praying hands cross books resized shutterstock_317619533At the National Catholic Development Conference in September 2011, I met two Religious Sisters. They told me their Community had 657 donors, all family and friends of the Sisters. They desperately needed to begin a direct mail fundraising program, and they had come to NCDC to learn how. But their prospects were grim.

Every fundraising professional, every fundraising vendor they spoke to told them: “You’re not ready; you’re not ready to do this.” When they came to our booth in the Exhibition Hall, explained their plight, and shared what everyone was telling them, I agreed. But then I added, “Sisters, you’re never going to be ready, so let’s start now to get you ready.”

During several meetings I learned about their mission and the unique characteristics of their Religious Congregation. Our first Acquisition mailing was in April 2012, testing a straight appeal package vs. a premium package with a Miraculous Medal gift. We didn’t hit a home run, but we didn’t do poorly either. The Medal package was clearly the winner, with a 2% response rate, average gift of $17.14, and cost-to-acquire of $20.55.

Our second ACQ mailing was a smashing success; one new donor mailed in a gift of $10,000! We moved forward conservatively, tweaking the package, testing different letter copy, testing different ask amounts, and soon we were on a roll, acquiring new donors in the cost range of $10 to $15.

I also advised the Sisters that we had to offer these new donors consistent opportunities to give, and so we began a very strategic Donor Renewal Program. The Sisters were reluctant to “ask these new donors too often” so it took us awhile, but by January 2015 they agreed to begin mailing their donors monthly. And since we were acquiring new donors with a Miraculous Medal gift, we also offered them Catholic religious articles in the appeal packages three or four times during the year.

The “secret sauce” is relationship-building borne of the caring, goodness, and prayer power of the Sisters. They are amazing! Every donor who calls their Development Office is greeted by a Sister. Every day the Sisters at the Motherhouse consciously and fervently pray for the needs and petitions that donors entrust to them in very touching ways on their reply cards. Often donors receive a personal P.S. on thank you letters from the Sisters.

In addition to our very successful premium-based appeals during 2015, the Sisters blasted it out of the park with an outstanding Urgent Appeal, a Matching Gift appeal, and their Genuinely Penned Christmas card package. These donors have come to love the Sisters! Besides raising significant funds, what the Sisters never expected was that they would also develop meaningful relationships with thousands of their donors who regularly pray for the Sisters, send them photos of their families, share their pain and joys with the Sisters, and bless them with their love.

One of the Sisters recently wrote to their donors: “In our return envelopes we receive pictures of firefighters in Chicago who have become our sons and daughters. We have been surprised by gifts of cheesecakes and chocolate-covered strawberries sent through the mail. Our prayer wall near our community dining room is full of accounts of answered prayers as well as requests for prayers for children who are ill and husbands in need of work.

“Some of you have us on speed dial, and we are on a first-name basis with hundreds of you. We hear stories of conversions, auto accidents with miraculous escapes, openings of new businesses, accounts of difficult surgeries with unexpected results, and incarcerated people who have met the Lord and come to love Him dearly.”

Three and a half years after our first ACQ mailing, not only do the Sisters have a rapidly expanding donor file, they have significantly impacted the lives of their donors, and have in turn been magnificently blessed by the love and generosity of their donors.

We’ve recently tested an ACQ package that netted positive in the first two mailings. The biggest difficulty the Sisters are experiencing in direct mail fundraising these days is trying to keep up with the huge volume of mail and all the donations they’re receiving!

After a recent Innovairre File Audit helped us all understand the current strengths and weaknesses in their program, the Sisters decided to outsource their “Thank You” Program to Innovairre for 24-hour turnaround. And realizing how important it is to communicate with new donors personally and quickly, the Sisters asked us to begin a Genuinely Penned “Welcome Program,” timed to mail several weeks after the first acknowledgment letter.

The naysayers in 2011 were right: the Sisters were not ready. But with God’s help, their very hard work, and some really, really smart Innovairre strategic fundraising efforts, they’ve gone from 657 donors to 29,536 donors! These nuns truly are direct mail rock stars. And as the song says, “We’ve only just begun!”

Paul Daleo is Senior Vice President of Fundraising at Innovairre Communications, which supports more than 500 nonprofit organizations around the world. To learn more about strategic fundraising for all types of nonprofits, contact us at Answers@Innovairre.com. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.