How to structure your matching gift campaign

Matching gift campaigns work. But are they necessary?

Whether it’s a grantor’s challenge fund, a campaign match, a fund set up by a generous donor or donors, matching gifts are a frequently used and frequently successful tactic.  Most of the time, it’s set up as a “double your impact” campaign.

Three researchers — Huck, Rasul, and Shepard — looked at whether a lead donor increased the success of a campaign and how the structure of the match impacted that success.

They did this for the Bavarian State Opera House.  (BTW, if you are a researcher and want to run a test with donors on your dime, email me at nick@directtodonor.com; I’m usually game.)

300px-mc3bcnchen_nationaltheater_interior

The Bavarian State Opera House.
Fundraising motto: hey, these inlays don’t gild themselves.

Here were the six test treatments:

  1. Control: No lead donor, no match commitment
  2. Lead donor: A generous donor has already funded part of the program for 60,000 Euros (remember, Bavarian State Opera House).  We need your help with the other part.
  3. 50% match: A generous donor will match your Euro with .5 Euro.
  4. 100% match: Euro for Euro match
  5. Non-linear matching: A generous donor will match any gift made over and above 50 Euros.  (Which is to say if you donate 120 Euros, the donor gives 70.  If you donate 70, the donor gives 20.  If you donate 40, the donor gives nothing)
  6. Fixed gift matching: A generous donor will match any positive gift made with 20 Euros of his* own.

Got your guesses of what will do what?  Good — here we go with the results**:

Response rate Average gift Revenue per piece
Control 3.7% 74.3 2.79
Lead donor 3.5% 132 4.62
50% match 4.2% 101 4.19
100% match 4.2% 92.3 3.84
Non-linear match 4.3% 97.9 4.18
Fixed gift match 4.7% 69.2 3.27

Yeah, not what I thought either.  I figured, from all of the virtual ink I spilled in social proof and authority last week, that the presence of a lead donor would help. Presumably, there was another mechanism in place — that of anchoring.  I’ll dedicate a full post or five to anchoring effects at some point, but now, suffice it to say that by throwing out the number of 60,000 Euros you can trigger the idea that a person’s gift should be closer to that number.  For some, that may turn them off (although the decline in response rate wasn’t statistically significant).

What surprised me was that the matches didn’t help revenue per piece (unless of course the match is generating marginal revenue).  The matches increase response rates, but the average gift was significantly lower in all of the matches.  The authors’ hypothesis is that the match has a bit of a crowding out effect — that is, the donor feels like their 50 Euros is actually 100 Euros, so they need not make the donation of 100 Euros to have the impact they wanted to have.  This is certainly plausible and consistent with previous research.

What to make of this? Like, I’m guessing, many of you, I’d only tested matching gift language versus control language. However, there is some evidence here that simply stating that a lead gift has been made can increase the anchoring effect and support the idea that a program is worth funding without potential negative byproducts of crowding out donations.

That’s for the general case.  You might also take a look at a fixed gift match depending on your goal.  Generally, I prefer quality of donors to quantity.  However, if you were running a campaign like lapsed reactivation, you might legitimately want to maximize your response rate at the expense of short-term net revenue.

Based on this, I’m going to be looking at testing this against our typical matching gift campaign.  If you do likewise, please let me know at nick@directtodonor.com or in the comments below.  It would be great to see additional evidence on this.

*  The gendering is from the original — not my own.

** The rounding is in the original paper and throws off the revenue per piece variable a bit, but I chose to stick with what they had in the original paper.

How to structure your matching gift campaign

Onboarding for donors and supporters

According to the Online Fundraising Scorecard, 37% of non-profits did not send an email within 30 days of a person signing up for emails. Only 44% asked for a donation by email within 90 days.

Let me put this in an approximate pie chart:

online supporter pie chart

We’ve seen this week that getting the second gift (or lack thereof) is where there is the greatest retention leak – people who donate once and don’t get enough out of the experience to donate again. Online donors, in particular, are the most fickle and least likely to retain.

