Finding and Asking Midlevel Donors

By Jack Doyle – President, Amergent

         Eight years... Nine faith-based charities...
         An extra $36 million raised.

         When a charity changes their communication focus
         from what they need to what the donor needs,
         response breaks all records.

Have you ever been at the place in your development program where you were simply tired of asking?

Perhaps you and your team have planned and worked, mailing campaign after campaign, offer after offer and you are still looking for that breakthrough that will take the program to the next level.

You are not alone. In fact, nine ministries and faith-based charities have come to us with that very issue. From the mega-charities like Covenant House to the smaller ones like the Catholic Medical Mission Board, the answer has been the same:

All you have to do is ask.

Ask the right people to do what they want to do.

It sounds simple, and in principle it is. The execution must be done with precision, but it is a program that any faith-based organization with a file of long-standing loyal donors can have incredible success with, as this chart shows:

          Midlevel White Paper chart


In eight years and nine organizations, it’s never failed. The secret is in choosing the right donors, and that isn’t simple.

First Time Breakthrough

The first “midlevel donor” campaign was created for the Association of Marian Helpers in 1999. The premise wasMidlevel White Paper, Marian Helper simple. They had over 1 million previous donors but very few who were giving large annual gifts.

But why?

There were loyal donors able to make major gifts, but their gift level stayed steady from mailing to mailing, year to year.

Marian Helpers needed a way to help these donors self-identify their capacity and willingness to make large gifts now and again (and maybe even at higher levels).

Working with their team, we found a unique opportunity. They had a major gift person who was amazing at nurturing donor relationships. Anyone willing and able to upgrade to a significant level of giving would have a new best friend, someone who would ensure their every need and wish was understood and appreciated. This changed the focus of the campaign.

What if we could provide a foundation for that type of relationship through the mail? What if we could isolate the right people on the file, identify what caused them to support the ministry, and use it as a catalyst to not just raise a lot of money now, but to raise these people to a new level in their relationship with the organization?

We started with a few key elements in the creative execution:

1. Heartfelt appreciation.
2. Recognition of what they had already done for Marian Helpers.
3. Gratitude from the organization’s leader.

          Midlevel White Paper, Marian Helper Midlevel

This was an opportunity to make sure that the donors most important to the success of each annual campaign actually knew how much everyone cared for their well-being and appreciated all they did.

Our next step was to determine who had the means to write a large check. We knew if we could identify those people and move them to give a large gift, they would become leads for that talented major gift person to move into making an extraordinary gift.

The initial campaign goal was ambitious. They needed to raise $1 million for the nearly 200 young men in formation within the worldwide Marian community – $5,000 per seminarian.

We set our high-end ask at $5,000 and the low-end ask at $450 (for one month's worth of support). Noting the giving trends in the file, we added stepped asks for two months, three months, etc.

A population of 18,000 donors was selected – and 10% responded. This group of people who represented a lifetime annual gift of only $20 rose to the challenge with an astonishing $275 average gift.

The first-year income exceeded $600,000. Twenty donors made gifts of $5,000 or more (i.e. over $100,000 of income received is represented by these generous donors). Many more made gifts of $1,000 for the first time.

The initial effort proved what the development staff felt... some of their donors had the capacity – and the desire – toMidlevel White Paper, Marian Helper, quote make larger gifts.

This proved to be only the tip of the iceberg. The Major Donor Office began to communicate one-on-one to the twenty donors who made those $5,000 gifts. Every one of them was personally contacted and thanked in multiple ways.

Soon this major gift person learned that half of these generous people really did intend their gift to be an extraordinary one-time gift. They weren't interested in doing it again. That was valuable to learn and ensured that future contacts would be appropriate, and would be what both parties expected from each other.

The other 10 donors were completely different. Most expressed a similar reaction: “I was wondering if you were ever going to ask me for something like this.” Lesson learned? Donors want to be asked for help!

Eight years later, nine of these donors are still alive and actively giving to the Marians. But the major donor cultivation process has dramatically changed the way the Marians are meeting their donors' needs.

None of these donors are giving to support seminarian education and formation. Why? Because all of these donors have divulged what they really want to do to make a significant impact on some other part of the ministry.

Each one had a favorite passion within the work of the Marians. Some wanted to take care of the Shrine; for others it was missions. All of them selected something they had a personal connection to.

