For donations, speak like a human.

If you are among my fellow nerds and geeks, you likely can recall Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s beverage order of choice from Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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Tea. Earl Grey.  Hot.

Captain Picard was talking to a computer; there is no way he would speak to a person thusly.  For a person, you would use a complete sentence and probably add a “please” for good measure.

Picard was adapting himself for the computer, presumably using narrowing categories (tea; of the teas, I’ll have Earl Grey; of the Earl Greys (Earls Grey?), I’ll have it hot).

In the real future, it appears we won’t actually have to do this.  Starting on slide 112 of Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report, she talks about how we are moving toward voice interface for computers.  In the long-term, the keyboard on which I’m typing this will seem as antiquated as the typewriter on which it is based.  Specifically, there are several reasons she says this is happening:

Further, she shows that Google has seen voice queries increase by seven times since 2010, with a projection of half of search terms going through voice by 2020.

There are a couple of implications to this.  First, the obvious one — we’re going to have to change our Google Grant Adwords terms and ads.  Right now, someone is adapting themselves to the search engine when they put in “autism services parent.”  When they are able to say “Please tell me how to get help for my son; he’s two years, three months and he isn’t talking yet” and the search engine understands them, we are going to have to understand the statement and deliver the answer in our ad.

But the second lesson is broader and it has to do with the curse of knowledge we talked about way back in October.  When you know something, it’s difficult to communicate with someone who doesn’t.  That’s because you make assumptions about what they know and can’t picture what it is like to function without that knowledge.

Our donors have suffered long enough with us talking about “food security” and “science-based curriculums” and “paradigm shifts” instead of hunger and classes and whatever the heck a paradigm shift actually is.

It’s time to speak plainly. It’s time to call things as we see them. It’s time to come to our donors as they are, not as we might think we wish them to be.

Pretty soon, our computers will understand us as well are.  Hopefully, humans at nonprofits won’t be too far behind.

For donations, speak like a human.

Getting other people to do your hypercustomization

Yesterday, we talked about how changing user experiences create expectations in the nonprofit world (aka “If Amazon can X, why can’t you?”).  Today, there’s a great case study of what happens when you let go of control of your message.

In 2004, a blogger who uses the nom de plume “Yarn Harlot” created a fundraising campaign for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) called Tricoteuses sans Frontières (Knitters Without Borders).  She put up a page on her blog talking about the important work that MSF does and urged her followers to join Knitters Without Borders in support.

Whatever you thought they raised, it’s probably too low.

knitsignal11310By the sixth anniversary of the campaign, Knitters Without Borders had raised over $1,000,000 to support MSF.  When the earthquake hit Haiti in 2010 and destroyed the hospital in which MSF was working, she put up the Knit Signal (at right, so that you know I’m not making this up) and asked knitters to support the relief efforts.

Three things are remarkable about this story:

  1. There are more knitters than you knew there were.  I live with a knitter, so I already knew.
  2. tsfbThe Knitters Without Borders logo is a parody of the MSF logo.  Think for a moment if your communications team would allow a knitting blog to parody your logo to raise money for your cause.  
  3. Here’s a part of the piece about the Haitian earthquake:

“I spoke briefly on the phone this morning with the MSF office here in Toronto, and they confirmed several things.

Things are bad.

The MSF Hospital has sustained damage that means it isn’t functioning as a hospital right now. Staff have moved to the courtyard and set up tents and what materials they could retrieve from the building and are doing their best to help people as they can. Doctors who were providing maternity care are now running a trauma centre.

They, and their sister offices in other countries spent all night figuring out who could go and how to get them there, and staff is packing as we read this to get there as fast as they can.  They’ll be taking inflatable surgery suites with them so they can use that instead of their damaged buildings.

They believe that some of their staff are among the casualties.

They recognize the power of Knitters Without Borders and the force that we can marshal in a pinch, and they are grateful that you’ve been able to help them in the past, and they would very much like your help now, and right away.”

First off, tell me that you don’t want to hire Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, the Yarn Harlot, as a copywriter today.  I know I do.  I’ve read a couple of her books and I don’t even knit.

Second, note that she got these details from MSF headquarters.  In the middle of dealing with an earthquake, they talked with a key influencer of a community.  Not later on in the week, not when they got to it between finding out what staff members they lost.  That day.

The lesson here is that people can do some of your fundraising for you, if you’ll let them.  You need to:

  • Give them tools and permission (the logo for Knitters Without Borders)
  • Recognize their power (“They recognize the power of Knitters Without Borders and the force that we can marshal in a pinch”)
  • Keep them in the loop (“I spoke briefly on the phone this morning with the MSF office here in Toronto”).
  • Appreciate them (“they are grateful that you’ve been able to help them in the past, and they would very much like your help now, and right away.”)

