Donor psychology

The X Factor

Yup, we know that courting Gen Y is crucial for a cradle-to-grave fundraising strategy.  Thanks, Amber:)

And, yup, we know that cracking the giving habits of Boomers will literally make or break your fundraising efforts in the next decade.

But sandwiched between those two hot generational topics is the X factor.  That’s right, Generation X.  We got our moniker from the disenfranchised feeling we had as we came of age.  As ( ) said, we “didn’t know where (we) belonged, but knew for sure that (we) weren’t a part of the overbearing generation of Baby Boomers.” 

Well, no offense to Reality Bites, but we’ve figured it out.  We’re now in our thirties and forties.  On the whole, we have found our professional paths and personal partners, or decided we don’t need one.  We probably have kids and are responsible for (gasp) rearing the generation that comes after Y.  We’re starting to see gray (or just nothing) at our temples and many of us are perpetually trying to find the illusive work/life balance.

So how do you get us to give to your charity?  We still have an ingrained dash of disaffection that can lean towards apathy if you don’t make the right ask.  You have to make us care, and you have to realize that you have a very finite window for doing so since we’re perpetually overbooked.  Relevancy is critical.  Channel is critical.

I have yet to open direct mail.  I don’t tweet, though I have a Twitter account.  My friends are like family and I spend a lot of time with them on Facebook.  My profession is the backbone of how I structure my day, so LinkedIn counts.  I am never more than two feet from my iPhone, and I check my personal email from both it and my laptop multiple times throughout the day.  I spend at least eight hours a day in front of a computer, and I know what web sites I like.

To recap:  I am plugged in. Maybe I didn't have online courses or Blackboard when I went to college, but my abilities are not limited to sending forwards that includes animated GIFs. But, why am I treated like an Internet neophyte by most fundraisers?

You need to email me relevant information that includes why I care about you.  Talk to me through Facebook and I’ll talk to my friends about you.  Being able to monthly auto debit my donation would be bliss.  My first reaction to your website should not be, "1995 called -- it wants its homepage back”.  You always need to sound and feel the same way to me. 

For fundraisers trying to reach me, here are some things to think about …Do you have:  

  1. An email preference center? 
  2. Data infrastructure to make what you know about me actionable? 
  3. Integrated social CRM plan? 
  4. Web site that reflects what I want to do with you? 
  5. Mobile-friendly email and web assets? 

If so, let us know. ..

-Bethany Bauman

Bethany is the Senior Director of Digital Strategy for Merkle's nonprofit customers. She chooses to Do What Matters because, in the words of one of her idols, Katharine Graham, “to love what you do and feel that it matters – how could anything be more fun?”

Y Gen Y?

So … we’ve been lapsed for a minute… we know.  But, we’re reactivated with plenty to talk about!  And what better time to come back than the cusp of the Convio Summit where we connected with old and new colleagues to refresh and learn!?

I attended a session on Wednesday taught by Mike Johnston, Founder and President of hjc, which broke down the Convio “Next Generation of American Giving” study that did, of course, plaster my Gen Y behavior bio as it relates to social causes on the screen.  It was true to the tee!  

  • I don’t do mail
  • I’ll “Like” and “Tweet” you before I go to your YouTube channel
  • My first engagement with your cause was through mainstream media or WOM (real and virtual)
  • I need to be cultivated … courted so to speak – take me to an event, show me your site … twice
  • "By the way, what's in it for me?"

So, how many nonprofit organizations have actually considered this audience as one in which to invest?  If not, have you ever thought about the migration of Gen Y through a donor cycle and wondered if we’d follow in a similar pattern of preceding generations?  I’m sure you have.  Will we become sustaining givers at age 60 like the Matures?  Or will we forward eCards and donate via email like Gen X?  Or neither?  My take on the group, being a part of it, is that there are major cultural differences that prove 62 will not be our minimal threshold of giving.  I would even argue that our philanthropic peek will be in mid-life stage, dwindling down as we age.  Think about the life & personal characteristics of a 20something Gen Y’er:

As we reached our professional age, we witnessed first hand the economic recession of 2008.  We are more familiar with communications, media and digital technologies and for the most part, more liberal.   But because of what we’ve experienced, we have a lack of trust towards organizations and are able to see through marketing and sales tactics quite seamlessly.  However, my generation is extremely cause-driven, but prefers to make an impact on our own terms (that fit in line with our already popular activities, behaviors and interests), and they’re not always monetary.

In fact, we’ve already proven our ability and desire to do just that by improving the world – in our own little social way.  Recently, several sites have been customized for teens and 20somethings in Gen Y who have practically grown up with digital technology in cradles.  We are the next generation of hopeful givers already becoming activists at a young age.  Based on this behavior, why not target us before we hit the fab 6.0?  Another way to look at my group as valuable is through the digital clout that we’re building.  Even if/when our pockets get fat and we don’t turn into consistent donors, we may become the go-to influencers for rallying others online around your cause.  Think about it.  A few examples to get your mind flowing in the social space are below.  Know of other examples?  Do tell...

RT2Give:  Retweet a worthy cause, give $10


RandomKid:  Youth & parents - choose a cause, pick the solution, and "Make It Happen" on your profile page.

 SocialVibe:  Raise money by influencing others in your network to participate in branded activities. 

Free Rice: Play a social game to end world hunger.

 Endorse for a Cause:  Endorse your favorite brands through social networking, get enough activity and watch your money "change the world."


Stay tuned for an expose on Gen X...

-Amber Bonner

Amber is a Strategy Manager and soon-to-be Digital Geek in Merkle’s nonprofit vertical.  She chooses to Do What Matters because “it’d be too easy not to.  Challenge is good.”

I am LinkedIn member 855,485

At first glance, this may not seem very impressive. There were over 855,484 people that came before me. But when put in the context of a recent milestone for the professional networking site--LinkedIn now has over 100 million member--somehow, being somewhere just below 900,000 seems pretty impressive to me. I, apparently, am a relatively early adapter.

The reason I am sharing what number LinkedIn user I am, is because I recently received a great email from LinkedIn thanking me for making their dreams of 100 million members come true. Now, I know, I know, it wasn't JUST me that made this happen, but their email sure did make me feel pretty special.

So, for those of us in the business of not only getting donations out of our donors, members, activists, but also interested in building a relationship, driving passion about our mission, making our constituents feel thanked and appreciated (even when they are not expecting it), the email I got from LinkedIn is a pretty good example of  the "Just Thinking of You"  note gone right.



Notice the catchy subject line. Am I really one of the first million members? Wow, right away I feel like part of a very special club. On top of that, they are showing me they know something specific about me--not everyone is part of that group, and LinkedIn knows that I am. And, they consider this a very special group of people. So now I'm an early adapter and I'm special.

Next, they make the relationship seem even more personal. Not only am I part of the special 1 million club, they know EXACTLY which person in that club I am. That means they know WHO I am, right? Or so consumer me starts to think (quieting the whole 'Miriam, they have a database plus your member number is in your non-public profile URL' voice inside).

Also, very importantly, they don't seem to be wanting anything from me. Is it possible this is just a "thank you" message with no strings attached? How novel. Could it be they just want to share this big accomplishment with me and thank me for my role in it? Well, aren't they thoughtful.

I've always liked LinkedIn. Now, I might just love them. And I am blogging about how great they are. Is it possible that mission was more than accomplished with that email from LinkedIn's perspective?

And sure, there are probably a few email best practices that could have been used here, like when I try to read this email on my phone it looks super weird, but hey, I feel all warm and giddy inside from being so special, so I'm going to let them slide on that one...

-Miriam Kagan

Curious what the public profile of member 855,485 looks like? You can find me here:

Virtual games, real $$ for Earthquake and Tsunami Relief

If you've ever experienced someone interrupting your dinner conversation or even important work meeting with words like "oh no, I forgot to harvest my raspberries and they are going to wilt!", and then watched them run off in a frazzle to their computer, then you have first-hand knowledge of the virtual gaming phenomenon, even if you are not yourself a proud virtual farm, city, coffee shop, bakery, etc owner.

With over 300 million active participants, virtual games like FarmVille, and platform owners like Zynga, have a unique engagement platform that has been used in the past to raise funds, especially for disasters like the Haiti earthquake.

And just today, from TechCrunch,comes even more proof that if nonprofits are still not at least paying attention to the power of games to drive real $, they should be. In less than 36 hours, various Zynga properties have raised over $1 million for tsunami and earthquake relief efforts in Japan, through Save the Children's Disaster Relief Fund. Players use real cash to buy all sorts of "useful" items for their various virtual properties, and now, special items are being offered with revenues going to disaster relief efforts.

Earthquake relief virtual games 

Now, as those of us working in the field of fundraising every day know, disasters are in their own special fundraising category--the need is obvious and great, the mission easy to communicate, and the potential impact easy to calculate, so it's no surprise that funds can be raised in all sorts of non-traditional ways and from non-traditional audiences. 

