7 (Re)Marks of the Amateur, Made by Professionals

There are many innocent assumptions that folks outside the nonprofit fundraising community might make about fundraising that become egregious mistakes when made by direct response fundraising professionals.

What is surprising is how often the pros make them. Here are just a few that make me wince:

  1. “This appeal doesn’t come from the events side, it comes from the development side. It’s a completely different thing.”
    Think donors bother differentiating among voices, messages and offers coming from a single organization? Think again. It’s one organization, with one persona.
  2. “I would hate to get this in the mail.”
    Unless you are the precise statistical equivalent of the typical donor, your personal tastes and reactions are irrelevant.
  3. “The first mailing explained the program. The follow-up doesn’t have to.”
    This assumes the first effort was even read, much less absorbed and retained. To paraphrase Dale Carnegie: Tell them what you are going to ask them. Then ask them. Then tell them what you asked them. From component to component and campaign to campaign.
  4. “It doesn’t matter that all the variables are different. It’s a creative test.”
    So then, what will we learn if it is a success? Or a failure, for that matter? Although throwing entirely new creative treatments into a test mix may be tempting, some variables in the campaign must be controlled to understand what happened. Segment, offer, signer, ask? They can’t all be variable.
  5. Our average donor is a 70 years old and female. She doesn’t use (the computer) (email) (the internet) (a smart phone).” Don’t mistake unwillingness to provide credit card information online with proficiency in the digital world. Statistics confirm that seniors do engage in digital technology and communication.  Digital media may occupy different places in their lives, however.
  6. “Direct mail is a dying medium.”
    The role of direct mail is a changing, no doubt. But for the time being it still carries the disproportionate load of charitable transactions, and will continue to do so, albeit on a decreasing slope, until the youngest segments of Boomers (now in their late 40s) enter their prime giving years (60-80). See the excellent infographic from Blackbaud.
  7. “You can’t raise money with social media, so don’t bother testing.”
    It’s true, currently, that social media has not met with much real fundraising success. At least no one has yet to figure it out. But that could be because the population of social users for whom social media is most relevant is also the population with the least current means and propensity to give — donors under the age of 40. Wait until they accrue some wealth, raise their kids, and become able to start giving regularly. In the meantime, social is still an effective communication and engagement medium. Bottom line: we need to keep testing.

What have you heard within the industry that makes you wince just a little bit?

Lapsed in Translation

Two things irritate me more than anything as a donor. First, fail to thank me promptly. Second, imply, even in gentle terms, that my continued support is overdue or inactive when in my mind it is not.

As a fundraising professional, like most, I am diligent about ensuring the former. There is no excuse, ever, for a donor not to be thanked promptly and sincerely.

But I am struck how quickly the fundraising industry as a whole is guilty of the latter.

“It’s been a while since we heard from you…”

“You’ve been so loyal in the past, I hope you will return to us…”

And the annoyingly presumptive:

“Perhaps our letters have crossed…”

“I know economic times are tough, so perhaps you have more pressing concerns…”

The term used occasionally is “WHYFU,” as in “Why Have You Forsaken Us?” The idea, I suppose, is to leverage one of the accepted emotional drivers in direct response copywriting — guilt — to drive a lapsed donor back into the fold.

That may be the crux of the issue. Within the discipline of list segmentation, it is accepted DM practice to define donors who have not given in a prescribed period as “lapsed”. For some non-profits, that may be as little as 13 months between gifts.

And that’s OK as a segment descriptor as long as you don’t start speaking to the donors within that segment as if you consider them such.

Cue the copywriter.

Although the strategy may be sound — making them feel guilty for their inactivity — we must be careful not to actually say it in those terms. In fact, it makes sense to reinforce the importance of the continuity of their past commitment, focusing on the steadiness of their best range of frequency in the past, rather than the recency of their last gift.

“When times are tough, I know I can count on you…”

“You’ve always been there for us, through thick and thin, and I hope you know how much I appreciate it…”

“Your support has been a reason we were able to treat over 15,000 kids last year…”

The fact is, many engaged donors think in terms of yearly giving when they think of their favored charities. They budget their once-a-year gifts to a select few. And that means calendar years, not strict clusters of 12 consecutive months. Furthermore, they may not be tied to a pre-determined time of the year to give, especially in a turbulent financial environment.

An example: Aunt Ramona gave in January 2009, March 2010, and June 2011, and not yet in 2012 (although she will before December 31 to claim her tax deduction). To her way of thinking she is still giving annually, once a year, for the last 4 years.

Her charity, on the other hand, might very well have described her as lapsed in February 2010, again in April 2011 and again in July of this year.

It’s certainly one thing to point out to a donor that ”we haven’t heard from you” and “we want you back” if it has been literally years since the last gift. But use that language on donors (like me and Aunt Ramona) who think they are regular annual givers, and you risk weakening rather than cultivating donor relationships.