Quantity versus quality of pieces in donorcentric fundraising

Food for the Poor, the DMA’s Nonprofit of the Year last year, sends 27 mail pieces in its control donor series throughout the year.  These are all very good donorcentric letters, focused on the impact that you as a donor are having in saving people in their times of desperate need.

Another nonprofit of my acquaintance that will remain nameless, sends out one appeal per year.  When they asked me whether they should send a second piece, I told them that they should make their one piece work first, because it was not a compelling appeal.

There are wonderful donorcentric people who argue that nonprofits need to reduce the amount they communicate across the board.  I would argue that they need to reduce the amount they communicate badly.

Let’s take a look back at the reasons that people give for stopping giving to a nonprofit from Dr. Adrian Sergeant (first covered in Wherefore Segmentation):



As you can see, 72% of the reasons were related to not getting our message across like “other causes are more deserving” or “I don’t remember donating” or “they don’t need money any more.”  Less than four percent said inappropriate communications.  People are leaving because we persuade too little, not too much.

And as for the sentiment you may get about mailing too much, Van Diepen et al looked at irritation from nonprofit mailings.  They found that irritation can be incurred from mailings, but that it had no impact on revenue per mailing.  That is, people kept donating at the same rate per piece.

As Jeff Brooks put it in his wonderful book The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications:

[A] typical donor gets at least 10 pieces of unsolicited mail every delivery day.  That’s 3,000 pieces a year.  If you write to a donor twelve times a year, you’re sending 0.4 percent of her yearly total.  If you stopped mailing, the daily average would drop from 10 to 9.96.  Not a meaningful difference for you and your donor.

But for you, that cutback would mean lost revenue, forever.  A loss of hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars from each donor.

You’ll never solve the Too-Much-Mail problem if you treat it as a numbers game.  The real issue is the relevance of the mail, not the volume.

All of that said, you could be mailing too much, as measured by both your net revenues and a true donor focus.  Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Channel mismatch. It is correct and laudable to try to get an online donor to give offline and vice versa.  However, there is a point of non-response (that varies by organization) at which the online donor is very unlikely to give.  For example, if someone gave their first gift online, continues to give on online, and hasn’t so much as looked at 10 mail pieces from you, you might be wasting money in sending those appeals (note: I say those appeals – perhaps a mailing that encourages her to go to the Website and make a donation is just what the doctor ordered).
  • Seasonality mismatch. If someone donates every November or December like clockwork, but never a second gift in the year over five years, you are probably safe in reducing the mailings they receive in spring and summer.  Note that I don’t say eliminate.  It could be that the updates they are receiving in the summer are the reason they donate in the winter.  But you can probably save some costs here.
  • Mismatch of interests. As we’ve advocated in the “change one thing” approach to testing, you can find out what messages people will respond to and what they won’t.  One you learn that, for example, a person only gives to advocacy appeals, you can safely cut some of the other types of messages they get.  Or someone who only gives to premium pieces get premiums (but for whom they are a turn-off don’t).
  • Systemic waste. Additional mailings should do two things: increase retention rates and increase total program net revenue.  That is to say, it’s not enough to say “this piece is a good one because it netted positive”; you need to be able to say that without the piece revenues would have been down overall.

To make the math simple, let’s say you mail three pieces, each of which gets $100K net revenue.  If you eliminated one of them and two pieces started making $150K net, that third piece was not netting program revenue (unless it was a cultivate piece that set up future year’s revenues or had an upgrade component or the like.

What this nets out to is that in a donorcentric future (or, at least, in my donorcentric vision of the future), people will ask how many control pieces you send and you will have to say that it depends greatly on the donors themselves (or give a range like somewhere between two and 30 pieces per person).

And, of course, that each of these pieces is customized and crafted to appeal to that particular donor or segment.  That, in my mind, is listening to the donors and not trying to let a Platonic ideal donor get in the way of each precious unique donor snowflake.

If you’d like more nonprofit direct marketing content like this, please subscribe to my free weekly newsletter. You’ll get all of my blog posts, plus special subscribers-only content.

Quantity versus quality of pieces in donorcentric fundraising

Donorcentricity: it’s only a fad if you aren’t doing it

I had the pleasure of doing a debate at last week’s DMA Nonprofit Federation Leadership Conference with Lynne Wester, the Donor Relations Guru, about donorcentricity.  She was pro (and was a pro, surprising no one); I was con.

Several people asked me afterwards what I actually believe.  For the most part, I’m very much pro-donor-centrism.  I took the con side because I believe what John Stuart Mill said:


And also because sometimes an admirable goal of improving the nonprofit sector’s sometimes abysmal treatment of donors loses sight of the goals of fundraising.

