Feedback Loops


Every time you send out of piece of fundraising, you’ve sent out a little experiment into the world.

Is your organization reviewing the results of your experiments?

For instance, your organization has done a lot of experimenting with email subject lines (whether you’ve thought about it that way or not). Have you looked at your open rates to see what types of subject lines generate the highest open rates? After all, the more people who open your email, the more people who read your email, the more people who are likely to give to your email.

Bigger picture – every time your organization completes a year’s worth of fundraising, that’s like sending out a slightly larger experiment into the world.

Are you measuring your “overall donor retention rate”? How about your “major donor retention rate”? Or – I love this one – your “major donor revenue retention rate”? (That one tells you whether your major donor management system is keeping and lifting your current major donors, or if you’re reliant on new major donors to hit your goal each year. Big difference.)

So… you’ve done a lot of experiments.

Is your organization looking at the results of your experiments? Is your organization learning from them? Is your organization getting better with each email, each letter, and each year?

Everything You Send Makes You More Effective


All your bad appeals and e-appeals are useful and essential steps on the journey to great appeals and great donor communications.

No small nonprofit arrives on the scene sending out fantastic fundraising.

Nobody starts a nonprofit or ministry because they want to send out mail and email.

So you have to believe that a) “each piece of mail or email your organization sends out is an experiment and an opportunity to get better” and b) you’ll engage your donors and raise some money, too.

That’s a pretty good 2-for-1, no?

What simple email could you send out this afternoon that would be another “step on your journey” to great appeals and great donor communications?

Hindsight IN 2020


“They say a wise man learns from others’ mistakes. I learn from others’ successes, why pay attention to the mistakes?”
~Behdad Sami

Thousands of smart fundraisers have gone before you. The best advice we can give small-to-medium-sized nonprofits for 2020 is to find out what successful fundraisers have done in the past and apply it to your organization’s fundraising.

If You See a Tactic a Lot, It’s Probably Working

One thing to pay attention to: if you see a tactic a lot from professionally run organizations, the results from it are probably great.

For instance, here’s a list of things we see (and use) all the time because they work great. Many organizations don’t like these tactics, but they work great:

  •  Telemarketing
  • Printed gift receipts with reply cards and reply envelopes
  • Appeals that boldly share stories of Need
  • Direct mail
  • Letters and emails that are highly repetitive
  • Fundraising messaging that’s so simple it makes expert internal stakeholders uncomfortable
  • Having detailed plans and revenue goals for Major Gifts Officers, with high accountability
    We learned each of these (and many more) from the successes of fundraisers who have gone before us.

They taught them to us because, out of all the available options, they worked the best.

So rather than reinventing the wheel, always look first to hindsight.

And of course, hindsight shouldn’t be the only place you look. But it’s the only proven resource that small-to-medium-sized nonprofits have, because testing and innovating are expensive.

Two Powerful Things

Here are two powerful things that FAR too few organizations (particularly Boards and leadership) do:

  1. Take time to ask the question, “For organizations at our stage, who has been successful at this before, and how did they do it?”
  2. Then trust the results of successful fundraising done before, more than trusting what internal stakeholders think will work, or what they like or don’t like.

Because in our experience, the successes of others won’t look like what you’re doing now.

At first blush, you’ll probably think it won’t work for your donors.

You probably won’t even like it.

But it will likely work.

So go to and browse the results. Pay attention to the results-based teaching we do on this blog. Follow people who have a ton of direct response fundraising experience – people like Lisa Sargent, Jeff Brooks, Tom Ahern, Agents of Good, Mark Phillips of Bluefrog, and Simon Scrivener.

If you have the budget and time to innovate, that’s great! Please do it and share!

And if you’re a cash-strapped smaller nonprofit, learn from the past successes that the experts above are constantly sharing!

Are You Learning from Your Experiments?


I tweeted this out last month, and it got a lot of love (well, for me anyway):

You ran a bunch of fundraising experiments in 2019 – have you learned everything you can learn from them?

And the appeals, e-appeals, and newsletters you sent out are not the only experiments you ran. Your whole fundraising program is an experiment. Your major donor program is an experiment. Your direct response program is an experiment.

Here are some example questions, and what they attempt to measure:

  1. What percentage of your donors did you retain in 2019 versus previous years? This will help you know, overall, how well your fundraising program performed last year.
  2. What percentage of your major donors did you retain in 2019 versus previous years? This will tell you how good your program is at retaining major donors – you know, your most important group of donors. Want to really get into the data? Measure the amount of major donor revenue you retained. That will show you if you’re retaining your highest value donors (which is best). Or if you’re just replacing lost revenue with new revenue each year. (H/T to Veritus Group for popularizing this idea.)
  3. Of your appeal letters, which one had the highest net revenue? Which one had the highest response rate? These will help you answer which appeals you should ‘repeat’ and do again this year – and which ones you should not do again this year.
  4. For each mailing, what’s your response rate by recency? For instance, if you send your appeals to all donors who have given a gift in the last 24 months, what’s the response rate and net revenue from the 18-24-month group? That will tell you whether you should continue to mail to those donors.

With the answers to questions like these, you can make the types of changes that smart organizations use to raise more money every year.

And if you make all the needed changes to the best of your ability, it’s like compound interest. 1 + 1 + 1 = 5. That’s where organizations see the big growth.

And it’s basically free money! It’s just measuring experiments that you’ve already run and using data to make your 2020 fundraising decisions.

Instead of “Hindsight is 2020,” I propose “Use hindsight in 2020!”