And some may somewhat rightfully critique this way of fundraising: instead of donating through a virtual game and having a third party take some of the money donated, people should be donating directly to organizations so all the money can be used for relief efforts.

We all know, however, that inertia is a huge barrier to fundraising and convenience is key. Would I rather take $10 and give $2 as a fee to a partner rather than take no money at all because my organization's website doesn't happen to accept whatever form of payment is more convenient for my potential donor and/or they can't be bothered to navigate away from their "Ville" game to fill out my donation form? My personal answer would be a categorical "yes!, I'll take that donation!". The sheer volume of the audience should make us all think twice about discounting games as a potential source of revenue, in non-emergency times and for non-disaster missions.  Has your organization dipped a toe in the virtual gaming space? Are you listed on Games that Give or other virtual gaming sites? We'd love to hear your experience.

-Miriam Kagan

Social Signature - What does your brand say?

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate...

I recently met a fella who maps CEO’s speeches to evaluate communication competency.  He calls it Executive Social Signatures, and I found it fascinating. 

His scientific model is based on a communication exchange that requires audience understanding and emotional engagement, and results in social action.  

His point is that many CEOs, once they reach that position, communicate poorly by staying primarily within their corporate role and failing to engage audiences at an individual level.  His belief is that branding is becoming more personal due to social media and it requires personal relationships in order to build trust, credibility and loyalty.

His goal is to help speakers communicate more effectively because people that engage audiences can drive action. (To learn more, check out Larry Petcovic’s blog.)

So what does this is have to do with donors and fundraising? Frankly, a lot, because much of what is mailed within our industry it is about the organization and not the donor and can’t ever be described as truly compelling; e.g., Our Annual Fund appeal is the most important campaign of the year.

Our job is to get donors to take personal action and to influence others.

Connect the dots so they can understand what their money can accomplish because they chose your organization as a change agent.


Make it personal. “What began as a promise to my dying sister has become…."


Make it authentic. “Sometimes the best way to get something done is to go out there and stand up for what you believe in…."


Make it credible. “The key to our ability to act independently in response to a crisis is our independent funding…”


Make it important. “Your gifts of prayer and financial support are an investment -- an investment that will be repaid many times over by the thousands of lives changed each day…"


Make it compelling. “We need nets. Not hoop nets, soccer nets or lacrosse nets. Not New Jersey Nets or dot-nets or clarinets. Mosquito nets." (Rick Reilly, SI) …. “With a $10 contribution, anyone – from CEOs to youth, professional athletes to faith leaders – can join the global fight against malaria by sending a net and saving a life…"


Remember, everything you do is part of your brand’s footprint.


-Becky Graninger


P.S. Can you identify the organizations? (Komen, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders, The Salvation Army, Nothing But Nets Campaign)       

My hot chocolate is saving the rainforest!

A few weeks ago, there was a mix up at my doctor's office and turned out my appointment was an hour after I had turned up. So I decided to pass the time at a nearby Starbucks.

As I stood in line waiting to order my hot chocolate, I was, as most people anywhere near my age do, checking my Facebook account from my phone.  Facebook has recently added the "places" functionality (in addition to the millions of other changes it has gone through in the last year), and I thought I'd try it out.

I was about to "check-in" when I noticed that there was an "offer" associated with this check-in.  If I checked-in at that specific Starbucks, $1 would be donated to help protect the rainforests. Now, I am sure that Starbucks did not know about my obsession with saving the planet, but boy oh boy was I excited! My doing something so mundane--buying a hot chocolate--something I was planning on doing ANYWAY, was also resulting in something good! Granted, $1 isn't going to save the forests, but, what if everyone who was there did the same thing?  Just imagine the acres and acres that could be protected! My mind was spinning with excitement.

Of course, I "shared" my check in with my Facebook community: maybe my friends who were visiting other Starbucks would see the deal and check-in too.

A few weeks later, I found myself at REI with a friend who was looking for a new winter coat. "Hmm," I thought to myself, "REI is a company known for its 'do-gooding', I wonder if they have a deal similar to Starbucks?" Well, lo and behold, (and maybe because it was Black Friday), REI did have a deal going: by checking-in, $10 was donated for clean up of waterways.

The moral of the story: prior to the historic hot chocolate day, I had reservations about using geolocation services that are increasingly ubiquitous on social platforms. Concerns over privacy, people knowing where I was, safety, all seemed not worth it.

But now, checking-in almost seems like a part of my civic duty. If I am going to be somewhere or doing something and by checking-in I have the opportunity to do something good, how can I not do it? 

I am going to start keeping an eye on businesses and brands that have do-gooding offers.  I am going to keep an eye out for announcements from my favorite charities to see whether they might be the beneficieries of any such offers. Because, who knows, one day, my addiction to hot chocolate COULD save the rainforest! (Hint: is YOUR organization taking advantage of the hot chocolate-drinking masses?) 

-Miriam Kagan

Strategy Director (follow Miriam on Twitter, @MiriamKagan)


If you pay attention to only 1 thing digital this week...

Make sure to keep an eye on what is planned on Twitter for World AIDS Day on Wednesday, December 1.

Led by Alicia Keys, a slew of celebrities, with millions of followers, are going 'silent' on Twitter on Wednesday for World AIDS Day. The celebrities plan to stay 'silent' until $1 million has been raised for AIDS efforts.

According to the AP, "[f]or the campaign — which also includes Jennifer Hudson, Ryan Seacrest, Kim and Khloe Kardashian, Elijah Wood, Serena Williams, Janelle Monae and Keys' husband, Swizz Beatz — celebrities have filmed 'last tweet and testament' videos and will appear in ads showing them lying in coffins to represent what the campaign calls their digital deaths."

We already know the impact celebrities can have on influencing high volume donations--witness the Haiti relief efforts and Keys' appearance on American Idol last year. How long celebrities may have to stay silent (and will they be able to refrainfrom sharing their every move with the world in the name of do-gooding)?  We are eager to find out on Wednesday.

Follow all the tweets (or lack of them) on Twitter under the following hashtags: #BUYLIFE, #WAD, #AIDS, #HIV, #WorldAIDSDay and some of the participating celebrities.

(can't see this video? check it out here.) 

It's the Death Toll That Really Matters

Recently, we wondered in this blog why the response to the terrible floods in Pakistan this summer seemed muted in comparison to the earthquake in Haiti early in 2010.

Today, the New York Times, published an article on this same topic, "The Special Pain of a Slow Disaster." 

The comparative numbers are haunting:

"...the devastating earthquake that flattened much of Haiti and killed an estimated 250,000. The floods killed far fewer people, perhaps 2,000, but the number of people affected, who now need food, shelter and clothing to face a harsh Pakistani winter, was 20 million. The entire population of Haiti, by contrast, is fewer than 10 million people...

In all, $3.4 billion has been collected for the victims of the Haiti earthquake as of October, with more than $1.1 billion coming from private donations, according to figures compiled by the United Nations. Close to $1.7 billion has been pledged for Pakistan, but less than $300 million came from private donors."

The article concludes: "Humanitarians have long struggled with this paradox. The number of dead, along with the swiftness and drama of their demise, trumps almost any amount of agony among those who survive a disaster, particularly a creeping one."

-DonorPower Blog

Holiday Conundrum

Retailers and non-profits have a lot in common, especially as we near year-end: there are too many stores/charities chasing too few customers/donors. We also share a marketing tactic – both sectors have been starting the season earlier each year. The question is, have we changed the amount of consumer spend or just moved it around?  

The other practice we share is that we follow others’ successes. There is nothing wrong with that, except in the non-profit space we have ended up with a stable of techniques which include labels, supporter cards, handwritten notes, card packages, calendars, etc., that are inter-changeable between organizations. We have now trained our donors to expect premiums or to use them as a tipping point when they get five appeals in their mailbox on any given day. This has been referred to as a premium arms race. First we mailed letters, and now many of us rely on labels, and we are escalating to double premiums. Do you think we can break the cycle?     

The hard reality is that non-profits have a market share issue among certain donor demographics. There are only so many dollars to go around, and for both mail and event marketing we have reached the point of diminishing returns. Expansion may not be an option unless we change our measures of success.     

Add to that the fact that everyone is after the same goal of engagement – with large numbers of people. The cost efficiency of the digital space has opened up a number of new ways to communicate with prospects and customers (email, search and social to name a few). These new channels have exponentially changed the landscape allowing for cultivation touches. But with everyone doing them, are they meaningful?  How many surveys, viral campaigns, causes, etc., can one donor really be involved in? Frankly, we are at risk of overtaxing and alienating the donors who are so important to our success. 

There is another hard issue, which is we evaluate within the vacuum of what our organization is doing because they are ‘our’ donors (that is, if we are lucky, a lot of times we only know what donors are doing within the programs we manage). We know that many of our donors give to other organizations, but outside of industry performance benchmarking, that knowledge stops there.   

And so I wonder if we can really measure the meaningfulness of our actions? Yes, we can measure short-term effectiveness, but I am talking about significance. 

Understanding the holistic value of a donor and the entire suite of touches is important. Understanding who is more deeply engaged may be even more important.                       

-Becky Graninger  

Gift Ask Testing Post Follow-up

Since Becky's post earlier this week, we've been having some 'off-blog' conversation with readers around this topic. We found the discussions very interesting and got permission to share some of them with our readers.

Thanks to everyone for their input (on and off blog) and TGIF!

-DonorPower Blog

From Libbie Allen, Development Director at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church & School:

My observation is that everyone is overwhelmed with “asks” this year, in a down economy with a lot of yelling heads in an election year. The negative impact on my donors is huge, and they are dumping everything they receive in the mail except for a very few, close-to-the-heart charities. They tell me even those are not getting the mindshare they would have given them a year ago. No amount of attempts at resetting their expectations re. positive signs in the economy seem to be helping. The money is out there, but people are battening down the hatches because of fear and uncertainty. I predict this will lessen after the elections, especially as they see hiring for holiday sales improve, and the corporate hiring beginning in December for the new year.  

My belief is that donations will improve also, but it is more the personalization of the ask that will draw those in, rather than repetitive asks. The one thing that sets my donors off more than anything is to get a thank you with another ask attached. Statistics aside, my donor base and my experience say these are sure killers.

From Dirk Rinker, President of Campbell Rinker:

Hi Becky,

Good blog post.  Here are my thoughts about the drop in retention after an upgrade gift.  I think your hypothesis is valid and probably correct.  These thoughts simply add some shading to the donor’s rationale for behaving as they do… 

  1. Perhaps donors were only peripherally engaged to begin with – testing the waters with a new charity, as it were.  Their second gift is a way for them to say – “OK; you’ve asked me once and I gave some, you asked me twice and I gave more.  That’s the limit of my engagement.”
  2. The second gift is a huge step, but we’ve found that it’s the third gift that identifies an engaged donor, not the second. 
  3. The donor who waits longer before giving a third gift after an upgrade may simply be telling themselves: “My first gift of $50 was for a year.  When they asked me again to give $100, I intended that to be for two years.  I’ll give my next gift when I feel like the timing is right, and I’ll give at the rate I feel comfortable.”  

We have been using a fairly simple four-point question to identify donor-perceived thresholds of acceptable gift amounts for over a decade.

Gift asks testing: too much for donors' comfort?

As a sector we spend a lot of time trying to get donors to upgrade. Over the years, those efforts have taught us three things: 

  1. Donors rarely stray far from their first gift amount.
  2. The faster you get a second gift, the higher the likelihood of getting a gift the following year.
  3. It is easier to get another gift than to get a donor to increase the amount of that next gift. Higher gift amounts used to translate to higher retention rates. (The lesson: Times change, and so does donor behavior.) 

It is not uncommon for fundraisers to look at KPI metrics or campaign results and say, “We have an average-gift problem.” One reaction is that we then ramp up ask array testing. We add more ask amounts to the ladder, we circle things. We go from high to low; and then from low to high; and then we try high, low, and then higher amounts. We test HPC and HPC within the last 36 months. We MRC.  We try giving equivalences. 

In short, we spend a lot of time testing. 

Let’s stop for a moment and think about whether it’s worth all that effort; are we really having a positive impact? 

On a client, we are now confronted with a counterintuitive discovery: Donors who upgrade on their second gift can have lower retention rates. How is that possible? 

Our working hypothesis is that the upgraded ask patterns have now moved those donors too far away from their original gift amount – in other words, out of their comfort zone.

What do you think?  

-Becky Graninger 

(contact Becky via email: [email protected])


Gift asks testing: too much for donors' comfort?

As a sector we spend a lot of time trying to get donors to upgrade. Over the years, those efforts have taught us three things: 

  1. Donors rarely stray far from their first gift amount.
  2. The faster you get a second gift, the higher the likelihood of getting a gift the following year.
  3. It is easier to get another gift than to get a donor to increase the amount of that next gift. Higher gift amounts used to translate to higher retention rates. (The lesson: Times change, and so does donor behavior.) 

It is not uncommon for fundraisers to look at KPI metrics or campaign results and say, “We have an average-gift problem.” One reaction is that we then ramp up ask array testing. We add more ask amounts to the ladder, we circle things. We go from high to low; and then from low to high; and then we try high, low, and then higher amounts. We test HPC and HPC within the last 36 months. We MRC.  We try giving equivalences. 

In short, we spend a lot of time testing. 

Let’s stop for a moment and think about whether it’s worth all that effort; are we really having a positive impact? 

On a client, we are now confronted with a counterintuitive discovery: Donors who upgrade on their second gift can have lower retention rates. How is that possible? 

Our working hypothesis is that the upgraded ask patterns have now moved those donors too far away from their original gift amount – in other words, out of their comfort zone.

What do you think?  

-Becky Graninger 

(contact Becky via email: [email protected])


The Power of Authority

Recently, on my drive to work, there has been an ominous warning posted on electronic signs above the highway. "SLOW DOWN. AUTOMATIC SPEED CAMERAS MAY BE IN USE."

Instinctively, everyone slowed down, including me. Even thought I did not see a speed camera van the entire way home, even though there were no police cars pulling people over, even though the threat was only a "may" not a "definitely", just the implied potential consequence was enough to slow everyone down.

I wondered to myself whether there was even a need for the actual speed camera or if the implied threat was enough. Likely, as with speed limits that many people ignore, if there was a prolonged period of threat with no consequence (no pictures of all of us speeding with tickets arriving in the mail), everyone would likely start ignoring the ominous electronic sign and go  back to speeding.  But, at least in the short-term, the impact was immediate and effective.

Of course, as with everything I do in life, this got me thinking about whether there is a way to use the same concept for donors.  How can we, as fundraisers, get all of our donors to pay attention, give  us a gift, care, by using our well-worn mission statements in a different way? Should, and can, we threaten donors with consequences if there is no action? Will the new threat be enough?

Perhaps donors are tired of hearing that children are going hungry,  diseases need to be cured, rights upheld, arts projects funded.  Perhaps the threat of lives lost if we don't do something doesn't resonate anymore.  So, what would be the equivalent of the highway billboard to get donors to pay attention again, to believe they MUST act even if the threat is only a potential loss of something?

I'm going to spend some time this weekend contemplating ways to do this. I hope you do too!

-Miriam Kagan




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.

Disaster giving: not all natural disasters are created equal?

Have you given to help with relief efforts for those affected by the disastrous floods in Pakistan this summerThe floods have been rated by the United Nations as the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history with more people affected than the South-East Asian tsunami and the recent earthquakes in Kashmir and Haiti combined.

If you have not given, don't feel too bad, you are not alone.  The response to the floods in Pakistan has been "lukewarm" in both size and speed from governments and individual donors alike, compared to Haiti and other natural disasters.

Why? A recent story on NPR, as well as posts on multiple other media outlets, have posited several key reasons for the relative trickle of giving.  According to the NPR version, individual donors are not giving for 3 key reasons:

  1. As a type of natural disaster, floods pale in comparison to other catastrophic events like earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes in the mind of the donor.  The impact is often more of displacement and loss of livelihood, rather than loss of life. At least that's how donors may perceive it.
  2. Blame the media, who have apparently been slow to cover the disaster and have failed to plaster horrifying pictures of the suffering and are not leading with the story on the nightly news.
  3. Donor fatigue. We've opened our wallets to the earthquake in Haiti, we've found some extra change for all the "emergency" campaigns the organizations we regularly support are having because of the downturn in the economy, we've fretted over the Gulf Oil Spill...we are tired.

While these may all in fact be contributing factors, there are some additional ones that might be causing this disparity in lending a helping hand/wallet.

One reason may be that no organization has really stepped up and made it easy to give to the relief floods in Pakistan the way many organizations, and the Red Cross as an example, stepped up during the Haiti earthquake. Everywhere you looked, there was a mobile short code asking you to give $10. Telethons were held. Celebrities pleaded for our help and made generous contributions of their own.  Stores let you check out and give a portion of your grocery bill to Haiti.  Donors didn't have to go looking for the giving opportunity, the opportunity to give was everywhere. The same stepped up call to action has not been as loud and clear during this disaster.   

What are your thoughts about why the response to the floods has been muted in comparison to other disasters? We'd love to hear your insight.

-Miriam Kagan


Facebook Giving: How one donor got recruited

As social media increasingly becomes a part of the nonprofit marketers’ toolkit, many nonprofit fundraisers are wondering whether the big mama of all social networks—Facebook—is really worth the effort and investment from a fundraising perspective.

Sure, we all know we can get people to like our page, maybe post some comments, watch some videos, but, stories abound about the lack of success in terms of turning Facebook followers into donors.  Sure, there is Facebook Causes, and socially branded efforts by commercial marketers (check out the Chase Giving campaign for a great example), but can Facebook actually cultivate the kind of donor relationship that results in “real” donations?

Based on personal experience, I have to say yes.  As a fundraising professional, I get A LOT of solicitations—DM, online, TM, you name it.  And I read most of them, and every once in a while I get moved to give.

Below is the story of one organization that regularly receives donations from me, and my relationship with them exists entirely because of, and continues to be cultivated by, their Facebook presence.

I first became familiar with the Wildlife Friends of Thailand (WFFT) because a friend “recommended” it to me on Facebook. I am an animal lover, so I was eager to learn about what these folks were doing to help animals in Thailand.

Before you knew it, I was giving on their website 3-4 times a year. Why? Because the WFFT follows some very basic best practices that we all apply in our marketing programs every day, and is successfully using them on Facebook.

We all know the age-old truth that a compelling story of an individual will in most cases beat statistics and generalized calls to do “something” for “everyone.”  So, instead of telling me about the plight of animals in Thailand and making me feel helpless about the magnitude of the problem, WFFT’s posts are frequently focused on a specific need:

· We need money to help transport Jane the elephant to our facilities. Here is how we found Jane the elephant, her condition, and why we need to help her.

They also do a great job of providing updates and showing my money at work:

· Hey remember Jane the elephant that you helped us rescue? Well, here are photos of Jane, us treating her, and here is how she is doing.

They make me feel like my contribution is really accomplishing something on a regular basis (it does not disappear in some giant hole of “helping animals.”)

· Here are 7 monkeys who’ve lived with us and we’ve helped support for 6 years. See them play in their new enclosure.

They regularly thank the community for its support:

· It was hard for us to struggle through the political tensions in Thailand. Some of our largest volunteer groups cancelled. But, because of your support, we were able to continue on.

What WFFT is doing on Facebook is no different in its essence from the best practices of direct fundraising:

· Make the ask relevant and compelling

· Provide updates and feedback of donor’s money at work

· Engage donors as part of your cause and mission—turn them into constituents, not just wallets

· Create a  two-way discussion (make donors feel a part of your mission every day)


The moral of our story: sure Facebook is a great way to cultivate a community, spread your brand, but, tell people about your need in the right way, and it IS possible to get people, well at least some of us, to open our wallets.


So, ask yourself this:

· Who in your organization owns your Facebook presence and what do she/he/they believe its ultimate value prop is for the organization?

· How thorough is your Facebook post follow-up?

· How frequently do you measure the impact of calls to action (if there are any)?

· Has your organization truly developed a strategic approach to Facebook fundraising that is able to measure the long-term impact to organizational revenue from Facebook donor cultivation efforts?

 -Miriam Kagan

(Miriam is a strategy director with Merkle's nonprofit group. She is obsessed with everything Social Media and Do-Gooding.  Find her @MiriamKagan on Twitter.)

(WFFT is not a client or associated with Merkle)

Darwinism and Fundraising – an Observation.

 “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” – Charles Darwin

Most industries, whether it be financial services, telecommunication carriers, sportswear brands, or whatever other commercial entity you can think of, go through a general business cycle as they evolve.  A period of initial expansion, where many new “players” enter into an industry to capitalize on an opportunity, is then followed by a period of contraction or consolidation, where the strongest “players” acquire, overrun, or otherwise defeat their rivals to take hold of the marketplace.  This is considered to be the healthy and natural way of things in the world of business and economics.

Now consider for a moment what has been happening in the fundraising industry.

· In 1998 there were 1,158,031 Non-Profit organizations in the United States, and by 2008 there were 1,536,134.  That is a growth rate of 33% over a short 10-year span of time. 

· The U.S. population underwent an annual rate of growth that hovered around 1%.  So the population in 2008 is approximately 10% greater than it was in 1998.

· Median Household Income over that same 10-year window of time grew at a slightly higher rate of 15%. 

· In 2007, public charities reported over $1.4 trillion in total revenues and nearly $1.3 trillion in total expenses.

(Statistics from U.S. Census Bureau and Charity Dynamics)

We begin to see the problem.   

The nonprofit industry is growing at a far more rapid rate than is the population or our median income, and fundraising itself suffers from an increasingly higher cost to raise a dollar.  Even despite the migration of the massive Baby Boomers population into that fundraising sweet spot of age 60+ and the fact that since 1998 charitable giving has steadily increased year-over-year, there just isn’t enough economic fuel to burn for this continuous sustained growth for all of the charities in the ever expanding nonprofit sector of the future.

The newly-created nonprofits that spring up across the years all believe they have a viable chance at sustainability, and who can blame them?  Their causes are no doubt worthy and urgent, and as we know many needs go unmet even despite such a large universe of nonprofit organizations.  But that just isn’t a fair or realistic expectation. 

The pot of charitable dollars that the U.S. population is willing to contribute annually is rapidly approaching its threshold, which means that either charities need to redefine what a successful year means – where growth from one year to the next might not be possible – or larger organizations may need to begin to consider acquiring or absorbing smaller organizations of similar mission to eliminate the competition for charitable dollars.  At the very least small organizations will soon need to band together to leverage the “strength in numbers” approach, in order to manage an ever-increasing cost to market to their donors.  If not just for the benefit of the industry, for the good of the donors across the United States who are being flooded with donation requests.

A good donor for your organization is likely a good donor for another organization, and as a single donor spreads his or her charitable dollars around, he or she quickly becomes a multi-buyer in the world of list rentals – which leads to a massive load of impressions.  The donor’s mailbox quickly fills with appeals and prospect pieces from local, regional, and national charities.  The donor’s online inboxes overflow with an endless stream of emails.  And not too far in the distance, the donor’s cell phone will be buzzing with text message after text message.  All of these contacts vying for the same pot of charitable dollars. 

My point is that it is unfair to the donors who are now bombarded with requests for support from every direction, when all they did “wrong” was make a generous gift to a cause they deemed worthwhile to them.    For the good of the donors the time to start considering consolidation, cooperation, partnerships, and co-branding between nonprofit organizations is upon us – and we need to decide if we embrace this new reality, or if we ignore it – risking further alienation of the donor population and ultimately leading us as fundraisers to a future not unlike that of the dinosaurs. 

Because as Charles Darwin would no doubt tell us, "In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed at adapting themselves best to their environment."

-Stephen Ferrando

Stephen is a Strategy Director at Merkle with a combined 12-years of expertise in both commercial  and nonprofit marketing, strategy, and analytics.  In his free time Stephen is working on becoming a ninja, as well as focusing on his life-long dream of completing the last side on his Rubix Cube.




An Equal Opportunity Stimulus

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill allowing taxpayers who make a donation to victims of the Haitian earthquake to claim a charitable donation when filing their 2009 taxes this spring.  

Nonprofits who have the most to gain from this legislation, such as the American Red Cross and other disaster relief organizations, “wholeheartedly” favor this move because it encourages people to continue supporting their relief efforts. 

My initial thought that this was a good thing.  Anything done to motivate more people to support earthquake victims in Haiti should be encouraged and of course, is greatly appreciated.  A comment made by Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, who said, “it’s a simple gesture, but it will encourage giving in this challenging economy,” has me rethinking my position. 

The generosity of the American people is well documented, especially in times of natural disaster.  In fact, in the week following the Haiti earthquake, individual donations to the Red Cross, alone, exceeded $130,000,000.  A genuine and compassionate desire to help the people of Haiti is the motivation behind these gifts, not the promise of personal gain and incentive.

What message is being sent to all the other American charities struggling in this economy?  What about concerns that as donations are redirected to Haiti there could be greater hardships here in America?  Why would the House encourage people to give only to the earthquake victims when there is so much need here in our country? 

Are they saying that feeding and sheltering America’s growing population of hungry and homeless, caring for our nation’s sick or preventing life-threatening diseases is any less noble than the relief efforts in Haiti? 

If Rep. Blumenauer is correct and the bill is designed to stimulate giving, then the only equitable solution is to extend the same tax incentives to all tax payers making donations to any approved American charity. 

-Greg Fox

“DONOR” A Title Earned … Not Given

I’m on a crusade to change the way the fundraising industry “labels” people who give to charity – primarily money, but also old cars, used clothing, outdated furniture, canned food, etc.  Regardless of intent or motivation, we call them our “donors.”


We also call people who give blood, tissue, organs or reproductive material donors.  In fact, there is a National Donor Memorial located in Richmond, Virginia that honors people who have donated an organ and/or tissue.   


Think about that … a person who is willing to donate blood, a kidney or bone marrow to literally save someone’s life is given the same title as the person who randomly gives $10 or $15 in response to charitable solicitations, often times because they included items such as name labels, cards and calendars. 


Don’t get me wrong.  My intent is not to belittle those who donate money to charity or de-value their contribution to society.  In fact, our world would be a better place if more people did so.  I’m just not sure this act of giving warrants the title “donor,” at least not yet. 


Becoming a “donor” should be a prestigious title (an honor) and should be reserved for only those who demonstrate through an extended period of time that they are “fully committed” to the organization, regardless of the size of the gift.    People who give contributions are not donors, but donors give contributions.  There is a huge difference between the two.


So how does someone earn the title “donor”?  There’s no rule, of course, but perhaps it’s those who:


  • Are among the 15% who give 85% of the revenue
  • Contribute 10% or more of their annual household income to only a few select charities
  • Demonstrated a sustained pattern of giving over three or more consecutive years
  • Give and who also advocate for your organization, or
  • Have a personal relationship to the charity


 “Who is a donor?” – someone you can least afford lose.  Someone you’d go to great lengths and expense to retain.    Lots of people give to charity, but a precious few earn the right to become a “donor.”  


Join my crusade.  People don’t have to give an arm and a leg to earn the right to be called a donor, but they do have to jump in with both feet!


-Greg Fox


Empathy builds deep connections with donors

Until not so long ago, I was a care-giver for a family member with a progressive, debilitating disease.

If you've been through that, you know how utterly draining, stressful, and demoralizing it can be. Even with a good support system, you often feel alone, trapped, and like a failure.

When people learned about my situation, they often tried to be helpful. As you can imagine, I got a fair amount of well-meaning but mainly bogus advice. You endure the advice.

But there's another kind of comment that actually helped. Things like It must be hard. Or I know what you're going through.

Empathetic words like that were refreshing, restoring, comforting. Just words, but with a power that nearly took my breath away for the way they made me feel less alone and more understood.

Empathy is powerful.

You may be able to offer empathy to your donors. It comes most naturally for disease-support organizations whose donors include many with the disease and their caregivers. But really, any nonprofit that builds relationships with donors can be empathetic:

  • We're all living through the toughest recession in a long time -- and older people (i.e. donors) are especially impacted by it.
  • We're all stressed by the speed of life these days.
  • We all have hard decisions to make, including hard decisions about where to make donations.

Think about the points of empathy you share with your donors.

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Emotional messaging works; rational messaging hurts

Anybody who knows what they're talking about will tell you: emotional appeals work better in fundraising than rational appeals. Yet we keep churning out low-emotion fundraising, because too many of us simply find that fact unbelievable.

Want it in writing? Here's a study of emotional appeals in advertising, reported in the Neuromarketing blog: Emotional Ads Work Best. It's a large study of print ads that compared the profitability boost connected to ads that had purely emotional content with those that used rational content and those that used both.

The findings were startling. The emotional ads did about twice as well as the rational ads. The mixed ads were in the same ballpark as the emotional ads, but it appears that rational content cost them effectiveness.


(It's not clear to me what these percentages measure. Go see the study.)

Why does emotional messaging work better than rational messaging?

[The study] attributes this split to our brain's ability to process emotional input without cognitive processing ... as well as our brain's more powerful recording of emotional stimuli.

This is very hard for a lot of people to believe. Probably because our own emotional decisions seem to us to be rational decisions. That's an illusion, and a terrible thing to base your fundraising strategy on.

The more, and more effectively, you can grasp this simple (but also complex) truth, their better your fundraising will be.

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How your other mission strengthens fundraising

Here's a great way to reorient your thinking about fundraising from the queer ideas blog: The Society for Nice, Middle-Class Older People needs your help.

Here's the premise: When you're doing fundraising, no matter what organization you're working for, you're really working for the Society for Nice, Middle-Class Older People, or SONMOP. This organization's mission is to help such people feel good about themselves. The cause you're raising funds for us just the raw material you're working with to help the folks you're writing to feel good about themselves.

If you've been doing fundraising right, this thought experiment will change almost nothing about your work. If you've been getting it wrong, it changes everything:

... rather than taking organisational needs such as explaining a new policy, featuring a 'representative' balance of different projects, communicating a set of key brand values or even explaining a project in unnecessary detail our goal is now to give the donors what they want -- or more accurately -- what they need from a charity.

This is a brilliant exercise, and you really ought to do it.

At least half the good you do when you motivate people to give takes place in the lives of those who give. When you know that and shape your messages around that knowledge, you'll raise a lot more for your other cause.

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Do sad faces make donors give more?

Do pictures of sad children stir more people to give than picture of happy children? In my experience: sometimes.

Recent research in the Journal of Marketing Research offers a more definitive answer than I do at The Face of Need: Facial Emotion Expression on Charity Advertisements (PDF, 54 pages).

From the abstract:

This paper examines how the expression of emotion on a victim's face affects both sympathy and giving. Building on theories of emotional contagion and sympathy the authors propose that (a) people "catch the emotions displayed on a victim's face and (b) they are particularly sympathetic and likely to donate when viewing sad expressions, relative to happy or neutral expressions.

These findings straddle the line between blindingly obvious and just plain wrong.

Obvious because anyone who's done repeated image testing in fundraising will tell you that "sad" images are usually more effective than happy ones.

But wrong because the research didn't look at actual fundraising results. And anyone who does that knows that sad faces are not always more effective. It depends on what you're raising funds for. Sometimes a happy image just kicks butt over a sad one.

Other times a sad image doesn't quite work for various reasons. For example, when children are in pain, they frequently furrow their brows so their expression of pain seems in the context of a photo to be an angry scowl. Not sympathetic. That type of image often doesn't work very well.

The photo problem I see most often in fundraising material isn't whether images are sad or not, but it's a radical disconnect between the message in copy and the message of the photos. It very often goes like this:

Copy: 35,000 children died today from hunger.

Photo: Happy child.

These two conflicting messages basically cancel each other out.

It would make our jobs easier if we could trust a blanket statement about the types of images to use. But here in the real world, it's just not that simple.

Thanks to Cause Marketing for the tip.

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Borrow from Madoff's playbook (but not everything!)

Looking at it now, it seems so obvious that Bernard Madoff was ripping off his clients. But it wasn't at all clear at the time. In fact Madoff was a master marketer, as noted at the Unconventional Thinking blog in Madoff Marketing:

Madoff knew that other people can do a much better job of bragging about you than you can do on your own. Bernie built a network of a thousand third party endorsements. All he had to do was sit back, feign indifference and watch the machine do its magic.

Want to do well? Do what Madoff did -- minus the lies, fraud, larceny, and evil. Do something so exciting that other people do your marketing for you.

It worked when the product was too good to be true -- and there were open-eyed nay-sayers calling attention to that fact. Imagine how it can work if the product is real, true, and fully above-board.

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Donors aren't old, regardless of their age

Nobody thinks he's old. That's what a recent survey found, as reported in USA Today: Few see themselves as 'old,' no matter what their age.

Seems no matter what your age, "old" is something yet to come:

  • People under 30 say 60 is old.
  • Those between 30 and 65 figure 70 is old.
  • People older than 65 don't think you're old until you're 75.

Only 21% of people ages 65 to 74 say they feel old. Among those 75 and older, only 35% say they feel old.

If you're raising funds, you're mostly dealing with the chronologically advanced. (I can't call them old, can I?) That's a fact you ignore at great peril. There are clear and strong differences between generations. You can't talk to people decades older than you are they same way you talk to your age-peers.

But one of those age-appropriate things it seems, is not treating them like they're old. Because as far as they're concerned, they aren't old. And don't forget it, whippersnapper!

Thanks to The Boomer Blog for the tip.

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How to save your donors' lives

You just might be saving your donors' lives.

A recent HealthDay report, Have a Purpose in Life? You Might Live Longer, finds a correlation between purpose and longevity:

We found that people who reported a greater level of purpose in life were substantially less likely to die over the follow-up period -- only about half as likely to die over the follow-up period -- as compared to people with a lower level of purpose.

This sense-of-purpose stuff is their responsibility, not yours. But you can play a meaningful part by the way you communicate with them:

  • By really bringing them in to the cause of your organization. Making it clear how important there gifts are.
  • By thanking them promptly and specifically when they give.
  • By reporting back to them what their gifts make possible.
  • By giving them meaningful choices in the relationship about when, how, and about what you'll communicate with them.
  • By letting them direct their giving where they want to.
  • By inviting them to other kinds of participation than giving -- like volunteering, advocating, recruiting, advising.

Old-line fundraising tends to de-emphasize the relational and cause aspects of giving, making it more of a simple transaction. Too bad, because that's what boosts the sense of purpose that's already innate in charitable giving. Which saves lives. And it raises more money.

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What happens when people report on their own behavior

When I was a kid, there was a pizza place in the neighborhood that we never went to. My Dad said, "Nobody ever goes there. It's always too crowded."

Apparently some radio stations are like that.

Seems when you ask people to report what stations they listen to, they tell you they don't listen to the most popular stations. This issue has recently hit my city, as reported in the Seattle Times: Seattle radio rankings shaken up.

