The power of a lead gift

Back in late December, we looked at a study that indicated that a lead gift is a better direct marketing strategy than a matching gift.  While it seemed to slightly depress response, the extra authority and social proof helped increase average gift significantly.  With a matching gift, the reverse seemed to happen: response rate went up, but average gift dropped significantly, with people thinking that they didn’t need to give as much to have the impact they wanted.

Now, there is another study that may show another impact of lead gifts, but at a cost.

The title of the article is Avoiding overhead aversion in charity, which should give you some idea of why I have some uneasiness about the cost of the tactic.  Gneezy et al found that many people are averse to covering overhead expenses of a nonprofit, wanting to fund only the work of that nonprofit.  (This, of course, leaves aside how the work of the nonprofit will get done without that overhead, but it is a concern expressed by some donors, so it is worth considering.)  So donations decreased when the percent of overhead increased.

Then, the study looked at whether having a lead donor, matching donor, or lead donor covering overhead influenced donation rates to increase.  Here were the conditions:

  • Control: “Our goal in this campaign is to raise money for the projects. Implementing each project costs $20,000. Your tax-deductible gift makes a difference. Enclosed is…”
  • Seed money: “A private donor who believes in the importance of the project has given this campaign seed money in the amount of $10,000. Your tax-deductible gift makes a difference. Enclosed is…”
  • Matching gift: “A private donor who believes in the importance of the project has given this campaign a matching grant in the amount of $10,000. The matching grant will match every dollar given by donors like you with a dollar, up to a total of $20,000…”
  • Seed money to cover overhead: “A private donor who believes in the importance of the project has given this campaign a grant in the amount of $10,000 to cover all the overhead costs associated with raising the needed donations…”

Here were the results, in response rate and revenue per piece:

  • Control: 3.36% with $.80 revenue per piece
  • Seed: 4.75% with $1.32 revenue per piece
  • Match: 4.41% with $1.22 revenue per piece
  • Seed covering overhead: 8.85% with $2.31 revenue per piece

So, having a donor or donors to cover the overhead of an endeavor raises the likelihood that someone will donate significantly, seemingly combining the benefits of authority and social proof from a lead gift and the direct donation to the cause from low overhead.

I would encourage you to tread lightly here, however.  The concern is that it could reinforce the (in my opinion) mistaken notion that overhead is bad or something to be avoided.  Not only is it necessary for organizations to exist, it’s necessary for them to grow.  Too often, nonprofits avoid investment that will bring back rewards for their cause and for their organization because it gives the perception of high overhead.

I believe in this so strongly that I dedicated all of last week to discuss overhead and vent my spleen on this.  However, if you want the TL;DR version, I strongly recommend overheadmyth.com, which goes into the mistakes of this approach.

My concern is that there will be a tragedy of the commons with regards to this.  If nonprofits choose to compete on overhead, then everyone will have to compete on overhead and it drags the industry down.

So my counsel is to be cautious with this.  It’s one thing to say that a lead donor has covered the infrastructure costs of a campaign.  It’s another few steps down the slippery slope, however, to say that this nonprofit is good because they spend 92.2% on programs, versus this one that only spends 89.3%.

The power of a lead gift

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