Cover Story: Gentle Persuaders
It’s a stunningly perfect, late-summer day in the nation’s capital, and Carsten Walter is doing his best Homer Simpson impression — though maybe not on purpose. The affable, animated Walter slaps the heel of his hand against his forehead, rolls his eyes and explains how certain “duh moments” play into his work as director of membership programs at D.C.’s venerable Heritage Foundation.
“You think, ‘Dammit, why haven’t we been doing [more of] this?’ “ he says of those realizations that come in a flash and are so sweet in their simplicity that it’s almost shameful they weren’t thought of before.
“It’s common sense,” he says. “If you make a $15 contribution to an organization, how do you want to be treated? First, you want to be thanked. You want to be treated with respect. You want to know where the gift is going and what impact it’ll have.
“And it is as simple as thanking a donor,” he continues. “It’s fundamental. It’s incumbent on any organization to thank a donor. But you can look at case after case of organizations that don’t do that.”
At the Heritage Foundation, those “duh moments” added up to a return to basics, but don’t be fooled by the simplicity of that oft-used phrase. Heritage re-embraced the basics and combined that with a fresh “donor as friend” philosophy. The result was a very specific plan of action that, in a head-to-head test, resulted in a nearly 30 percent cumulative increase in contributions over three years.
It all started in 2000, when two senior research associates at a Chicago ad agency offered to do some pro bono work for the Heritage Foundation and created an eight-page, 300-question survey to gather data about the conservative think tank’s members.
The survey asked not for money, but for information, and was sent to 10,000-15,000 people who cut across Heritage’s donor and potential donor segments — active, lapsed, contributors to other conservative groups, etc. — and to the general public of all political leanings. Walter says the response rate varied from 12 percent to 20 percent according to segment.