Apply the 80/20 Rule ... Everywhere

The Pareto principle (also known as the “80/20 Rule”) states that, for many events, approximately 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

In the early 1900’s, Vilfredo Pareto determined that 80 percent of the land in Italy was owned by only 20 percent of the population, and so it began.  Nearly 100 years later the theory still held true:


  1. ^ Human Development Report 1992, Chapter 3,, retrieved 2007-07-08 

So why does this matter for Nonprofit marketers?

Simply stated, this premise provides us context that the large majority of outcomes comes from a small minority of inputs.  More specifically, in the fast-paced marketing world in which we operate, framing our context around this principle can help to ensure we are focusing on things that matter most. 

What if we focused fundraising efforts around questions and outcomes such as:

  • If 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your donors (and it does) – Treat them better!
  • If 20% of your campaigns generate 80% of the donor complaints you receive – Change them!
  • If there are a few elements of your solicitations that you can never live without – Make them even better!

For a moment, I will build on the last point because this is likely an opportunity that every organization, large or small, newly established or mature has in common.

That element of solicitation commonality is your organizational brand.  Your brand is the constant in every communication piece and is likely a big influencer of results.  For great organizations, your brand creates instant credibility.  This credibility gets your envelope or email opened before others in a crowded mailbox or inbox.

At the close of your next strategic planning session, review the outcomes and ideas and ask yourselves these questions:

1)     Have we built a brand that gives us instant credibility?

2)     Do we have a value proposition that resonates with our key audiences?

If the answer is “no” then maybe it's time to step back and determine what’s important.  What is your 80 and who is your 20?

-Josh Whichard

Josh is the Senior Director of Applied Strategy in Merkle's nonprofit vertical.  He chooses to Do What Matters because "there should be no tolerance for following the status quo just because it's 'how we've always done it'".  You can follow him on Twitter @JWhichard.

Collecting Candy & Saying "Thank You"

I interrupt this generational series of posts to state my very opinionated … opinion. 

You know how after Halloween your parents had to check your candy bag for powdered poison, blades, kid-killing elixirs and everything else you never even imagined existed?  It sort of took an ounce of the excitement out of immediately indulging in your hard-earned night’s worth of walking and knocking and waiting.  Right?  Ever thought about what this crushing 10 minutes of parental advisory does to little Johnny’s experience? 

I know.  It puts his gratification on pause.  Inadvertently he learns that the fantasy of soliciting free candy from strangers has a catch.  A parental one.  His sugar and caffeine-filled donations are monitored.  Even later he realizes that he never even said thank you to his neighbors for supplying him with a lunch treat, an after school snack and a late-night craving cure for the next few months.  He learns that his costume which, for the most part, makes him anonymous, warrants no follow-up of appreciation the next day when he’s hopped back into his regular clothes.

This learning and behavior has a decent parallel to how we handle fundraising.  The anonymity involved in asking donors to give through our mass-marketing techniques gives us a false sense of entitlement in that we never have to say thank you.   As if we’re not real humans behind the postage stamp or email send button.  Just like knocking on doors to “trick or treat”, we bang and bang again until someone gives us a few more months of electricity and research funds.   We may acknowledge them with an impersonal confirmation, but this commonly involves another ask.  More candy!?  Are you serious?  What if Johnny swung by your door twice and asked for a second Snickers before he said thank you for the first?  In your head, you’d probably be thinking, “I just gave this little rascal one and he didn’t even say thank you!  And now he wants more?  Who raised this kid?”

Well how far off do you think this reaction is from how our donors perceive us when we do the same?  Or when we ask and thank simultaneously?  They may not wonder “Who raised us?”, but they surely are curious to know if we noticed that they just sent us money to advance our missions.  Though we may think so, our computers are not costumes we can hide behind that excuse us from basic human manners, such as saying “thank you”. Especially to those who are freely providing us with the funds to keep our organizations afloat, without anything in return.   So as a fundraiser, there is a catch.  We don’t just get to collect candy, eat it, and move to the next door.  If we do, what do you think this does to our donors’ experience?  My feeling is that it puts their philanthropic spirit on pause, just like Johnny’s 10 minutes of parental perusing.  Taking time out to mine through what we’ve received and express our gratitude in a personal way is necessary.  

As I grew up, I learned to appreciate my neighbors and the $15 or so they spent on those bags of candy that kept my childhood sugar-high accelerated until holiday break.  I eventually said “thank you” and paid them back by buying candy for their kids/grandkids that came knocking years later.   The law of reciprocity is universal.  How will you treat those who sweeten your mission this holiday season?

-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.”

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?”

Digital-Mobile Sphere Rallies Around Japan Relief Efforts

Last week, I wrote here about how social gaming platforms were helping raise money for the Japan earthquake-tsunami relief efforts. As the news grew increasingly more worrying, I started to take note of a rallying of effort across the digital and mobile sphere, echoing relief efforts from Haiti, but pushing channels to a new level of engagement. 

I've rounded up some of the interesting examples I've seen in the last week. Yes, most have the Red Cross as the charity that benefits from the donations, but this is also a testament to the work the Red Cross has done in optimizing new and developing channels as fundraising channels in times of disaster. So, in no particular order:

Living Social:

Last Thursday, Groupon-like site Living Social sent out an offer: Give $5 to the Red Cross, and we'll match it to make it $10. Doesn't seem that huge right? With 15 hours still left to go in the deal, over $750,000 had been raised!


iTUNES gets into the game:

It started some time last week and can still be seen on the iTUNES homepage today--amidst promos of artists, movies, and whatever else, now comes a promo to help Japan relief efforts. Donation goes to Red Cross, your iTunes account is billed. No news that I could find on how much has been raised, but millions of eyes have been exposed to the offer.





Do you HULU?

Just this past week at the annual NTEN Nonprofit Technology Conference, discussion abounded about using Hulu's free service for nonprofits to run in-video ads. And what do I see pop up this past Sunday while catching up on some TV viewing time?   A special ad just for Japan relief that was visible during the entire show and had in-video spots.





