This article first appeared as a series of five posts on Kivi Leroux Miller's Nonprofit Communications blog in November 2007. Those posts have been combined into one article here.

The fundraisers at the University of California at Berkeley (Cal), my alma mater, 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.

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."

cookiecutter.jpgThe 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. They also decided to use the word "You" prominently to speak directly to the potential donors. 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.

Knead the Dough Until It Shines

The creative team went to work. In early drafts, the simple imagery of the cookie cutter was meshed with too many complex messages about alumni, says Amy Cranch, a principal editor with Cal's development communications department. It said, "You challenge convention. You have an independent spirit. You think freely." The whole idea was that your life has been transformed by graduating from Cal, but in a way that left you your own person, explains Amy.

"It just wasn't working," she recalls. "There were too many disconnects, and the concept of the cookie cutter itself was a cliché and not very strong. The copy made very strong assumptions about people. It was not an invitation to agree with the ideas. It felt too forced."

Virginia agrees. "The whole thing wasn't holding together. It wasn't telling the kind of personal story we wanted."

This is where many people would have given up and gone back to the standard form letter. When you are creating messages, whether they take the form of a tagline or design theme or epiphany at the end of an essay, you have to keep kneading the bread dough. At this stage, Cal had a nice lump of dough, but it was still a sticky mess. But they kept kneading it, waiting for that smooth, satiny finish to appear that tells you that you are done.

Amy's boss had a middle-of-the-night brainstorm. Instead of telling Cal alumni what they were and sounding presumptuous -- just what Cal grads hate -- they would use famous alumni who are often described as innovators, free thinkers, and creators. Everyone has the ingredients for good bread, but it takes knowing how long to knead it to produce something delicious.

Design to Engage

calwhoareyou.jpgNow the team has a piece that finally works. On the cover, it asks, "Who are you? Cal alumni are . . ." The "you" is in big, bright yellow letters, standing out against a black background. As you open the piece and unfold it, you see a series of panels:

Movement Leaders & Story Weavers
Creators & Innovators
Educators & Crusaders
Trendsetters & Friend Seekers
Activists & Satirists

Each tag includes a clear simple image with a small blurb about an alum who exemplifies that description. With Movement Leaders, you see a bunch of asparagus, and "Alice Waters, ‘67. Acclaimed chef and pioneer behind the worldwide movement to eat local, organic foods."

With Friend Seekers, you see a screenshot of Tom's MySpace page with 201,904,463 friends. It says "Tom Anderson, ‘98. Cofounder and president of and first friend to every user."

calmovement.jpgThe ten images represent a great diversity in alumni in age, gender, ethnicity, and subject area. They are chefs, writers, teachers, scientists, programmers, inventers, cartoonists, and athletes who have all had a profound impact on today's culture. Look at a PDF of the full piece It's flat here, but you can imagine how it would unfold in your hands.

On the donation form and envelope, it closes with these simple phrases that say it all to the alumni-would-be-donors: "Cal alumni are changing the world. Won't YOU champion the next generation of innovators?" followed by "Thanks for being who you are. We appreciate your generosity."

In creating the design, Amy knew they had to choose between pictures of the alums or pictures of things that represented their contributions to society. "The thing is way stronger," says Amy. "It makes a crisp design, and it's much easier to relate to." Most people wouldn't recognize or know who Douglas Engelbart is, but everyone uses what he invented: the computer mouse. "We tried to be careful not to pick just famous people, but to emphasize the impact that these people have on our daily lives," says Amy.

Connect with Donors

"Instead of ‘You are this or that,' it became an invitation to explore the categories of people, and to feel some excitement or pride that the thing you use every day came from someone who went to the same school as you," says Amy. The new approach still allowed Cal to play off the original concept of not being a cookie cutter and to still use "You" directly, but without jamming in onto people. "I firmly believe that using the personal stories opens the doors for further connections with people," says Amy. People first, organizations second. Alumni first, Cal second.

The brilliance of this approach is not in its originality -- it rarely is. Using famous alumni is not new. Asking alumni to support future generations is not new. And yet it works beautifully. What is new is the twist on these concepts. What's new is the juxtaposition of meaningful cultural icons that came out of Cal alumni and inviting other alumni to think of themselves as peers to those innovators.

