Smaller Goal, Bigger Donor?

Recently, I have been reading a book about how social media can be used to drive change called The Dragonfly Effect.* In it, the authors site numerous studies about human behavior, one of which is about setting goals.  According to the study, we humans are more likely to achieve goals, or at least try, that are smaller in scope, rather than goals that have a huge one.  So,  "run a mile" is an easier goal to achieve than "get healthy," and I am more likely to set my mind to and be successful at running a mile, then follow through on "getting healthy" (I won't know where to start and may quit trying altogether).

I have been walking around thinking about this specific concept and how it can be applied to more traditional fundraising when I realized that something very similar to this was used on me recently by an organization to successfully increase my giving to a sustainer program.

For years now, I have been sponsoring  children in developing countries through a monthly sponsorship program.  Recently, I received a letter from the organization telling me that due to increased costs of doing business, my monthly sponsorship rate was increasing from $22 to $30 per month. 

While the marketer in me questioned the increase, the long-term donor in me thought, "hey, what's an extra $8 month? And, it is going to a good cause!" 

Now here is the interesting part:  I was chatting with Greg Fox about this, the marketer in me discussing the approach of increasing my monthly contribution, when he mentioned to me that if you are going to ask someone to give $100 more year, that's a lot to ask for.

"One hundred dollars?! That's a lot of money," I thought to myself. "I could do a lot with that much money! (Like buy a pair of shoes). Maybe I shouldn't increase my giving."

The moral of the story: when asked for only $8 extra per month (small goal), I was happy to contribute. When put into a bigger perspective--$100 per year (larger goal)--I started to question whether I had the resources to increase my contribution.

What does this mean for us fundraisers? Finding the ask that doesn't make the donor feel like they are stretching their own budget is the way to go? Making the goals seem achievable? Parsing what we are asking for help with into more digestible programs? Probably all of the above.  This donor is going to focus on the $8/month and not think about the shoes she could by with $100. After all, $100 could buy a lot of shoes for children.

-Miriam Kagan

(contact Miriam via email: [email protected] or @MiriamKagan on Twitter)

*A complimentary copy of the book was provided to the blog by the publisher.

Be Stupid

Seriously, be stupid when you look at something; approach it with a totally blank mind.


I picked up this phrase from Edward Dolnick’s  The Forger’s Spell– a book that outlines one of the greatest art forgeries of the last century and explains how a mediocre Dutch painter passed his own works off as Vermeers.  His success was due to his psychological manipulation, and he bamboozled many authoritative art historians. 


It is a good reminder lesson that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and a lot of knowledge can be dangerous, too.


(When you look at the paintings, can you tell which one is a fake?)

Christ_in_the_house_of_mary_and_martha Vermeer_emmaus Astronomer 
The object lesson of this story is confirmation bias. We often see what we want to see. We tell ourselves that we make decisions based on evidence when we in fact skew the results by accepting welcome news without a second glance and subject unwelcome news to further questioning.

While confirmation bias is often linked to beliefs which are based upon prejudice, faith, or tradition rather than on empirical evidence, it does apply to scientific endeavors as well.  Confirmation bias keeps researchers focused on things that tend to support rather than that those which might serve to refute a theory or point of view (good news, while we can’t assume that one person will work hard to refute his or her own theories, we can generally assume that someone else will).


When we realize that we have an unconscious inclination to weigh evidence selectively, we will have a better chance at recognizing and utilizing material we might have overlooked.


Approach test results with as open a mind as possible. Dig deeper – did a test really work?  Macro level results can say one thing, and more detailed results another. The external environment is changing and so is your file – the test that won four years ago may lose today because your file has changed (e.g., fewer new donors or more lower dollar donors). What are the neutral and lost test results telling us?  For longtime practitioners, balance “that never works” with “why we think it hasn’t worked and should we try again?” I am not saying ignore your knowledge, just be aware of the skew it can have.




-Becky Graninger


(Christ in the House of Martha and Mary)-

(Christ at Emmaus, fake)-

(The Astronomer)-



Moving beyond "spreadsheet thinking" to "design thinking"

Posted by guest blogger Andrew Rogers


Marty Neumeier, author of Zag and The Brand Gap, has just released The Designful Company: How to Build a Culture of Nonstop Innovation. The idea is that design-aware thinking will help companies confront complex problems and do more innovative, inspired work ("We've been getting better and better at a management model that's getting wronger and wronger," Neumeier writes).