Travel a lot for business and pleasure? I sure do, and I make it a point to try to stay at the same hotel family to collect points.  I am sure many others do too. Instead of redeeming them for night stays, I can now donate them to disaster relief (well, at least if I'm collecting Hilton points). They also did this during Haiti, but rolled out much quicker with the offer this time around.


Mobile keeps evolving:

The role of mobile in disaster relief efforts certainly proved itself with the Haiti earthquake. since then, some of us have been pondering important questions like: do I want the $10 donor?  What do I do with them after? How do I convert/upgrade them? How do I even find out who they are? 

Having donated $10 to the Red Cross, I see them trying something interesting in the upgrading department: a text back telling me that if I'd like to donate more $$, to call this number...(Can't wait to find out from the Red Cross folks how well this worked!)


Have you seen other great examples of fundraising for Japan disaster relief?  We'd love to share them with our readers!

-Miriam Kagan

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

Fundraising Challenge: Acquisition -- Evolutionary vs. Revolutionary Thinking

Recently in one of our meetings, or perhaps in the daily back-and-forth strategic debates, dialogues, and brainstorming “events” that we engage in with Greg Fox, our Chief Strategy Officer here at Merkle, he challenged us to be curious and think differently, out of which a few interesting points of view rose to the surface.  

So I figured I would, perhaps on a monthly basis, post one of them for you, gentle readers, to consider, poke holes in, and generally comment back about.  To be clear, there are no right or wrong answers here, which is the beauty of such an academic exercise as this, and admittedly our strategic team is not absolute in our opinions on most of these items one way or the other – so you won’t be hurting anyone’s feelings. 

The Challenge –  What is the “Real" Cost to Acquire 

So, to get back on point, the premise around this topic, in simple terms, is that we all know how we calculate the cost to acquire or the cost per dollar raised on our acquisition campaigns, at the campaign level.   We also all know that the single biggest challenge facing our industry is our ability to acquire new donors in a cost-effective way. 

So what are we doing about?  What are you doing about it gentle readers?  What dramatically new, innovative, earth-shattering progress has been made?  Greg would say, with regards to acquisition, none.  We still approach acquisition the same way today, as we did 5 years, even 20 years, ago as an industry. 

The thinking around this is as follow:

If I have a $0.30 cost per piece

DPB - 2

And a 1.00% Response Rate, 

DPB - 3 

I have a $30 cost to acquire. 

But are we really exposing “all” of the cost for these new donors?  All of the investment? 

This is where the incremental cost to acquire debate begins.  

If a prospect is on a “great” list, a list you maybe mail every month, and have mailed every month for several years, the very real possibility exists that this prospect has been touched 12, 24, 36, maybe even 48 times over the last few years.  Each touch, assume again $0.30 cost per piece, adds up in the absence of a response.  So this new donor you just acquired last month in your acquisition campaign may have $3.60, or more, “incremental acquisition cost” associated with them. All your previous efforts are now sunk costs in this individual name.  

So are all new donors equal then?  The data would suggest no.  Furthermore, are there donors on list sources that are probably not making the cut for your acquisition mail plan who, when incremental cost to acquire is factored in, might be far more advantageous for your organization to pursue from a Net Investment and LTV perspective?  Almost undoubtedly.

DPB - Pic

If Donor A was touched once lifetime in Acquisition, $0.30 cost per piece, and responded with a gift of $15, that new donor is going to be roughly a $15.00 investment.   If Donor B was touched 48 times over 5 years before responding and responds with a gift of $15, you are already starting in the hole with $14.40 of sunk cost..  In this case it becomes a $29.40 investment in this individual. 

The trajectory of Donor B’s LTV is almost decided in advance of your first cultivation touch, as now you need to get at least 3 more gifts from this donor to get to net positive, because they were twice the investment of Donor A.  To make matters worse, on the surface, you never might have realized that fact.  Doesn’t it just make you wonder if there isn’t a smarter way you could be doing things? 

The net revenue chase is on.  

 -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.

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)       

Nonprofits Vs. Apple and the iPhone

A recent article in the New York Times Technology section  highlighted a struggle that is underway between non profits and Apple over the ban that is in place that restricts charities from using iPhone applications to assist with mobile fundraising.   While it’s technically possible to use these apps to facilitate a donation, it’s done by taking a user out of the application itself and redirecting to the non profits website which is a less than ideal user experience and tends to create disengagement.

As anyone that has followed this space knows, mobile giving has grown substantially in recent years, as is evidenced by a few recent unfortunate disasters around the globe where the mobile channel provided an invaluable link between those who needed help and those ready and willing to donate.   In the recent Haiti disaster, mobile giving was used to raise a total of $45-$50million.  Likewise, in the Gulf Oil Spill crisis, a number of charities used mobile to raise a total of approx $3-$4m to assist with disaster relief efforts. 

Combine this with earlier success that charities like United Way, American Cancer Society, Salvation Army and a host of others have had and there’s little question that TEXT2Give has become a powerful took for professional fundraisers when harnessed correctly.

Charitable donations via mobile devices — and especially via mobile apps — present challenges, however, which has led Apple to place a ban on making any kind of donation through charity-based applications on iOS devices.  The move has angered many nonprofits who see mobile applications — and especially the iOS platform itself — as a vital tool in collecting funds.   

While Apple has been quiet on its decision, the move stems from the fact that processing donations via its payment mechanism would mean the company would have to be in the business of managing and distributing funds and verifying charities, which adds complication and responsibility the company obviously doesn’t want to take on.  An Apple spokeswoman, Trudy Muller, declined to explain the rationale completely, saying only; “We are  proud to have many applications on our App Store which accept charitable  donations via their Websites.”