Arbitron, the company that supplies ratings for radio stations, is switching the way they determine who's listening to what. The old system was to have folks write in a daily diary what they listened to.

The new system provides people with a device called a Portable People Meter that they keep with them; it detects an inaudible signal and records what people are actually in earshot of throughout the day.

When the ratings company went from recording what people said they listened to to tracking what they actually listened to, there were a few changes:

Two "adult contemporary" stations jumped into the top two spots. A venerable news/talk station fell from #3 to #17. The conservative talk station plummeted from #9 to #21. There were changes up and down the dial. No small amount of weeping and gnashing of teeth ensued, as ratings determine ad rates.

Ask people what they listen to, and they'll tell you what stations they think highly of. Or what they think they ought to listen to. Or what they think you think they ought to listen to. But sometimes -- often enough that the Portable People Meter creates a newsworthy shake-up of radio ratings when it enters a new market -- what people say and what people do are very different things.

Here's the good news for us fundraisers: If you do direct mail, email, or any other form of direct-response fundraising, you already have a "portable people meter" that accurately measures what people actually do.


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What research can't tell you

If you've ever made important decisions based completely on the findings of survey research or focus groups, there's a good chance you've been stung by the bad -- the sometimes shockingly bad -- information these sources can give.

That's because what people say about what they do or think is seldom what they will actually do or think.

That's the important point from the Ageless Marketing blog, at Traditional Consumer Research Can't Do the Job.

The reason traditional research so often fails: 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.

Most human motivation takes place in subconscious and unconscious parts of our mind:

Brain scan technology supports ... the incompleteness of our knowledge of our motivations. More often than we're inclined to admit, the reasons we give for doing something better fit the category of speculation than reality.

The dumbest thing you can do in a focus group is show direct mail and ask for reactions. They will hate direct mail that works. They will praise to the skies pieces that don't stand a chance in the mail. They aren't trying to deceive you (at least most of them aren't); they honestly don't know. There's almost no way they can accurately report this.

The next-dumbest 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 s focus group than they are when your message lands in their life among all the other noise.

Asking people how they would respond or what they would do doesn't tell you how they'd respond or what they'd do.

Don't get me wrong: I really value focus group research that does it right, getting non-insiders to talk about our issues in their own idiom and understanding. And surveys that ask the right questions can tell you things you won't find out otherwise and give you direction and ideas.

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, and it give you facts 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.

(Tomorrow we'll look at how this issue is playing out among commercial radio stations. There's a new way to find out who listens to what, and it's shaking up the industry.)

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Fascinating information you can't use

People try so hard to learn deep new truths about fundraising. Here's an effort to see if nonprofits can use nostalgia to motivate donors to give, reported at Third Sector a UK publication for nonprofits: Nostalgia as a fundraising tool (registration required).

But here's how the research happened:

... asked more than 500 US donors who had given to charity in the previous 12 months about what made them feel happy, sad, lonely or angry. They were encouraged to remember significant events in their lives and write down how these made them feel. They were also asked if they were more likely to donate if the events were linked with a cause.

Wow. That's a lot of heavy lifting to learn something you can't really use in real life.

Problem is, there's no relationship whatsoever between what people tell you in an artificial, clinical setting and what they'd actually do when looking at the stuff in their mailbox. Folks can tell you they'd be likely to give after you've got them thinking about their past, but that doesn't mean if you evoke nostalgia in direct mail you're going to get a higher response rate.

That's not to say you won't find nostalgia a useful tool in your motivational toolbox. It might help.

But this study doesn't tell you that.

The only research into how people respond that you can take to the bank is disciplined direct-response testing. That's how you find out what people really do in the fundraising situation that matters. Not what they feel comfortable telling a researcher in an artificial setting.

(Same goes for focus groups: they can kill you.)

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Mad Men can teach us a thing or two about fundraising

Here's how you raise funds:

(Or watch it here on YouTube.)

If you think this isn't about fundraising, you haven't been involved in fundraising yet.

The guys from Kodak are all concerned with the technology of the new device, worried that people won't understand or appreciate the features. The ad get sees through the technology to the emotional content of the device. Technology, schmechnology, he basically says. This thing hooks up to your heart.

Too many fundraisers don't get around to the real core of what they're trying to "sell" their donors. They need money, so they ask for money. Fortunately, a lot of donors have the imagination and life experience to do the fundraisers' jobs for them and find the heart themselves.

But you raise a lot more when you lead the donors to the heart of the offer.

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Your donor is ticked off: Now what?

Charity Navigator Blog recently published a A Donor's Wish List, a well-reasoned and very typical complaint from a donor about direct-mail fundraising. The donor had two main issues:

  1. It infuriates me to get labels, T-shirts, and other offers .... Particularly obnoxious are the ones that send nickels, to put those together must be very expensive.
  2. I am inundated with charitable mailings.... This is ridiculous and a real waste of money. Charities should send no more than three, and if there's no response, then they should take you off the list.

You hear this all the time, right?

These complaints are potent because they feed into fears many nonprofits already have: That their mailings are annoying, and that they mail too much. So an articulate complaint like this is sometimes taken as proof that your fears are real and that you should make some meaningful changes to your fundraising plan.

Before you do that, remember this: Donors matter more than complainers. Compare the number of people who wrote you checks to the number who complained: Unless you have a shockingly dysfunctional program, your donors outnumber your complainers by hundreds or thousands to one.

But don't ignore the complaint. It's real and significant. It voices something many donors feel. So here's what to do:

  • Scrupulously obey the donor who complained. No, don't implement their proposed mailing plan for the file, but do what they want. If they want less mail, reduce their mail. If they don't want premiums, don't send any more premiums. Someone who cares enough to complain is a candidate to be a great donor.
  • Make sure you're being relevant. If a donor perceives your mailings as a bunch of undifferentiated trash, that's a sign you aren't being relevant. Are fundraising offers vague and generic? Are you asking donors to supply unrestricted funds? Are you making a clear connection between their gifts and what happens as a result?
  • Give all your donors power. Give your donors the option to opt out of anything. Give them total control over the terms of your relationship. Very few will take any action, but your donors as a whole will respond better after they've been offered control.
  • Get smart with your data. Databases can be really smart these days. Predictive modeling and other cool tricks can help pinpoint what individual donors should be getting from you. (But get professional help! This is tricky stuff.)

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What to do with irrational donors

Donors can just drive you crazy. They don't see things the way we do, and that makes them seem "irrational" -- they don't care about the right things. The for-profit world struggles with this too, as outlined by Seth Godin at The rational marketer (and the irrational customer).

You know your product (or program) is truly excellent; they don't care. And try as you might to show them the facts, they still don't respond. You could just throttle them!

Not so fast. Seth says:

The opportunity ... is not to insist that your customers get more rational, but instead to embrace just how irrational they are. Give them what they need. Help them satisfy their needs at the same time they get the measurable, rational results your product can give them in the long run.

I've seen more than one nonprofit throw up their hands and basically decide to abandon their donors. To hell with our irrational donors, they said. We're going to go out and find a whole new set of (rational) donors who will listen to us!

Want to know how well that worked?

It didn't.

The new "rational" donors turned out to be either not donors at all, or, when they were donors, they were exactly like the old irrational donors.

Donor "irrationality" is a fact of life. They will never "get it" like you do. Get over it. Get on with life, and listen to Seth: Meet their annoying, irrational needs, and they will take care of you!

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Give donors more experience for their giving

Donors know that money can buy happiness -- when you give it away. They seem to know another truth that's only now being "discovered" by scientists -- that gathering life experiences is a much better path to fulfillment than gathering stuff.

It's reported in ScienceDaily at Buying Experiences, Not Possessions, Leads To Greater Happiness:

A new psychology study suggests that buying life experiences rather than material possessions leads to greater happiness for both the consumer and those around them.... because they satisfy higher order needs, specifically the need for social connectedness and vitality -- a feeling of being alive.

As fundraisers, we are in the business of creating life experiences. Even the lamest, most old-school, donor-unaware fundraiser does that, because giving is a meaningfully positive action. Even when it consists of little more than writing a check and getting little feedback. It makes donors more alive.

That's our advantage. Our strength. So press it!

Make donating to your organization a real experience. More than the positive but short-lived experience of writing a check.

Make it more memorable.

Make it cool and worth telling their friends about.

More experiential.

Create more connection to the cause, the people, and fellow donors.

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Top donor reveals all

What do donors want? Sometimes you find out when you just ask. Lorry I. Lokey, one of the top donors in the US, recently gave an online talk at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, reported in the Prospecting blog at Treat Donors Like Investors, a Top Philanthropist Urges. Here's part of what he said:

I like gift officers who approach me on a peer level and truly are friendly whether or not I say yes. And if I become a donor, I, in effect, am adopting that organization as if I worked there or owned it or had close experience ties with it. It becomes an investment that I want to follow and see success. My grants are not gifts. They are investments.