This could be because of the medium. But it also could be that over half of all non-profits do engage people right when they express the most interest in the organization – immediately and unequivocally. To demonstrate this, try to remember what email newsletter you signed up for a month ago today.

Chances are, you can’t. Thirty days is a long time to remember you signed up for something, especially if no one reminds you that you did. Replace “the guy” with “the donor” in this quote and you have a pretty good idea of how people think about your organization, at least initially:

Never assume that the guy understands that you and he have a relationship. The guy will not realize this on his own. You have to plant the idea in his brain by constantly making subtle references to it in your everyday conversation, such as:

— “Roger, would you mind passing me a Sweet ‘n’ Low, in as much as we have a relationship?”
— “Wake up, Roger! There’s a prowler in the den and we have a relationship! You and I do, I mean.”
— “Good News, Roger! The gynecologist says we’re going to have our fourth child, which will serve as yet another indication that we have a relationship!”
— “Roger, inasmuch as this plane is crashing and we probably have only about a minute to live, I want you to know that we’ve had a wonderful 53 years of marriage together, which clearly constitutes a relationship.”

Dave Barry, Dave Barry Complete Guide to Guys

You want to strike while the iron is hot – this person cares about your cause now. So you want to set up a welcome series for your donors online. There are some great guides on how to do this and I promise to write one in a future blog post. For now, here are some key tips:

  • Start with a thank you. This person is interested in your organization. They have given you their time and attention. They sound like a pretty cool person who is giving you a fairly valuable thing. This should be rewarded with good manners.
  • After that, if you have a key offer, lead with it. For some, you may be emailing them a temporary membership card. For others, it’s an opportunity to get involved with advocacy. Surveys are also good. Whatever people like to do with your organization online, use it to build their engagement and learn about them.
  • Yes, within the first 30 days. If they donated already, ask them to become a monthly sustainer. In fact, you may want to test whether a sustaining ask works better generally.
  • Test getting them into your mail, telemarketing, and other direct marketing channels. Just because someone started with your organization online doesn’t mean they don’t also have a mailbox and a phone.

This gap of time can be even acuter in the mail. At least with an online donation, you get (or really really should get) an immediate email receipt. With an initial offline gift, there’s the time that it takes the mail to get to the cager (or another person who will open it), the time to deposit the check, print the thank you, batch it, and send it, and the time it takes to get word back to that donor. That alone is pretty bad.

But what happens next is worse: nothing. Let’s say someone makes a donation on January 1st. They may not get into the data pull for a mail piece until March or April, depending on the lead times you have in printing. Picture making your donation, getting a thank you three weeks later, and then radio silence for months afterward. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for retaining that donor or striking while the iron is hot, no?

So instead, create a couple of mail packages that fill that gap that are sent automatically post the initial gift. The same principles apply here as online – things that help you and that your donors like are the perfect here: petitions, member cards, new supporter surveys, etc. You can expect these pieces not only to help your retention rate but also to provide some additional net revenue as well.

Onboarding for donors and supporters

Why do people stop giving?

This has, unlike so much in the fundraising realm, been objectively researched and I commend the paper to you.

This paper tested six attributes of connection between people and causes they support.  Guess which ones actually mattered to donor loyalty (I am paraphrasing their points somewhat):

  • The nonprofit shares my beliefs
  • I have a personal link to the cause
  • The nonprofit’s performance is strong
  • I trust the organization
  • I have a deeper knowledge of the organization
  • The quality of the donor services they provide me is high

A hint: four of these matter; two don’t. I’ll pause here why you contemplate.

(pause)

I’m Henry the 8th I am.  Henry the 8th I am I am.  I got married to the widow next door.  She’s been married seven times before and all of them were named Henry – HENRY.  Henry the 8th I am.

Second verse!  Same as the first!  Little bit faster and a little bit worse!

henry the eighth2
Does anyone else find it weird that in this “romantic” movie, he got his first date with his wife by aurally torturing her. Stalker much? (Also, this is Ghost for you young’uns.)

Oh, you’re back.

