Direct Response Fundraising



Rule #1 of Smart Direct Marketing: Don’t Sweat What’s Not Working; Amplify What IS

Good direct marketing is counterintuitive in so many ways. When we evaluate our programs looking for ways to improve them, we naturally zero in on the problem areas. What problems do I need to fix to make my program better?

But instead of focusing your energies on identifying and fixing perennial problem areas, you’d actually be better served seeking your areas of strength, and building on them. Because when you want to really move the dial and raise more money, your potential for doing so lies within the best performing segments of your file, not the worst ones.

It’s a matter of simple math.

Here’s  an example of a perfectly solid direct mail renewal series for a social service nonprofit organization (click the table to view larger):


And here are the key performance indicators (click table to view larger):

You can see that response rate is highest in the first two renewal notices (15% in notice #1 and 6.5% in notice #2), and then steadily declines, as it should, with each subsequent notice.

Now, let’s say you do something strategic to boost response to notice #1 by one percentage point. You also boost response to notice #2 by half a percentage point. (For instance, you laser personalize the recipient’s membership details on the reply device, or you add an incentive to respond, like a deadline-based challenge, or you try one of dozens of other direct marketing strategies to improve performance.)

And let’s say you also do something to increase the average gift to both notices by $5. (Perhaps you modify your ask calculation formula, or share compelling equivalencies that drive a higher gift amount.)

Here’s what happens when you make those small improvements in those first two notices (click to view larger) :

You raise almost $34,000 more! That’s an 8.6% increase in revenue. And because it’s a pure net increase, your net revenue increases by 10%.

Your strategy to focus on the best performing part of your file, at the strongest point in the series clearly pays off.

But what if you had focused on the problem parts of the file and series instead?

What if, in your endeavor to improve your results, you had looked at your original renewal series results (that first table above) and said: “Wow those first two notices are already doing great! No problem there. But look at that 1.5% response to notice #4. And that 1% response to notice #5. If I want to improve my results, I should really be working on those low performing notices #4 and #5.”

And so you apply your smart direct marketing strategies to notices #4 and #5 instead, raising the response rates and average gift by the same amount in our first scenario (i.e. +1 percentage point in notice #4, + 1/2 percentage point in notice #5 and +$5 average gift to both notices).

What happens?

You do improve revenue, but by far less. Your total revenue increases by only $12,298, or 3.1% (compared to your increase of $34,000 and 8.4% when you apply your strategies to notices #1 and #2).

So the next time you find yourself weighing your options for strategy direction—should you fix a problem or build on a strength?—start by doing what revenue-minded direct marketers do: the math.




If It Works, Do It Again.

Direct response fundraising tends to be consumed in first impressions, rather than in-depth reading of your content. Most of your readers are scanning your work, and not really following the arc of your beautifully created narrative from message to message.

Because of this, being repetitive works.

Rather than scrupulously picking up where you left off Oliver Twist-style after your last fundraising communication, often saying what you just said again works best.

Among the best places to put this strategy to work is in your membership renewal series. In a membership renewal campaign (email or direct mail), you begin by sending a notice to your supporters letting them know that it’s time to renew their membership and sharing all the wonderful things that their membership makes possible.

Some of your supporters will respond and some won’t. Those who don’t respond to this first notice within the response window you set (around 3-4 weeks in direct mail and a matter of days in email), will receive a reminder message from you. And those who still don’t respond will continue to receive reminders as needed over 3 to 10 or more subsequent communications of varied approaches with increasing intensity

Even though membership renewal campaigns are serial in this way, that doesn’t mean each notice needs to be different though. In fact, if one notice in your series is uniquely strong, don’t be afraid to send it again.

For example, many organizations include a membership card in their first direct mail membership renewal notice because it makes sense as the starting place for the renewal dialogue. This technique, which looks a little something like this, also usually produces a very strong response:

Unfortunately, you can’t expect your next renewal notice to non-responders to hit it out of the park in quite the same way. But chances are if you repeat the strategies that worked exceptionally well in the preceding package—in this case the membership card—you’ll achieve better results than you would with a general reminder notice (up to 10% more revenue in testing we’ve done at MKDM).

Here’s what “if it works, do it again” looks like in this scenario:

The same idea holds true in email, perhaps even more so. If you find one particular email in a series surprises you with exceptionally strong results, drop whatever you had planned next and resend it.

Bottom line: be on the lookout for the real stars of your direct mail and email campaigns. If a first act brings the house down, make it the second act too, and maybe even the third.




The Dessert Cart Ask String

I recently presented 30 Ideas in 60 Minutes as part of a 3-person panel at Fundraising Day in New York. It’s a fast-moving perennial favorite at Fundraising Day filled with ideas to get you thinking and quick tips you can take home and put to work in your own direct response program. If you couldn’t make it to the largest one-day fundraising conference in the world, I encourage you to add it to your budget and calendar now for next year. And check back here for upcoming posts sharing the ten ideas I presented on the panel.