Now that the Marians are meeting their needs for expressing their philanthropy, not one of these nine donors gives less than $50,000 annually.

Since 1999, almost $5 million has been raised from the midlevel prospecting mailings (this does NOT count all the major gift income generated as a result of the personal solicitation efforts).

The key elements of the program also gave the Marians the financial boost they needed in 2000. As a result, they have been able to raise over $4 million in the last six years in initial midlevel responses, and have identified many major gift and bequest donors.

Breaking The Habit

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) had many loyal, large-gift donors who
exhibited an unusual trend: they renewed annually at extremely high levels but showed no evidence of upgrading for several years and were only upgrading in response to international relief crises.


          Midlevel White Paper, Catholic Relief Services

We raised the premise that it was time to stop waiting on a major crisis to get these people to increase their gift. There was another way to cause that change – let them choose exactly what would happen as a result of their gift.

We knew from our analysis that the majority of these donors' voluntary lifetime giving to that point had been for relieving the suffering of women and children. That information allowed us to craft the offer in such a way that it could not be ignored by this audience.Midlevel White Paper, Catholic Relief Services

The biggest challenge we faced as we built their first midlevel campaign in 2002 was the leadership at CRS. This was a big departure for CRS. They never asked for large gifts… they never had to! Their donors cared, and that caused them to give out of their compassion without a direct ask.

For the midlevel campaign, CRS wanted to carefully 'protect' their donors. As a result, they excluded their most loyal donors who had gravitated to their monthly sustainer programs.

CRS also expected to meet a certain level of income and needed to meet budget for every regular appeal. Therefore, the donors who normally responded to monthly appeals during the time of the initial midlevel campaign were also excluded to 'protect' the expected income for the regular mailings.

With all their seasonal donors and loyal monthly donors excluded from the midlevel mailing campaign, you'd expect it to come up short of goal, wouldn't you?

Well, 60,000 donors whose giving profile indicated a lifetime preference for giving at year end responded at a rate of 22% to a campaign that unfolded in February and March of 2002.

In total, over 13,000 donors participated and generated almost $2.4 million. This equated to an overall average gift of just under $180.

While many organizations would be happy with this average gift, we were a little disappointed with it. Then we did a little digging and understood what happened.

Nine out of ten (90%) respondents made their regular generous gift. They didn't upgrade. Only 10% of the donors actually did what was suggested and made a gift several times larger than anything they had been willing to do before.

Did they make an impact?

The 1,300 donors who did upgrade contributed almost $1.1 million of the total... not quite half of the income, but not bad! Their average gift was almost $850.

Later in 2002, CRS went to more donors (people who didn't get the earlier midlevel effort) and again, more than $2 million was generated. However, this time, the ask levels were lowered and 30% of the respondents (about 4,300 donors) were able to stretch to the suggested amount requested from each of them.

This resulted in over $1.3 million in support from loyal donors who now made their highest gift ever to CRS.

Look at the difference in response and the difference in the second direct appeal and second follow-up average gifts. An examination of these results will illustrate the impact of two client-requested changes.

          Midlevel White Paper, Catholic Relief Services

The Difference A First Class Stamp Made

First, the client chose to change the use of first class postage. In phase I, we used first class on the return envelopes. In phase II, the client wanted to save postage money. So, despite our polite challenges, the client opted to eliminate the use of first class postage for phase II of the midlevel.

The difference in response rate can be attributed to this strategic change. As a result, they did save postage money, but it came at the cost of response rate.

The second change was to lower the suggested giving ask amounts in an attempt to encourage greater participation. This change was also made without testing and was universally implemented for the direct appeal and the follow-up.

The result was that more people were able to give what was suggested, but the overall yield of really large gifts was not repeated.

In the following years, the best practices that had worked on these CRS donors – first class postage and higher gift asks were implemented. In five years of cultivating their most loyal donors in one fashion or another, CRS has generated over $6 million in initial midlevel gift income.

More importantly, the upgrading midlevel respondents presented CRS with an opportunity that they have taken full advantage of. They created a midlevel donor giving retention program suited to meet the needs of these loyal and generous annual donors.

They have built an entire program around their top 4,500 direct response donors. The original goal of the program was to set up a bridge between direct response and major gifts, but they've learned along the way that the program could stand on its own as a distinct donor mailing track aimed at increasing annual gifts from this group, and at identifying and migrating donors to the major gift department.

