The biggest fundraising failure I’ve ever seen — and what you can learn from it

Let me tell you about the most spectacular direct mail fundraising failure I’ve ever been associated with.

I think you’ll enjoy it (because schadenfreude), but you’ll also learn a thing or two. I’ll try to tell it in a way that will disguise the identity of various guilty and innocent parties…

Once upon a time, a client of mine — an international relief organization — hired a Brilliant Consultant who owned some kind of secret sauce that was going to transform their fundraising program. This was long enough ago that this amazing solution had nothing to do with the Internet. It was all about doing direct mail in a new and better way.

The Brilliant Consultant (henceforth to be called “BC”) was not an expert in either fundraising or direct response marketing. But that didn’t matter, because he was an expert in Psychology.

BC took a look at our direct mail acquisition program, which performed in the above-average range. Response rates were around 1%, average gift approached $30, and costs were on the low side. The program worked, though it was a little unexciting.

BC proclaimed that 1% response was terrible and the average gift ridiculous — because you’re doing everything wrong!

Naturally, the BC had a solution:

  • No specific offer. That “limited people’s thinking” about the issue of poverty. The offer in our control was (yes, you guessed it) feeding hungry children.
  • No problem, and no story. BC said the specificity we used in our fundraising was also “limiting” — it emphasized the “otherness” of the people we were asking donors to help and thus reduced the sense of connection. Instead of a story about a child, there was an extended word.jpgcture of an unnamed village somewhere in the developing world where things are going very well: kids are playing soccer, people are bicycling all over, the surrounding fields full of healthy veggies.
  • Teaser. The outer envelope featured a pair of hands holding Planet Earth. Whose hands was this non-religious organization depict having got the whole world? Well, BC wasn’t specific about that, but said it would undercut the donors’ sense that the world was a big mess … that it was in good hands. This would make them give like crazy.
  • No reply device. BC proposed that the mailing should have no reply device, because that was so “downscale.” Apparently one of the reasons we suffered a 1% response rate was the downscale direct mail look our direct mail had. We managed to talk them out of this one on statistical grounds — with no reply device, there’d be no way to track the massive influx of donations the BC’s version would unleash. BC grudgingly accepted that argument. This was the only argument we won with BC.

Well, you know how it is when you run a direct mail test. There’s such a long lag between doing the work and getting back results, you often forget about the test. So when I saw the test results, there was one panel that looked like an error: it showed a response rate of 0.07% — that is, seven donations for every 10,000 pieces sent.

The lowest direct-mail response rate I’ve encountered in my career.

And it wasn’t an error. That weird-looking number was correct.

BC was not his normal voluble self after that. In fact, all we saw from him was a half-hearted memo that tried to blame the fiasco on the “outmoded direct mail system.” By this time, nobody was listening.

Lessons?

  • If someone’s ideas sound like the fevered rantings of an opium fiend, they probably have the quality of the fevered rantings of an opium fiend, no matter how confident they are.
  • The professionals (some of them, anyway) actually know what they’re talking about. I have no doubt there are as-yet undiscovered ways to raise funds via direct mail. But we’re more likely to find them by advancing beyond what we know … not by trashing our knowledge and making stuff up.
  • The bigger the promise a Brilliant Consultant makes, the more likely he’s blowing smoke.
  • Even the stupidest situation can eventually become a story you can tell.


Comments

2 responses to “The biggest fundraising failure I’ve ever seen — and what you can learn from it”

  1. One more lesson to add, Jeff:
    Trust (and verify) the data.
    BC, and others like him/her may talk a big game, but let the data do the talking. Data is unbiased, us human beings, not so much.
    Great story.

  2. One more lesson to add, Jeff:
    Trust (and verify) the data.
    BC, and others like him/her may talk a big game, but let the data do the talking. Data is unbiased, us human beings, not so much.
    Great story.

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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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