Never Heard of Paper Icons? Listen Up

Paul Jones over at Cause-Related Marketing has written a helpful post on what he calls "Paper Icons"--paper cut outs you buy at a store and the money goes to a charity.  At most stores you write your name on it and they plaster them all over the windows or string them from the ceiling.  I've seen all types: shamrocks, sneakers, stars, beach balls, hearts, pumpkins, teddy bears, ice cream cones, you name it. Regardless of the shape, they all share a common quality: they can be very lucrative.  Paul use to raise over $25 million a year at the Children's Miracle Network.  I've had success locally with paper icons, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars with retailers here in Greater Boston.

Paul has some great tips for running a campaign that are worth reading.  To his list, I'll add my own.  Together, you'll have a good primer on running a fundraiser that's both easy and profitable.

The ask is the most important thing. Not long ago I visited a supermarket that was running a campaign for us.  There was signage at the door and on the registers.  Employees had buttons on.  The overhead PA was promoting the campaign.  I heard and saw lots of positive things that pointed to a good campaign.  But something very important wasn't happening.  Register clerks weren't asking shoppers to donate a dollar.  Paper icons don't sell themselves.  Your goal is to get every checkout clerk to ask one simple question to every shopper: "Would you like to donate a dollar to help _______?"  How do you do that?  Read on.

Incentives work, sometimes. No one believes more in the importance and power of incentivizing human beings than I do.  Heck, I write a blog called Selfish Giving!  But I've had mixed results with incentives.  Sometimes they motivate employees to push the program, but oftentimes they don't.  And I've offered good stuff: iPods, stereos, TV's, gift cards, pizza parties, etc.  But incentives are only useful when employees are already motivated and engaged in the program.  For them, the incentives are an enhancer and they work great.  But incentives won't motivate apathetic and unengaged employees.  You're better off taking a more top-down approach and letting managers drive the program.  Just remember that they're human and will respond to incentives too.

Coupons are a must. But I recommend them for a different reason than Paul does.  Yes, coupons do give consumers a another reason to donate.  My last campaign had $175 in coupons for a dollar donation!  But I've also run campaigns that raise just as much money with no coupons.  As I said earlier, the ask is everything.  The real reason to use coupons is to recruit other retailers to join the program.  Retailers love to cross-promote.  This was the case last October with iParty, which sees huge crowds the last two weeks of October (Halloween is their biggest holiday).  And there isn't a retailer out there--big or small--that doesn't want exposure to that size crowd.  Now you have two retailers selling paper icons instead of one.  And don't stop there.  I've recruited seven retailers to participate in the same program, each one making the program more appealing to the next.

You can ask for more than a buck. But not much more.  I've sold paper icons for either a buck or $3.  To pick the right amount, ask the retailer about foot traffic and how much shoppers generally spend.  Asking for $3 at a convenience store where most shoppers spend less than twenty bucks is too much.  I worked with a retailer that only saw around fifty customers a day.  They were worried they wouldn't raise much just asking for a dollar.  But because their customers were spending on average $50 per visit, we asked for $3 and it worked out well.  Customers didn't complain, even when we were selling the same icons at nearby stores for just a dollar.

People don't care what the charity is. Hey, it's just a buck.  If your organization isn't well known focus on your mission instead.  If you ask shoppers to donate a dollar to the Water Resource Fund they may think twice.  But ask them to donate a dollar to help keep the water clean for children that buck is yours.  Having a well known name is a great asset (e.g. MDA, St. Jude's, RED, United Way) and you should use it.  But if your name isn't so well known, do what I've done: "Would you like to donate a dollar to help a poor, sick child?"  That one line has raised money for my Boston-based organization from Maine to Florida.

Keep the campaign short. Paul's right: four weeks max.  I've pushed it to six, but employee support really starts to wane.  If you need to go longer to meet a fundraising goal, split the campaign in two, one in the spring the other in the fall.  I work with a retailer that raises $100,000 annually by having three campaigns a year.  Their employees don't get burnt out and pushing the program more frequently is great practice.

I agree with Paul that cause marketers need a better name than "Paper Icons"!  (I had never even heard of paper icons until I read Paul's post.)  I call them "Mobiles" (because they are sometimes hung from the ceiling), "Pin-ups" or, more generically, "Point-Of-Purchase Programs".  Despite which name I use, people don't know what the hell I'm talking about until I explain it (two or three times).  Whatever you call them, paper icons will mean one thing for your organization: money.  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.