What a great donor communication.  And not from the organization in question.

MSF has done a great job since then of being transparent about the need, their role, and the role of their donors in Haiti (take a look here for an example).

But on their own, how many knitters would they have gotten to donate?

Getting other people to do your hypercustomization

Hypercustomizing your donor experience

We often talk about how it’s an Amazon world and we are just living in it.  And we bemoan how hard it is to live up to that standard of customer knowledge, immediacy, and customization.

Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends presentation indicates that it’s not going to stay this hard.

It’s going to get harder.

On slides 66-69, she talks about hypercustomization of customer experiences:

  • Combatant Gentleman (which sounds like a horse that came up lame and lost me the trifecta at Belmont) has a cohort of up and coming real estate employees that they target with real estate specific advertising
  • Stance (which makes socks) found that their Star Wars socks were selling well, so they created Star Wars specific Instagram ads and targeted them to Star Wars fans (but, since they were selling a variety of socks, suppressed those people who were fans of one specific Star Wars character).  This had a 36% boost to ad spend.
  • Stitch Fix allows customers to put in their own desires and specifications (along with their Pinterest feeds), allowing designers to get to know their tastes and design garments specifically for them.  Then, you keep what you like and return what you don’t.  They report that 39% of their customers now get the majority of their clothes from them, up from 30% a year ago (a good sign of loyalty — could you imagine a nine point jump in the number of your donors who donate the majority of their giving to you?).

We also discussed this earlier this year with the hypercustomization of Ted Cruz’s Iowa campaign — by getting specific messaging to fireworks enthusiasts, they were able to fill a particular niche within persuasible voters.

The non-profit space now as sites like Kiva and DonorsChoose that allow us to sponsor/loan to the particular person we want to, getting a customized experience from that donation, and encouraging us to give again.  

We are facing disruption by degrees.  Or to use the parlance from a couple weeks ago, our frog is slowly being boiled.

How do we deliver a similarly customized experience?  One way is to do it yourself.

Yes.  It is a pain to write 50 different petition texts for 50 different states.  But when you can reference exactly what is going on in their state and hose they can help and what they need specifically, you are getting toward that customized experience.

Same as when you customize copy to indicate that you know the person was served by you four years ago.  Or started donating 10 years ago.  Or are donating because their daughter is affected by your cause.  Any little bit helps.

But in reality, it would be best if you can find the central point of differentiation among donors for your organization and customize on that to begin.  It could be cat versus dog.  It could be advocacy versus conservation.  Or those impacted by your disease directly versus those who have less direct connections.

Chances are very good that these people have entirely different desires.  And should have entirely different experiences.

People want to support good causes.  That’s the big thing we have working for us.  They will forgive us not sending a child to their house for a few days to see if they like them and want to sponsor them — we won’t be able to do the full monty for customization.  But we have to try to meet them halfway.

We’ll talk about the other one — getting people to hypercustomize for you — tomorrow with a remarkable story from the knitting world.

Hypercustomizing your donor experience

Donor services at the speed of instant

On June 1, Meeker put out her Internet Trends report, highlighting the evolution of the sector.  You can see the full report here.  These online reports have key lessons for us as a sector, one of the big ones having to do with customer/donor services.

One of the challenges we have as an industry is delivering timely donor services in the preferred channel of our donor.  We have all seen the Facebook exchange that goes something like:

Them: how do I stop you from mailing me?

You: Thank you for letting us know that you would like to stop receiving mail from us or reduce the amount of mail you receive.  To do so, please call our free donor help line at 877-DONT-CARE.

There are several problems with this, not the least of which is that your boilerplate sounds like it was written by a robot who desperately wanted to fail the Turing test.  But another one is: if they wanted to call you, they would have called you.

Instead, they went on Facebook.

Now you definitely don’t want to feed the trolls excessively.  You generally don’t want to do more than two back-and-forths out on Facebook publicly.  But there has to be a better way to meet donors’ needs without scaring away other potential donors.

Enter slide 104 of Meeker’s presentation.  (I told you it was comprehensive; we read these things so you don’t have to.)  She’s led up to this point talking about the growth of messaging with WhatsApp having 1 billion monthly active users, Facebook Messenger having 800 million, and three other messaging platforms having more monthly active users than there are people in the United States.

So on slide 104, she talks about how Hyatt and Rogers Communications launched Facebook Messenger customer service in November and December respectively.   Within one month, Hyatt had a 20X increase in the number of messages they received.  Rogers Communications’ users report a 65% increase in satisfaction and a 65% decrease in customer complaints.

Now, think about the most common donor interaction people have with your organization.  If you have anything under a 50% retention of new donors rate, and chances are you do, along with everyone else in the sector, that most common interactions is:

  1. Someone makes a donation
  2. You talk to them some more and ask for donations again
  3. You don’t hear from that donor again

What is it worth to you to be able to address any questions, doubts, problems, etc., that these donors are having?