IDEA: Think of your ask string like a dessert cart.

Have you ever eaten at a restaurant and after dinner your server wheels a tray of irresistible confections RIGHT TO YOUR TABLE? And so you obviously need to have the key lime pie? Well, did you know you were twice as likely to buy that dessert because your server showed it to you, rather than giving you a menu to read?

This same approach often boosts response in email fundraising. Only instead of literally wheeling an assortment of good works over to your prospective donor’s house to choose from, you show the gift array that might otherwise be presented as text in your email as clickable images representing what the individual’s gift will accomplish.

Like this:

The approach can also be used by membership organizations to show the benefits the individual will receive at varying gift levels, like this:

So to boost response to your emails, explore bringing the options right to the table, so to speak, in the form of clickable visuals.

And don’t forget to test to measure the impact of your ideas.




Let’s Reach for the Peak at the Bridge Conference!


Bridge 15


It’s almost here! The 10th Annual Bridge to Integrated Marketing & Fundraising Conference kicks off Wednesday July 8.

As Co-Chair of this year’s conference along with Deborah Peeples, and humble witness to the extraordinary talent of the committee volunteers and speakers that make Bridge possible, I can assure you there’s no end to the insights you’ll gain, connections you’ll make, and new ideas you will discover at Bridge.

To make sure you get the most out of your conference this year, be sure to peruse the schedule in advance to plan your Bridge expedition. Not sure where to begin? No sweat! Here are 10 things you can do with us to reach spectacular heights at Bridge.

1. Get the App! Simply search “BridgeConf” in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Download it on your iPhone or Droid, and you’ll unlock your own virtual Bridge Sherpa to help you plan and navigate your sessions and connect with other conference adventurers.

2. Attend the keynote sessions. I’ll be blunt: You will not hear more powerful, relevant, smart, thought-provoking speakers at any professional conference you’ll attend this year, and possibly ever. In fact, we went a little overboard this year to bring you three extraordinary industry thought leaders and doers—an unparalleled lineup in the history of Bridge.

3. Step outside your comfort zone. Bridge is the time and place to stretch and learn new things. Challenge yourself to:

• Meet 10 new people.
• Discover 10 new ideas.
• Take 10 minutes to explore a new product in the Solutions Showcase.

4. Sharpen your Excel skills. If you’ve ever found yourself swearing your way through pivot tables, conditional format formulas or data filters, then drop in to the Popup Excel Classroom in the Solutions Showcase. Sessions will run throughout the day, every hour on the hour, and there’s no need to pre-register.

5. Strike up a conversation in the Solutions Showcase Smorgasbord. That’s right, with over 100 specialists in essential nonprofit services, the exhibit hall offers a BOUNTY of expert solutions to your organization’s needs—plus ways to improve your marketing and fundraising efforts that you may not have even considered. Launch an expedition to the Solutions Showcase and you’ll be glad you did.

6. Beat a path to the sessions! This year’s conference features 77 breakout sessions from leaders in the field, expertly curated by Bridge Conference Education Co-Chairs Angela Struebing and Julie Carter, along with a dozen ridiculously talented track deans. The only downside of having so many amazing sessions is you can’t attend them all. But not to worry! You can download the presentations you missed by logging in at the Bridge Conference website.

7. Get lucky … at the lunchtime prize drawings. If a fabulous lunch and the company of your colleagues isn’t enough incentive already to be there, keep these six words in mind: you must be present to win. Geoff Peters took home a Jetpack in last year’s raffle.*

8. Tune in on Twitter. The Twitter feed at Bridge is a lively and, at times, irreverent pipeline to breakthrough tests, strategies that moved the dial, food for thought, and more. Hear what people are saying and join the conversation at #Bridge15 and by following @bridgeconf.

9. Pack a sweater. Our fantastic conference center works hard to keep 1,700+ Bridge adventurers comfortable at all times (no small task in DC in July!). But sometimes we are a little, shall we say, overzealous in the endeavor. Stash a light sweater in your conference tote and you’ll be equipped to reach for the peak no matter what climate conditions you encounter in your ascent.

10. Have fun! Most of all, enjoy yourself! Revel in the company of your tribe. Pick up a souvenir in the Solutions Showcase. Step out with friends to ride the Ferris wheel. Oh, and be sure to mark your calendar for July 13-15 2016 to take it to 11 with us!

Can’t wait to see you soon!


*Okay, Geoff did not really win a Jetpack at Bridge. But we do have a a very sharp looking Kindle Fire and half a dozen other excellent raffle prizes this year.