For purposes of Neumeier's discussion, a designer is "anyone who tries to change an existing situation to a better one." "For businesses to bottle the kind of experiences that focus minds and intoxicate hearts," he continues, "they'll need to do more than HIRE designers. They'll need to BE designers."

As nonprofit marketers working to "design" a better world, we already have a head start. Here are four of Neumeier's "levers of change" that have particular relevance to donor-powered fundraisers.

  • Take on wicked problems. "A compelling core idea of what the company stands for can inspire a surprising amount of passion," Neumeier writes, citing Google with their stated vision to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Whether you're an international relief agency or a community food bank, are you out to change the world? Do your donors know that?
  • Weave a rich story. "All the little stories you tell about your company and its products should add up to one big story," he says in a recommendation that should come as no surprise to readers of the Donor Power Blog. "Often, a leader need only act as a kind of managing editor, shaping the stories to align with a shared vision."
  • Think big, spend small. Here Neumeier is talking mainly about "stage-gate investing," but I see a reminder of the importance of continual testing -- both "tweaks" to controls and new offers and techniques. "The biggest hurdle to innovation," he writes, "is the corporate longing for certainty about costs, market size, revenues, profits, and other quantities, all of which can't be known when an idea is new. Ironically, there seems to be no hurdle to investing in dying businesses, decaying strategies, and shrinking markets, all of which can be seen without a crystal ball."
  • Design new metrics. In product development, Neumeier reports, there is often reluctance to let analytical rigor intrude on pure imagination. "In one study, over 90% of advertising creatives believed metrics to be 'unhelpful,' and nearly 65% believed them to be 'harmful' to the creative process." "Yet in reality," he continues, "the testing of communication prototypes can be a creative person's best friend -- it teaches valuable lessons about audience cognition, and frees creativity from the whimsical disapproval of uninformed decision-makers."

After all, "in the end, ALL innovations get measured -- by the marketplace. The trick is to get a preview of those results before you commit the bulk of your resources." You have to know how to measure what you're seeing, and how to learn from the measurements. That's one more advantage of working with an agency with a really solid handle on both testing and analysis (cough).

"As we move from the spreadsheet era to the creative era," Neumeier concludes, "economic value will come from human networks more than electronic ones." That's a conclusion any donor-powered marketer should be able to endorse.

Available at Amazon and at Powell's.

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Citizen marketers can help you or hurt you

Book review: Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba (2007)


Anybody can say anything about you. And if they say it in an interesting enough way, and it rings true with enough people, their message can have more influence than all the brilliant marketing you can buy.

That's what Citizen Marketers is about. With social media on the internet and easy digital production, anyone can be heard. And what they say can either be an amazing windfall to the companies they talk about -- or a devastating nightmare.

Citizen marketers have done great work for Starbucks, Mentos, "Snakes on a Plane" (the movie), Target, and more. They've created deep trouble for Dell, AOL, Comcast, Alaska Airlines, and many others. And what about Obama Girl?

The phenomena hasn't hit the nonprofit world much yet -- though one blogger ignited some buzz against Heifer International with a post titled Worst possible Christmas present?. Read about it at Charitable gift catalogs ignite blog buzz.

What real people say is powerful because it's authentic, something you can't really fake. Authenticity is fundamentally different from brand-guided marketing. As Citizen Marketers puts it:

Everyone knows that nothing is perfect, yet companies persist in portraying their perfection. That's why authenticity is magnetic -- it's truth made real

The message of the book? Like them or hate them, citizen marketers are beyond your control. "Control is slipping out of control." You can work with them, do things that make them more likely to treat you well, and minimize any damage. And by all means, don't try to fake citizen marketers!

Read the book. It's available at Amazon and at Powell's.

McConnell and Huba also author the Church of the Customer Blog that covers these same topics.

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Six ways to make your message stick

Book review: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2007)


Skip this review and read the book.

IF you need more reasons, this book is about what makes ideas memorable, spreadable, and motivating -- "sticky." What makes message sticky is summed up in the slightly goofy acronym SUCCES:

  • Simplicity. Can it be expressed in a very few pithy words?
  • Unexpectedness. Is it surprising?
  • Concreteness. Is it real or theory?
  • Credibility. Is there a good reason for people to believe it?
  • Emotions. Does it make people care at a gut level?
  • Stories. Can it be expressed in a narrative way?

The enemy is the "Curse of Knowledge" -- we know our stuff too well, so we fail to communicate clearly to those who know less than we do. (That's the number-one reason for weak fundraising!)

