How made-up stories about donors confuse us

Through the years, I’ve noticed something odd we fundraisers do: When we look at the results of a direct marketing campaign, we often make up narratives about our donors to help explain what happened. Like this:


We change the color of the teaser on the envelope from blue to red. The appeal performs worse than expected. In the post-mortem discussion, someone puts it this way: The donors were annoyed by the red teaser and threw it away without opening it.


Thing is, that story is fiction. It could be true, but we don’t know. The only facts we have are the response numbers in front of us.


It’s easier to remember a made-up narrative than a fact like “the ’10 appeal had a 14% lower response rate than the ’09 appeal.” But it’s not a fact. And worse, the narrative tends to escalate, moving further and further away from the actual facts:



  • They hated that red teaser.
  • Our donors hate red teasers.
  • Our donors hate the color red.
  • All donors hate redness.

Don’t laugh. This happens all the time. I’ll bet a large chunk of what we take for direct-response wisdom has come to us this way.


A narrative about what happened can help you create a hypothesis for what really happened. And once you have a hypothesis, you can test it. That allows you to fine-tune your facts, so instead of a superstitioon like All donors hate redness, you have facts about precisely what to do and what to avoid.


If you want to learn from your donors, remember not to create stories about their responses. Stick to the facts.


Comments

6 responses to “How made-up stories about donors confuse us”

  1. That is EXCELLENT advice. My current organization is guilty of this as well – I was told when I signed on that “Our donors don’t respond to direct mail.” I asked, and turns out this was based on past performance of recent mailings – but they never tested to see if it was direct-mail that our donors are opposed to, or badly designed appeals (super-fancy glossy marketing inserts, confusing donation forms, weird timing, or worst of all, no specific call to action – all of which had been true of their mailings).
    I insisted that we could not solely rely on Kintera or our email campaign and that we ought to send a mailing, particularly to past donors who we want to renew. It went out last week and I am already seeing that our donors have no problem with direct mail… they had a problem with OUR direct mail.
    Yikes.

  2. That is EXCELLENT advice. My current organization is guilty of this as well – I was told when I signed on that “Our donors don’t respond to direct mail.” I asked, and turns out this was based on past performance of recent mailings – but they never tested to see if it was direct-mail that our donors are opposed to, or badly designed appeals (super-fancy glossy marketing inserts, confusing donation forms, weird timing, or worst of all, no specific call to action – all of which had been true of their mailings).
    I insisted that we could not solely rely on Kintera or our email campaign and that we ought to send a mailing, particularly to past donors who we want to renew. It went out last week and I am already seeing that our donors have no problem with direct mail… they had a problem with OUR direct mail.
    Yikes.

  3. Your experience is all too common, Tammy. Nonprofits large and small have created iron-clad laws based on faulty information that cripples their ability to motivate donor support. Good for you for clear thinking and standing up for information against superstition!

  4. Your experience is all too common, Tammy. Nonprofits large and small have created iron-clad laws based on faulty information that cripples their ability to motivate donor support. Good for you for clear thinking and standing up for information against superstition!

  5. Well said, Jeff.
    I’ve seen this phenomenon often. Usually, the hypothesis is a projection of our own bias. If someone was opposed to the use of red to begin with, then they have ammunition for the rest of their life never to use red. Even if there were a hundred other variables in play.
    But the larger issue is that we in the fundraising world seem to lack the habit of dispassionate quantitative analysis. As a result we waste time with crazy conversations and fail to learn from our mistakes. A poorly promoted event turns into the excuse that “people are so focused on Dancing with the Stars these days” – even if a dozen other events around town are going like gangbusters.
    The tag line of my fundraising training company starts with “Fundraising is a business” in part because we need to get better at evaluating our results and focusing on what works.
    Thanks.
    Matt Bregman
    Tactical Fundraising

  6. Well said, Jeff.
    I’ve seen this phenomenon often. Usually, the hypothesis is a projection of our own bias. If someone was opposed to the use of red to begin with, then they have ammunition for the rest of their life never to use red. Even if there were a hundred other variables in play.
    But the larger issue is that we in the fundraising world seem to lack the habit of dispassionate quantitative analysis. As a result we waste time with crazy conversations and fail to learn from our mistakes. A poorly promoted event turns into the excuse that “people are so focused on Dancing with the Stars these days” – even if a dozen other events around town are going like gangbusters.
    The tag line of my fundraising training company starts with “Fundraising is a business” in part because we need to get better at evaluating our results and focusing on what works.
    Thanks.
    Matt Bregman
    Tactical Fundraising

Leave a Reply

What this blog is about

The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

Blog policies

Subscribe

Get new posts by email:

About the blogger

Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


Archives

Blogroll

Categories


Search the blog

The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

Recent Comments

About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

Blog Roll

someone’s blog