Two comments on customer services that you hear over and over are:

  • For every person who complains, there are X more who were as ticked off, but didn’t complain.
  • A dissatisfied person who you have the opportunity to satisfy will be a better customer/donor for you than a person you didn’t dissatisfy to begin with.

So instead of hiding your donor service phone number, show it proudly.  If a person is online, see if you can do a live chat with them to address their concern.  And, yes, if they are on social media, actively solicit and take care of donor concerns, as quickly as you can.

The coming battles for donors will be fought over experiences.  What experience can you offer?

Donor services at the speed of instant

Addressing the resource challenges of donorcentricity

Getting to an organization that is able to know about its donors and customize communications accordingly is not easy.  We often lack one centralized database that acts as the Truth.  We don’t think we have time to make donor calls to thank people where revenue isn’t attached.  Our budgets are so small that we transcend lean and mean and are now emaciated and ticked off.

But we must start somewhere.  Why?  Remember the old joke about the bear and the sneakers?

For a refresher, two guys are at their campsite when an angry bear comes charging in.  One of the guys immediately bends over to tie his sneakers.  The other one says “You idiot!  You’ll never outrun that thing!”

The guy with the sneakers replies “I don’t need to outrun the bear.  I just need to outrun you.”

So, if you have no better rationale and didn’t read my Monday post about the value of donorcentricity to our business model, remember:

  1. Donors to our organizations donate to other organizations.
  2. Other organizations are doing these types of stewardship activities.
  3. BEAR!

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So how do you start this journey of a thousand steps?  Here are some tips to first steps to better talk to donors.

Get your database in order. This may mean some time working out of csv files to get your lists in order.  However, this is much better than not trying at all.  It will also help you in the long run, as the fancy pants SQL/database steps to data health are likely just automated versions of what you are doing in your spreadsheet.

Institutionalize calling.  It doesn’t need to be just development employees or just employees.  But any part of your culture that you can get to call donors to thank them – do it.  Even if it’s one call per month.  The practice of hearing donor stories helps whoever here them take what was once a figure on a spreadsheet and turn it into an understanding of why people outside your organization think you exist.

And it helps them to feel your gratitude as well.

Ditto for thank you notes.  The more these can be a cultural touchpoint, the better.

Try an unconventional thank you strategy.  We have 50 ways to thank your donors here, most of them unconventional and many of them very poorly rhymed.

Finally, once you have data from a good number of people who have randomly received thank you calls or notes or the like, run the numbers.  You should be able to see from an increase in retention rate (I hope) the impact that calling can have on your donors and your retention rate.  Sometimes that number will be enough to continue your random calling.  Sometimes it will be large enough to justify significant resource allocations changes.

After all, the quickest solution to a small budget is to get a big one.  This can help you prove it out.


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Addressing the resource challenges of donorcentricity

Lessons in donorcentricity from the for-profit world

In 2008, Walmart asked its customers what they wanted.  They said they wanted wider aisles and less cluttered shelves.  So Walmart spent hundreds of millions of dollars to recreate their stores in this image.  Eight straight quarters of sales decline later (for the first time in Walmart’s history), the aisles narrowed and the shelves cluttered once again.  The total cost of the experiment was $1.85 billion.

Or put another way, they basically lost almost all of St. Jude for two straight years.

Fortunately or unfortunately, no one in the nonprofit sector is capable of losing that much money.  But that doesn’t mean we aren’t making similar decisions with ill-researched (see my commentary on donor surveys from yesterday) or non-researched forays that have no basis in what works (coughcouchbrandguidelinescoughcouch).

But there are customer-centric companies that can teach us something about how to get revenues from our donorcentric strategies:

Acceptance of non-total loyalty.  Coke is a company that has customers so loyal that the one time it messed with its formula over three decades ago is still synonymous with “marketing failure.”  Yet 72% of Coke customers also buy Pepsi.

What Coke drives for is what it calls “share of throat” – how much of what you drink can Coke own?  By using this metric, they know that if they can increase your loyalty and experience, they can increase their revenue with you still not giving them your unswerving obedience.

The same is true for us.  As I’ve talked about, our donors are good people who do good things in the plural sense.  Almost all of them support multiple causes and organizations.  That’s fine.  What we want to be able to do is create an experience for that donor that makes them want to give us more (share of donations) than other nonprofits.

Realization that your most loyal donors and your best donors aren’t necessarily the same thing.  The top 10% of most loyal Harley-Davidson riders – are probably the people you think of when you think of Harley riders.  They have the tattoos.  Their bikes are pristine.  They are a part of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) and have Harley merchandise.

