Why incentives incense Auntie Lesley

My Aunt Lesley is amazing. She has the biggest heart and gives to loads of different charities. She loves cats and dogs. She can’t bear the thought of children going without food, and the thought of older people being stuck at home alone at Christmastime? No. Just NO.

Because of her big heart, Aunt Lesley has ended up on a fair few charity mailing lists. She doesn’t mind. She’s not complaining. She knows how it works – this world of charity fundraising.

But what Aunt Lesley does mind is the incentives. Among the calendars, postcards and bookmarks she receives in her direct mail, she has also, before now, opened up to find a single shoelace and a medical glove. Just the one.

Now, we all know that incentives can uplift response. But that shoelace and that glove were and are ALL WRONG.

If I remember rightly, Aunt Lesley was asked to send the shoelace back with her donation in response to a letter about a girl who had to walk to school – barefoot – across sharp rocks and blisteringly hot terrain. But there was no real explanation of the shoelace. The glove had equally disappointing reasoning behind it. Reasoning that incensed Aunt Lesley.

And she’s right to feel incensed.

Their relevance had not been properly explained, and this made them feel pointless and like a waste of money. They had no real purpose. The supporter wasn’t being asked to interact with the shoelace or glove in any way. They were simply asked to send these random items back. Literally, pick them out of one envelope and pop them into another with their donation.

I can see what the charities behind these incentives were trying to achieve, I can. They were trying to involve supporters, trying to put them into the mindset of that child walking miles to school or that doctor operating in a bombed out hospital in Syria. They were trying to invoke ‘haptic engagement’ – a behavioural economics technique which stimulates the reader’s senses to bring them closer to the cause. But they missed a trick. They didn’t ask Aunt Lesley to hold the objects, to feel them, to smell them, to think of that child or that doctor, to imagine what their lives were like. They were just meaningless objects in an envelope.

They lacked real purpose, and this is something that the charities we work with at On simply wouldn’t stand for. Every incentive we suggest has to have a very good reason to be part of a direct mail pack.

So, for example, when we were fundraising for a machine to treat cancer with the greatest accuracy yet, we brought that accuracy to life for supporters. We showed them how precise treatment is now and then how good it could be with this new machine, simply by drilling a hole into a piece of card the same size as the new treatment beam. We asked supporters to look through the hole and admire its incredible precision… and this interaction paid off. They dug deep.

At Christmastime, when we were fundraising for a new building for teenagers and young adults with cancer, we included notelets on which supporters could write messages of hope. This wasn’t a gimmick. These messages were hung on the hospital’s Christmas tree, for all of the young people to see. With this one notelet, we increased our response rate, brought supporters closer to the hospital and gave hundreds of uplifting, positive messages to young cancer patients spending Christmas in hospital.

These are just two (of many) examples of why I’m on the other side of the fence to Aunt Lesley – I’m a massive fan of incentives when they’re done right. They can make a huge difference to our fundraising. They really can. For one of the animal charities we work with at On, we achieved a 12.64% response rate when we included a greeting card and a 5.49% response rate when we didn’t. Wow. Just wow.

Slowly but surely, I’m bringing Aunt Lesley round to incentives too. Though she still goes on about ‘that bloody shoelace’.

Written by Hayley O’Donnell, Senior Copywriter.