The four that were important were:

  • The nonprofit shares my beliefs – One of the key drivers of giving and support is the desire to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Knowing the organization is like you and has a similar core system to you is vital.  This is something you can use in your writings – “You know how vital art instruction in elementary school is to raising creative, happy, and well-rounded children and that’s why we…”
  • I have a personal link to the cause – Not surprising. Those impacted by a disease, an injustice, a crime, a whatever, are going to likely be among the strongest to support a cause about these things.  The next step, however, is not done often enough – you often can see a significant retention lift if you can reference this: “You know better than most the heavy toll of…”  Beyond this, if appropriate for your cause, work with those who have a personal link to the cause to celebrate this.  Techniques like anniversary cards (congratulations on three years cancer-free today!) can work well, but more than that, peer-to-peer fundraising can allow a person to celebrate those anniversaries on their own behalf.  You cannot craft a message better than: “I believe in X because of Y. Because you are a person like me, please support X also.”
  • I trust the organization. Trust is, I would argue, a necessary but not sufficient condition of support. No one who does not trust you will support you.  You can borrow trust with social proof techniques like the BBB seal on your donation form, but generally, running a tight ship nonprofit is sufficient.
  • The quality of the donor services they provide me is high. Another necessary but not sufficient condition.  In my experience, a good donor relations person can help turn around a less positive donor experience more easily than trust can be repaired, but it’s important to treat the people who help you serve people well. This starts with customization and if you missed the initial post on this, here it is.  Letting the donor know you know them is critical to quality donor services.

The converse of these is what causes people to lapse: if they no longer trust you, they think you share their values, their link to the cause is diminished or severed, or have a bad donor experience, they are more likely to not give in the future.

What of the two that don’t matter?  Performance of the nonprofit is what the Charity Navigators of the world attempt to quantify, first by pretending that percent of overhead means anything to impact, second by feigning that checkboxes around transparency mean someone is active in their community, and now with Charity Navigator 3.0, which has non-subject-matter experts reviewing the statements of subject matter experts to gauge impact and achieving the same level of impact as me commenting on neurosurgical techniques. It turns that those who can’t don’t teach; they rate.

It’s this type of performance that doesn’t seem to matter as much to loyalty.  People give to something because it feels good to give – to plant the tree whose shade you may never enjoy.  Getting into performance and numbers and such can sap the joy from the process.  Or at least that’s my theory on what that didn’t rate.

As for depth of education, it’s great to educate the people who actively want to learn more about your cause.  Donor telephone town halls, reports back, impact statements and the like are all good ways to do this.  But so much of education from nonprofits comes from the false belief that “if only people really understood the problem, then more of them would give.”  In fact, it’s probably that curse of knowledge I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that makes you speak in buzzwords and feel like you can educate the passion into someone.  A story, told well, means far more.

So now you know a little about why people lapse.  And it should be no surprise that retention is worst after the first gift.  There isn’t a built up trust.  There may or may not be a connection to the nonprofit (and if there is, the nonprofit may not know about it yet).  Communications haven’t been established and you haven’t told the donor the great things they did with that first gift yet.

Increasing that percentage of second gifts is the biggest area for almost any retention effort.  So I’ll cover that tomorrow.

Why do people stop giving?

How to measure retention

Often, you will see people ask “what’s your retention rate” and get answers like 50% or 60% or whatever.  But there are different types of retention that add up to that overall retention rate.

Yesterday, I said that your direct marketing program was like a bucket with a hole in it.  We’re going to change this a bit today to say that your program is like a pipeline with a bunch of holes in it.  This is the lifecycle of your donor.  To define some terms:

  • Prospective donors are people who haven’t given yet, but might.
  • New donors are donors who are giving their first gift to your organization. I said we’d be defining terms.  I didn’t say they’d be hideously complex.
  • Converted donors/second gift donors/first-year donors are all terms for people who have gotten over the hump and given to your organization within the next year
  • Multi-year donors are people who have given reliably over multiple years
  • Lapsed donors are donors who haven’t given in a while. In a lifecycle analysis, this is frequently put at a time horizon (e.g., given the past year or past two years), but in reality it’s often militated by a broader analysis.  For example, if someone donates $5, you will stop trying to retain them much sooner than someone who donates $100).
  • Deep lapsed donors are lapsed donors, only really lapsed. Again, when this is is defined by your organization.
  • Lapsed reactivated/reinstated are people who were lapsed and have since given a gift. This is an important category often overlooked, in that these reactivated donors can’t be treated like people who just gave their second gift, but neither are the part of that key multi-year donor group.