That's how you should treat all your donors, not just the big ones.

Donors may or may not want the intense level of contact that Lokey describes -- most, in fact, don't. But assume they do. Shower donors with reporting back, with thanks, with information about their investment.

That way you'll uncover your fanatics and super-supporters -- people who give more money, people who tell your story, people who advocate for you.

And the others, the regular donors who are happy to write a check and leave it at that? They'll respond positively to being treated like insiders. Even if they don't come inside.

Transcript of Mr. Lokey's discussion here.

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How to make your donors trust you

Wouldn't it be great if your donors to trusted you more? There's one way to get them to do that: trust them.

That's the message at the Neuromarketing blog, Show You Trust Your Customer.

Apparently, when you perceive that someone trusts you, that stimulates the production of oxytocin, the "magical neurochemical" that helps us build relationships. (We've talked about the importance of oxytocin in fundraising before.)

Neuromarketing suggests that companies that want to engender trust with their customers do things like making loaner or trial products available or make it easy to establishing credit terms.

Do you have policies designed to protect you from potential evil donors might inflict on your organization?

You might be signaling your distrust with small and symbolic things like those legal email signatures that warn, "don't misuse this email or else."

Or you might be doing it in huge and systemic ways, like not allowing donors to designate their giving -- because you're afraid they'll screw up your programs.

Get rid of policies like those. Let your donors in. Show them you trust them and consider them meaningful partners. (And don't just show it -- believe it!)

When your donors see that you trust them, they'll return the favor. And that can only boost fundraising.

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Wealthy donors say they don't make a difference?

Something's wrong with fundraising. At least, that's one conclusion you could draw from a study reported in the Wall Street Journal Wealth Report blog at Why the Rich Give to Charity.

The survey, by the Center on Philanthropy and Bank of America, asked people with incomes of $200,000 or more or a net worth of $1 million-plus, about their motivations for giving to charity. Here's the key finding:

... 46% of respondents said their charitable donations have a "greater impact on their own personal fulfillment" than on those who receive their gifts.

Less than 20% believed their giving has a major impact on the organizations they support, and only 6% feel that they're making significant impact on society.

If you pay a lot of attention to donors, the fact that giving creates a lot of personal fulfillment will be no real surprise. What's distressing is the low level of belief in their impact on the organizations they support and on society in general.

Why are these donors so unimpressed with the impact they're making through their giving?

It's (at least in part) a failure of communication.

Are you doing your part to persuade your donors (major donors especially) that their giving does have a major impact on your organization and that they do significantly impact society?

Maybe more important, do the facts support those two assertions? (If they don't, what is your organization doing wrong, and how are you going to fix it?)

You know how I feel about surveys: They don't necessarily uncover truth; they only reveal what people said in the survey. But really, a strong, smart, donor-centered nonprofit should make it so abundantly clear to its donors that they matter that it would be impossible for them to say they don't.

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Another reason to personalize your fundraising

Posted by guest blogger Andrew Rogers

Direct marketers have long understood that perhaps the most powerful words you can print on a mail piece are your donor or prospect's own name. New research from the UK suggests another way personalized mail increases the perceived value of the message you're communicating.

A British market-research firm with the unlikely name of CCB fast.MAP found that 46% of people surveyed believe "unpersonalized leaflets, coupons, and samples" are bad for the environment. However, once the mail package is personalized, only 20% consider it un-green. The study was reported on the UK marketing-news site Brand Republic last month.

How much should we read into this? Perhaps not a lot: Jeff always reminds us to put less stock in what people tell researchers than in how they behave in real life.

Still, it's easier to engage in conversation with someone -- and convince them of your interest in, and relevance to, them -- when you know and use their name. Anyone can toss a generic flyer or coupon at them. When you call someone by name, you're engaging them as a person. And at least for a moment, they may place a higher value on what you're trying to tell them.

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Leave the funny out of fundraising

Here's an example of the pitfalls of humor in fundraising. A Blah Fund-Raising Appeal Backfires.

Trying, I guess, to be edgy and cool, Framingham State College sent an unusual fundraising letter to around 6,000 younger alumni who had never previously given. It went something like this:

With the recent economic downturn and loan crisis, it has become even more important for Framingham State College to receive your support. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah....
There were (surprise) quite a few complaints. Now, fear of complaints should not drive your decisions (more on that here, here, and here). But bad results should get your attention: According news reports, the blah-blah letter raised around $2,000 from "nearly" 40 donors. That's about a 0.67% response rate with something like a $50 average gift. I don't know what the mailing cost, but I bet it cost well over $2,000 to mail to those 6,000 donors. I'm guessing that substantial negative net revenue is not what they wanted.

That's the problem with humor in fundraising. It just too often doesn't work. Because you can't count on people getting it.

And there's hardly anything more awful than a joke that falls flat. It morphs into anything from a purely incomprehensible babble to a slap in the face. (The blah-blah letter seems to have managed to be both.) Neither of which is conducive to acts of charity and generosity.

Humor isn't easy, even in situations created for it, like nightclubs, where everyone wants to laugh, expects to laugh, and is well lubricated with alcohol. Try humor in a direct mail piece, or across generational lines, and your chance of getting a laugh shrinks to very nearly zero.

If you want people to give, you have to appeal to their highest natures. That's hard to do. But a lot easier than a successful joke.

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Hold the smoke, but try the mirrors

Wily researchers have found that people behave more virtuously when they can see themselves in a mirror. The Neuromarketing blog wonders how this might improve fundraising, at Reflecting on the Mirror:

It seems that seeing one's image causes one to think about one's behavior and ultimately behave in a more socially desirable way.... What better way to boost the success rate than letting potential donors see themselves?
The post suggests two mirror-related actions for fundraisers:

  1. Installing mirrors in the physical space where charitable solicitation takes place.
  2. Including an actual mirror in some direct mail, or where that might be too expensive, some kind of inexpensive reflective surface.
If I were doing in-person fundraising, I'd be all over #1, assuming the space would still feel natural with mirrors.

I'm not so sure about #2. Just because there's a mirror in a package doesn't mean anyone is going to look into it. And inexpensive reflective surfaces? Well, they aren't quite mirrors.

I bet, though, that you could get a lot of the same benefit by holding up a "word mirror" to your donors. Tell her about herself. List her qualities that make her likely to give.

Donors want to be (and in fact are) generous, caring, committed to making the world better, and meaningfully connected to your cause. These things are both aspirations and facts. Reminding your donor can really help motivate giving.

Talking this way also forces you to put more of your focus where it should be in the first place: on the donor, not on yourself.

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What donors want

The more you know about people, the easier it is to motivate them. That's what advertisers do all the time, and you can see some of the thinking behind it at Copyblogger, 12 Tips for "Psychological Selling" The tips:

  • People make decisions emotionally.
  • People justify decisions with facts.
  • People are egocentric.
  • People look for value.
  • People think in terms of people.
  • You can't force people to do anything.
  • People love to buy.
  • People are naturally suspicious.
  • People are always looking for something.
  • People buy "direct" because of convenience and exclusivity.
  • People like to see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, or smell it before they buy it.
  • Most people follow the crowd.

Yes, these tips are for selling stuff. But every one of them has application in fundraising. Persuasion is always psychological at its root.

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Older brains are different; what about older boomer brains?

You know that as a fundraiser, you're a specialist in marketing to the elderly, right?

Once you see it that way, you can start to ask interesting questions, like one raised recently at the Neuromarketing blog: Marketing to the Senior Brain.

The post notes that "... the brain's reward system ... is dialed down as our brains age." That's why older people are less susceptible to fads and shiny new things -- and instead tend to prefer trusted, well-known things. (Less gullible is another way to look at it.)

But today, with 78 million baby boomers in the US alone entering old age, it's worth asking: Are boomer brains different? Neuromarketing's answer:

Probably not -- it's important to realize that the brain's reward system doesn't shut down with age, it's just toned down a bit. It's equally important to realize that many other factors affect senior marketing, and, of course, individual seniors are no more alike than individuals in other age demographics.

Yes, boomers are different from previous generations. But their brains are fundamentally the same. Our task is to find the points where the different culture of the boomers directs them to see things differently -- and where it doesn't.

Getting an understanding of this will be one of the most important factors in the success of fundraising in the next few years.

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What wealthy donors want

Ever wonder what it's like to be one of your donors? There's an interesting study out from the University of Pennsylvania's Center for High Impact Philanthropy that doesn't quite get you into your donors' heads, but it does give you a look at how some high-end donors think: "I'm Not Rockefeller": 33 High Net Worth Philanthropists Discuss Their Approach to Giving (PDF).

(It's also summarized in the Chronicle of Philanthropy at New Study Sheds Light on What Wealthy Donors Care About; Many Say They Will Support Operating Costs.