This book will help you overcome the Curse (that one, anyway). Many of the examples are from the nonprofit world, so you're not going to struggle with applying what you learn.

Highly, highly recommended. If you care about motivating people with your message, you need to read this book. Available at Amazon and at Powell's.

There's also a Made to Stick Blog. And Katya Andresen's Nonprofit Marketing Blog ran a series a few weeks ago, applying lessons from Made to Stick to nonprofit issues. It's worth a look:

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Why you should care about giving

Book review: Who Really Cares by Arthur Brooks (2006)

As a fundraiser, you probably don't spend a lot of time thinking about the concept of charity. You're much more concerned about the specific giving that comes your way (or doesn't). What does a fish know of water?

That's why you ought to read this book. It takes a close look at charity in the U.S., and it can help you understand the medium you work in. The insights you'll get will help you appreciate it more -- and just maybe do it better.

Knowledge is power, and this book will give you some cool knowledge about donors, including:

  • The working poor are the most generous Americans, giving the greatest portion of their income to charity. They are followed by the wealthy. The middle class comes in well behind.
  • Race and ethnicity are not good predictors of charitable giving. Giving is an equal-opportunity virtue.
  • On the other hand, age and sex are good predictors: Women give more than men, and older people give more than younger people. (I bet you knew that already.)
  • But the biggest predictor of giving is religious belief. Religious believers are much more likely to give, and they give more.
  • Donors are far more likely to be politically conservative than liberal. This is the fact most often trumpeted in the media about the book. It's a product of the previous fact: More religious believers are conservative than are liberal. Believers on both sides have high levels of giving -- and nonbelievers on both sides have low levels of giving.

A lot of the book is about what giving does for givers, such as:

  • Every dollar given to charity returns $3.75 in extra income for the giver.
  • In fact, a dollar given to charity stimulates better than $19 for the economy as a whole. A rising GDP pushes up giving while giving pushes up the GDP!
  • Givers are more happy than non-givers. They're 43% more likely to say they're "very happy," while non-givers are 3 1/2 times as likely to say they're "not happy at all."
  • Givers are more healthy, too. 25% more likely to say their health is excellent or very good than non-givers.

These things ought to tell you that fundraising isn't just a way to get money to do good deeds -- it makes things better for everyone! If the fundraising-as-necessary-evil virus is loose in your organization, you should let folks know these things.

Give Who Really Cares a read. You can get it at Amazon, at Powell's and in airport bookshops.

(Feel free to take what I've said here with a grain of salt; the author is my brother. Not in the figurative sense. He's my actual brother.)

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There's life after 30

Book review: Life After the 30-Second Spot by Joseph Jaffe (2005)

Jaffe says the 30-second TV spot is dead. Or at least dying. Or, if it's not dying, it should be killed.

In this age of media saturation, a flight of TV spots simply fails to be noticeable. Add to that the increasing skepticism of consumers (you don't believe everything you see on television, do you?) the irrelevant execution of most TV spots, and the very fact that there is no longer a mass audience to reach any more -- you can see that the old advertising system is in trouble.

In the nonprofit world, most of us are fortunate never to have bought into the bogus and over-inflated world of TV spot advertising. We couldn't afford it. But Jaffe's post-30 thoughts work for us too, and we're well positioned to take hold of many of them, since we're already steeped in the direct-marketing mindset that lives and dies by actual, measurable response.

Here are Jaffe's ten approaches that are transforming marketing:

  1. The Internet. This is where more and more people are turning for information, entertainment, shopping, and more. You need to be good at reaching and motivating people over the net.
  2. Gaming. Don't laugh! Check out Nonprofits and Second Life and Other Games at Beth's Blog.
  3. On-Demand Viewing. Can you produce material so good that people seek it out?
  4. Experiential Marketing. Here's another area where nonprofits have huge advantages. We're out there doing real things. Invite your donors along for the ride.
  5. Long-Form Content. Some nonprofits have been using this for years. If you can pull it off (on TV, radio, internet) you could have a very powerful fundraising tool.
  6. Communal Marketing. You probably have a natural community. Are you tapping into that?
  7. Consumer-Generated Content.
  8. Search. You should "own" certain search terms. Fact is, you can buy them.
  9. Music, Mobile, and Things That Make You Go Mmmm.
  10. Branded Entertainment.

Not all of these things are well-suited for nonprofits, with our older audience. But many of them are right up our alley. You need to be thinking about these things.

