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.

This post first appeared on December 4, 2009.


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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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