Blackbaud indicates that the average retention rate is about 50% — that is, of your file, half will give you a gift in the next 12 months.

But as you can see, that’s oversimplified.  First-time donors are less likely to retain with a retention rate about 27%; multi-year retention is 58%, according to Blackbaud’s white paper on the topic.

But they only look at these two categories for retention.  It’s best to look at your retention rate in four buckets:

  • New
  • First-year
  • Lapsed reinstated
  • Multiyear

This is why retention rate as an overall metric camouflages what is happening in your file.  You may have a higher overall retention rate than you did a couple of years ago, but lower retention rates in all of these categories, similarly because you have more multiyear and fewer new donors than you did in years past.

If you prefer, lapsed could be included in here; I don’t because I think of lapsed retention as reactivation – there has to be an effort to reacquire donors, rather than talking to those whose attention you have already.

The other reason it’s important to look at each of these groups separately is that they require different strategies for retention.  With new donors, you have been a first date.  You have learned a tiny bit about them and they about you.  Also, to stretch the dating analogy, your relationship at first is new and exciting.  You can explore things early on like sustainer asks and that person might be in the afterglow of giving and your outstanding onboarding process (more on this later this week) and willing to entertain that notion.  Testing different messages and learning instruments like surveys are par for the course.

Conversely, for your multiyear donors, you should know what they like and don’t like.  Do they give only in the fall and when their gift is matched?  Do they love advocacy appeals?  Is your calendar hanging in their house and are all of their mailing labels yours (i.e., premium donors)?  Not only can you know these, you are expected to know and play back to them – see Ellinger’s Peak of Ideal Customization for details.

One additional retention metric to be aware of is an output from retention rate: lifetime value.  Here’s the formula for lifetime value:

clv-equation
Because everyone loves calculus

Wait!  Please don’t leave!

This is the overly complicated version.  You can ignore discount rate because the cost of money is so low. What you really want are “what is the net value of a person’s donations to an organization going to be?”  The key inputs to this are:

  • What are they giving?
  • What does it cost to get them to give that, initially and ongoing?
  • What is the likelihood that they will give gift 2 from now (and three and four and five) – that is, what is their retention rate? That’s the calculus portion of this – you sum each donation that someone will give, discounting it by the likelihood that they will give it

Retention rates, like compound interest, are magical, rippling through your program for good or ill for years to come.  Tomorrow, we’ll look at the inverse of the retention rate – why people stop giving.

How to measure retention

The basics of retention

I had the pleasure of speaking on an excellent panel last week with NonProfit Pro on the topic of donor retention, so instead of our regularly scheduled week, let’s look at retaining our donors.

As direct marketers, we often have every bit of data about an appeal or campaign at our fingertips.  We can track average gift and response rate, test versus control packages, open rates, click-throughs, conversions, and so on.

The thing that is often forgotten is that each number represents people.  Everyone who gets a piece of mail, email, phone call, or text (or fax blast, carrier pigeon, telegram, etc.) votes on it by their action or lack thereof.

Lost in the numbers of an appeal or campaign performance are the metrics that matter in the long-term: are our strategies helping you love those who support you more and/or helping your supporters love you more?

Yes, it sounds a bit hippie-ish, as if I’m going to get the drum circle out any moment.  And part of it is – these are the people who make our work possible.

But even if we must look at this from under our green eye shades through our decidedly non-rose-colored glasses, it makes both sense and cents to make donor retention a top priority.