CRS has spent a lot of time learning about these donors' needs and building a donorcentric program.

Today, the program is run by a full-time staff person who manages a team of six part-time staff. Each part-time Development Associate is responsible for around 750 midlevel donors. They work on developing ongoing relationships with their donors through telephone conversations, direct mail and email.

They have taken a true hybrid approach, combining traditional direct mail techniques and a personal cultivation approach.

This core group of donors now brings in about 20% of the annual revenue for the direct response unit.

The CRS midlevel program is still a source of new major gift prospects. Who knows how much bequest income will eventually come to CRS as a result of taking care of these friends for life in such a special and caring fashion.

Smaller Charity – Incredible Results

It would be easy to dismiss the success of the mega-size charities like CRS – and even Marian Helpers – if you are aCMMB logo smaller group. The pool is smaller, the numbers much more of a challenge.

Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB) in New York City decided they wanted to make this happen for their organization.

CMMB's first midlevel upgrade campaign was conducted in 2001 to 10,000 loyal donors. They achieved a 20% response and generated almost $500,000 for a $250 average gift.

Our biggest challenge was not the size of the file, but the fact that the requested use of funds was unique to CMMB. They recruit medical volunteers to serve overseas with their partners. CMMB provides the medical supplies and the American-trained medical professionals that save lives and provide essential medical services.

          Midlevel White Paper, Catholic Medical Mission Board

The Medical Volunteer Program (MVP) midlevel campaign was successful for several years. As the years passed, other issues and initiatives have also been introduced to inspire more donors to upgrade to a higher level of giving.

Over the last six years, the total raised from the midlevel efforts has exceeded $3 million.

Midlevel White Paper, Catholic Medical Mission Board Midlevel White Paper, CMMB, quote


Two Approaches, One Result For Maryknoll

The Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers got on the midlevel campaign bandwagon in 2002. Much like CRS, they took a cautious approach. Many of their most loyal donors are considered 'sponsors' and their monthly gifts go directly to meet the needs of the overseas missioners.

          Midlevel White Paper, Maryknoll

This income is vital to doing the mission work – and we knew a key element of the results had to be that there was no negative effect on this income stream.

The initial midlevel campaign was designed to learn which donors were willing and able to do more than they were doing already.

It was presumed the monthly sponsors were doing more than anyone should be expected to do, and that asking them to upgrade would be a bad idea.

Amergent created a testing strategy so that regular members and monthly sponsors, who gave equal gifts when they did give, could be solicited and evaluated independent of each other... and compared head-to-head.

We presented two different creative approaches in the hopes that one would be approved:

  1. The Direct Approach: This one was more direct in suggesting an upgraded gift commitment.
  2. The Comfort Zone: This was more in keeping with the comfort zone of the client. It made the ask in a subtle, gentle way.

To our surprise, Maryknoll chose to use both creative approaches.Midlevel White Paper, Maryknoll
And while two different campaigns were used to inspire the donors to consider making the largest gift of their lifetime, the actual results indicated that both were solid winners!

Both campaigns generated a participation rate of 25%... and nearly the same level of income at $1.075 million per campaign. The regular donors (members) were able to upgrade more than the monthly sponsors... but the sponsors upgraded significantly.

          Midlevel White Paper, Maryknoll

The overall average gift represented a multiple of 10 times the lifetime average gift. In 2003, Maryknoll was comfortable rolling out this midlevel cultivation approach to more members and sponsors.

However, they reacted to some donor complaints about the high suggested gift asks in 2002 and lowered what they suggested in 2003. As a result, they realized another $2.2 million dollars that year, but not as much upgrading.

As with our other clients, the midlevel campaign helped Maryknoll identify some additional major gift prospects prior to the public phase of its successful capital campaign.

A New Season Of Giving For Covenant House

Getting large gifts from donors during the holiday season is not a huge challenge for Covenant House. Knowing this charity is on the streets helping homeless kids during the holidays, with the brutal winter just beginning, the gifts peak every year.
Midlevel White Paper, COVE, logo
But spring and summer are harder. The need doesn’t seem as great. The season of giving is far away.

It wasn't until 2005 that Covenant House asked Amergent to analyze which of their loyal donors might be inspired to make an extraordinary gift before the close of a tough fiscal year.

