6 things I’ve learned from 25 years of fundraising testing

One cool thing about working at a fundraising agency is you are involved in a lot of fundraising campaigns. And a lot of tests. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from hundreds of tests over the course of more than 25 years…


  1. Simple wins. Every test I’ve ever seen where one panel is more complex than the other, the simple one wins. Simplicity is your ultimate secret weapon in fundraising. Why is it so rarely used? Because it’s much more difficult to make what you do simple than it is to just describe the complexity.
  2. Pretty loses. I don’t quite want to say “ugly wins,” because it’s more complicated than that. Ugly tends to do well. So does plain. And dated. And messy. And strange. All those things beat pretty almost every time. Trying to make your fundraising look “nice” is not a smart goal.
  3. Subtle doesn’t matter. If you test medium blue against dark blue, you’re unlikely to move the needle. If you change the second sentence in the fourth paragraph, you probably won’t see a difference. Don’t waste your time and money testing little. If you want to learn, test big. See next item…
  4. The outer envelope and the offer matter more than everything else. If you’re looking for big change, test one or both of these two elements. They have the most impact.
  5. Brand experts really don’t get it. The most lop-sided tests I’ve been part of have been where something created by fundraising professionals goes up against some grand scheme concocted by brand experts. One time, the brand experts insisted that a reply coupon was “off brand.” We talked them into including one in their version of the test. It still underperformed by a factor of more than ten.
  6. Donors can really surprise you. Almost every “rule” I’ve tested, I’ve also seen exceptions. Donors don’t follow the rules; they make them. And while certain fundraising tactics are trustworthy (like not including a brochure in your mailing) to work better — you never know for sure until you test. That’s why we test.


Comments

4 responses to “6 things I’ve learned from 25 years of fundraising testing”

  1. I’d be interested to know more of the specifics of “testing,” and with email in particular. And what if your list is only about 400? And you know the folks on the list fairly well? Does that figure in? I’d love to hear more about this on your podcast.

  2. I’d be interested to know more of the specifics of “testing,” and with email in particular. And what if your list is only about 400? And you know the folks on the list fairly well? Does that figure in? I’d love to hear more about this on your podcast.

  3. Jeff,
    Great post! Except there’s a sentence in #5 (starts with “One time”) that I’m having trouble understanding. Is it me, or are there some words missing?

  4. Jeff,
    Great post! Except there’s a sentence in #5 (starts with “One time”) that I’m having trouble understanding. Is it me, or are there some words missing?

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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