CoolData blog

28 September 2011

Are we too focused on trivia?

Filed under: Annual Giving, Best practices, Front-line fundraisers — kevinmacdonell @ 7:21 am

As Annual Fund professionals we like to think that the precise details of our approach to prospective donors makes a difference in our rate of success. Some of our practices make so much sense, are so in tune with our instincts, that it seems absurd to bother testing them. Sometimes, though, a look at the data reveals that our carefully-crafted techniques aimed at engaging, convincing and converting make little or no difference.

At least, they make little difference when compared to what really matters: The emotions, opinions and feelings that would-be donors have when they think of our institution, organization or cause.

We should not be surprised that these feelings and emotions are not significantly influenced by whether we pay postage on the return envelope, or have Dr. So-and-So sign the letter, or many other, similar nuances that are the subject of the bulk of discussions on listservs that deal with Annual Fund and fundraising in general.

Yes, there are right and wrong ways to communicate with donors and would-be donors, but on the whole we have a hard time distinguishing between meaningful practices and mere refinements. We tinker with our letterhead, our brand, our scripts. We keep changing the colour of our sails in hopes the ship will go faster.

What is the non-trivial work we need to do? We need to get a whole lot better at identifying who likes us, and pay attention only to them. If they like us a lot, we need to ask them, thank them, upgrade them, stay with them on the journey — as all our fundraising experience and human instincts guide us to do. If they like us a little, perhaps we can do something to engage them. If they are indifferent, we must simply walk away.

That does not mean we should pay attention only to donors: There are all kinds of people who haven’t given, but will someday. They reveal their affinity in ways that most fundraisers don’t take into account. And among donors, these clues regarding affinity help define the donor who is ready to give much more, or remain loyal for a lifetime, or even leave a bequest.

I’m as guilty as anyone else. There are things I do in my Phonathon program only because they make strong intuitive sense and have no basis in the evidence of results. In my next post, I will give an example of a Phonathon “best practice” which seems beyond reproach but which (according to my data) has absolutely no effect on participation or pledge amount. I was surprised by what I learned from my study, and I think you’ll be too.


  1. I support our TeleFund Program Manager and pull the data used in the call center. Once in a while, I’ll get some bandwidth for implementing improvements in the data and I am always surprised at what I am told to not improve upon. Having cleaner giving data, automated ask ladders, summary statistics, code descriptions instead of values… this list of improvements past and future will never end. Yet, I’ve often broached the subject of including things about the prospects Highschool, or whether they had any advisory board presence, what sport they played… in essence MORE information, and have been told “No, Thanks”… for the most part. I’ve been told that having accurate data is of the utmost importance, but having too much information can become distracting for the ‘journey’ of the call and sometimes it can be off-putting when we expose how much we have on our prospects in the database.

    Comment by Brock — 1 October 2011 @ 12:22 am

  2. […] your core strategy, or just a refinement, or completely useless. As I opined in my previous post (Are we too focused on trivia?), I suspect a lot of Annual Fund professionals aren’t making these […]

    Pingback by Data 1, Gut Instinct 0 « CoolData blog — 3 October 2011 @ 8:31 am

    • Hi… is this Kevin’s reply? I was unsure as who it’s author was… also, are you saying that my ‘core strategy, or just a refinement, ‘ ?ARE? ‘completely useless’ ? …sorry, I am having a hard time understanding your message in this reply? Can you reiterate?

      Comment by Brock — 3 October 2011 @ 12:31 pm

      • Hi – No, that’s not a reply. It’s a “linkback,” which WordPress adds automatically whenever I link one post to another. I have not responded to your observations, hoping that others might have some comments. Thank you for sharing!

        Comment by kevinmacdonell — 3 October 2011 @ 1:20 pm

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