Fundraising’s neglected “Thank You” opportunity

Every good fundraising book, workshop and blog will tell you how important it is to thank your donors.  Quickly.  And often.

Yet almost every organization neglects one compelling point of “Thank You” … at the beginning of each appeal to donors.

Fundraising appeals are too often just like acquisition communications.  They open with …

“Problem.  Problem.  Won’t you help us solve this problem?”  Or …

“We did a great thing.  We did another great thing.  Please help us do the next great thing.”

Both of these wholly ignore my relationship with the organization and its mission.  How about ..

“You helped us solve this problem.  Thanks!  Won’t you please help us solve the next?”  Or …

“You helped us do this great thing.  Thanks!  Won’t you please help us do this next great thing?”

A reasonably current donor is usually treated like a prospect.   If I’m acknowledged, it’s later in the letter.  Great, if I read that far.  Why not affirm my relationship and build on it from the get-go.

Common reasons this doesn’t happen:

1)  You’re using the same letter for donors and prospects.  In which case, donors are never acknowledged.   If so, how about a significant segmentation of donors vs. prospects.   You really have different messaging if you’re talking to an ongoing supporter vs someone who’s like-minded (based on the list) but not given to YOU.  In one, you’re reinforcing, in the other you really need to distinguish your handling of the mission against all the other wildlife/disease/whatever other list sources you may be using.

2)  You’re mailing to everyone who’s contributed within the last two to ten years.  And you’re uncomfortable talking to long-expired donors in such a chummy way.   If so, get over it.   Thanking people who have given is an “assumptive sell” … affirming their self-perception as supporters no matter how long ago they may have actually donated.

What’s the risk?   “These people are STILL grateful! … What’s wrong with them?”   Not too bad.  Especially considering the upside of treating donors as donors and building on an existing relationship.

3)  You want to hook people with a story in the letter opening.   Fair enough.   But the relationship is a good hook and doesn’t use up all that much space in the opening.   You also have other “first read” options in a letter:  an overline/Johnson Box, a block-indented paragraph early in the letter, the start of the P.S.   Consider.

4)  You don’t want people to mistake this letter for an acknowledgement.   Good thought, but this letter need not start of with the words “Thank You” to quickly work in that sentiment.

Sure, keep acknowledgements distinct from appeals.   Continue/start to message donors differently than prospects.  But look for ways to take advantage of this most neglected opportunity to leverage your relationship with donors.

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Copywriting quote of the day

“We should not write so that it is possible for the reader to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us.”

  –Quintilian (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus), c. 35-100 CE

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The #1 Secret to Writing Fundraising Letters that Maximize Results

I’ve beaten a fair number of fundraising controls over the years, but only recently did I stop to compare my overall approach to that taken by most copywriters.   Here it is:

Most writers assume that readers will start at the opening of a letter and read through to the end.

Pretty much all clients have this expectation.  They review a letter by starting at the opening and reading to the end.   Pretty much all reviewers look for some logical progression of ideas.   First this, then that, and therefore the other thing.   The crisis / case for giving, how your donation will help us fulfill our mission, now make a gift.

My assumption:  Readers will pick up the four page letter, look at their name in the salutation, flip over to the P.S., then shuffle the letter around in their hands, maybe start reading here, maybe start reading someplace else, jump around a bit, and then, after this ragged scanning, MAYBE start reading at the beginning.

Chances are pretty good that they will have made a giving decision before they start at the top.   They will certainly know what’s being asked of them.   If they read from the beginning, it’s to gain some intellectual rationale for the irrational decision to give away their hard-earning money.

Some clients balk at this because it usually means a half dozen requests for money throughout the letter.

Content is repetitive.   Key case-for-giving points are made again and again.

And it can LOOK CRAZY! … with lots of ellipses, block indents, bold-face type, underscoring and even ALL CAPS.

The purpose of all these visual clues, of course, is to cue readers to start RIGHT THERE if something looks the least bit interesting.