That's why I recommend you buy this book. You can chortle over the end of an advertising system that's been built on a foundation of stupidity, arrogance, and money. But more important, you can start thinking about your next steps in the changing marketplace.

(Jaffe also has a very good blog, Jaffe Juice, that covers these same topics.)

Life After the 30-Second Spot is available at Amazon and at Powell's.

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Fundraisers: steal these ideas

Book review: Robin Hood Marketing by Katya Andresen (2006)


You might call this book Marketing 101, translated for nonprofits. The idea is that we in the nonprofit world can steal smart ideas from the corporate world and use them in our own marketing situations. (I have one quibble with that premise: most of the corporate world is failing to use these marketing approaches. Maybe they need to read the book at steal these ideas back.)

This is a very practical book, full of real-life examples and ideas. It's built around ten "Robin Hood Rules" -- common-sense principles that will help you do better work in fundraising or any other kind of marketing. Here they are:

Robin Hood Rules

  1. Go beyond the big-picture mission and focus on getting people to take specific action.
  2. The most important values are those of our audiences, not our own.
  3. Recognize and react to the forces at work in the marketplace.
  4. Stake a strong competitive position in the minds of the audience.
  5. Build partnerships around mutual benefits or you won't be partnering at all.
  6. Case first, cause second.
  7. Messages establish a Connection, promise a Reward, inspire Action, and stick in Memory. (CRAM)
  8. To get to audiences, go to where they are.
  9. Approach the media as a target market, not as a mouthpiece for the message.
  10. Good marketing campaigns focus on spurring one audience to a single action.

If I had to pick just one of these rules to live by, it would be number two: The most important values are those of our audiences, not our own. If you can do this, you are going to do almost everything right. But don't let me oversimplify this book. Read it. It's worth it.

Available at Amazon (where there's a nice touch -- a product blog where you can discuss the book and its concepts) and at Powells.

Is business thinking the answer? Not according to this book

Book review: Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great by Jim Collins (2005)


This is a small book (under 40 pages), and it doesn't quite stand alone -- it really assumes you're familiar with the ideas in Collins' book Good to Great. (If you haven't read Good to Great, you should.) This monograph starts with a bold and fairly controversial premise:

We must reject the idea -- well-intentioned, but dead wrong -- that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become "more like a business."

Nonprofits are fundamentally different from businesses in some key ways. And since most businesses are mediocre (not great), the social-sector path of improvement is to understand and pursue greatness. Not business thinking. Collins then connects key concepts from Good to Great to the social sector.

The main difference between us and them is the role of money:

In business, money is both an input (a resource for achieving greatness) and an output (a measure of greatness). In the social sectors, money is only an input, and not a measure of greatness.

If you've read and benefited from Good to Great, you really must read this. If you haven't, consider reading it anyway. Clarity of thought is bracing. It can make you better even when you disagree.

Available at Amazon and at Powell's.

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It's about the relationship

Book review: Passionate and Profitable: Why Customer Strategies Fail and 10 Steps to Do Them Right! by Lior Arussy (2005)


A handful of companies have figured out how to focus on and serve their customers. And their customers are rewarding them richly for it. This is what the nonprofit world needs to figure out: How do we serve donors so they have a rich experience and keep coming back, upgrading, and enthusiastically advocating for us?

Passionate and Profitable (Available at Amazon or at Powell's Books.) takes a close look at how companies succeed and fail with their customers. He never touches on nonprofits, so you're going to have to translate his ideas into your own context. But it's worth the trouble.

Here's a sample of customer strategy questions from the book, translated into nonprofit terms:

  • Are we working to serve donors, or handle them efficiently?
  • What experience do we have to offer donors?
  • What donors should we neglect?
  • What kind of donor relationships do we want?
  • Are our employees (especially those in donor-serving areas) functional robots or passionate fundraising evangelists?
  • Once we've acquired a donor, do we still care about serving her?
  • What do we measure about our donors? (Money or loyalty?)
  • How deep is our commitment do our donors?

Passionate and Profitable is full of useful principles and inspiring ideas. A great tool to help you move toward Donor Power.

Make it all readable!

Book Review: Type & Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes by Colin Wheildon


If you are involved in print communication of any kind at all, go right now and get this book: Type & Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes by Colin Wheildon. After several years out of print, it's back.

It's a book about the basics of readability and design. Many designers ignore readability, choosing design that looks good over design that enhances the reader's ability to comprehend. According to the Wheildon's research, here are some things the crush readability:

  • Reverse-out type.
  • Type over color.
  • Colored (other than black) type.
  • Sans-serif fonts.

