More donors versus better donors: cost of fundraising

Previously on Direct to Donor…  the question was raised as to whether it is better to have fewer, better (that is, higher value) donors or more, lower value donors.  And now, today’s episode…

point counterpointWe’ll try this debate style.  Betty will be arguing for our better, fewer donor model (aka the Ravenclaw strategy) and Mo will be arguing for our more donors regardless of how much they give (aka the Hufflepuff strategy).

Betty:  Simply put, many donors just don’t pay for themselves.  Let’s say you have a robust multichannel solicitation program that costs you about $5 per person to run.  If your $10 donors don’t average more than a half a gift year (which may be pushing it, assuming that a healthy portion of them are first-time donors), these donors are literally losing you money every time you communicate with them.

Mo: Then don’t mail them so much.  Solicitation costs are something that are under your control.  Lower-dollar donors don’t have to have the same cadence as a higher-dollar donor.  Nor do you have to send the same packages or use more expensive means like telemarketing to keep your lower-dollar donors.  Try to convert them to less expensive means like giving online.

In fact, because volume is a big predictor of communication costs for means like direct mail, you save money on all segments by having more people on file.

Betty: First, let’s dispense with the notion that a $8 offline donor is suddenly going to become a $50 online donor.  Honestly, at that level, you wouldn’t even pay to e-append them.

Second, bulk of donors will save you per piece, but only by a couple cents per piece.  That doesn’t compensate for the vast differences in net per piece value from a strong donor.  In fact, that’s why you can communicate much deeper into your file with higher-dollar donors; even a small chance of getting a gift from a $100+ donor is better than a good chance of getting a gift from a $5 donor.  

And in very strong average gift segments, you can be making over a dollar, two dollars, five dollars, or more per communication to your strong segments, a virtual impossibility with lower dollar segments.  So your fundraising efficiency is much greater.

Mo: Fundraising efficiency should not be a metric.  You can tell it’s unimportant and misleading because Charity Navigator measures it. (rim shot)  What you want is to be able to maximize the net revenue you can deliver to the mission of the organization.  And thus you want to have these donors.  There are some segments of donors that like to give $5 at a time, but they will do it to every other or every third communication you send them.  While it’s not a home run, getting on base often means something.

And these donors are much cheaper to get.  Sometimes they are half of the cost of acquiring a larger-average gift donor.

Betty: But because they make smaller gifts and usually have smaller response rates, they are far less able to make back the investment.  A quality donor is a gift that keeps on giving and lower quality donors simply aren’t.

Mo: But you don’t know the hidden gems when you acquire them.  Having more donors is likely panning for gold.  And so you want quantity.

Betty: That would be true if donors generally upgraded.  However, if someone gives you the same amount three times, chances are you are going to be getting that amount for the rest of their useful donor life.  Upgrading is good to try to do, but you can’t count on it for the bulk of your audience.  And loyalty goes up as average gift goes up, so you really can tell from average gift whether someone is more likely to become a good donor for you.

The verdict: This one is a split decision.  The case for more donors makes some good points and you should be doing whatever you can do to minimize your costs with low-dollar audiences.

But, by a nose, we have to give this to the case for better donors.  There is a point in every file where donors just stop being profitable.  For some, it’s at $5; for some, it’s at $15.  At that point, you don’t have a good way to make money for your mission from them.  And when you can’t fund your mission from them, you should aim not to acquire them.

“But wait!” Mo says.  “What about the non-monetary benefits of having more donors?”  Well, that will be tomorrow’s debate.

More donors versus better donors: cost of fundraising

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