Sure, there’s progression of ideas.  On a good day, the emotion of the letter builds over the pages.  But nonetheless, the letter is always structured to sell readership throughout the letter, no matter where the reader’s eyes may land.

So it takes more than looking crazy.  But repetition and a crazy look are good signs you’re on the right path.

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Zen and fundraising response metrics

British philosopher Alan Watts is most know this side of the pond for his books on Zen Buddhism.  One Watts stand-out that has value for fundraisers beyond mystical matters is Wisdom of Insecurity, from which I quote …

“If you want to study a river you don’t take out a bucketful of water and stare at it on the shore. A river is not its water, and by taking the water out of the river, you lose the essential quality of river, which is its motion, its activity, its flow.”

The point?  For all we rely on response metrics when making fundraising decisions, we must retain some sensitivity for the context of each appeal and remain open to the long-term benefits of donor-focused and even mission-specific communications.

No communication can be read out of context.  Everything is affected by what led up to it.  And everything affects what follows.   I argue that the effect means that you CAN NOT wholly trust the 95% reliability numbers …

… especially when you can not or do not really TEST echo effects in subsequent appeals.

Not many organizations have the volume or budget or patience to measure the secondary effects of appeals.  But they can be significant enough to offset dollar loss on the initial effort.

We (almost) all accept the value of acknowledgements.  Thank Yous never break even, but we act on the assumption that they support lifetime value.

Newsletters don’t usually break even.  Some organizations use them for non-monetized “good will.”   Some maybe for accounting rationales, so mailing expenses are better spread over “educational” vs. “fundraising.”  But they can and do have an effect.

What about a no-ask holiday card?   I don’t receive many of these, but have seen them worked with a few organizations that had the quantity to split test and read the subsequent lift in giving … which was plenty significant enough to offset the holiday card mailing.

No-ask holiday phone call?   Yes, when one organization with a list in the millions tested a no-ask “Thanks for your support and happy holidays” call, they got a big enough lift in the following quarter to demonstrate the value.

That phone call fell out of the program as the organization changed agencies and lost the lore.   I can’t know if it would still work for that group or will work for others.   Very, very few have the quantity to test this.

But it did and can.   And those newsletter can and probably do lift response to subsequent mail appeals.

Special cultivation efforts can and do lift response and average gift.   The more personal the better.   A hand-written note in the holiday card.  A hand-written Thank You.  Etc. Etc. Etc.

The metrics you use re essential.  But please don’t focus on “event” response — seeing the bucket while missing opportunities downstream.

(Uh, oh.  This post written without thinking about “The Zen of Fundraising” … a book worth your time.)

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A/B testing in fundraising and beyond

I hadn’t realized how much A/B testing was being done online by ALL KINDS of organizations and enterprises until seeing this article in a recent Wired Magazine.   Read it.  Won’t take long.

You probably can’t do this kind of testing yourself.   Not enough tech resources.  Plus most organizations have lists too small to do A/B testing that generates statistically significant results … a big reason I started this blog, hoping the share tests done by big orgs with small.

The Wired article discusses web organizations that are driven by A/B testing in effective — and sometime radical — ways.   When you DO have the resources, you can put up parallel web pages and deliver them randomly to users, and read the results instantly.  A lot quick than mail programs, for sure.

Fundraising, for the ’08 Obama campaign and others, can fine-tune aspects of their sites to get more email addresses or donations.   Consumer outfits can boost sales.  Google used A/B to shape their search mechanisms and they way they deliver results to users.

A couple of lessons that all fundraising organizations should learn about testing:

— The risk is making only tiny improvements.    If you’re investing in testing, don’t fine-tune when you can transform.

— Data makes the call.   The statistical winner wins.  Not the head of the organization.   The Wired article notes that “A/B tends to shift the whole operating philosophy — even the power structure — of companies that adopt it.”  Decisions start being made based on what works.  Not what you like.