Organizations like theMonterey Bay Aquarium and the American Cancer Society already have iPhone apps available in the App Store, but none can be used to make gifts. Prospective donors  instead are directed out of a nonprofit’s app and to its Website to make donations, which  the organizations say makes the process of contributing  more cumbersome.  For the foreseeable future, we don’t foresee Apple changing their stance appreciably and this just places more importance on using mobile in a more holistic manner. 

To be specific, most non profits have become enamored with  mobile as a giving instrument. While it has great potential in that area, the enlightened non profits are beginning to appreciate that mobile has a unique ability to establish a relationship with a whole new generation of donors, advocates, supporters and consumers that are passionate about a given cause.

ARC apps 

Looking at mobile in this manner means that the brand begins to look carefully at a strategy that seeks to use mobile to forge a relationship that they evolve overtime.   A solid mobile program uses text messaging to create specific alert groups that take valued content from the NPO (news, information about the cause or issue, advocacy updates, etc.,) and use that content to begin a relationship with people that have an affinity for your cause.   

Over the course of that relationship, efforts are made to gain an identify of this consumer (via an email address or some kind of mobile web based registration) so that the donor/supporter/advocate can be marketed to in a manner that is relevant to them.  Likewise, this donor then becomes a part of the database marketing efforts going forward and has the potential to donate more ($$, time, efforts) than they might give via the $5 and $10 microdonations that are a reality in the mobile giving world today.

In this world, SMS, mobile web, applications, QR codes, mobile video, MMS and a host of other mobile technologies work in concert to create a sustainable relationship with a consumer that has an affinity for the cause.   Going forward, we believe this is the right model for mobile and we’re seeing many of the non profits that were early leaders in the mobile giving space searching for this kind of strategic model.

For more information don’t forget to check out the NY Times article on this subject:

-Mike Ricci

(Mike Ricci is VP and Mobile Practice Leader at Merkle. Mike has over 20 years of experience orchestrating Olympic sponsorships, architecting sports marketing activation programs and helping companies create successful interactive marketing strategies. In his "free" time, he pens Merkle's Mobile Marketing Blog, the almost daily what's what of the mobile world.)

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  

Fundraising Evolution – Accelerated Learning: Testing & Research

On the heels of Dirk Rinker chiming in on a recent post here, I thought it might make sense to devote some time to a topic that Dirk is a specialist in the area of - Research. 

This is one of the best ways for an organization to really supercharge the speed at which it is learning.  While nothing replaces real in-market testing, the value of executing research projects of varying sizes and scope from time to time will help your organization really “hear” what your supporters are telling.  Everything from what they want to hear from you, what they want to receive from you, and how you fit into their lives.

We all test, or we all should be testing.  Testing is a cornerstone of learning for direct marketers, not just fundraisers, and while it is the most common way of gaining understanding into the minds, preferences, and behaviors of our constituents – it is not terribly efficient from a cost-time benefits perspective. 

Even with more robust multi-variant testing frameworks in place, which allow for several elements to be evaluated in a single test environment, we still end up with the same general scenario as a traditional A / B test when you boil it down.  

Step 1: Test.

Step 2: Hopefully identify a winner(s) (95% or more of all tests fail to unseat the Control).

Step 3: Re-Test Winner at larger volume.

Step 4: Hope that initial winning test produces results that hold up. 

And so on. 

This can quickly turn into a several month long, or even year long, process.   And who knows if we have covered all our bases or even identified the best solution? 

We are trying to identify, by elimination, what offer, format, treatment, or technique works or doesn’t work for our audience or segments.  What flavor ice cream do they like?  Maybe Mango, test.  Maybe Orange-Nectar, test.  Maybe Vanilla Bean, test. 

Ferrando research blog post picture1 

What if, instead, we were able to come right out and ask our audience up front, to provide us with some guidance that might more inform our testing direction and focus, so that instead of eliminating an endless universe of ideas for our entire audience population, we are testing directly into a more defined space they pointed us towards?  Our audience likes Chocolate!  Now what particular variation on Chocolate works best, Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, White Chocolate, or Mocha-Latte-shoot me now

Ferrando research blog post picture 2 

Enter in Primary Research. 

I actually presented on this topic at the most recent DMA-Bridge Conference with Dirk Rinker, and a large health charity partner of ours—the presentation is embedded below or you can find it here. 

The point of all this is – if you are trying to learn something major about your donors quickly, the painstaking and time consuming trial and error efforts of testing from every angle is not the only option available to us.   Do the Primary Research up front – and then execute more informed tests.  It will save you time, expense dollars, and frustration – PLUS – your donors or prospective donors will appreciate that for once you “heard” them loud and clear.  

-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.

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])


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.

My Favorite Tweets

Does your organization Tweet? Maybe, maybe not, but I’d be willing to bet this whole “tweeting thing” has been at least discussed in marketing, fundraising, and perhaps, even board meetings.  Many organization that are already Tweeting (and there are many, just search #Nonprofit on Twitter), have a good handle on the “basic” best practices of Twitter, like building a following, best ways to fit useful information into 140 characters, and how to use the discussion and list functions. In this post, I wanted to call attention to a couple of really innovative ways Twitter has been used in the past few years that got on my radar (the “wow, this is unusual even in this fast-evolving medium” radar).

Account settings promote freedom and democracy:

My favorite use of Twitter to date, that many organizations with a large advocacy component should pay close attention to, is what was utilized during the protested Iranian election in 2009.  Because of state censorship, many protesters were expressing their dissatisfaction with their government via Twitter, as well as organizing protests and providing protest locations. The Iranian government began to crack down on these protesters, by blocking Twitter accounts and servers hosting Twitter accounts in Iran, as well as attempting to locate the protesters themselves via Twitter.

To counteract the authorities, a call went out to the Twitter universe for everyone to switch their location to “Tehran, Iran” in their Twitter account settings.  Why would this help? Well, the more people that are listed as being in one location, the more difficult it becomes for the authorities to sort through the tweets coming from that “location” and find the specific accounts they were looking for, and therefore disrupt the protesters.  Now, I can’t tell you how many of us non-Iranian followed through and switched the account settings, but if this was not an innovative way to engage the global community to support democracy and freedom of speech, I don’t know what is!   Twitter went beyond a link to a petition, or counting the number of tweets about something and equating them to a corporate sponsorship, to using the actual account settings for activism.