And they are only 3.5% of Harley’s net revenue.  The reason is that these riders probably own “only” one Harley and likely a lower end model.  On the flip side, the (wealthy) motorcycle aficionado may have ten bikes, three of which are Harley’s.  A less loyal customer, but a more valuable one.

Harley’s strategy is a premium strategy.  Not in the sense that they mail their potential owners with Harley address labels and stickers (although I would love to see that!), but that they intentionally make sure they have fewer bikes produced than are desired.  As a result, they can charge a premium price.

They could realign their business about the most loyal customers.  This would likely involve producing more bikes so these loyalists, who are likely to be price-sensitive in their other purchases, are able to have an easier entry level into the market.  But they don’t, because that is not where their bread is buttered.

Similarly, you likely have a frequent tipper audience.  They give you $5 or $10 often when you mail them.  They have been on your file for a number of years.  They are loyal.

But they aren’t for whom you are designing your high-dollar donor newsletter or your handwritten CEO letter.  You are looking for the folks who are capable of making a large or transformative gift.  And high-touch efforts require this level of upside to be worthwhile.

Design around experiences.  I strongly recommend Experiences: The Seventh Age of Marketing by Robert Rose and Carla Johnson.  I won my copy thanks to my knowledge of Firefly/Serenity, but would gladly have paid.

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Thank you, Captain Malcolm Reynolds

In it, they talk about how what we are seeing more and more are how microexperiences (and micromoments) are adding up to create the totality of our brand impressions.

So, as we urged with our donor surveys, it’s good to measure what your donor’s experience is with your organization (and former donors) to make sure it ties to what matters to your donors.  There’s a reason people go to Disneyworld, when you can go to a closer and cheaper amusement park.

Lessons in donorcentricity from the for-profit world

Creating useful donor surveys

In my DMA Leadership Conference talk, I said that people who listened to what donors say they want in donor surveys deserve to be lied to.  That was obviously too harsh – what I should have said is that they deserved to be misled.

Because people (not just donors, but all human beings*) aren’t meaning to lie to you; they just don’t know what their true motivation is.  As we’ve seen, emotional reaction happens 6000 times faster than rational thought.  So unless someone is doing System Two thought, where they are rationally considering all alternatives, the role reason plays in this process is coming up with the best possible justification of a decision already made.

Consider a study that asked people to rank their top 16 motivations.  Sex was rated #14; wealth was dead last.  Then they looked at actual subconscious motivators of decisions.  Sex was rated #1 and wealth was rated #5.

This should be considered no surprise to people who have met, well, ya know, people.  But it was a surprise to people themselves, who think themselves chaise and uncorruptable, but in reality dream of having very special moments in Scrooge McDuck’s vault.

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But that doesn’t mean all donor surveys are bad – far from it.  It just means that, in a statement that may get me arrested by the Tautology Police**:

Bad donor surveys are bad.  Good donor surveys are good.

Common traps in donor surveys:

  • Talking only to current donors. You want to talk to people who stopped giving as well, to the extent that they will talk to you.  After all, you are looking for the difference between these two groups.  Trying to define who your good donors are without talking to former donors is like saying the reason that Fortune 500 companies are successful is because they have employees and offices.
  • Asking donors to analyze why they did what they did. They don’t know.  So they are going to try to figure out what answer someone like them would generally say or what they think you want to hear.  Neither is helpful to you.
  • Asking donors what is most important to them. Clearly, from the above, the answer is sex.  Looking only at your limited options, however, they will probably make mistakes in determining what is important to them, similar to the poor people who thought that sex and wealth (aka Genie Wishes #1 and #2) didn’t impact them.

So how do you construct a survey that gets to these important points?  You are going to set up your survey so that you can run a regression analysis.****  If you need help with how to do this, check out our post on basic regression.

You will need a dependent variable.  Ideally, this will be donation behavior because it is a clear expression of the behavior you are trying to impact.  If not, an overall satisfaction score with the organization will be generally OK, as it should correlate strongly with donation behavior.

For your independent variables, ask about aspects of your organization.  So, for example, “have you ever called X Organization about your donations?”, “did you receive a thank you note for each donation you made?”, “have you been to X Web site”, “how many days did it take for you to get your thank you note on your last gift?”, etc.

The powerful thing about regression analysis is that it will help you figure out both how people feel about their experience and how important that experience is to them?  For example, my guess is that for most organizations, the number of days it took to get a thank you will be a good predictor of retention.  Since the analysis tells you the strength of that association, you can invest the right amount of resources into that area versus new donor welcome packages or donor relations staff or database infrastructure and the like.


* Yes, non-donors are also considered human beings – just slightly lesser ones.

** Motto: Enforcing through enforcement since Socrates.***

*** Former motto: Our motto is our motto.

**** Or other modeling if you are feeling fancy.

Creating useful donor surveys