Sans-serif type is hard to read! Is your head spinning yet? Many very common design practices are destructive to communication. Worse yet, a shocking percentage of "brand standards" are directly opposed to readabilty principles -- it's so consistently this way, I wonder if the Brand Shamans read Type and Layout, but mistake the bad examples for recommendations. (That would fit the Brand Shaman mold.)

There's much more in the book. Some of the principles in this book are common sense. Others will shock you. Either way, it will help you get your designers back on the job of communicating, not only creating visual art. Just get the book.

If you respect your donors, you will make sure you aren't putting barriers in front of their ability to read your material.

Listen to their actions, not their words

Book review: Donor Centered Fundraising by Penelope Burke

DcfbookGet this: "86% of individual donors will not knowingly support a charity that sells or trades their names with others." If you're renting out your list, I hope a cold chill just went up your spine.

This is just one of hundreds of factoids about donors in Donor Centered Fundraising: How to Hold on to Your Donors and Raise Much More Money (2003) by Penelope Burke.

Donor Centered Fundraising, while interesting in many ways, has a fatal flaw: much of it is based on donor opinion research. Drawing conclusions based on what a sample of donors say is risky business. What people say and what they actually do are frequently not the same. For instance, the statistic above might lead you to believe that any benighted organizations that still rent their lists are in a state of rapid decline as the vast majority of their donors flee them in disgust. That, of couse, is not happening. While a huge majority of donors who were asked said they wouldn't tolerate having their names sold, in reality donors are pretty laissez faire on that issue.

If you want to know the truth about the hidden cost of renting your donors' names, you need to do controlled direct-response testing on real-life donor behavior.

Basing your action on opinion research will almost always lead you astray. Donors say they don't want to be recognized; they say they don't read long letters; they say they don't want to get mail. But experience repeatedly shows these things to be untrue. Americans overwhelming say we hate Congress, yet we overwhelmingly re-elect incumbents to Congress. That's the way it is -- stated opinion and behavior are often at odds. So take much of what you read in Donor Centered Fundraising with a grain of salt.

That said, I recommend the book nonetheless. It gives lots of solid advice that will help you practice donor power -- and reap its rewards. The section on saying thank you is worth the price of the book. Burke wants you to pay close attention to the way you thank your donors, and she has plenty to say about how you can do that. In short, make your thank yous prompt, heart-felt, and meaningful.

Donor Centered Fundraising is worth reading for some Donor Power ideas. Just don't believe everything it says.

Book review: Raising More Money with Newsletters than You Ever Thought Possible

NewsletterbookYou have to love this title: The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to... Raising More Money with Newsletters than You Ever Thought Possible by Tom Ahern. The book is more mercifully brief than its title. And I highly recommend it. (Available at Amazon and at Powell's Books.)

This book quickly covers a lot of ground -- everything from what donors care about, to how to write headlines to good design. If you follow the principles in this book, you will get good results -- and by results, I mean net revenue. I know that because I follow most of them, and they work.

Here are Ahern's seven fatal flaws that keep newsletter from being effective:

  1. Newsletter fails to use the word "you" often enough.
  2. Newsletter skimps on emotional triggers.
  3. Newsletter has no news.
  4. Newsletter isn't donor-centered.
  5. Newsletter isn't designed for rapid skimming and browsing.
  6. Newsletter has weak or dysfunctional headlines. (The "most deadly" of the fatal flaws.)
  7. Newsletter depends too much on statistics to make the case (not enough on anecdote.

That's just the beginning. There's a lot more in this short book. Worth your time and your money.

If you do a newsletter, get this book. If you don't do a newsletter, get this book and then start publishing a newsletter.

(Full disclosure: The Domain Group and one of our clients' newsletters are mentioned in the book.)

What is this blog all about?

If you're serious about raising money from donors, you need to get serious about donors. More than ever before, donors are insisting that you share power with them, not treating them like passive ATMs. This blog is about the ways you can do that -- and the rewards that await you and your donors when you do.

About the Blogger

DonorPower Blog is penned by Merkle's Power Blogging Team, led by Greg Fox, our senior vice president of strategy. Working with Greg is a police line-up of guest "artists", fundraising pros all, who like to pose as blogatorialists when the sun goes down. You can reach this blog, and any of our regular contributors, at
donorpowerblog [at] merkleinc [dot] com. See this blog's policies.

A great partner for the nonprofit that wants to get donor-powered and grow revenue like crazy!
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