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a bad judgement call, I think

October 26, 2012


I’m a member of the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum).  Have been for years.  I’ve lost track of time, I guess.  Turns out my membership is due for renewal next month.

A day or so ago there was something in my mail from them.  A ‘renewal’ package.  Not surprising.  They want to make sure I do renew.  It’s the right thing for them to be doing.  The fact that they are trying to get me to commit a month early is interesting.  Times are very tough for all not-for-profits these days, so I applaud them for being so proactive.

That’s the good news.

Here’s where I believe the flaw in their thinking is:  What they’ve sent out is an elaborate, full colour, direct mail package.  It’s got flaps cut on the diagonal.  It’s printed on glossy, heavy, stock.  It’s personalized in several places.  It’s closed with a seal, which had to be done by hand.  The reply envelope is postage-paid.

All no-no’s in the not-for-profit world.

First of all, strictly from the perspective of appearances, this gives the wrong impression.  Even if they got a deal, even if it was done for free, it looks too expensive.  When you’re asking people to donate money to your cause (especially in these troubled times), whether you represent a disease, a school, a charitable foundation or a member of the arts community, you have to be very careful how you present yourself.  Looking like you’ve got all the money in the world won’t help your cause.  Nor is it appropriate.

  • It should have been a simple letter, mailed in an envelope.
  • Wherever possible they should use email instead of regular mail.  Much less expensive, quicker, simpler, etc.
  • The reply envelope should never be postage-paid.  Usually there is an outline of where a stamp should go, with a message that says something like “When you use a stamp, it allows us to put your donation to better use”.
  • Hand assembly costs a lot of money.  The seal may look cool, but its use resulted in unnecessary costs.
  • If the costs of producing the mailer were donated, I still wouldn’t have done it, because a potential donor would have every right to think the donation would have been of much better use if it had gone to the Museum, instead of producing the mailer.
  • At worst, though, if the costs were donated, and if the folks at the ROM did decide to accept the offer, then it was imperative to have a line of copy thanking the donor.  At least that way those of us on the receiving end, would know the Museum hadn’t been foolishly extravagant.

But here’s what makes what they’ve done even worse.  A day or two before I got the mailer there was an article in the Globe & Mail about the ROM; and how they are thinking of charging caterers who work in the ROM, a very substantial fee.  This fee would put these caterers on a list of ROM-approved suppliers.  If they don’t agree to pay the fee (double digit thousands), they wouldn’t make the list.

And in case you’re wondering, the fee does not guarantee they’ll get work out of it, in the end.  It would merely put them on a list, for consideration by those individuals who would be thinking of holding an event at the ROM.

The reason stated is because the ROM needs money.  So on the one hand they’re thinking of extracting money out of their caterers, while on the other hand they’re spending money on glossy mailings.  I have to be honest.  It didn’t make me want to renew my membership.

Personally, I think both moves should have been more carefully thought through.  When I read the article it left a bad taste in my mouth.  In some ways it’s like extortion.  Pony up or find yourself off the list.  If I was a caterer, I’d certainly have to think twice.  It’s a lot of money to pay out, with no guarantee of any work coming from it.  Risky in these times.

And as a consumer, it just pissed me off.  It will impact the choice of caterers I have.  And I can’t believe that those costs won’t ultimately be passed along to me.  The cost of catering will, no doubt, go up.

And you already know how I feel about the luxurious mailing piece.

Having said all this, I know just how difficult things are for charities these days.  They are all scrambling.  Government funding has all but dried up.  Consumers have been suffering financially for a long time now; and there’s no let-up in sight.  Donations go under the ‘discretionary spending’ column in our own budgets.  Which, for most of us, is getting smaller every day.

So out of the box thinking, on the part of the ROM, and everyone else in the sector, is definitely required.  They just need to be more strategic about it.  Maybe think twice next time.