Early this year the 100 year-old American Cancer Society (ACS) rocked the direct response ecosystem with its decision to stop all direct mail acquisition … stop the use of direct mail to non-dm acquired donors … and remove the ACS list of donors from all exchange universes.

Judging from comments I overheard at the February DMA conference, you’d have thought rather than finding a cure for cancer the ACS had discovered an extremely virile form of stupidity.

After all, ACS is one of America’s largest nonprofit mailers — 41 million pieces of acquisition mail; mailings to 300,000 lapsed donors; and $41 million in just its direct mail renewal program alone. Why oh why would an organization leave that kind of money on the table?

The list brokers were all aflutter … dm agencies moaned … lots of ‘tsks, tsks’ from the old guard. Change ain’t popular, especially when wallets are involved.

Of course it would be easy to dismiss all this as another flutter (well, in this case a ‘tornado’) set off by some powerful board member proclaiming, “My husband doesn’t like all this junk mail”… or some high-placed bean counter looking only at cost of fundraising.

BUT … that’s not the case at all.

Not only did ACS go through a thorough and deliberate process, but they’ve done our sector an immense and amazing favor: they’re going to let us watch what happens.

Here’s the deal. The American Cancer Society has opened its books, projections and process to all of us, as seen and analyzed and reported by veteran fundraiser Angie Moore, one of the most experienced fundraiser and donor relationship pros I know.

Through her Navigating Off The Napkin blog on Fundraising Success’ site, Angie has begun a remarkable piece of reporting in our sector — explaining what this is all about and, eventually, how it turns out.

Angie has been given access to the inside thinking on all this … looking at the ACS decision, looking at ACS data and, with the blessing of ACS, sharing with us all the reasons for this decision.

Frankly, in all the years I’ve been dealing with nonprofits I’ve never found one willing to share as the American Cancer Society is doing in this case. Bless ‘em. Someone there deserves an Agitator raise!

So, if you want to understand the reasons behind this controversial decision, start by reading Part One of Angie’s report. You’ll find it here.

Here’s a brief summary of Angie’s first post on the subject, but I urge you to read it in its entirety:

  • ACS isn’t abandoning all direct mail. It’s abandoning direct mail that only operates in one channel — the direct mail channel.
  • ACS has learned that truly integrated, multi-channel fundraising is superb. BUT … most dm isn’t either multi-channel or integrated. [Surprise!]
  • The proposition to be tested: Since only 6% of ACS’s $900 million revenue comes from direct mail, are there ways to get far more bang for the buck?

The reason I’m so impressed with this decision, beyond the fact that it wasn’t made by whining board members, is that it recognizes that unless there is true integration (not the consultant, Power Point Puffery of Integration) there are better ways to spend money.

Plus, the decision was made at the time when response rates, average gifts and retention were at an all-time high. Most organizations would have said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. And certainly don’t challenge it.

I really have to applaud the thoughtful, gutsy top managers at ACS who are making this high risk, exposed-to-the-public experiment. As Lin MacMaster, the chief revenue and marketing officer at ACS puts her hopes: “Direct mail will still be used, yet it will work harder to optimize the marketing plan to drive broader engagement across many areas of the organization.”

And thanks to Angie Moore for giving us all a window into this gutsy, open experiment in challenging the status quo.

What are you doing to challenge the same-old same-old?


P.S. For those readers wondering how to reconcile ACS’ concern over cost of fundraising and efficiency and my condemnation of those who focus on cost of fundraising, the reason is clear: ACS wants more money, not less. More efficiency, not less = more money to the cause. In short, they’re trying to put their money to work to not only raise far more money, but to cure cancer.

P.P.S. When I took my first fundraising job, 1 out of 3 cancer patients survived. Today, thanks in part to the ACS, 2 out of 3 will survive. Their fundraisers are now trying to finish the fight.



This article was posted in: Direct mail, Donor acquisition, Nonprofit management, Transparency.
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