Focus On: Upgrading Donors: Be Persistent, Not Pushy
There’s a reason many charities are reluctant to engage in techniques to upgrade their donors — or fail to do so altogether. Call it the “fear factor.”
They’re afraid donors will get irritated and stop sending gifts. They’re afraid a donor will give the upgrade letter to a board member and complain about the “pressure.”
Be not afraid. I bring you tidings of great joy. Fact: It has never been proven by any reliable statistical measurement that reasonable upgrading techniques will result in a substantial attrition of the donor file.
On the other hand, it has been proven, over and over again, by extremely dependable statistical measurements, that creative and methodical upgrading techniques almost always result in substantial increases in net income.
So, relax. Get into group therapy, if necessary. Stop letting the fear factor make your decisions.
Upgrading is a significant “must.” Especially during this long donor bear market. How long will the decline last? Several more years? When will the pool of available donor names stop shrinking?
I remember back in the 1970s — don’t you just hate it when an old fart starts out like that? — when there were so many good donor names available that many charities simply didn’t have the money to mail to all of them. Donor attrition was not a problem, and we were prospecting at a comfortable profit.
Ah, but today? I can certainly understand why some charities are afraid to do anything that might drive a donor away. But I’ve mounted this pulpit to tell you that it’s better to take the risk of pushing your donors too far, too fast than to stagnate. Easy for me to say, of course.
Consider this statistical reality: If you can’t afford to recruit a new donor, and your current donors give at the same level as before, and the inevitability of attrition continues to work its damage, then how will you increase your income? You won’t. You’ll just hope that you can hang on long enough to take early retirement and let the next unfortunate executive fret with it all.
Upgrading must become a way of life, a constant attitude, based on a consummate belief in the power of suggestion. Upgrade or die.
If you’ve been in this business for 20 years and have been participating in upgrading programs for as far back as you can remember, you can skip the next few paragraphs.
But if your forehead is not yet etched with age and experience, and you go to conventions and hear people pontificate on donor upgrading and wonder what it’s all about, then read on.
Successful direct mail fundraisers pay homage to the “Holy Triangle.” You can create your own shrine and begin worshipping right now: First, draw a triangle on a piece of paper. At the base of the triangle write “100 Annual Gifts,” and shade out the bottom two-thirds.
Next, write “10 Major Gifts,” and shade out the next nine-tenths of the triangle. Finally, write “One Planned Gift” at the very, tippy top.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work — and sometimes it actually does. But regardless, that’s your goal as you move these single-gift $10 prospects up to the top of the triangle.
You already know that 10 percent of your donors give 80 percent of your money. That makes you nervous. Are you tempted to leave that 10 percent alone and not take any risks? That might be a good idea. You really shouldn’t ask a donor who gave $10,000 to give $20,000, $40,000 or $100,000. So, at that high level, go real easy with dollar amounts, but give those donors lots of stimuli, lots of information, personalized letters and good old-fashioned stroking.
As for the rest of your donors, be proactive. You have to make it happen.
Every communication you have with a donor — whether it’s by mail or by telephone or in person — must utilize a strategy of some kind that will encourage the donor to make a larger gift than the last one.
I repeat: Upgrading is an attitude. A way of life. You have to make it happen.
We can divide the upgrading process into two main categories: new donors and multiple-gift donors.
Let’s begin with new donors and examine the Second Gift Strategy.
Please don’t burst into tears when you learn — or remember from your own bitter experience — that if your prospect package brings in 100 donors, 50 of them will never send a second gift. (Work out the math for yourself if you don’t believe me.)
But the attrition might be even worse if you don’t do one or more of many things to get both a second gift, and a larger gift, as soon as possible. For example:
1. Thank-you letters: Rush a “thank you” letter to a new donor immediately upon receipt of a gift. Don’t wait 90 days ... or even 30 days. Figure out how to do it. If the people in the mailroom and data processing say it can’t be done, then give them all two weeks notice and hire a “can do” staff.
Remember, when a donor sends a gift, it’s much like buying merchandise. Folks these days expect a practically overnight response. Why should your “thank you” letter be any slower?
Speed in replying to a new donor is so important because the individual who has sent you a gift is not going to remain focused on the excitement of writing a check and mailing it to you indefinitely. In fact, probably no more than about 60 seconds. So you need to immediately show your appreciation by getting something into his hands and making him think about you again.
And, yes, suggest gift amounts higher than the initial gift.
2. Response premium: If you’re sending a token of appreciation to a new donor, send a reply form and a reply envelope too, along with a note suggesting another gift. And since that letter probably won’t be personalized, put in some brackets that go from low to high. Get bold: Say, “Perhaps you can double the amount of the gift you recently gave.”
3. New-donor welcome letter: After the new donor has made a gift and you send out that quick thank-you letter and the response item, then send out the welcome letter, the strongest appeal you have, suggesting higher dollar amounts.
These steps are quite basic, and a lot of organizations have a variety of other techniques they use to achieve the same upgrading results with a new donor.