While they didn't have a lot of loyal donors who regularly could be counted on to make gifts in the May-June time of year, they clearly had a lot of loyal donors. It was our responsibility to make sure these donors couldn't say NO to the appeal.

Two things were vital to the success:

  1. The right audience – Simply looking at highest gift and last would not prove to be an indicator of potential success. We had to dig deeper and find other markers to select this audience.
  2. The right creative – Again, without the easy emotional appeal of the holidays and winter, we had to look for other hot buttons to cause the donor to say yes.

          Midlevel White Paper, Covenant House

We found success. They generated $2.5 million of much-needed income at a “soft” time of year. Only 1,700 donors actually were willing to give their largest lifetime gift... but we have to remember it was the middle of the year, not the end of the year.

Upon closer examination, we learned that 257 donors did give $1,000 or more for the first time, so the major gift people had new friends to meet and cultivate before the end of 2005.

Encouraged by this success in the summer, a second midlevel campaign was planned for the end of 2005, when most of these donors preferred to make their big gifts.

As expected, both the rate of response (participation) and the overall average gift went up.

(It's important to point out that everyone who made a meaningful gift to the summer midlevel gift campaign was bypassed for the year-end effort.)

The second $2 million represents new givers and new upgrading. Not a bad yield for one calendar year... $4.5 million dollars.

          Midlevel White Paper, Covenant House

Sound Too Good To Be True?

While you may be wary of all these campaigns with such incredible participation rates, this has been achieved many times, with many groups:

  • Trinity Missions initiated a midlevel campaign in 2000 to help identify upgrading loyal donors and major gift prospects. They have been able to raise over $4 million in the last six years in
    initial midlevel responses, and have identified many major gift and bequest donors.
       Midlevel White Paper, Trinity Mission
       Midlevel White Paper, TMIS, quote


  • The Central Association of Mary Immaculate enjoyed a 26% response rate and received $500,000 from a group of their loyal donors.
           Midlevel White Paper, Central Assoc. of Mary Immaculate Midlevel White Paper, Central Assoc. of Mary Immaculate
  • St. Francis Mission enjoyed a 27% response rate and $250,000 from a small group of their donors.
       Midlevel White Paper, St. Francis Mission                                
Midlevel White Paper, STFB, logo


  • St. Joseph's Indian School conducted its initial midlevel campaign in 2006. They realized quite an unexpected yield for the middle of the summer – a time when their donors have not usually been very responsive. They have reported a 27% response rate and $1.25 million in income from about 10,000 midlevel respondents; over 1,000 of their most loyal donors made their largest lifetime gift in response to this appeal.
       Midlevel White Paper, St. Joseph's Indian School Midlevel White Paper, St. Joseph's Indian School


Key Lessons Learned From These Campaigns

  • When you ask donors to consider making an extraordinary commitment to a significantly higher level of giving, ask them to do it for reasons they have given in the past.
  • Make sure you are clear in what you are asking your donors to do.
  • Let them think for themselves.
  • Give them credit for everything they have already done, and for what they will surely do in the future.
  • Encourage them to tell you how they really want to help.
  • Show them an abundance of gratitude whenever you are in contact with them. Most people in this loyal donor pool will not be able to respond with an extraordinary gift, but they will look to help you out in new ways.
  • The extraordinary upgraded gift many respondents will give you only indicates their capacity to give you what you asked for... which isn't to be confused with what they are willing and able to do. It's just what you asked for; talk to them to learn if this was a stretch gift or if they are indicating they want to do more.
  • Every donor file has different donor attributes that are significant in identifying who is likely to behave like the ones in these examples. The key is in learning which of the metrics matters to your program. No programs are the same.

How Can This Help Your Team?

Five years from now I'd love to see more organizations following the lead of the Association of Marian Helpers and CRS, and putting staff resources in place to nurture the donors within their programs.

They all have different needs and reasons for helping you. You can ask them for their advice and their likes, dislikes, etc.

Donors love being needed. They love being loved. They want to feel good about what they are doing and everything we can do to make them feel appreciated is a means to that end. Keeping friends for life is difficult.

However, there is significant and growing evidence that an elegant blending of personal solicitation methods with midlevel donors is a wise investment for every non-profit.

And along the way, you'll meet some wonderful donors whose generous giving will amaze and surprise you. And all you are doing is helping them do what they want to do.