Does following fundraising best practices help or hurt?

What’s worse in fundraising: Doing what everyone is doing? Or following your own path?

The answer, of course, is it depends.

The downside of carefully following “best practices” is articulated by The Agitator, at Losing Donors In The Sea of Sameness. They call it herd behavior and “sloppy, copycat practices.”

Which is frequently true. But not always. Some best practices really are best — at least for now. A best practice can lose its power for a couple of reasons:

  1. Over-use — everyone does it, so it no longer gets attention.
  2. It fails to keep up with changing donor behavior. (Especially true in the fast-changing digital world.)

And some “best practices” weren’t really good in the first place. They’re just something a lot of people do.

But if you take all that as a reason to ignore best practices, you’ll waste a lot of money and time with pointless failures. Smart fundraisers should pay attention to best practices. And use them with open eyes.

The painful truth about ignoring best practices is that you’re much more likely to fail than succeed when you do that. The potential upside is that when you succeed, you can really succeed.

I think the evidence is clear that our profession suffers more from ignoring best practices than we do from over-following them.

Let me give you an example, pulled at random from Uncle Maynard’s Treasure Trove:

It’s an appeal from a largish national (US) charity — one that’s big enough to know better. Here’s how the letter starts:

As our 75th anniversary year nears its end, we shift our focus to what lies ahead, and how, as God’s children, we can make our world a better place.

The message proceeds to proudly list several accomplishments — not needs, but previous successes. Then it ends with this:

Armed with new knowledge about what we are achieving and how we are putting our faith into action around the world, I hope you will consider making a special donation to our 75th Anniversary Campaign. Your continued support can help us reach our $7.5 million goal by the end of 2016 and provide a perfect capstone to this monumental year!

That’s the “ask.” It’s one page only. No PS. (The two yous in the final paragraph are the only use of that word in the letter.)

The mailing completely ignores around a dozen widely known and proven direct-mail best practices. Maybe this organization is proud that it’s not following the herd. More likely they’re just making it up as they go along, blissfully unaware that they’re getting so much wrong.

If this letter followed a handful of best practices, it would raise a lot more money. Ignoring those practices — whether they just don’t know them or they’re trying to be different — is simply irresponsible.

So when someone tells you to stay away from best practices — even if it’s our very smart friends at The Agitator — take that advice with a big grain of salt.


Comments

2 responses to “Does following fundraising best practices help or hurt?”

  1. I wrote the original post that Roger linked to (at http://www.thedonorvoice.com/giving-tuesday-and-the-when-versus-why-of-giving/), so I thought I’d drop in a note here because I think we agree more than you think.
    I’m reminded of the section from The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications (which is a perfect last holiday present for our nonprofit breathren) where two signs from homeless people are competing:
    Wounded vet/can’t work/Please help/God bless!
    And
    My father was killed by ninjas/Need money for karate lessons.
    The second one stood out in the sea of sameness and it did it in a hip area of Seattle — knowing your audience.
    The problem in my mind was that people were taking one specific tried-and-true technique — matching gift — and using that as their only offer. One email’s ask was literally:
    As I’m sure you know, today is #GivingTuesday. But it’s also the end of November, and digital revenue for XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX is behind $XXXXXXXX, Nick. Luckily, every donation today will be TRIPLED. Will you step up?
    Someone thought that they needed a matching gift to compete on Giving Tuesday. And they thought that tripling where others doubled (even though that is the opposite of a best practice, as matching gifts don’t gain anything being doubling) was the trick rather than making it about the donor. In doing so, they made it about the org and the day, not the donor and the impact.
    I think what you, Roger, and I are all against is copycatting when it means taking the heart and the why and the donor out of appeals.

  2. I wrote the original post that Roger linked to (at http://www.thedonorvoice.com/giving-tuesday-and-the-when-versus-why-of-giving/), so I thought I’d drop in a note here because I think we agree more than you think.
    I’m reminded of the section from The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications (which is a perfect last holiday present for our nonprofit breathren) where two signs from homeless people are competing:
    Wounded vet/can’t work/Please help/God bless!
    And
    My father was killed by ninjas/Need money for karate lessons.
    The second one stood out in the sea of sameness and it did it in a hip area of Seattle — knowing your audience.
    The problem in my mind was that people were taking one specific tried-and-true technique — matching gift — and using that as their only offer. One email’s ask was literally:
    As I’m sure you know, today is #GivingTuesday. But it’s also the end of November, and digital revenue for XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX is behind $XXXXXXXX, Nick. Luckily, every donation today will be TRIPLED. Will you step up?
    Someone thought that they needed a matching gift to compete on Giving Tuesday. And they thought that tripling where others doubled (even though that is the opposite of a best practice, as matching gifts don’t gain anything being doubling) was the trick rather than making it about the donor. In doing so, they made it about the org and the day, not the donor and the impact.
    I think what you, Roger, and I are all against is copycatting when it means taking the heart and the why and the donor out of appeals.

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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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