Vive le donor difference

When Iyoure-killin-me-smalls-quote-1 was but a wee lad, I played youth baseball.  Or perhaps more accurately other kids played baseball at me.  I excelled in three things and three things only:

  • Bunting
  • Getting hit by pitches, to the point that I once got hit by a pitch that was called a strike.  I had to wait to get hit by the next pitch to take my base.
  • Stealing signs.

This last was where my “talent” was.  I would watch the third-base coach and when I thought a steal was coming from the signals, I would yell into the pitcher and catcher from my position in right field.  (Of course I was in right field.  There’s a chance someone might hit the ball to left field.)  I probably caused more outs with catching signs than catching balls (though still far less than I caused by batting).

The trick to stealing signs is to look for what is different from the usual.  The same is true for catching donor signals – the trick is to look for what is unusual and work from there.  Some tips:

Seasonality: Most donors are season agnostic.  They donate when an appeal touches them or strikes their fancy or they hear about you on the news or they found a $20 in a purse in the back of a closet.  However, some will renew membership in January like clockwork.  Others believe in end-of-year giving (this is prevalent among online donors).

Like everything else, there is a way of doing a sophisticated model to determine this.  However, like only some things, there is also a fast, relatively easy, and free way to do it in Excel or similar spreadsheet:

  1. Pull all of the gifts at which you want to look.  I would recommend donors with at least three years of giving history and at least four gifts, so you have a sufficient history to work with.  You want the gifts labelled by a unique donor ID number.
  2. Label all of the gifts by month (1 = January, 12 = December, and everything in between)
  3. Run a pivot table that summarizes the gifts by donor with the min month and the max month.
  4. Subtract the min from the max.

(If you’d like a walkthrough of this in more detail, please email me at

Now look at the results.  The majority of donors will likely have a wide spread of 9, 10, or 11 months.  However, you will also see some 0-3 month spreads, meaning that over (at least) a three-year period and (at least) four gifts, they have given to you only in one quarter of the year.  Thus, you can likely reduce your costs on soliciting them in the other quarters of the year (not eliminate, as you don’t want them to forget you exist).

If you want to be very thorough, add six to each month number and repeat to capture those few donors who may focus their gifting around both the end and beginning of the year, but not the middle.

Premium v non-premium: This is actually the same analysis as the months, except instead of coding your gifts by month, you need to code your communications by whether they required a giveaway to give.  Some people will present as exclusively premium or non-premium donors.

This is powerful combined with seasonality analysis; if you find someone only gives at the beginning of the year to your membership campaign and has never given to a premium piece, you don’t need to send them address labels in May or the calendar in September or telemarket to them in June.  Instead, you can use lower cost (and more cultivative) pieces like donor newsletters to maintain the relationship with them.  Yes, this may only be saving $3 per year per donor, but if there are 10,000 of those donors on your file, you are talking about real money.

Out-of-place gifts: Someone has given you $10 times.  They just make their 11th gift to you: a $173 check.  What should you logically ask them for next time?

HPC says you should ask them for $173 (possibly rounding to $175).  Common sense says that the person may not have turned from a generally smaller donor to a prospective mid-major prospect overnight.

Research indicates a better answer is to use average donation of giving for longer-term donors.  Thus, you see the anomaly, take it into account, but don’t let it drive your decision making.

Another potential treatment is to use a continuous, rather than segmented, version of RFM.  We’ll discuss that tomorrow.

In the meantime, if you are interested in more research on ask strings and amounts you should ask for, I’m working on a book/white paper/whatever it ends up being on just that topic.  Newsletter subscribers will get a free PDF copy of it when it comes out, so if you would like one, please sign up for my free weekly newsletter here.

Vive le donor difference

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.

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Quantity versus quality of pieces in donorcentric fundraising