So this week, I’d like to poke, prod, and challenge the wisdom for and against a donor focus, starting with what it is and why it’s important.

The answer is not to make our donors feel better.

The answer is to cure cancer.  Or end drunk driving.  Or prevent mistreatment of animals. Feed the hungry.  Protect the abused.  Light the fire of education.  All this and more.

To do these things, we need money.  To get money, we need donors.  To get and keep donors, we need our donors to give happily.  Thus, making our donors happy is a good goal.  It’s just not the end goal.

But at the same time, we ignore it at our peril.  In the room, I talked about the amazingly low retention rates we have, especially for first-time givers, as a reason to churn-and-burn.  My actual conclusion could not be farther from the truth – retention is something on which can we continually work and improve.

We face numerous challenges right now to the very model of nonprofits historically.  Donors are looking to fund an impact and a cause, not necessarily an organization.  Why should they pay what they perceive to be (but aren’t) high overhead rates when they can do a microloan with Kiva, or directly fund a school through DonorsChoose or find a particular person in need through GoFundMe ?

In addition, aggregator sites are more than happy to give nonprofits the money as long as they own the constituent.  Facebook, usually a reliable example of most examples of walled gardens and rented land, is one of these where information does not get to the nonprofit for meaningful communication.

All of these satisfy donors’ needs to make a difference and feel an impact, while not engaging with an organization.

There are three ways I can see to adapt to this new world:

1. Fail.  Remember, in the words of Adam Savage:


This may not sound particularly palatable, but it’s better than being the best buggy-whip salesperson or whale-oil-light manufacturer or print journalist left on earth.

2. Compete on the value of our models for effectiveness. Small scale efforts like GoFundMe can fund one person, but they can’t fund a systemic scale against hunger.  Individual donors tend to pick projects based on the basis of attractiveness and skinniness and whiteness (unfortunately), so nonprofits fill a role in helping everyone.  Small efforts can’t effectively change laws or study methods for change.  And they while they fix things well, they can’t prevent them from breaking.

Unfortunately, these are usually tough sells.  For years, we have talked about the systemic problems through the story of the one.  It’s the one that touches the heart and we know that emotion is far better than education in low-dollar appeals (and since you attract people as low-dollar donors, that hurts acquisition as well).  If someone can see a person’s plight and fix it, rather than the underlying problem, easy trumps thorough.

3. Compete based on how well we can treat donors. That’s donorcentricity.  That’s where we can have a meaningful advantage.  One-off sites like Facebook can’t build a relationship around an issue like we can.  And while Kiva is fabulous in terms of creating an addiction around helping, other sites lack in this regard.

So rather than die off, donorcentricity is going to be (in my mind) how we justify our very existence: we are the best at creating meaningful connections between donors and the world they wish to create.

So this is not a fad.  It is not everything, but neither is it nothing.  But in my mind, it also doesn’t mean what some people think it means.

Along those lines, I’ll be talking about communication quantity tomorrow.

Donorcentricity: it’s only a fad if you aren’t doing it

The science of ask strings

Today’s direct marketing paper says, in essence, the less you ask for, the more people respond and the less they give.  Duh.

But there are some great surprises in the paper that make it well worth exploration.

De Bruyn and Prokopec took a look at anchoring effects in ask strings.  Specifically, they worked with a large and anonymous European non-profit to mail to their donor list.  They did so with a 3 x 3 matrix of ask strings set by two criteria: 1) is the initial ask below, at, or above their previous contribution? and 2) is the ask string steep (20% increases in levels), steeper (50% increases in levels), or steepest (80% increase in levels).  The ask strings were four items long.

This is a bit confusing, but here are initial and final asks for each condition, assuming a $100 donor.  You’ll note they are appropriately rounded:

Lower Equal Higher
Steep $85 … $140 $100 … $170 $120 … $200
Steeper $70 … $230 $100 … $350 $150 … $500
Steepest $55 … $320 $100 … $580 $180 … $1000

Some of these may look to you as they looked to me — fairly aggressive.  In the higher steepest condition, you are asking your $100 donor to donate $180, $320, $580, or $1000 — not a common ask string by any means.  That’s why I’m glad there are studies like these that test this with other people’s money.

As I mentioned, they found asking for more got more in average donation but suppressed response rate.  However, there were several other elaborations on this:

  • Ask string steepness didn’t affect response rate. Only the lowest, left-most ask seemed to affect response rate significantly.  The lesson here is that you can ask for more and get more without hurting response.  This is potentially free money.
  • Steepness did increase average gift.  So 80% increases won in this case.
  • Multi-donors were more set in their ways. Indexing off of higher than their previous contribution was related to a big drop — from an average of 10.5% among those who had the ask string that started at equal to 9.1% among those who were asked for higher.  It is, not shockingly, as if the multi donors were saying that they had already told the nonprofit what they give and don’t forget it.
  • The worst thing you could do was ask single donors for what they gave before.  This surprised me.  Response rates for the single donors were 5.3% in the lower group, 4.1% in the equal group, and 4.3% in the higher group.  Indexed average gifts were .937 (lower), .909 (equal), and 1.162 (higher).  So there was a trough in both response rate and average gift for asking a single donor for the same thing they gave before.