I'm one of those slightly disaffected Cal alums who Virginia is trying to squeeze some bucks out of. I enjoyed my time there and appreciate the education I received, but I feel no special connection to any particular people or places on the campus. But this piece grabbed me.

calcreators.jpgRather than talking about all the Nobel Laureates and other Big Brains who went to Cal, the piece talks about their impacts in images and words that are relevant to me, right now. A computer mouse. Saving the planet through energy efficiency. MySpace. Apple, Inc. Dilbert. Bono on the cover of Rolling Stone. This piece of mail takes an education at Cal that happened decades ago and makes it meaningful to my life today. It makes it incredibly easy for me to see how my contribution will lead to the next great thing I'll have on my desk tomorrow.

Remember: They started with a cookie cutter. "We tried it one way, and it didn't work out, but we kept going. The new idea was really good, and the copywriting and graphics told a great story," says Virginia.

I admit, my interest in this piece was piqued first by professional curiosity. When I saw the big, yellow "You" on the cover panel after getting years of canned letters from Cal, my first thought was, "OK, somebody just took some donor marketing training and has gulped down a big cup of the ‘You-Not-Us' Kool-Aid." But when I opened it up and read the piece, I immediately felt like I was part of this amazing group of innovators simply by virtue of being an alumna. Check one slacker alumna off your list, Virginia. I gave online for the first time since I graduated in ‘91.

Virginia is new to nonprofit marketing, but she has a strong direct marketing and branding background and knows the importance of finding emotional hooks. Her focus groups told her what she already knew. Cal is huge and there are not a lot of common experiences there that create unifying emotions in alumni. But those same alumni also told her what their hot buttons were -- that they weren't cookie-cutter Ivy League graduates and yet were proud to have graduated from one of the top universities in the nation.

Lessons from Cal's Experience

Did it work on other alumni as well as it did with me? We'll see. The mailing list includes 100,000 graduates of Cal's College of Letters & Science who are not currently donors. The list was not broken out by age or other demographics. Half got the full-color brochure and the other half got a standard business letter with similar messaging in much longer text and no graphics. See the Brochure. See the Letter.

Virginia says it takes a good two-three months before they can judge the performance of a direct mail campaign. By split testing similar messages in drastically different formats and comparing them to other campaigns, she hopes to determine what was more important to success: the message, the package, or both.

Even without the results of the campaign, I believe you can still pull several lessons from their experience.

1) Connect with your audience's memories and emotions. A large group of alumni has never responded positively to Cal's annual appeals. Instead of continuing to send them more of the same kind of mail that didn't work, hoping that the alumni would change their minds, Cal conducted focus groups. They honed in on some themes they heard directly from those alumni, and worked with those concepts, even though they weren't all necessarily positive (e.g., Cal is big, impersonal place.)

2) Try something new and test it. This is the first time Cal has produced a brochure as bold as this one. But rather than sending it out in the world all alone to see how it performs, they also wrote a traditional business letter using the same theme. This split-testing will tell them much more about the success of the brochure than if they had sent it out alone.

3) Let your ideas evolve. Cal started with a cookie cutter theme based on focus groups. But it simply didn't work. Rather than abandoning the concept completely or sticking with it simply because the focus groups had used that terminology, the fundraising team let the idea evolve into one that worked. I compare it to kneading bread dough until it is smooth and shiny. I have a folder on my computer labeled still cooking for article ideas that aren't quite ready for publication. I've found that it takes at least three iterations from the original concept before the images and text of an idea really gel. (Enough cooking metaphors; you get the idea.)

caltrendsetters.jpg4) Let the graphics talk. The Cal piece works graphically because it appeals to our natural curiosity, but still provides enough clues that we don't stray too far away. Take the Trendsetters tagline, with the Rolling Stone cover of Bono. Now, I know Bono didn't go to Cal, so I'm thinking, "What's the connection? Let me read this small type down here." Turns out Jann Wenner, '67, is the cofounder and publisher of Rolling Stone Magazine and upon closer inspection of the image, I see that he wrote the cover story on Bono. (I personally think that using the Bono cover is also a subliminal message since he is now one of the faces of modern philanthropy, but Cal says that's not the primary reason why they chose it.)

5) Use "You" Without Being So Obvious. The first drafts were full of "you" statements --"you this, you that" and they were too presumptuous. While I am completely on the "You" bandwagon for nonprofit marketing, especially donor communications, some people are taking it too far. I believe smart donors can see through it, and once everyone employs this technique, the effectiveness of that single word alone will dim. What will not fade, however, is the power of more creative, sophisticated messages that are built off the concept of "You, the donor" without overdoing it.

Special thanks to Amy Cranch and Virginia Gray of Cal for their detailed, honest accounts of the process!