It's worthwhile just hearing what they say. Sometimes surprising. I found three interesting points:

1. Their main source of information on what organizations to support is social contacts:

... most donors said they choose which charities to support by relying on information obtained from peers and other social contacts, rather than doing research or turning to watchdog organizations ...

2. They prefer to support tangible projects:

Donors frequently reported that it is difficult to track the results of their gifts. Consequently, some said that they intentionally give to tangible or time-limited projects such as a new building or a scholarship with easy-to-observe results.

3. But most don't mind helping cover operating costs.

The report is worth reading.

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Should you raise funds for disasters?

When disaster hits, people are moved to action. Donations to nonprofits surge. It's a fact of life. But more than a few people have noted that disaster relief is not the most impactful way to help people in need.

You'll see this argument at The GiveWell Blog, in The case against disaster relief.

When a natural disaster and humanitarian crisis hits the headlines, many of us ... reach straight for our wallets. Emergencies have an easier time getting our attention (and emotional investment) than the chronic health problems that plague the developing world every day. But ... emergency aid is one of the worst uses of donations, despite being one of the most emotionally compelling. (Emphasis added.)

(Note that GiveWell is aimed not at fundraisers, but at donors who seek to maximize their giving; this isn't fundraising advice, it's giving advice.)

If you buy the thesis that disaster relief is not the best use of donations, you should go in one of two directions:

  1. Stop raising funds for disasters. Some organizations have done that. This is an extremely expensive step to take. Putting your money (or lack of it) behind your principles.
  2. Or you can do your part to redeem the situation.

You aren't going to change this fundamental fact about human psychology: People react more strongly to more dramatic events. And a disaster is a lot more dramatic than the ongoing toll of malaria, HIV/AIDS, unsafe water, or lack of access to education. The fact that those other things kill more people, doesn't enter the equation. They're less dramatic, so they move fewer people.

With each major disaster, millions of people give, some of them for the first meaningful time in their lives.

You can do your part to mobilize the outpouring of support that comes after a disaster, you usher new people into the ranks of donors. If you give them a good experience, speak their language, and treat them with respect, they'll discover the joy of making a difference through your organization. And they'll stick around. Not just for disasters, but when there's need.

To say no to disaster fundraising because it's less than the best is to cede your role in bringing ordinary people along, actually helping them move beyond disasters.

So keep it up. Do it well. That's how you help more people join you in changing the world.

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Ready, aim, fundraise!

Maybe you've heard fundraising compared to war. At the beginning of an especially hairy capital campaign, maybe. PhilanthroMedia (a donor-oriented blog) riffs on the comparison in Fundraising is War!

If fundraising is war, then givers had best arm themselves with a clear vision and with the fortitude to say "no," or to confidently and forcefully say "yes" when the cause and the timing are right. If turf is to be won, then let it always be held in friendly, honest hands.

Like war, fundraising requires focus, determination, unity or purpose, and serious marshalling of resources.

But unlike war, fundraising shouldn't have losers. You don't defeat anyone -- except maybe apathy.

If you see yourself as going out against your donors and hoping to win -- you're doing it all wrong. It's a pretty common view among fundraisers. It's why they feel vaguely guilty about raising funds -- as if it's a type of pillage. They don't realize that with every gift, donors become more enriched. In fact, if somebody gets the shorter end of the stick, it's the fundraiser, who just gets money.

Everyone wins when you raise funds for a good cause.

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The winning phrase in recessionary fundraising

Fundraising works best your audience already knows what you're telling them. That's what Herschell Gordon Lewis, writing in The NonProfit Times, points out about fundraising in hard economic times: Times Are Tough. You Should Be Tougher.

In a negative fundraising climate ... the truth could be the factor that sets you free. So a mailing or email that states quickly and forcefully, "I don't have to tell you that these are lean times" will have at least a few heads nodding in your direction.

It's really the same principle as the old conversation-opener, "What about those Mariners?" (Okay, bad example.) You talk about something everyone knows. Then go from there.

In hard times, the economy is the elephant in the room. Nobody likes talking about it, but it's there. When you mention it, you place yourself in the same place as your audience. You establish rapport. And that puts you on the path toward a gift.

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In fundraising, donors matter -- not you

I know your organization is great. But people don't support you because you're great. They support you because they are great.

When you get your mind around that fact, you are more than half-way to consistently great fundraising.

Copyblogger makes this important point at I Don't Care About You. Here's a way you can approach this in fundraising copy:

... write your content as if you're addressing readers directly, while focusing on their desires and needs. Don't flatter your own ego by penning boastful descriptions of you and your business. Show people you're listening instead.

Donors have no reason to care about you -- until they see how you fit into their world. It's your job (not theirs) to make the connection clear. Bragging about yourself will never do that.

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Old news: People like "new"

In marketing, new is one of the best words available. (The other one is free.) Apparently that's because being attracted to newness is an innate feature of our brains, says a post at the Neuromarketing blog, The Power of "New".

Novelty activates the brain's reward center, causes us find new products (and even repackaged old products) attractive:

... making a product "new" in some way may give it a boost when compared with competing products. At the same time, marketers should be mindful of long-term brand attachments.... marketers need to steer a careful course -- emphasize the novelty of their offering while still using the power of long-term brand affinity.

Nonprofits seem to focus either on their long histories (lack of novelty) or their amazing new cutting edge-ness. Success lies in balancing those two things.

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Donors buy happiness every day

Money can mess you up. Despite the old wisdom that money can't buy happiness, millions of people ruin their lives trying to do just that.

But there's a loophole: There's one way that money can buy happiness: When you give it away.

Anyway, that's what many researchers have found, including a recent study reported at the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge: Spending on Happiness.

... spending as little as $5 over the course of a day on another person led to demonstrable increases in happiness. In other words, people needn't be wealthy and donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to charity to experience the benefits of prosocial spending; small changes -- a few dollars reallocated from oneself to another -- can make a difference.

As a nonprofit, you are essentially a money-to-happiness conversion factory. It's one of the greatest things you do.

You are helping people create meaning in their lives and breaking free from delusional struggles to spend their way to happiness.

So the next time you hear someone talk like they're ashamed of fundraising, tell 'em to go be ashamed of something else. This one is to be proud of!

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Amazing new study shows that donors donate

I love those human guinea pig psychological studies that claim to inform us about fundraising realities. Their findings tend to be either blindingly obvious or laughably wrong.

Here's one, reported in The Chronicle of Philanthropy's Prospecting blog: Want Bigger Gifts? Ask People to Volunteer Before Asking for Money, with the study itself available here.

The gist:

Asking people to volunteer their time at a charity before asking for their money increases the amount they ultimately give to an organization...

Wow! And how did they come up with that conclusion? They put college students in artificial situations and asked their opinions on how much they'd theoretically give to a phony organization. Oh, and the total study group was less than 200 people -- a number so laughably insignificant that a direct marketer wouldn't pay attention to it.

Don't take this type of study as gospel truth. The best they give us are ideas and directions that we can explore with real testing.

In this case, the studies point out a phenomenon that most good fundraisers understand: Someone who's done something for you is more likely to do something else for you.

That's why someone who's given to an organization is ten or more times likely to give again than someone who's never given. And the more times someone has given, the more likely they are to give again.

It might also tell us that volunteers are very warm prospects to become donors. As are event participants.

But don't take my word for it. Test it for yourself.

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Tiny gifts: good or bad?

Maybe you've encountered donation websites that don't take gifts below a certain amount. The purpose, I suppose, is to keep the small-gift riff-raff out.

The Firstgiving Blog looks a this issue upon encountering a site that turned away donations under $25 (!): Every little bit helps for a good cause, doesn't it?

Why would you refuse to accept donations under $25? ... we all know that there are processing fees, but they're a lot more for checks than for online transactions. And processing fees are usually a percentage of the donation -- like Firstgiving's are -- so why would it matter if somebody wanted to give even just one dollar online?

I can think of one good reason you don't want tiny gifts: The vast majority of donors who give very small gifts keep giving very small gifts. Their value to you will remain small, and if you aren't careful, you can end up spending more cultivating them than they'll give you over time.

Someone who gives $1 (or even $5) -- especially online, where the norm is up around $100 -- is likely not a serious donor.

But there's more to it. Many small gifts are "Widow's Mite" gifts -- far more meaningful than their amount indicates. I know I'm in unmeasurable, spiritual territory here, but it's true. Charitable giving is a lot more than just a monetary transaction.

And that's why you should accept tiny gifts. Nothing's forcing you to spend on a $1 donor the way you would on a $50 donor.

Giving people a chance to give is a great service. One of the best you have to offer, really. It's just not right to turn people away from the benefits of giving just because they can't give very much. That's basically a harsh form of discrimination against the poor. Not all the tiny-gift donors are poor; some are just cheap. But we can't tell the difference, can we?

Here's what I'd do: Include the line, "Suggested minimum" (say $5 or $10), but don't enforce it.

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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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