One theme throughout:   Testing proves the truth of the unexpected.  What works is not what you expect to work.

Why does some design or technique or copy approach outperform others?

Doesn’t matter.  Just be glad you know what works and use it.

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The statistical dark side of lifetime value

Warning:  Today’s post is for stats geeks.

The potential lifetime value of our donors drives many of our fundraising decisions, quite rightly.  Perhaps, though, we too often overlook a downside … the actual lifetime cost of maintaining each donor.

Acquisition is expensive.   A $50 cost for a $25 first-time gift is not uncommon.  Mileage may vary.

Most organizations then spend more on that new donor in the form of a welcome kit and a newsletter or two.  Then …

More than half of first-time donors never give again.  Ouch … a significant net loss.

That’s a lot of bad news, so what’s the useful thought out of all this?

First, lifetime value calculated across all donors — one-timers and multis — is a fair measure of the health of your fundraising program.

But maybe it’s worth staring at the new-donors expenses for two reasons.

First:  Make sure that your communications to first-time donors is as effective as possible.   Get a second gift moves them into a whole new realm of potential value, so go for it.

Second:  When going to lapsed donors, consider more than the recency of the last gift.   A lapsed multi is pretty much always worth the effort.  (By that I mean someone who has giving multiple years in a row, but not made a gift in the last 48 months, or whatever your “active” measure might be.)   Even long-lapsed multis have proven their potential lifetime value.

But you might want to segment a long-lapsed small-gift one time donor separately.  These people lost you money when you first acquired them.  They never really demonstrated value … only expense.

I’m not suggesting that you don’t mail this latter group.   Just that you segment them and measure the response results separately from other lapsed donors.   And track their subsequent giving behavior.

They are different.  It may cost less to RE-acquire these people than to acquire wholly new donors.  But they may once again have LESS LIFETIME VALUE on average than those newly acquired donors.

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Fundraising: Price on the head of a renewed donor

Only one number really counts in rationalizing the cost of a fundraising renewal:   Your cost of acquisition of a new donor.

Is it worth doing a second renewal mailing? … or a third?

Do the math.   Keep sending renewals until the cost of renewing a donor exceeds the cost of acquiring a new donor.

You can rationalize an even greater expense to renew any donor for the first time, of course.   The statistical lifetime value of each first-year renewal is immense.   Here you might  compare the value of someone who doesn’t renew, which is about, uh, nothing.

Acquisition costs are high, with no decline in sight.   Do the math when considering any investment in retention, particularly first-year retention.

Oh, and let’s not forget that similar math comes into play when considering welcome kits and other types of acknowledgment.(

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How to begin a fundraising letter

In consumer direct mail marketing, the rule is “always start with the reply form.”   That’s often the first thing recipients look at, since you must there lay out your proposition.

Ok, a clear proposition is a good place to start.   And I always want to know if I’m using a survey, petition, or other reply technique.   But I can’t really get traction until I get pretty deep into a letter, especially a 4 or more page letter, my usual task.   Then I write seven pages or so, to lay out the broader proposition in full conversational mode.  Only then do I write the full reply.  Before going back to edit the letter.

In any case, the “write the reply first” rule needs further consideration.  And I really like the following expression of this matter, a quote from Pauline Lockier on writing the UK’s first Salvation Army prospect letter, recently published in the Sofii Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration.

B: How do you begin?

PL: Many people say you should start with a donation form, because it sums up what you want people to do. I can’t ever do that because I have no voice, no music in my head, I have no voice that this appeal is going to take, it’s just an instruction. So I need to find a voice: I like lyricism and rhythm and phrasing in copy, I don’t like ugly copy. So I tend to write the first three paragraphs over and over and over again until I find a voice that I’m happy with – a voice that resonates with the organisation that I’m writing for and resonaties with this reader, in my head.  So it’s got to match those two things and only when that goes clang do I carry on.

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Emotion is the prime donor driver for mail/email fundraising programs (not reason!)