When you’re smiling:

Last year, Operation Smile* launched an integrated, fully branded, and entirely Twitter platform-focused “140 Smiles” campaign.  This was, and to this day remains, one of the most forward-thinking Twitter-based fundraising campaigns ever executed. The reason I love this campaign is it included all the best practices one would think of when referring to Twitter:

· Used Twitter list building, reTweeting, and Tweet trending to spread the word

· Provided regular and timely updates

· Created a microsite to engage the Twitter community specifically including videos, the ability to log in and donate using Twitter accounts, see who else had donated, as well as displaying a running counter

As I am sure those of you who visit the site will note, the goal—140 smiles—was not reached, but in terms of building an integrated, fully-thought through campaign, this has to be my favorite.

A day for charity:

If you or your organization is on Twitter, what conversations do you follow? If you don’t already check out #charitytuesday on a regular basis, you should.  According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, back in 2009, “The #charitytuesday tag was created as a way to help nonprofit groups spread the word about their causes on Twitter and to help charities better understand how to use the site.”  Why is this tag so neat?  You can see, hear, and find out about all sorts of interesting things going on in the charity universe—including across the globe.  24/7.

These are just three of the many innovative ways organizations are using Twitter. What are some of your favorite examples? We’d love to hear from you.

-Miriam Kagan

(contact Miriam: [email protected], @MiriamKagan)


 (P.S. Just a few additional tags Miriam follows regularly to keep abreast of the nonprofit Twitterverse: #beatcancer, #nonprofit, #socialgood)

*Full disclosure—Operation Smile uses Merkle’s services for gift caging.


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


Inspiration to start the week

We came across this video this weekend.  Multiplier+ impact+ celebrities=powerful message.



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)

Fundraising Evolution – Weathering the Storm: Reporting versus Analytics

As the fundraising industry continues to grow towards a digital future from its analog roots, the need for us as fundraisers to adopt and accept a more evolved way of assessing our business becomes imperative.   The era of informed, analytics-driven decisions and strategies is upon us.


Gone are the days where creative thinking and “gut feelings” alone were enough to produce success.  In today’s fundraising landscape of fragmented media, contact saturated audiences, and increasing marketing costs, finding the safest and most effective way to our donors is less like finding our way home while avoiding one storm cloud, and more like having to escape a hurricane to get there.


For many organizations, and many client serving agencies out there, the true value of analytics is often ignored or misrepresented because of some other mis- words like misconception and misunderstanding. 


That is to say, in many cases the “creative thinkers” have wrongly attributed the title of “analytics” to what is in fact “reporting”.  These reports are often times cloaked in the guise of “analytics”, but are truly only useful to us if we enjoy looking backwards and not forwards.


So what is the real difference between Analytics and Reporting? Or in this case “Analytics” versus True Analytics?


On the most basic level, the difference between reporting and analytics is the difference between reading the newspaper today to hear about what happened yesterday, versus writing today the news of tomorrow.



"...It rained yesterday..."














"...It will rain tomorrow..." 

To explain it another way, reporting is really the assessment of lagging metrics in established layouts to easily see “what” happened and “when” on a historical basis. 


While analytics, true analytics, is the utilization of data (perhaps even some from the land of reporting) in combination with other dependent and independent variables, mathematically and scientifically proven techniques, and robust subject matter expertise, to produce that which reveals and quantifies everything from challenges to opportunities, and facilitate truly fact-based actionable outcomes – outcomes that when strategically deployed have a very real and measurable impact on a business or organization.


Analytics is where the future success of fundraisers will be found, identifying deficiencies, opportunities, and optimizations ahead of popular trends.  Analytics is where a better experience for the faithful and dedicated donors will be found, putting the most relevant and desired information in front of them when they want to see it.


Because for today’s fundraisers - knowing the location of a past storm, the “what” and “when”, will never be as valuable as knowing the predicted path, causes, and ways to avoid the future storms, the “where”, “why”, and “how”.



What most mislabel as "Analytics"



Predictive Analytics:

Real-time decision-making power



Stephen Ferrando

Strategy Director






Video: Doing Good is Good for Business

This past Sunday, former President Bill Clinton was interviewed on ABC's "This Week", where he shared his thoughts on philanthropy, engaging young people in civic action, and how nonprofits, like his Clinton Global Initiative University, can make the case that doing good is actually good for businesses' bottom lines.

Skip past the politics in the first 4 minutes of the video (philanthropic discussion starts around minute 4:20) and share your thoughts with us on what nonprofits can do to engage corporations as corporate citizens.

Can't see the video? Click here to watch it on ABC.


Be Stupid

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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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




-Becky Graninger


(Christ in the House of Martha and Mary)-

(Christ at Emmaus, fake)-

(The Astronomer)-



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

What can we learn from TV’s most popular curmudgeon?

I am referring to Gregory House, the brilliant medical diagnostician who is the poster-child for unconventional thinking.  

Season 4 introduced a group of Fellowship candidates that had to compete to make the final team of three.  In Guardian Angels (episode 404 if you are interested), House axes the oldest candidate because the candidate thinks too much like House (ignore the fake doctor part). House needs alternatives. His professional relationship with his colleague Wilson is similar. He often says that Wilson’s thinking is nonlinear and sloppy, but it takes House down roads he normally wouldn't go.

How does this apply to fundraisers?  Well, in case you hadn't noticed, most of us are working in mature media or in mature organizations; now add in the effects of the “Great Recession”. We have to think seriously about what we do, how to grow, what to do better, faster and more effectively, and what new things to try.


We need to challenge ourselves and that means we have to look at things differently. So, while it is comfortable to develop a sounding-board of people who finish your sentences, look for a few who don't. Develop a cadre of people where you often have to explain, argue and resist. It will make you a better thinker and that will make you a better fundraiser.


