When superstition guides your fundraising

The organization had a small, thriving direct mail fundraising program. For years, it had been producing an acceptable level of net revenue.

When I looked at their program, their results were good, but not great. Their direct mail packs were well-written. They had strong offers.

One thing looked “off” to me: The reply devices.

They used “bangtail” envelopes. You know, those envelopes with a big flap that has remit information printed on it that the donor fills out, then sends back with their check inside the envelope. The envelope never changed; it never reflected the well-crafted offers that were described in the letters. And the donor’s name and address were not personalized — they had to write them in when they made a donation.

People at the organization felt highly committed to their reply devices because someone (nobody could remember who) had once hypothesized that it signaled to donors their scrappy, penny.jpgnching culture — and this was a key attribute that made donors happy to give.

It’s possible this was true, though it’s unlikely:

  1. There is no way to know what’s going on in donor’s minds about that.
  2. We also have no way of knowing that donors like — or even notice — your penny.jpgnching.

It was more a superstition than a hypothesis.

You can only know what donors do, not why they do it.

But people at the organization believed it. They based decisions on it.

They not only clung to their bangtail reply devices, but they made other penny.jpgnching decisions that they assumed donors would notice and appreciate.

The chance that their belief was suppressing fundraising results was high.

They needed to get some facts. Like: When we use this type of reply device, donors respond at a higher or lower rate than when we use a different type.

Ideally, they should test it.

Unfortunately, their mailing list was too small to run statistically valid tests. So instead, they used other types of reply devices a few times over the course of a few months.

Guess what happened.

The more typical reply devices convincingly outperformed the bangtail envelopes every time. It wasn’t a scientific test, but it was better than the superstition that was guiding them before. Their direct mail program is doing better than ever now.

The lesson for all of us?

Examine your beliefs about your fundraising. Ask your self if your beliefs are superstitions or based on observable behavior.

If it isn’t, test. Or do the next best thing — try something different a few times.

It’s possible that a superstition is also a truth. But there’s a good chance it’s really hurting you.

Here’s help on testing your fundraising beliefs:

Smarttesting


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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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