This is the first in a five-post series on a direct mail make-over currently being tested by the University of California at Berkeley (Cal), my alma mater. Read Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

The fundraisers at Cal had a problem: they needed to raise more money from alumni to support the diverse education and research programs where Cal excels, but their current direct mail program wasn’t increasing the size of the alumni donor pool. While the standard annual appeal in a letter format did a good job at renewing existing donors, says Virginia Gray, Cal’s associate director of annual giving and regional programs, the letters weren’t bringing in many new donors.

To learn more about these alumni who weren’t currently donating, Cal sponsored some focus groups. “We found that a lot of people felt like going to Cal was a big, impersonal experience and they didn’t have the same emotional connections and bonding experiences that you’d find at a smaller university,” says Virginia.cookiecutter.jpg

Cal must also contend with the misperception that as a state-funded school, it doesn’t really need individual donors. “At private schools,” explains Virginia, “you are educated about how the people before you are funding your education now, and that you need to give back so the school can go on. You don’t get that message at Cal.”

The alumni in the focus group also shared how they viewed themselves as a very diverse group and that the Cal experience enhanced that diversity, unlike other private institutions of similar caliber that churn out cookie-cutter graduates (the staid professionals that graduate from rival Stanford, for example, come to this Golden Bear’s mind).

The cookie-cutter imagery stuck with Virginia and her colleagues as they pulled together a creative brief for a new direct mail campaign centered on a full-color, multi-panel, graphic-laden brochure. While Cal had tried colorful brochures before, it would be the first time they had tried something as bold as they had in mind this time.

Coming Tomorrow: The cookie cutter concept falls apart, but an even better concept comes together.