Our direct marketing programs are like a bucket with a hole in the bottom of it.  If you want the water level to rise, you can only do one of two things – poor more water into the bucket, or decrease the size of the hole.  Given this analogy, you might wonder why you would bother to pour water into a bucket with a big hole in it.

Hand pouring water from a glass into a leaking pail
The image of a leaky pail of water that is legally required
to accompany all retention commentary.

And you would be right – retaining the donors we have is of greater importance than acquiring new ones.  While you certainly can’t stop acquiring to focus on retention (less you get down to one very very very loyal donor), keeping with donors with your organization is vital for several reasons:

  • It’s cheaper. There are very figures for this.  Some say it’s twice as expensive to acquire a donor as to retain one.  Others say it’s 12 times as expensive.  Someone out there right now is working on a study that definitely concludes that it is a hillion jillion times more expensive.  Bottom line, it’s cheaper to retain a donor than to acquire one, by a factor of X, where X is big enough to be important.
  • It’s easier. Picture addressing your acquisition package, email, or phone call to someone that you know already knows what your organization is, what you do, and kinda likes it.  Cuts a few sentences, maybe paragraphs, out of it, no?
  • Retained donors are of greater value than new donors. We’ll talk retention rates tomorrow, in that people who have only given one gift are far less likely to stay with your organization.  They also tend to give more gifts and more per gift.
  • Retained donors are of greater value, part 2. Major donors rarely come from the ranks of people who made one gift to your organization; that’s something that comes from a longer-term association with you.  Additionally, more than half of bequest givers have given to an organization 15 times or more.

So this week, we’ll talk about donor retention: how to measure it, why people stop giving, how to get that elusive second gift, and how to reactivate a lapsed donor.  Like many of these topics, each one of these could be its own book (and some are), so if there are areas of particular interest to you, let me know by email or in the comments and I will work to dedicate a week to the topic.

The basics of retention

Ellinger’s Peak of Ideal Customization

There is a concept in aesthetics called the Uncanny Valley. The idea is that generally we like things to be closer and closer to human likeness to maximize emotion and empathy. That is, until the thing reaches a point that is not quite human, but too close to human, for comfort. So, things that look somewhat human, but clearly are not (think C3PO from Star Wars or a teddy bear) look fine to us. But getting close without quite being right is highly offputting or creepy.

uncanny valleyYour dislike of clowns, explained.

For some, this is part of a dislike for ventriloquist dummies or clowns or porcelain baby dolls. It’s also why even in these days of high-tech CGI, you will see animated movies that make cartoon characters to be, well, cartoony and not human looking. Efforts to make hyperrealistic animations have fallen into the Uncanny Valley (e.g., Polar Express, Beowulf).

polar express

This girl has come for your soul.

I posit that there is a similar dynamic in personalization.

On one side of the spectrum, you have the cable company. Long after most people have heard of the concept of caller ID, the first thing they ask you to do in their automated system is to put in your phone number.

What is the first thing the person on the other end of the line asks for after your brief 47-minute wait listening to the instrumental version of “My Heart Will Go On”? Your phone number. That isn’t just not knowing your customer; that is Memento-level forgetting.

On the other side of the graph, you have the Target Knows You Are Pregnant story. To make a long and interesting story short, there was a man who called Target irate that his minor daughter was getting coupons for items that would imply that she is pregnant. Shortly thereafter, he called back to apologize, letting them know that there were things going on in his house that he didn’t know about. Target “knew” his daughter was pregnant before he did.

This story is a bit creepy: that Target’s algorithms would “know” something like this. After other coupons were a little too overpersonalized, Target has started putting in random dummy coupons into its coupons, so they look a little more random. (Even though they know what you really want).