-Becky Graninger


What can we learn from TV’s most popular curmudgeon?

I am referring to Gregory House, the brilliant medical diagnostician who is the poster-child for unconventional thinking.  


Season 4 introduced a group of Fellowship candidates that had to compete to make the final team of three.  In Guardian Angels (episode 404 if you are interested), House axes the oldest candidate because the candidate thinks too much like House (ignore the fake doctor part). House needs alternatives. His professional relationship with his colleague Wilson is similar. He often says that Wilson’s thinking is nonlinear and sloppy, but it takes House down roads he normally wouldn't go.


How does this apply to fundraisers?  Well, in case you hadn't noticed, most of us are working in mature media or in mature organizations; now add in the effects of the “Great Recession”. We have to think seriously about what we do, how to grow, what to do better, faster and more effectively, and what new things to try.


We need to challenge ourselves and that means we have to look at things differently. So, while it is comfortable to develop a sounding-board of people who finish your sentences, look for a few who don't. Develop a cadre of people where you often have to explain, argue and resist. It will make you a better thinker and that will make you a better fundraiser.


-Becky Graninger


“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


How to know if you're wrong about fundraising

Here's the easy test that could save you a kajillion dollars (that's a one followed by a bazillion zeroes). I'm willing to share it with you because I like you.

If your belief, or theory, or intuition about fundraising is based on your own personal experience, you are wrong.

That's right: Your own experience, preference, and wishes always lead you astray. Same with your boss, your consultant, your spouse, and pretty much everyone else who has an opinion about how fundraising ought to be.

That's because your conscious opinions have nothing whatsoever to do with the way real people interact with your message. Add to that the fact that you are not your donor (you're probably very, very different from her) -- and you have a situation where not only are your guesses wrong, they're very often diametrically opposed to what happens in the real world.

Get used to it. Form your beliefs from testing and learning, not personal experience.

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The power of nice

Good post at Conversation Agent: Being Helpful is the New Black.

Seriously, being helpful always works. Never hurts. Be nice. Nicer than you have to be.

Why trying to be cool is self-defeating

Three cheers to the Do More Ministry blog for telling it like it is at Offering envelopes aren't cool ... so what? Another blogger was complaining about offering envelopes that many churches use because they aren't cool (see The Uncool Offering Envelope):

... when I read the that the "cool factor" is a reason NOT to use offering envelopes ... I'm confused. When did "cool" become a requirement ... for anything ... in church? I don't care about COOL. I care about FUNDING!

Trying to be cool is uncool, because it means you're focusing on yourself. That's how you become dull and irrelevant. Trying to be cool makes you shape the way you raise funds to meet your own needs, not the people you raise funds from.

The need to be seen as cool (or smart, or modern, or anything else) causes nonprofits to make all kinds of stupid and self-destructive decisions. Like arbitrarily change they way they raise funds because the old way doesn't reflect well on them. That's a huge self-centered, and very common mistake.

I'm no expert on the effectiveness of church offering envelopes. And I agree they aren't exactly cutting-edge. But if they work, that's a good reason to use them. Cool or not. Same with everything else you do.

The real cool guys? They're the ones changing the world because they're raising enough funds with corny old envelopes. I'd rather hang out with them.

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Not perfect? That's okay

Good words from Too Busy To Fundraise about fundraisers who are stymied by Perfection. You probably know some: fundraisers who ...

... can't possibly fundraise yet because ... things aren't perfect, so we can't possibly ... ask anyone to help us move our mission forward.

Is that you?

Let me tell you a secret: I've worked with some of the largest and most advanced, trained, and with-it nonprofit organizations in the world, and not one of them is perfect. I could tell you tales that imperfection that would curl your toes. Yet these same organizations routinely raise millions of dollars for their causes.

You can always be better prepared than you are. You can always have a few more critical tools in your tool chest.

But you need to start somewhere. Where you are now is the best place to start.

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Experts display their lack of expertise over "exploitative" ad

Is this ad, for Médecins Sans Frontières UK, the British arm of Doctors Without Borders, exploitative? Effective?

The controversy is reported at Give and Take: Doctors Without Borders Ad Generates Debate.

Exploitation is in the eye of the beholder. It's not a verifiable fact. (Though I have to say, anyone who finds this ad exploitative is a seriously sensitive plant.)

Effective, on the other hand, is a fact. It's accomplishing its objectives, or it's not. You wouldn't know that from the quotes and comments in the Give and Take post. One expert is quoted with this opinion:

After watching this ad several times (I don't recommend you try this) ... I feel 1) deranged and 2) hopeless, as though nothing I could ever do, much less donate a few dollars to MSF, could possibly have any effect on the vast, incomprehensible suffering in the world.

An "expert" whose opinion consists of how something makes her feel is not an expert at all. Because that tells us nothing useful about how effective the ad might be.

Any schmuck can tell us how an ads effects him. And the schmuckier the person, the more likely he'll tell us.

An actual expert will never bother to mention their own reaction. They'll focus on facts.

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It could be worse

Are things rough at your nonprofit, with rivalries, silos, and lack of communication? I bet they're not as bad as at Feed the Children, where an investigator found that three offices there were bugged.

Read about it at NewsOK in Oklahoma City: Oklahoma City police look into wiretapping at Feed the Children.

The wiretaps are just the latest in a string of travails:

It is unclear whether the wiretapping is connected to the power struggle at the charity. During the strife there, [founder Larry] Jones was at odds with four key employees and most of the directors on the charity's board. 

Oh, things are ugly at Feed the Children.

So count your blessings. You are better off.

How not to write headlines that will motivate donors

The most important copy you write anywhere is headlines. In newsletters. On print ads. In the form of direct-mail envelope teasers. Even email subject lines are a type of headlines. If your headlines are weak, dull, and unpromising, nobody is going to read everything else you've written.