A couple of recent posts in The Agitator have touched on the issue of whether reason or emotion drives donations.  Good material, take a look, and subscribe to The Agitator.

The one distinction that might be clearer in that debate is:  Donation under what circumstances?

For me and my clients, the only situation that matters is the moment when a prospect or donor is opening your letter, while she’s standing over her trash can, sorting her mail.

For many people, most generally, making monetary gifts may be well considered.

For our mail or email recipient, we’re counting on a “decision” in a heartbeat … not really a decision so much as a reaction.

And that would be an emotional reaction, for all the reasons you know and also well cited in the Agitator posts and comments.

For a bit of backing of that idea, check out Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.   Get the book, but for now you can get the gist by reading his article in the New York Review of Books.

Thinking Fast — System One per Kahneman — is an early evolutionary asset, reactive, based on limited information, largely driven by emotion.   The mind first “reasons” by bouncing things off memories, and the strongest memories have rich emotional content.

System Two is Thinking Slow, and we don’t get around to it much.   This is conscious thinking, critical examination, the deliberative process that would have people looking up your organization’s supposed percentage spent on programs etc.   Important for some, and in some instances, and for gifts of some size … but I’ll argue it really doesn’t come into play for our dear, beloved donor standing over her waste basket.

We are of course narrowing down “donation” to response to fundraising marketing.  But that’s our point here at happydonors.

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Why donors don’t read your fundraising letters …

As someone who writes direct marketing fundraising letters, I can boast that more people have read my scintillating writing than the words of most published authors.

Little solace, however, when acknowledging how many people have received this compelling prose, but not bothered to open the envelope, let alone finish the letter.

The envelope has a story of its own.  And I care little if 98% of recipients never get to the last line as long as 2% cut a check to my client.   And I care not if those 2% read a word, for that matter.

Numbers are the game in direct marketing, and you don’t need much readership when you’re sending the right messaging to the right audience.   Let’s say you have that, and a decent envelope teaser.

What could then go wrong?  A few possibilities …

1) You open the letter talking about yourself.    Sadly (or perhaps not) our readers care more about themselves than any of our organizations.   If you don’t engage me with something about ME and MY PARTICULAR INTERESTS in the first you lines, you risk losing my readership.

If your list is good, the readers’ particular interest will be your mission.  Or those you help.  But in any case, you should start off by immediately engaging me with the fact that I can be a hero.  Or I’ve been a hero and can repeat that.  Or some poor soul is deeply grateful.  And counting on me.

About me, in any case.

2)  Your letter doesn’t look and “feel” personal.   Generally speaking, the more a fundraising communication looks and reads like PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE, the more likely potential donors are to read it.

We’re not fooling anybody.  They know it’s a mass produced missive.  But the engage with a letter personally when it looks and feels personal.  That means indented first lines of paragraphs and typewriter fonts.

3)  The letter reads like it’s written.

Fundraising letters are not really a written medium.  They are auditory.  They work best when they read like the spoken word.  They should sound like a friend talking to you.

4)  I can’t easily scan your letter and/or when I scan, nothing grabs my attention and buys my readership.

People don’t pick up a letter and start reading from the beginning.  First the scope the P.S., then the opening (oops, did you lose ’em there?), then flip the pages around a bit.  That’s why good writers have short paragraphs, block indents, underscoring, boldface, and other visual cues that get folks to pause and read a phrase or two.

Not scannable = not as likely read.  So make sure your letters are well “designed” to maximize engagement.  A first step:  is the type big enough and paragraphs short enough to be EASY TO READ?

There are many more reasons people don’t read your fundraising letters.  The biggest is that they’re just too busy at THAT MOMENT when they pick up your mail.   More on all this later.  Meanwhile — my friend Otis Maxwell has written a book about direct marketing that worth you time.  Here’s a free chapter on “How to Keep Readers on the Hook” that has more useful thoughts about getting people to read letters of all kinds.

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