“Even then, retailers learned early that shoppers prefer their shopping suggestions not be too truthful. One of the great unwritten chapters of retail intelligence programming featured a “personal shopper” program that all-too-accurately modeled the shoppers’ desires and outputted purchase ideas based on what shoppers really wanted as opposed to what they wanted known that they wanted. This resulted in one overcompensatingly masculine test user receiving suggestions for … a tribute art book for classic homoerotic artist Tom of Finland, while a female test user in the throes of a nasty divorce received suggestions for a small handgun, a portable bandsaw, and several gallons of an industrial solvent used to reduce organic matter to an easily drainable slurry. After history’s first recorded instance of a focus group riot, the personal shopper program was extensively rewritten.”
― John Scalzi, The Android’s Dream

So here is the Ellinger Personalization Satisfaction Curve (I figure if I keep trying to name things after myself, one will stick):

ellinger curve3
I spent upwards of 42 seconds on this graph

As personalization increases, you like it, unlike a point where you stop liking it.  The three big implication for nonprofits are:

  1. This curve is moving right. It used to be an innovation to have a person’s name included in the salutation. Now, unless you are going for an ultra-low-cost package, it’s table stakes. Donors used to be OK with the Super Mario Bros. excuse for not knowing entire gift history (“Thank you for calling, donor. But your data is in another database.”); now it is inexplicable. We now live in a world that knows our name and who we are (or can look it up quickly enough to simulate this).
  2. But people generally don’t like you to know things that aren’t logical leaps from their existing relationship. For example, if you are using acquisition lists from advocacy organizations, it’s almost certain fine to send them an advocacy piece from your organization to them. However, you don’t want to say “Because you support other advocacy organizations, you may want to help support our cause.” This is a part of the sausage making people don’t need or want to see.
  3. This sweet spot is different for everyone. Some people still get weirded out when people know who is calling from caller ID. Others wear their digital hearts on their sleeves, inviting everyone to know everything. The best you can do is aim for the middle for the general population at first, but then test up and down to see what each your donors prefer.

I’ll talk about a few positive customization techniques tomorrow.

Ellinger’s Peak of Ideal Customization

Next steps in direct marketing

Hopefully by now you’ve tried out some free ways to stay in touch with your supporter base and attract new supporters and you are ready to test out spending some money on direct marketing.  I’ll start with your existing donors.

Acknowledgement

thank youOften, thank yous are an afterthought or a legal requirement.  In reality, they are a great way to deepen a relationship with a donor.  Every donor should get at least one thank you, generally in a similar format to how they gave the gift.  That is, if they mailed you a gift, mail them back a thank you note; if they gave a gift online, make sure they get an email receipt.

Please note I say “at least one thank you.”  Gratitude is something to be practiced throughout donor communications largely for its own sake, being the right thing to do and all, but it can also be profitable.  A way to dip your toe into the mail water is to start sending thank you letters to online donors of a certain amount or more.

What is that amount?  Whatever you are comfortable with to start.  You can dial back if the mailings get too onerous (a nice problem to have) or expand the program once started.

This mailing does a couple of things.  It conditions the donor to expect things from you in the mail and that those will be good things.  Also, just as it is better to be a bit overdressed instead of a bit underdressed in everywhere except the tech sector, it is better to be just a little bit more appreciative of a gift than your competitors other worthy causes.

Donor mailings

To keep your early losses to a minimum, start your mailings with a few tried-and-true pieces.  Some that generally work well are:

  • Membership pieces. Even if you are not a membership organization, creating a supporter club or whatever name you feel comfortable with gives your donors a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves alone, which is great, because they are.  Also, you then have a reason to ask for renewals each year.
  • Holiday giving, especially end of year. Online end of year will be its own topic at some point (incidentally, I count nine topics I’ve promised to talk about after only six posts; I may be creating a monster), but during the holidays works well for mail as well, where a holiday spirit generally increases response rates.  It’s also a good time to thank your donors and wish them well in the New Year and with whatever holiday(s) they choose to observe.
  • A newsletter. While traditionally a cultivation device, you can write ones that will more than pay for themselves. We’ll talk more about that in another post (ten!), but if you are champing at the bit, I strongly recommend Making Money with Donor Newsletters by Tom Ahern. You get what’s on the tin.

So that’s what to do with current donors.  How do you talk to potential donors without breaking the bank?  We’ll (try to) cover that Tuesday.

Next steps in direct marketing