So here's some important help from Copyblogger: Don't Do These 12 Things When Writing Headlines. Here they are:

  1. Don't be original
  2. Don't blend in
  3. Don't be clever
  4. Don't get desperate
  5. Don't ignore your readers
  6. Don't ignore your peers
  7. Don't ignore social media
  8. Don't ignore your personal style
  9. Don't ask for opinions
  10. Don't settle
  11. Don't sweat the failures
  12. Don't ask too much

More detail at the source. Don't miss it.

Veteran copywriters will always tell you that you should spend as much time on the headline as on everything else. Write a whole bunch of them and pick your best ones. The pay-off is huge.

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Should we turn away money from screwed-up donors?

Nonprofits do some astounding things. One of them is recounted over at the Get Fully Funded Blog, at Donor gets dumped over dumb donation.

Seems a donor to a small nonprofit's annual golf tournament wanted to increase his gift, but wanted to make sure it all went to the event. He didn't want anything going to "those people" -- that is, the poverty-stricken clients of the organization. The organization decided not to take his money because it's "tainted."

My question is this: Who's the dumb one in this situation: the donor, or the organization that rejected his money?

There may be additional facts about that donor and his money, but it looks to me like his money is not tainted by having been earned by evil means -- if it were, I'd agree that nobody should touch his money. But that's not the taint they were reacting to: His money was tainted by his thoughts.

And that's a slippery slope that slides to someplace no good at all.

No question the donor in this situation is a moron and a creep. But do you really think nonprofits should be screening donors for ideological purity? I'm afraid we'd find hardly anyone measures up.

People are who they are. They bring all kinds of stuff to the relationship. Not all of it pretty. We are in no position to cut ourselves off from them, as if we are too pure to be sullied by their very presence. In fact, by giving them the opportunity to give, we help them toward redemption and enlightenment. Even if they're seeking neither.

As far as I'm concerned, the organization in this anecdote deserves a big, fat, wet raspberry. They've tainted their cause with their holier-than-thou purity. Shame on them.

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Where's the magic for fundraisers?

Useful wisdom from Katya's Nonprofit Marketing blog: What Harry Potter Knows about Marketing.

Seems someone in the latest Harry Potter book points out something we all need to remember: It's the wizard that makes the wand, not the other way around.

As Katya points out, that's not only true about wizards. It's also true about fundraisers:

You have to be the wizard. The one who injects the tools with feeling and story, an appeal to human nature, and resonance with audience values. If you don't do that, the wand won't work. Nothing will.

I hear from a lot of people who want a magic solution to their fundraising challenges. Truth is, there are all kinds of super tools that have magic-like powers. But not a one of them works until you know how to use it.

Want better results? Work on yourself. The best tools will then fall into place.

You talking to me, or to all those other people?

One of the most common ways fundraising gets it wrong is that it doesn't talk to individuals; it addresses groups. That's the message at Sharpe Tips: Do You Write to Someone, or Everyone, in Your Donation Request Letters? The post asks these questions:

  1. Is your letter addressed to "Dear Friend" or to "Dear Fred"?
  2. Is your letter signed by a committee?
  3. Do you say "you and me" or "them and us"?
  4. Does your letter prove you know me?

I'll second those and add a couple more of my own:

  • Are you addressing one person, or do you have phrases like "some of you" as if you're talking to a crowd?
  • Is your letter about your donor, or about you?

As for the importance of personalization, I've found that personalized letters usually do better than "Dear Friend" letters. But in most cases, the lift is small. Sometimes it doesn't pay for the added cost of personalizing. If you do everything else right, lasering the donor's name onto the piece may not be necessary.

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How I know the sky is falling

We're screwed.

We can't write out way out of a wet paper bag, and we couldn't focus on our audience if they were standing right in front of us. No wonder fundraising results were already dropping more than two years before the recession started. We just don't know how to raise funds!

Here's how I know this awful news: a few days ago, I posted a piece titled The case of the forbidden word about the difference between formal and less-formal words. Shortly thereafter, The Chronicle of Philanthropy's Prospecting blog summarized my piece (What Are Your Forbidden Fund-Raising Words?).

Go to Prospecting and scroll down to the comments (or check out the comments on the original post). What you'll find either place is a string of comments defending bizarre, politically correct circumlocutions. All with apparently straight faces and no intended irony whatsoever. (There are also many comments from people who get it.)

It's just depressing. And it confirms some scary research about the cold and inhuman qualities so common in fundraising copy.

The good news is, you don't have to write that way. If you don't, you'll do better than those who do. There really is a reward for getting it right.

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There's hope for struggling nonprofits

Even the worst mess is fixable. That's the hope-filled message from Christopher J. Doyle, president of American Leprosy Missions, writing in this month's FundRaising Success magazine: We Are Not Afraid to Say 'Leprosy'.

Mr. Doyle is writing in response to my past column, When PC Equals BS, about an unnamed organization that refused to utter the word "leprosy," despite the fact that its mission was fighting leprosy. Doyle correctly deduced that the organization I was talking about was the American Leprosy Missions of the early 90s, before his tenure there.

The leprosy organization that wouldn't talk about leprosy was in deep trouble. Donors were fleeing. Revenue plummeted. That's how it was when Doyle arrived. Among other important changes, he lifted the ban on "leprosy."

And guess what -- things turned around. American Leprosy Missions is now on solid financial footing. They've been growing for several consecutive years. They're even doing well now, when so many others are struggling.

That's what happens when you remember to talk to your donors -- not yourself. As Doyle put it:

We aren't going to ignore leprosy out of existence. The only way we're going to beat leprosy is to fight it on the front lines, one patient at a time. And that's going to cost money -- money that comes from donors who are moved to act by seeing what a vile enemy leprosy is to mankind.

Anyone looking at the pre-Doyle American Leprosy Missions would have seen an organization hopelessly circling the drain. That's what I thought. But things can change. There's hope.

