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.
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