Is this the end for digital fundraising?

Yes, yes, we all know: the future of fundraising is digital, and direct mail is dead.

So it’s all sunshine and rainbows on the digital fundraising side, then – right? Uh, not exactly. According to A love letter to digital advertising from a direct mail CEO, there are some serious dark clouds overhead that threaten to rain on the digital parade, like:

  • Email inboxes crammed with junk that nobody wants
  • Privacy breeches everywhere
  • Misinformation
  • Fake news
  • Fake influencers
  • Bots that inflate the number of followers
  • Click farms that pump up engagement numbers
  • Misleading metrics about number of clicks, reach, and influence

Let’s face it: anyone with a laptop and an internet connection knows these things are true. Who among us hasn’t looked at their inbox and groaned at all the useless crap. Same for social media.

The fatigue that people are feeling from digital marketing is there, and it affects fundraising response. If you’ve ever tried to raise money with email, you know how hard it is.

And yet, it would be as foolish to predict the death of digital as it has been to predict the death of direct mail.

Digital-oriented companies like Wayfair and Blue Apron are using direct mail to reach customers. And when Google wants to target business owners, they use direct mail.

So, when nonprofits think they’re going to go online-only for their fundraising (because direct mail is too expense, and email is somehow “free”), they’re not. Direct mail and online have their problems when it comes to fundraising, but both are here to stay.







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What is it about direct mail for fundraising?

Mail is still the most productive channel for fundraising. More than email, internet, phone, social media, or any other medium you can dream up.

Why? Jerry Huntsinger in his Eighty-Six Tutorials on Creating Fundraising Letters and Packages explains it perfectly:

“… mail-opening in most households is a time of great anticipation, and in many households it represents the high point of the day.

“We are dealing here with a basic conditioned response mechanism because, in the past, mail has brought tremendous, exciting news, and this has happened so often in the life of an individual that each day they have hope that once again something exciting will be left in their mailboxes.

“Have you ever watched a person opening their mail and seen them hold a letter up to the light, especially if it is a check? Have you ever done this yourself? It’s really a little ridiculous not to just go ahead and rip the envelope open and see what’s inside.

“But remember this is a moment of magic; and as you hold that envelope up to the light, you try to imagine what’s inside. It’s as if you were prolonging the anticipation, and you really don’t want that moment of magic to come to an end.”

Mail is the only medium that holds this kind of spell over us, and it’s just as Jerry says: It’s a conditioned response, and it’s ingrained.

Nobody goes to their email inbox and hovers over a subject line in anticipation of what might be in store. Usually, you’re just checking which emails you can delete amid the flood of spam.

Nobody goes onto Facebook with a sense of great anticipation. Mostly, you check social media out of habit as a way to pass the time.

Nobody is struck with wonder when the phone rings. Usually, it’s an inconvenience, especially when it turns out to be a telemarketing call.

Mail is different. It’s personal. It’s timely. It’s even cultural in its significance in our lives, and that’s especially true for the Baby Boomers who make up a large portion of donors for most nonprofits. For many, opening the mail is one of the high points of the day.

This is why it’s never okay to disappoint donors. Mail appeals need to be interesting, shocking, surprising, even exciting. It’s what donors expect, what they look forward to, and certainly what they deserve.

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You have to move donors to get them to give

Connecting with donors, listening to donors, donor love, donor centrism, making the donor feel like a hero – these are all fine and useful concepts. They show how to think about fundraising. But we can’t escape the fact that at the end of the day the fundraising appeal we send has to move donors to take action and give.

That’s the challenge. And fortunately, Jerry Huntsinger in his Eighty-Six Tutorials on Creating Fundraising Letters and Packages has some insight.

Jerry says it’s necessary to have the courage to use trigger words like emergency, crisis, disaster threat, immediate, urgent, and so on, in our appeals.

Why? Because people give money to those charities that show they need it and show they need it now.

It’s the simple truth in fundraising – which shouldn’t be surprising. It’s the same in commercial marketing and in sales. I can still remember one of my old bosses telling me that the sale goes to the salesman who wants it more.

But why does Jerry say we have to have the courage to use those trigger words?

Because in fundraising, there are some people who are afraid of having a nonprofit act like it needs money. They say that an appeal is too pushy, too dramatic, too emotional, too over the top, even – horror of horrors – off-strategy or off-brand, and that it needs to be toned down. Nonsense.

A charity that needs money isn’t seen by donors as being desperate. It’s seen by donors as involved, taking charge, and being driven and motivated to do good. Those are all positive attributes for a nonprofit.

Bottom line, the sale goes to the salesperson who shows that he or she wants it more, and the donation goes to the charity that shows their cause needs it more.

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The easy way to boost fundraising response

It’s probably something you don’t give much attention to when you’re creating a fundraising appeal. Most of us don’t, I’d bet. That’s because it’s so simple that it gets overlooked. It’s this: making the date of the appeal a prominent feature. Doing this can make a difference in response.

