundraising page or a petition they can sign around your cause."
And supporters can then share those pages with friends via Facebook or Twitter, connecting the nonprofit with a whole new batch of potential donors — which is what it's all about.