What focus groups can’t tell you

Don’t make important fundraising decisions based on the findings of focus groups.

You will get stung. The information you get from focus groups can be bad — sometimes shockingly bad.

That’s because what people say about their giving habits or attitudes has little to do with their actual habits and attitudes.

The problem is, people can’t tell you what their motivations for their actions really are. Sometimes, they don’t want to admit what their motivations are, so they fail to tell you the truth. But more often, they just don’t know. They have no conscious access to that part of their minds.

The worst thing you can do in a focus group is show them direct mail and ask for reactions. They always hate direct mail that works. They always praise to the skies pieces that don’t stand a chance in the mail.

The second-worst thing you can do is ask them what causes and issues they would support. People are a lot more concerned, involved, and sophisticated when discussing issues theoretically in a focus group than they are when a message lands in their life among all the other noise.

When you ask people how they would respond doesn’t tell you how they will respond.

Don’t get me wrong: I value focus group research that does it right, that gets donors talking about our issues in their own idiom and understanding.

But if you really want to know what people are going to do, you have to give them the opportunity to respond in real life.

It’s direct-response marketing — direct mail, digital, telephone … any medium that they can respond to with a donation, not just an opinion. That’s where you get facts about fundraising that you can take to the bank. It’s the best way to learn what works in fundraising. And most of us have it at our fingertips.


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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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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.

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