Fundraising, Football, Conflict and Keeping Score


As Steven mentioned in yesterday’s email, I’ve been a football coach for a very long time. And for the record, my helmet when I played was not leather. 🙂

I’ve noticed some fun similarities between football and fundraising: 

  • There’s a season for both football and fundraising.  (But the best performers in both arenas practice all year long.)
  • Regardless of whatever the “hot new tactic” is, the fundamentals matter a LOT.  In football it’s blocking and tackling; in fundraising it’s things like your offer and donor segmentation.
  • Both have skills you can learn.
  • Both have teams that include people with different skills and responsibilities.
  • Both use data to measure success.

Fundraising, Football, Conflict & Keeping Score

Finally – but worth spending a moment on – there’s conflict in fundraising and in football.

On the surface, the conflict in football is more physical.  But there’s also conflict over who gets to play and who doesn’t.  There’s conflict between coaches over what plays to run.  (The game is often more draining mentally than physically.)

The same is true in fundraising.  There’s conflict between staff over the content and frequency of fundraising.  In smaller organizations there are often disagreements between Board and staff over fundraising methods.

The reason I bring this up is because football has one clear advantage over fundraising in this arena: keeping score is a lot easier.  When you try something one week, the scoreboard tells you right away whether it worked or not.

“Keeping score” and knowing whether your fundraising worked or not is more difficult – but it’s more important!  The coach in me is constantly encouraging organizations to measure their performance more closely. 

A question I ask all the time is, “What is your retention rate for your major donors?”  Too many organizations don’t know.  They haven’t “kept score” to see whether their fundraising efforts are effective at keeping their major donors around!  (And their Majors are often giving more than 80% of the total revenue an organization receives from individuals!) 

My encouragement to nonprofits goes back to one of the similarities between football and fundraising that I mentioned at the top: keeping score (measuring the performance of your fundraising) is a skill your organization can learn. 

Here are a few of the main metrics we advise nonprofits to track on an ongoing basis:

  • Overall donor retention rate
  • Major donor retention rate
  • # New Donors each year (broken out into New Donors and Reactivated Donors), and the total acquisition costs.  Use those numbers to calculate the Cost Per New Donor.
  • For each piece of direct mail: # Sent, # Gifts, Production & Mailing Cost, Gross Revenue.  Use that info to calculate % Response, Net Revenue and Return on Investment (ROI).  Of those, Net Revenue is the most important (not ROI).
  • For each email: # Sent, # Open, # Clicks, # Gifts, Gross Revenue.  Use that info to calculate % Open, % Clicks, % Conversion and Net Revenue.
  • In addition to tracking the metrics for each impact (email, letter, etc.), we also “roll up” the results for each campaign so we can track campaign efficacy.

That’s just a start, but it’s a good start.  If you learn the skill of tracking your performance and then “basing future decisions off of past performance,” your organization gets better faster at fundraising.  As a result, you’ll have a larger impact! 

Jim Shapiro

Jim Shapiro is the fundraising coach you’ve always wanted, the proven Sherpa who can help you get to the top of the mountain. Jim has 30 years’ experience raising money, including serving as the VP of Development for a global $100m nonprofit. He co-founded The Better Fundraising Co. to help small-to-medium nonprofits raise more money.

2 comments on “Fundraising, Football, Conflict and Keeping Score

  1. We’re having a ‘conflict’ within our dept about the attribution of gifts. With more people giving online and through DAFs today, the gift doesn’t always come with the coded reply card or email. I think that those gifts should be attributed to the last appeal they received (which is usually within 6 weeks of receiving the gift) so we can track the effectiveness of the appeal. Others in my team think that’s just guessing & we should attribute it generically to our annual fund, not the appeal. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Hi Janet, great question. For starters, I’d attribute the gifts to the appeal for 6 week *unless* you know of something else (email, event, social media campaign, etc.) that could be motivating the gifts. It’s far more likely that the appeal motivated people to go online to make a gift, or to make a gift through their DAF, than that a group of folks just decided to give in the weeks right after you sent out an appeal. (Both trends have been happening more and more for years, and accelerated in 2020.) That said, I’d make a graph of unattributed gifts throughout the year (online and off) and ‘overlay’ that graph on top of your direct response fundraising calendar. I think that will confirm that it’s your direct response driving the unattributed gifts, but you never know!

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