How Much Asking is Too Much?
To hear some fundraisers talk, you might think donors are so fragile they have to be handled with exaggerated care lest they disappear in a puff of acrid smoke.
To avoid that, you walk around on tiptoes, not daring to speak to them too often (or too emphatically) because they might “burn out.”
Conventional fundraising wisdom has it that donors’ gifts are a limited resource, like an old-growth forest: Ask too often without substantial “resting” periods, and you can “overharvest” — you’ve chopped down all the trees quicker than new ones can grow.
Sounds plausible, but it’s wrong. In fact, the donor-burnout myth is one of the most harmful forces in our industry.
The limited-resource view of fundraising is based on a fundamentally unrealistic view of human nature. If you want a more realistic approach, don’t think of fundraising as a kind of removing; instead, think of it as a kind of cultivating. When you motivate a donor to give, you haven’t taken a tree out of a forest that needs time to regrow. It’s more like you’ve pruned a rose bush, encouraging more and better growth.
While a $50 gift does indeed take $50 out of the donor’s bank account, the donor ends up richer, not poorer, for the transaction — because this transaction involves much more than just money. (Ask people who choose poverty or a monastic life for spiritual reasons if they think giving things away leaves you richer or poorer.)
Giving feels good. When someone gives, they usually want to give again.
That’s why the No. 1 predictor of a donor’s likeliness to give is the recency of her last gift.
Your own data supports this: The response rate of donors whose previous gift was six months ago is twice as high as those whose previous gift was 12 months ago. And among donors who haven’t given for two years, the response rate drops to less than half what it is for those who last gave 12 months ago.
In other words, donors who have had less “rest” from fundraising give more than those who are well rested.
The more you ask …
If you’re avoiding asking donors who recently gave, you’re actually missing the time when they’re most likely to give. You’re waiting until their passion cools before asking them again. Worse even than that: While you’re maintaining your careful silence, someone else is talking to them. The passion and good feelings you helped spark are benefiting someone else.
Really, it’s almost freaky: The more you ask, the more you’ll get. Donors like to give. They like to hear from you. Unless you’re doing a truly terrible job of fundraising, the impacts you send are much more positive events than negative ones in most donors’ lives.
There are exceptions, of course. There are donors who complain loudly that they never get a moment’s peace from your nagging appeals for money.
But look at the numbers: The ratio of those who said “Yes” by writing a check to those who said “No” by complaining is many thousands to one. Even if you hold the specious belief that every complainer represents several others who feel exactly the same way but didn’t complain — even then, the ratio is thousands of “Yes” votes to every “No.” Which group should be influencing your thinking more?
I don’t want to give you the impression that the world of donors is like some happy village of always-enthusiastic Smurfs. Donors do get annoyed with the charities they support. Sometimes they leave in a huff. Some even spread negative word-of-mouth.
But the real problem rarely is that there was too much communication. It almost always is that there wasn’t enough relevance.
If what you say to a donor is irrelevant to her, it doesn’t matter how much or little you send. Even one touch is “too much.” Being relevant is what should be keeping you up late — not quantity of impacts.
So here are four ways to prevent donor burnout by increasing your relevance in their lives:
1. Pay attention to your data. Rather than letting your hunches and fears guide your fundraising, rely on facts. Let donor behavior be your guide. Fine-tune your segmentation to reduce mail sent to those unlikely to respond. Consider a predictive modeling solution to help you send the right stuff to the right donors at the right times.
2. Acknowledge gifts — promptly. The fast track to becoming irrelevant in a donor’s world is to fail to acknowledge her gift — or to take so long doing so she no longer remembers giving. The message you send when you don’t acknowledge donor gifts is loud and clear: “Your gift was irrelevant to us.” And irrelevance is reciprocal.
3. Report back. When a donor gives to your organization, does she find out specifically what impact her giving makes? If not, you have little chance of becoming a meaningful part of her life. Thank-you letters, newsletters and other forms of reporting back make all the difference. They can dramatically increase your revenue and file health.
4. Offer choices. Giving donors control over how they’ll hear from you, when and about what can really cement the relationship. It’s simple: Specifically ask them what they want — then do it. The funny thing is, while only a small minority (5 percent to 10 percent) exercise any choice at all, the very fact that you offer choice leads to longer retention and more giving.
Yes, donor burnout is a dangerous thing — but not in the way most fundraisers think. The real damage done to nonprofits is when they surrender to it without proof that it even exists. They don’t ask, so they don’t receive. Donor burnout is a self-fulfilling fear. FS
Jeff Brooks is senior creative director at full-service direct-response agency Merkle, with offices in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and London.