You can hear an interview with Mr. Doyle about what it took to turn a nonprofit organization from trouble to triumph at the Fundraising Is Beautiful podcast: How a Sick Organization Got Better.

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Will restricted giving destroy your organization?

Reader Gerard Grim of Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron, Ohio, writes to ask an important question about how nonprofits can operate if they're raising restricted funds:

... if you take the unrestricted giving out of a school's budget, how do you keep tuition down at all -- if every dollar is restricted and tuition must cover every dollar of operation a school? If 10,000 donors all move their giving to one area of an institution what happens to the overall quality of the institution?

I have bad news and good news for you.

First the bad news: This is not something we're going to be able to debate about forever. Donors increasingly want choices. And they're increasingly getting them.

If you can't figure out how to run your organization while allowing donors to designate their giving, donors will eventually pass you by. That's a coming market reality.

Much of the solution is a matter for accountant-types. They have the tools it takes. If yours aren't helping you figure it out, they're next to useless. (See Malignant Accountants.)

But here's the good news: Donors are not going to wipe you out. They like you. They want you to succeed. Just be open and honest with them. Tell them what you need and why. Give them choices, and they'll respond. Give them reasons, and they'll help you. Like they always have.

But even better, it appears that most of the power of restricted giving happens when you offer it -- not when they give.

In repeated testing and experience, I've seen that when you offer restricted giving, a majority of donors (sometimes an overwhelming majority -- above 90%) still choose to give unrestricted gifts.

Why even bother with restricted-giving offers? Because response rates (and often average gift) go up when you do. It's very typical that when you use a restricted giving offer, you end up with more unrestricted revenue than when you used an unrestricted offer. Plus you get restricted revenue on top of that.

It's not going to be easy, but this is a transition each nonprofit can (and must) make.

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Would you let this New York Times columnist drown?

Nicholas Kristof thinks we are lame. At least, that's how it seems based on his recent New York Times piece, Would You Let This Girl Drown?

Railing the world's lack of attention to the crises in Darfur in other humanitarian disaster zones, he puts part of the blame on the nonprofit organizations that work in those areas:

... humanitarians are abjectly ineffective at selling their causes. Any brand of toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication than the life-saving work of aid groups. Do-gooders also have a penchant for exaggeration, so that the public often has more trust in the effectiveness of toothpaste than of humanitarian aid.

(You have to admit, he really has that dismissive, superior NYT tone down, doesn't he?)

Kristof seems to be confounding fundraising with influencing the international policies of the G8 nations. Motivating ordinary people to donate and pressuring policy-makers are not the same thing. Not even close. And peddling toothpaste is yet another thing.

If we did a better job at fundraising, we'd raise more funds and help more people in need. We'd also likely get more of the happy the side-effect of more people urging elected officials to pursue helpful policies. But getting G8 heads of state to act and think differently? That's another job entirely.

The negative comparison between aid groups and toothpaste sellers is 98% bogus. (The non-bogus 2% is that we should indeed pay attention to what they're doing in commercial marketing, because there are things worth learning.) I think the toothpaste companies would be utterly astounded if they could get people to give them money and get nothing back but a sense of connection with the cause of dental hygiene. That's just what fundraisers accomplish every day.

We all should salute Mr. Kristof for his work bringing Darfur and other places to our attention. But his marketing/fundraising/policy advice is weak.

See also Why Humanitarian Aid is NOT Crest Toothpaste at A. Fine Blog.

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Computer analysis proves that fundraising copy sucks

If you fed a million fundraising letters into a text-analyzing computer, I bet you'd get back a message of: MAKE IT STOP!

Well, someone pretty much did that -- the text-analyzing, not the making it stop.

Frank Dickenson of Claremont Graduate University, in a study called "The Way We Write Is All Wrong," says he subjected 1.5 million words of fundraising communication to a "linguistic MRI" and discovered that those words were, well, not so great. Among other problems, he found that the fundraising copy:

  1. Lacks linguistic features that create an interpersonal, emotional connection with readers (e.g. personal verbs like I feel and I think and contractions.
  2. Lacks linguistic features that produce narrative (e.g. past tense verbs and quoted speech). In fact, their texts contain less narrative than academic prose, and even less than official documents!

I'm shocked -- shocked! This research agrees with what almost anybody who spends any time looking at the way nonprofits communicate already knows: Most fundraising copy is wooden, artificial, dull, and ineffective. Furthermore:

The evidence of neuroscience suggests that the current style of writing dominant among fund raisers actually circumvents the way the human brain is hard-wired to process language. The implications: fund raisers should not shy away from emotion, they should tell stories, and they should not over-edit and formalize texts.

Amen, brother Frank. (I'd be even more impressed if the study included correlations between problems in copy and fundraising results. After all, the one measure of copy's quality that really matters is effectiveness at accomplishing its purpose, which is revenue.)

Here's my theory why fundraising copy is the way it is: Committees. The best writing in the world is not going to survive the consensus-driven, CYA-focused, everyone-has-a-say process of most nonprofits. If it wasn't dead yet, it will be by the time the committee is done with it.

There's one very bright silver lining to this dark cloud: If you can beat the system and write good fundraising copy, you will stand out from the pack. You'll be miles ahead of everyone else, a breath of fresh air to donors used to the anesthetic quality of most of the fundraising they read.

Do check out Mr. Dickenson's research: the executive summary (4 pages) or the full study (36 pages; both PDF).

Thanks to The Accidental Marketer for the tip.

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Not everyone cares about what you care about

Trying to reach everybody with your amazing message? You're wasting your money. Check out Preach To Your Choir at Know Abundance.

"Preaching to the choir" is usually shorthand for "doing something pointless." It should stand for "smart targeting." (And as a singer in a church choir, I know I need being preached to as much as anybody; probably more.) Think of it this way:

When you are passionate about your work it's easy to think that your organization is the answer -- and that everyone should know about it, believe in it, fund it. Of course, we all want the broadest possible reach for our cause. But fundraising is not a public awareness campaign.

Virtually all fundraisers operate in niches. Usually, niches within niches. That niche is where you're going to be successful. Outside that niche, nobody's listening. No matter how great you are.

So go ahead and preach to the choir. They'll reward you with beautiful music.

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The case of the forbidden word

In my indecently long career of working with nonprofits, I've had a ton of clients who work with kids. That's good, because helping kids is just the right thing to do. And, in most cases, you can get a lot of people aligned with you in the cause; it's great fundraising.

A few of my kid-serving clients, however, had a problem.

They were not allowed to say they worked with kids.

They worked with children.

The difference, in their minds, was that the word kids is slangy, unofficial, not quite professional. And children: dignified, proper, formal.

So they had a blanket prohibition against the word kids. And, in most cases, a long list of other words they deemed less than professional.

Professionalism and dignity are fine things. But they are badly misplaced (and misunderstood) if they cause you to abandon a colloquial term for a formal one.

Of course, the colloquial word isn't always the right one for a given situation -- intestines is probably a more appropriate word than guts (assuming you're talking about the literal body part) most of the time. And there are many situations where child or children really is the better word.

Kids are children you know personally. That's usually how I'd like donors to think about the kids I'm asking them to help.

When you eliminate a words from your permissible vocabulary, it's like removing one tool from a builder's toolbox. Yeah, he can work around it -- but wouldn't you rather he had all the tools to work with and motivate people to give?

I guess what I'm saying is this: Leave the writing to writers.

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Sometimes a bad question needs a good answer

It's just frustrating. Everyone wants to know a nonprofit's ratio of administrative and fundraising costs to program costs. It's not the right question. In fact, according to Dan Pallotta at his Free the Nonprofits blog, it's The Worst Question to Ask About Charity:

... it's hopelessly flawed, widely abused, utterly useless, a pathetic substitute for meaningful information about a nonprofit's work, inept at exposing fraud, and a danger to human life.

First, let me say I completely agree. The focus on overhead ratio has done a grave disservice to the entire nonprofit community -- and to donors.

But let's be realistic: A lot of your donors really care about your overhead ratio. That's the way a lot of people think. Right or wrong, that's how it is. You can complain all you want, but you'll just come across as a whiner -- probably an inefficient whiner.

Don't waste effort trying to make donors stop caring about overhead ratios. It won't work. You know how hard it is to get people to take action on something they believe in. Now imagine getting them to change what they consider a smart and helpful opinion.

Instead of bellyaching, live in the real world: If your organization is one that has a high ratio, trumpet that fact. It'll make your donors happy.

If your ratio isn't so great, focus on your effectiveness and relevancy. Make it clear to donors that giving to you is a great deal -- that their dollars to change-the-world ratio is fantastic, regardless of your admin costs.

In private, you can work with the watchdogs and others to persuade them to broaden their criteria for charity evaluations. (Charity Navigator is apparently trying.)

But in public, stop complaining.

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Sticks, stones, and words that can hurt


Writers who pay attention to their work often have lists of words or phrases to avoid. Here's a good one from the Otis Regrets ... or Not blog. 5 words that hurt (your marketing results):

  1. "I"
  2. "We"
  3. "It"
  4. Words that can be read more than one way. (Like "read" (present tense) and "read" (past tense).
  5. Words that look similar enough to be misinterpreted by a hurrying reader. (Like "through/thorough/though")
  6. "As I just mentioned"

Well, six. Check them out.

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Marketing myths that many fundraisers believe

From Chief Marketer: 7 Myths CMOs (and Their Bosses) Gotta Stop Buying

  1. "I'll just hire me one of them superstars."
  2. "If everyone just picks themselves up by the bootstraps and tries harder (or works smarter) ..."
  3. "If we can just get some of that marketing automation, that'll solve our problems."
  4. "If we can't quantify it, we shouldn't do it."
  5. "I don't care what it takes, just get it done!"
  6. "We can't spare a dime to invest in research."
  7. "We don't have time to examine our own navels."

Chief Marketing Officers aren't the only ones who buy myths like these. It turns out, in both marketing in fundraising, that you win when you stick to the basics, worth with the facts, and keep your eyes open. Not easy, but fairly simple.

Thanks to Church Marketing Sucks for the tip.

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Decades-long string of final notices undermines nonprofit brand

I get variations of this piece of mail from the ACLU several times a year.


I've been getting these since I sent a donation during the Bush I administration, who tried to smear his election opponent by calling him a "card-carrying member" of the ACLU -- which, as far as I was concerned, was a dynamite recommendation of the organization.

That was about 20 years ago. The ACLU has told me literally hundreds of times that this is my last chance to renew my membership. My kids have spent their entire lives seeing these urgent final messages in the mailbox.

Do you think anyone in my household remotely believes that my last chance to join the ACLU is now, or ever? And how might our collective cynicism affect our faith in the organization's truthfulness in general?

If you get right down to it, the ACLU has spent a fair amount of money to undermine its brand among members of the Brooks household.

I'm in the biz, so I understand what's really happening, as do others in my family. (The Talk in our home is mainly about the ways of direct-response fundraising.)

But what about normal people? How many see the ACLU as a laughable wolf-crier? Or unrepentant liar?

I don't know what the answer is. If the ACLU were to ask me what they should do, I would not tell them to abandon the control, which I assume this piece is. I'd tell them to test against it. Which I'm pretty sure they're already doing.

But are they in accidentally trashing their brand and reputation? And maybe helping take down direct-mail fundraising in general with it?

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How to avoid telling boring stories

From Katya's Nonprofit Marketing Blog: Are your nonprofit's stories winners or snoozers?

If the stories you're telling are compilations of facts, Katya points out, you're just spreading around "emotional Novocain."

Real stories always contain:

  • Character
  • Desire
  • Conflict

That's exactly what you'd learn in a fiction-writing or screenwriting class. Stories are stories no matter where they are. And when they're good, they're irresistibly compelling.

Give it a try.

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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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