By Mary Langley Hernandez, Executive Director of Advancement, Our Lady of Wisdom Church & Catholic Student Center in Lafayette, Louisiana
A successful appeal can provide an obvious financial benefit to a Catholic student ministry, be an excellent evangelization tool for benefactors and prospects, and educate that same audience on the latest great news about your campus ministry program. Appeals can also be perplexing. We wonder:
- What will resonate with our audiences?
- Is it worth the time to segment donors?
- Should “the ask” be measured, or should we come out swinging for the fences?
- Finally, is the return on investment of our time and financial resources worthwhile?
To find out, I analyzed three-years of Our Lady of Wisdom Church & Catholic Student Center’s Lenten appeals to see if there was a clear formula for success.
Snapshot of Lenten Appeal Year A, “Confession on a Secular Campus”:
We offer over 8 hours of confession a week and typically, every minute is utilized. Students at Our Lady of Wisdom truly embrace the sacrament of reconciliation and their willingness to do so inspires our entire staff – including our Pastor, Fr. Bryce Sibley. He was so moved as to write a beautiful examination of conscience based on chapter 4 of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia and St. Paul’s Hymn of Love found in 1 Cor. 13: 4-7. Appeal recipients included 2 segments: donors from the past 5 years and a select group of qualified prospects, who had not previously given or had been lapsed for 3 or more years. The appeal highlighted Wisdom’s role in providing the sacraments on secular campus and invited recipients to meditate on healing through the sacrament using a copy of Fr. Sibley’s examination of conscience that was included in the appeal. The ask urged them to consider “Giving a one-time gift or beginning a new monthly gift” to help us to continue to offering the sacraments on campus.
Snapshot of Lenten Appeal Year B, “Meditations on The Stations of the Cross”:
A student-led tradition spanning 15 years is Wisdom’s annual Living Stations of the Cross, performed each Good Friday of Lent. About 1,000 of the faithful attend each year. The event has evolved into a reunion of sorts for alumni and anchor for fellow Christians to embrace the penitential day. This appeal highlighted the roots of this beautiful and prayerful tradition and included a booklet of meditations on each station written by a Ragin’ Cajun Catholic Alumni. In the ask, recipients were encouraged to consider a “sacrificial Lenten gift.”
Snapshot of Lenten Appeal Year C, “40+ Lenten Challenge”
In Year C, recipients received a short appeal letter and a brochure that gave an overview of Wisdom’s 3-fold approach to ministry: Sacraments, Formation, & Community, which tied into a donor challenge. Statistics were given on the number of students impacted weekly, monthly, and annually, by select programs. In the ask, recipients were invited to “Join our Mission by becoming a Ministry Partner through our 40+ Lenten Challenge.” We stated our goal of achieving 40 or more new monthly Ministry Partners during Lent and included a photo and quote from a student who had recently joined as a monthly Ministry Partner. Additionally, we graphically highlighted popular giving levels and associated tangible examples of what a gift, when compounded after 12 months, provided for a student. For example, a $25 monthly gift would sponsor 2 students at the annual fall Encounter retreat after 1 year.
What Resonated Most With Our Audience?
Based on anecdotal evidence alone, Year A, Confession on a Secular Campus, and Year B, Meditations on The Stations of the Cross, were clear winners. We received phone calls and emails asking for additional copies to be shared and to be posted online. In general, we received great feedback for the spiritual fruit these prayer booklets inspired. There was no feedback from Year C.
Which Ask Was Most Effective?
We came out swinging for the fences with the ask in Year C, 40+ Lenten Challenge. The ask dominated the appeal verbiage and dominated it graphically, in terms of square inches of the page it consumed. Year C provided a direct line of reasoning from who we are as a ministry, to whom and how many we impact, to our precise need at that time in our history, to a specific call to action. In actuality, it was more than a call to action it was a challenge. As it turns out, people like a challenge.
Was Segmenting Worthwhile?
In Year A we mailed to 2 segments: all donors from the previous 5 years and a select group of qualified prospects who had not previously given or were lapsed for 3 or more years. Year A indeed produced new givers but had the lowest response rate overall. In Year B we mailed to 3 segments: all donors from the previous 5 years, permanent parishioners, and parents of UL Lafayette students. Year B produced the second highest response rate. In Year C we mailed to 2 segments: all donors from the previous 5 years and permanent parishioners. The permanent parishioner segment in Year C were additionally targeted via social media, an e-appeal in their email inbox, and via the Sunday church bulletin. Year C produced the highest response rate.
What is the Overall ROI?
You may have guessed by now that Year C, the 40+ Lenten Challenge, generated the most financial support for the ministry, in terms of one-time gifts, although no one called to say that their heart was moved or that they returned to a sacrament after reading the appeal. While we did not meet our goal of 40 new ministry partners we would likely set a similar goal if we had to do it all over again. First, because 40 is the best number theme for Lent and everyone likes a theme! Secondly, we learned a lot, and that knowledge led to subsequent success in a later Ministry Partner drive effort that resulted in 53 new, or increased, Ministry Partner gifts. Year C was also the most time consuming and expensive appeal to produce. Because this appeal generated exactly what we asked for, new monthly givers, in addition to one-time gifts, it has generated 44% more income than Year A, Confession on a Secular Campus, and 37% more than Year B, Meditations on The Stations of the Cross over its lifetime. Its success rate will continue to increase over time.
The Final Analysis:
Year C is the clear-cut winner when it comes to the financial bottom line. The gifts from those Ministry Partners who joined in Year C continue to bear fruit and make an impact. The appeals in Year A and B also have merit. We are not simply development directors or development officers. We have a particular call as Catholic development professionals. We have just celebrated the 4th Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, where our Lord reveals himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10:
“My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.”
The Lord gives us a great example of what it means to be a good shepherd. Our ministry is finance. Like the good shepherd, we are called to know our benefactors, to develop and maintain relationships with them, to share and champion our particular mission with them, and to do our part each day to build the Lord’s Kingdom here on earth. The appeals in Year A and B provided a platform for us to do just that, even though they were not as successful financially as Year C.
Ultimately, success is not determined by segmenting a list, the nuance of an ask, a theme, or the financial resources put into an appeal. Success is determined by the right combination of all these things. Our team will take away a few strategies for success in future appeals – and we hope you will too.
7 Strategies for Successful Appeals
- Highlight what is unique about your ministry.
- Connect your ministry’s needs to specific ways a donor can make an impact and help fulfill those needs.
- Be bold on the ask. Make it specific and challenging.
- Customize segments that make sense for your appeal audience.
- Gain traction during the appeal using your ministry’s website, social media, parish bulletin, eNews, etc.
- Track your appeal using metrics like audience, total lifetime gifts, total one-time gifts, segments, theme, and cost. Evaluate and make adjustments.
- Never miss an opportunity to build the Lord’s Kingdom through an appeal.
Mary Langley Hernandez is the Executive Director of Advancement for Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Student Center at the University of Louisiana – Lafayette. Mary is an alum of UL and was a member of the parish prior to receiving an invitation by Fr. Bryce Sibley to help with a fundraising project. Mary accepted and turned a temporary assignment into a full-time position running communications and eventually the development program.