Other organizations are quite polite and reluctant to take any risks with new donors. Usually at a convention, you’ll find their executives sipping Bloody Marys at the bar during the 9:30 a.m. opening ceremonies.
After you set up a new-donor upgrade program, you must address the upgrading techniques for multiple donors. Give them a reason, a structure, a relationship to upgrade. Don’t just cry, “We need more money.” Here are a few upgrading motivators:
1. A special giving club. Give it a specific name and give the donor an opportunity to “belong.” Call it what you will — the President’s Club, the Committee of 1,000. It doesn’t really matter, just so the name somehow fits into your program.
2. A special project. This could be a broad initiative, such as saving America’s old trees, or it could be something more narrow in scope, like saving the grizzly bear. But it has to be bold, grand and important.
3. An emergency. Did that last typhoon blow the roof off your medical clinic? A great upgrade possibility! (Oh, relax. This is not being manipulative with your donors. This is simply responding to what fate hands you.) Show your donors how much it’s going to cost to put a new roof on the clinic, and then suggest dollar amounts higher than their previous giving level.
4. The time-honored matching gift. You know what this means. Everyone does it — simply because it works. So if your donor has been sending gifts in the range of $15, suggest a $30 gift because when it’s matched it becomes $60! (If any reader of this publication has mailed a matching gift appeal that didn’t work, e-mail me with the data and I’ll make a sizable, less-than-seven-figures contribution to your organization.)
5. The annual fund renewal. Again, another opportunity to upgrade.
6. Membership renewal. When you send the new membership card, ask for a gift that’s larger than the amount the donor sent last year.
7. A monthly giving program. This is the best upgrade of them all. Monthly donors are much less apt to lapse than annual donors, for the obvious reason that they are thinking of you every month of the year and you’re communicating with them at least as often.
Of course, only a very, very small percentage of donors will become monthly donors. But that percentage is rather fixed. Statistically, those donors are out there and if you don’t enroll them into a monthly program, some other organization will.
If a donor has been sending you gifts of $20 and you enroll him in a $10-a-month giving program, then you’re going to get a lot more net income from that donor — and probably the donor will become more committed to your charity, because he or she will cut back on gifts to another charity. (That’s the way it works, folks. This is not the United Way, so there will be a winner and there will be a loser. You were hired to make your organization the winner.)
Is it worth their while?
Give your donor a specific incentive for upgrading. For example, a local museum can offer an additional benefit, such as parking or use of the lounge or … just about anything works.
Whatever your membership hierarchy, be sure to tell each level what folks in the level above them receive and “sell” the additional privileges.
What statistical data do you use to determine the upgrade amount that you’re going to put in your letter and/or reply form?
This is an assignment where you need someone good at manipulating statistics — and that’s obviously not a guy like me. Some organizations base the upgrade amount on the highest previous gift in the donor’s history. This can cause interesting problems if, say, a donor sent you a special, once-in-a-lifetime $500 gift and you keep sending letters that say, “Please send $500, $750 or $1,000.” You need to flag gifts of unusual amounts compared to the donor’s average gifts.
To * or not to *?
On the reply form, you need to suggest several dollar amounts. This can be based on a) a simple string from low to high or b) a computer-generated string from low to high based on the donor’s previous history. Either way, one technique is to put an asterisk above the upgrade amount, and then repeat the asterisk below with a note such as, “We really need this amount, if you possibly can, Mrs. Jones.”
Also, you can circle the upgrade figure and draw an arrow to the note. But, alas, both of these time-honored techniques have come under suspicion in recent years. Perhaps they are just too mechanical and obvious. So you’d better test.
Also, test just putting a single dollar amount on the reply form. Will that depress results? Probably not. If the amount is too high, the donor will write a check for a lesser amount. But that lesser amount might be higher than it would have been without the suggestion of a higher amount.
If you do fundraising by phone, meet with your outbound telemarketing agency and talk to them about the use of suggested dollar amounts in the phone script. This is effective for just about any campaign, and the more specific the campaign, the better it will work. For example, never call a donor and just ask her to renew her membership. Ask her to renew her membership, BECAUSE …
The “because” equation
This brings me, finally, to a very simple but useful technique. I’ll leave it up to you to work out the details, but here’s the concept. Never write: “Mrs. Jones, I’m asking you to give a gift of $50 today.” Never. Instead, write: “Mrs. Jones, I’m asking you to give a gift of $50 today, because … “ And nail the “because.” Without a good “because,” none of this stuff will work very well.
That’s it for now. Stay focused on upgrading all the time. Make it a way of life. Yes, you are going to make mistakes and donors are going to write letters fussing at you, and you are going to worry about a phone call from the Board chair. Hang tough.
After 42 years in direct marketing, Jerry Huntsinger would dearly like to retire, but his wife has too many expensive hobbies. So he continues to write packages and freelance, and he is senior creative consultant at Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company, Arlington, VA. You can e-mail Jerry at email@example.com.