They didn’t give the net revenue per piece charts in the study; I found them invaluable in understanding the implications.  These are indexed to a $100 donor to make the math easy:

Single donors Lower Equal Higher
Steep $4.74 $3.54 $4.23
Steeper $4.76 $3.96 $5.62
Steepest $5.49 $3.68 $5.26
Multi-donors Lower Equal Higher
Steep $10.42 $10.16 $9.96
Steeper $9.30 $10.44 $9.67
Steepest $10.46 $10.53 $10.68

All this indicates something to me that I hadn’t thought of before (and maybe you have and have tested it — if so, please put it in the comments or email me at nick@directtodonor.com so we can have a report from the trenches): different ask strings for single versus multi-donors.

The hypothesis that I would form based on these results is that people who have given before are set in their ways of what they want to give and thus we should index from the previous contribution or the HPC.  Single donors are more pliable, so we can work to get more value out of them early in the relationship, elevating their support before they get set in their ways.


Hope this has been as valuable for you as it has been for me.

The science of ask strings

Customizing your direct marketing (aka Dear Mr. Jenny Roberts:)

In addition to looking for that sweet spot somewhere between “that nonprofit doesn’t know me and takes me for granted” and “that nonprofit has clearly been looking through my underwear drawer again,” the most grievous sin you can make in customizing and personalizing is being wrong.  Thus, a disclaimer that these techniques should really only be used when you are confident in the data used to customize.

When looking at your donor’s sweet spot, there is another optimization to be navigated – the cost of additional personalization versus the return.  Like all else that is good and pure of this world, the way to determine this is through testing.  But there is one way to maximize the bang for your customization buck, which is to customize only one side of, or page of, a letter.  If the printer can do most of your mail piece without variable printing your costs come down substantially.

Of course, these additional costs are nearly non-existent online or on the phones, where your customization is limited only by your imagination, the time you want to invest in creating different versions, and whether your telemarketers will rise up and overthrow you if you have a different script for every call.  I say this last only partly jokingly, in that some experienced callers will use the script with which they are comfortable rather than the script they are asked to use.  Thus, online can have the purest, cheapest testing, so please, please, please test your online asks.

Here are some simple customizations that I have seen increase response rate to the point that they more than paid for themselves:

  • Name: Duh. Infants as young as five months old selectively listen for their own name and this is fully developed by 13 months.  From then until up to 120 years later, we listen, watch for, and seek out our own name.  That name is very, very infrequently Current Resident or Friend.
  • Donation history: If someone has been a long-term donor, it’s great to recognize this. You want to do this casually, as in “You’ve stood for an end to feline boredom for over a decade.  Will you join us again when we need you most”, not as in “Since you joined EFB 13 years and three months ago,” as that gets creepy. If you have something like a member card or supporter club, acknowledging that someone has been “member since 2001” will usually lift response.There is a special version of this that is also very effective – playing back to people that they contributed to the same campaign last year, e.g., “you had your gift matched last year; now is another opportunity to double your impact on adult-onset flatulence.”  Here, you are reminding the person that they are the type of good person that donates to things like the thing they are reading or hearing.
  • Mission area: If you know how someone came into the organization or what they care about, it’s vitally important to play that back to them. Animal organizations, in particular, customize their messages to cat people and to dog people, knowing that each has their own reasons for supporting the cause.
  • Location: I saw a .5% percentage point increase in response rate when someone knew that the story we were using happened right in their state. Of course, this can require 50 different versions, so perhaps you’ll want to start with more easily variabilized copy.  Even easier is to reference the city and/or state in the copy without specifying the story.
  • Contribution level: This is partly for the donor or potential donor. You don’t want to insult someone who would normally donate $20 by asking them for $1000, nor a $1000 for $20.  I once received an acquisition piece from my local Boy Scout organization that asked for $250 as the lowest donation level.  On an acquisition piece.  With no return envelope.  Needless to say, while I was not helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, or obedient, I was thrifty.  This is also for your benefit.  You want to maximize the donation(s) from a donor, gradually increasing their giving over time as their trust in and love for you grows.  That process can be undermine by asking for the wrong gift at the wrong time.

In fact, there is an entire art to ask strings, one that we will cover tomorrow.

Customizing your direct marketing (aka Dear Mr. Jenny Roberts:)