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The Courage To Change

[1]Early this year the 100 year-old American Cancer Society [2] (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 [3] 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. [4]

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

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.



6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "The Courage To Change"

#1 Comment By Tony Genovese On April 24, 2013 @ 8:28 am

Very unique organization with a fundraising mix that is probably out of the norm. As a consultant, my fear is that non-profit boards will seize on what ACS is doing and use it as an example as to why they should be doing the same thing.

#2 Comment By Angie Moore On April 24, 2013 @ 8:44 am

Roger, one correction to the above post — the risk for the Society is even lower than you report as it is only 6% of $900 million instead of ½ billion reported in the blog.

Tony, great comment and one of the reasons I wanted to actually write the article and get the information out there. A nonprofit board would need to be in the same position as ACS with their unique revenue portfolio and constituent portfolio to make this decision. Hopefully, no one would make this decision without the type of thought that was taken within ACS.

#3 Comment By Ali On April 24, 2013 @ 10:22 am

This is a great example that fundraising is not one size fit all. And … if they are smart, and find this isn’t a success, then they will try something else. Tony has a great point – it’s very easy to say “OH, organization x does it this way, therefore it must be right.” If there was one simple right way to run DM, well, none of us would have to worry about getting enough funding.

Kudos to them for taking a risk – I can imagine this was not an easy decision, and I think they will need to follow the data results over a few years to really be able to measure results.

#4 Comment By Mark Jacobson On April 24, 2013 @ 10:43 am

Agree with Tony and Ali. ACS has the staff and the savvy to keep an eye on short and long term impact or their decision, and to react quickly, should their hypotheses turn to the negative. Their budgets, resources on the high end, and their dependence on DM income, on the low end, set them apart from a huge majority of non profits who may depend more on direct mail for ongoing funding and leads to planned gift donors.

This has been tried before many times by many others, and in the past most have paid a dear price for abandoning or compromising the bottom of their donor pyramid. But most of these “misadventures” were well in the past. It’s a “new world” in our industry now; many/most of the “rules” have changed. It will be fascinating to see the results of this experiment in the here and now – on such a grand scale!

#5 Comment By Kim Silva On April 24, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

I’ve never had the luxury of a budget to do excessive direct mail activities. Our direct mail has always been careful, precise, and frugal – asking people we know are likely to give and who are already part of our sphere of influence.

I’ve always dreamed of having the funds to buy a mailing list (I know the one I want already), but maybe I don’t need that dream anymore. That makes my day! 😉

Seriously, though, I’m anxious to learn their results. Hope you will share such, Roger.

#6 Pingback By [Headlines] Shaping Your Story to Motivate Action | On April 30, 2013 @ 6:05 am

[…] The Courage To Change 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 Judging from comments overheard at the February DMA conference, you’d have thought rather than finding a cure for cancer … by Agitator Roger Craver […]