The False Assumption That Does Massive Damage

There’s an assumption most nonprofits make that does massive damage to their fundraising, their beneficiaries, and their donors.

When a fundraising letter, email or event does really well, too many nonprofits assume that they cannot do that same thing again.

Yet I know from experience (and lots & lots of testing) that the opposite is true! If something works, it has a very high likelihood of working again. And there are no longterm negative effects.

But between you and me, just saying this to nonprofits doesn’t change their behavior. They don’t believe it. It goes so strongly against their “common sense” that sometimes I think they literally can’t even hear me say it.

So let’s pull apart the assumption and take it piece by piece.

Assumption #1: “All our donors heard about this”

Unfortunately, “all our donors” didn’t hear about it. Less than half of them did. Take a look:

  • If it was a successful email, and your email open rate is 30%, then 7 out of 10 donors never saw your message.
  • If it was a successful direct mail piece, your open rate is maybe 50%, so 5 out of 10 donors didn’t even hear about it.
  • If it was an event, maybe a couple hundred people on your donor file heard about it. So hundreds, maybe thousands of people don’t even know it happened.

So instead of making assumptions, let’s embrace Reality #1: a maximum of half your donors heard about it, and it’s probably lower than that. If those donors liked it so much, why not send it again to give your other donors a chance?

Assumption #2: “We can’t repeat something, our donors will stop paying attention.”

Let me tell you a story. Storytime With Steven! Earlier in my career, I used to spend a couple million dollars a year buying radio ads all across the country. Our goal was to get each listener to hear the same ad three times in one week. 3 times in a week! Because when that happened we saw sales increase. The maxim we lived by was this:

  1. The first time a listener hears an ad, they barely notice it.
  2. The second time they hear it, they start to pay attention.
  3. The third time they hear it, they pay attention if they are interested.

The same principle holds true in fundraising. Unfortunately, fundraisers are afraid that donors will stop paying attention. But in my 25 years of fundraising I have NEVER seen data that showed donors paid less attention. There’s a story from a single donor or three, of course. Last year we had a client use the same offer in two mailings in a row because the first mailing did so well. They came to me really worried about “all the complaints” they were receiving. But when we checked, it was only about 15 complaints, half of were donors saying that the problem must be bigger than they thought for the organization to ask two times in a row. And in addition to those 7 or 8 complaints they received over 700 gifts.

It’s not a fun truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless: our donors aren’t paying as close attention as we’d like to think. So instead of assuming, let’s embrace the Reality #2: repeating your message helps your donors notice it, remember it, and be more likely to take action. Commercial advertisers and marketers know that repetition is one of their most important tools. (It’s also one of the reasons that “Repeat” is in Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat.)

Assumption #3: “Repeating messages will alienate our core donors.”

This is the only assumption that has a grain of truth. There are some donors that this could happen to. But the trick is to figure out who they are and treat them separately!

  • If there are board members who won’t like seeing a similar mail or email two times in a row, take them off the mailing list for the second impact.
  • If you’re going to use the same powerful ask at an event for the 2nd year in a row and you’re worried about a major donor, call that donor, tell them your plan, and ask them if they’d like to come.
  • If a donor complains, take them off your list for some of your impacts.

The mistake most nonprofits make is to take the personal preferences of a very small handful of staff & donors and apply that to all their donors. That’s a big mistake.

Instead of making an assumption, let’s embrace Reality #3: all our donors are not the same, let’s not take the preferences of a few close-in donors and apply them to the rest of our donors. We’ll learn what most of our donors like through asking them and closely watching the results.

So . . . next time . . .

Next time you have a successful fundraising effort – be it in the mail, or email, or an event — look for how you can make the same offer to your donors again. Soon. Because if a lot of your donors responded the first time, it’s likely to work as well or better the next time.

Listen, this fundraising thing you’re doing is not a test. It’s possible lives are at stake. We don’t have time for false assumptions, and we have to be willing to take a couple complaints from board members in exchange for raising thousands of more dollars and bringing joy to so many more donors!


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

One comment on “The False Assumption That Does Massive Damage

  1. “The mistake most nonprofits make is to take the personal preferences of a very small handful of staff & donors and apply that to all their donors. That’s a big mistake.”

    So true! This should be poster-sized in conference rooms. Thanks for the insight, great post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *