Sidestepping the Season of Sameness
It’s nearing the end of the year, a time when we come together and celebrate family, faith and the fact that our donation could be matched two to five times, if we act now, now, now!
So, you would think perusing a donor’s inbox.
I subscribed to newsletters from 64 of the top 100 fundraising nonprofits. In December, these organizations sent a total of 632 emails (about ten per). Ninety-four of them—one out of every seven emails—referenced a match in their subject line. This only intensified as the month went on—during the last two days of the year, this went to one in three. In fact, 10 percent of organizations extended their match deadline; one organization extended their deadline twice.
For perspective, only 85 emails mentioned Christmas, Chanukah or the holidays. And only four—less than one percent—said any form of “thank you.”
But, I can hear you saying through your computer screens, matching gifts are effective! Why wouldn’t I use them at the most critical time of the year for fundraising?
Well, there are a few reasons to zig, while others zag.
Matches Don’t Work as Well as You Might Think
When folks test a match, they generally look at a match versus non-match. In that contest, match will usually win. But when tested against other techniques, they often lose:
- Steffen Huck and colleagues found that lead gifts—when you announce there is a significant lead donor and don’t use that as a match—works better than a match itself.
- Uri Gneezy and colleagues found that it’s even better when you say that the lead gift covers the overhead for the campaign. This wipes the floor with matching campaigns.
- Dean Karlan and colleagues found that matches improve performance among active donors. They have no impact or a negative impact among lapsed donors or acquisition donors. (And, remember, I hadn’t donated to any of these organizations, so they were running matches as acquisition.)
Additionally, Mette Trier Damgaard and Christina Gravert found that giving deadlines online that are longer than two days hurt response rates.
Matches Tend to Talk About When—Not Why—to Give
This is likely why matches work for active audiences, who are likely to give, but not for lapsed or new donors: They aren’t persuading you to make a gift when you weren’t already inclined.
Here’s an actual December email, with only the name of the organization and the amounts taken out:
“All gifts doubled. Give now >>
December is a big fundraising month for XXX, and right now, we’re behind. The 15th of the month is almost here, but we’ve only raised XXX—leaving us XXX behind.
Will you help?
2017 is going to be a big year for us, but only if we can hit our goals. The mid-month milestone is a pivotal moment for our fundraising. And if we start the second part of the month behind, it will be hard to catch up.”
If you can guess the organization who sent this, you are a better person than I. Contrast this with:
“Your generosity gives hope to XXX cancer patients, like Kenlie, Devon and Marleigh. Thanks to friends like you, families like theirs will never receive a bill from XXX for treatment, travel, housing or food—because all a family should worry about his helping their child live.”
Of course, this is St. Jude. Of course, it does a great job of laying out why you would give to them.
If someone else could run the same appeal with the names changed, it probably isn’t a good persuader. And that leads us to…
Matching Gifts Only Work When the Underlying Messaging Is Sound
We had the pleasure of seeing results from a seven-email, matching-gift campaign that ran recently. The differences between the emails were wild—some emails from early in the series performed five, even 10, times better than others. They explained that they’d used some of their most effective messaging from earlier in the year in those emails, whereas the others were messaging they were simply trying.
In other words, strong message and story leaves technique in the dust.
Matching Gifts Train Your Donor File Around the Wrong Thing
Two forces are at work here: One is self-selection. If you frequently run matches, you will attract donors who want their gift matched. The other is that you train your donors who are ambivalent that they should be looking for their gift to double or triple.
Now, look at your competition. They are doing matches, too. They just went to triple match from double match. They are doing a 10-time flash match.
You become like a coupon-centric retailer. You won’t sell much at full price because you don’t have those customers any more. You are competing on price. And that’s a spiral that doesn’t go upward.
So here’s my Christmas/Chanukah/holiday wish for you: I wish for you a test.
It could be sending part of your file no match, or sending a thank-you email, or seeing what happens when you email 10 times instead of 12, or spending the time to customize your emails with why particular individuals give, or a lead gift test.
Because the test fairy leaves the best gift: starting the new year fresh, knowing more than you knew. You’ll have either a new direction or renewed confidence in your current strategy. And that’s a wonderful feeling.
Nick Ellinger joined the Moore, where he works to increase the automation and customization of fundraising as chief brand officer, in January 2020. Before that, he was DonorVoice’s vice president of marketing strategy, working with organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Share our Strength | No Kid Hungry, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation to look at their fundraising with a different lens. He developed his direct fundraising muscle running Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s direct marketing program for a decade. He’s also the author of "The New Nonprofit" to challenge fundraising norms.