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.