So says Jerry Huntsinger in his Eighty-Six Tutorials on Creating Fundraising Letters and Packages. And he should know.

Most of the time, the date doesn’t get much attention. It seems like just a business-letter mandatory, and it’s usually tucked under a logo or address block where it can hide.

But putting the date in a conspicuous spot where donors can’t miss it says some important things to donors.

It says the appeal is timely, which is incredibly important. Because that makes it worthy of your donor’s attention. Even before your donor starts reading, you’ve established some credibility.

It says the appeal is intended for that donor. When it’s prominent, the date heightens the level of personalization, adding to the personalization of the address block and the salutation. These three things work together to tell your donor that this isn’t an anonymous circular they’re looking at. It’s a letter from you to them.

Sure, making the date prominent is a small tweak, but little tweaks to response add up. It certainly can’t hurt, and it will probably help.

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Is this the exception to the ‘no statistics in fundraising appeals’ rule?

Tell an emotional story about one person. That’s the guideline for creating donor-focused fundraising that connects with donors and motivates them to give.

An example from Claire Axelrad at Clarification blog drives this point home. One headline says “24,000 children die from hunger every day” with a photo of a mass of starving children, while the other one says “Abidemi is starving to death” with a photo of a sad little girl.

Which one is the most compelling? Most people would say the one that talks about Abidemi, the little girl. She’s the “Identifiable victim,” the face of the problem that donors can relate to.

But wait – why can’t we use both approaches? Why can’t we use the statistics – which are admittedly surprising in themselves – in combination with the one identifiable victim? Wouldn’t we be covering both bases and doing a more complete job in our messaging?  You know – speaking to the heart and the head?

Well, not according to the research. If donors are presented with statistical information plus the identifiable victim, donations fall.

The story about one person won’t overcome the rational thinking that statistics lead donors to. The more left-brain things your donors see, the less generous they are. But the more right-brain things your donors see, the more generous they are. It’s not because donors can’t understand statistics. It’s because donors want to know that they have a connection with the nonprofit’s work, that a problem is solvable, and that their gift matters. Speaking to the heart and not to the head does that.

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The best reason to ask your donors more often to give

Lots of charities are shy about asking for donations. They don’t want to mail or email too often out of fear of seeming too pushy. And even in their appeals themselves, it seems like they’re trying to work up the courage to ask, with all the hemming and hawing and beating around the bush before coming out and asking for a donation.

Why is that?

There’s no reason to feel that fundraising is manipulating or shaking down donors. The fact is that giving is good. It’s good for the person receiving the generosity, naturally, and it’s just as good for the giver. Both benefit.

Christianity says so. The Bible says “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). (link)

Judaism says so. Helping the poor is an obligation in Judaism known as “tzedakah” in Hebrew. In tzedakah, the gifts that are given to others eventually return to the giver. (link)

Islam says so. Believers are entreated to be generous. The Koran says “And whatever you spend in good, it will be repaid to you in full, and you shall not be wronged.” (link)

Buddhism says so. Generosity is one of the three tenants of Buddhism, stressing that the giver should feel a sense of joy before, during, and after the act of giving. (link)

Atheism says so. In fact, as this report explains, even without the heavenly reward for charitable acts that most religions promise, atheists are still generous givers. They say, “We don’t need God to do good,” pointing out that, even without belief, giving is personally rewarding. (link)

With apologies to any faith or group unintentionally omitted here, it looks like there’s one thing that people of every stripe can agree on, and it’s the foundational idea, as old as humanity, that’s it’s good to give. And if it’s good to give, then it has to be at least as good to ask.

So there’s no reason to shy away from the ask, whether it’s in a direct mail letter, an email appeal, or face to face.

Ask freely, ask enthusiastically, ask honestly, ask boldly, ask early, and ask often. Will you get a “too much mail” donor complaint here and there? Maybe. But you can’t let that dictate what you do for the far greater number of donors who welcome the opportunity to help. The larger issue is that giving is good for donors, good for your nonprofit, and good for your nonprofit’s beneficiaries. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s just plain good. And how many things can you say that about?

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What’s your fundraising war story?

When things go wrong with a fundraising appeal, it can seem like the end when it’s happening to you. But really, sometimes the lessons you learn in the school of hard knocks are the best ones – the ones you need to learn.

In this guest post at GuideStar blog, here are three lessons I learned the hard way:

  • Why cleverness is never a good substitute for genuine creativity in fundraising appeals.
  • What happens to an appeal when group-think takes over.
  • How the messaging in an appeal can get overshadowed and what that does to response.

Take a look at the full post here for the details. Hey, we’ve all been there. But that doesn’t mean we have to stay there. With every appeal, we learn more, and that’s part of what makes fundraising so fascinating. So, what’s your fundraising war story? Let me know.

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