In Fundraising, Beauty is Results


Like “make it bigger” in graphic design, good direct response fundraisers are well served by a refrain of our own:

“Make it plainer.”

It’s counterintuitive like so much of direct response fundraising, but it couldn’t be truer. In head-to-head tests, the simplest, least “fancy” email/direct mail/web campaigns almost always win.

Like this envelope, for example …


… which drove better results than this one:


Or this email …



… which generated 4 times the results of its more visually attractive counterparts.

Susan Paine of Human Rights Campaign hit the nail on the head a few years ago when she said, “If you love it, it will fail.” If your direct response creation is exceptionally pretty and colorful … if you find yourself dismissing possible strategic changes to it because they might sully the perfect design symmetry or a poetic turn of phrase … if you’re really in to how radically “different” it is … then you have probably veered into dangerous territory, and your results are at risk.

Keep your eyes wide open and see those ugly direct response ducklings for what they really are: imminent beauty, imminent results.




Inspiration, Bloody Marys and other Takeaways from the 2014 Bridge Conference


Hats off to the DMAW and AFP-DC for another stellar Bridge Conference. Kicking off with pre-conference workshops and the Maxi Awards on Wednesday July 9, through 70+ presentations Thursday and Friday, through the powerful closing session from the founder of Free the Children, #Bridge14 delivered 3 days of nonstop information and inspiration.

What happens when you get 1,700 nonprofit do-gooder marketing types together?

1. Steve Nardizzi from the Wounded Warrior Project tears into charity ratings watchdogs calling them out as “ineffective and misinformed” at best and at worst “outright misleading to the public.”

2.We soak up everything we can on on the how and why of monthly giving from Erica Waasdorp, the Red Cross, Defenders of Wildlife and others.

3. Paralyzed Veterans of America shares compelling case studies in giving their program a digital facelift.

4. Catholic Relief Services and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation boldly share their “Oh %@*#***!” direct marketing mishap moments, and how they turned those occasional lemons into lemonade.

5. We get Bloody Marys from Madeline Stanionis! And a song from Marc Ruben! Plus a wealth of digital testing data and their online expertise.

6. The Nature Conservancy and Lambda Legal fill us in on the vast, and still largely untapped potential of face-to-face fundraising, including pretty compelling stats on acquisition costs and retention.

7. Over 100 Bridge Conference volunteers see to the quality of the educational content, help us find Baltimore 3, give us advice on sessions to attend, and take care of approximately 1,000 other things to help us get the most out of the conference.

8. American Farmland Trust along with John Graves and Alia McKee, remind us that donors aren’t ATM’s and show us how to really care for and cultivate our contributors.

9. Scores of talented, passionate, dedicated fundraisers generously share case studies and expertise in their organizations’ development programs for the benefit of all of us attending, and the work of our nonprofits.

10. And at the end of the whole thing, Craig Keilburger of Free the Children makes us cry, think about what the heck WE were all doing at age 12 (he was fighting to free children from poverty and exploitation internationally), and re-inspires us to go back to our desks on Monday and work harder than ever to change the world.

I have always wished the excitement and inspiration of Bridge didn’t have to end after 3 days. Turns out, I’ve found a way to make it last year round: as Co-Chair of the 2015 Bridge Conference.

Along with Deborah Peeples of the Alliance for Justice, we’re already getting started on #Bridge15. If you’d like to get involved, sign up to volunteer. If you’ve got expertise and case studies to share, keep an eye out for our Call for Papers next month. And if you have ideas for the conference or just want to shoot the breeze about Bridge, drop me a line. I can’t wait to see you at #Bridge15!





Habits of Nonprofits with Highly Successful Direct Response Fundraising Programs


Having a relevant mission that people want to support is the #1 prerequisite for direct response fundraising success. But it’s not the only one. In fact, it’s not even the most important one when it comes to dollars raised. So why do some nonprofits sail to success in their direct response fundraising efforts when others with equally compelling causes struggle just to leave the dock?

Simple: culture.

How a nonprofit thinks, acts and operates has everything to do with the ultimate effectiveness of its direct response fundraising efforts. What can your nonprofit do to be more effective? Consider these habits of nonprofits with highly successful direct response programs:

  1. Nonprofits with highly successful direct response programs have rapid and uncomplicated approval processes.
  2. They have experienced staff and they empower them with meaningful decision-making authority.
  3. Their leadership is accessible and supportive of their direct response program.
  4. They stay abreast of industry trends and invest in ongoing professional education for their direct response team.
  5. Their development, communications and program departments actually like one another and work well together.
  6. They keep a close rein on their budget.
  7. They test. A lot.
  8. They have strong database management and analytics capacity.
  9. They hire good consultants or in-house direct response teams and they listen to them. Most of the time.
  10. They have informed expectations for their direct response programs.
  11. They are also ambitious. They take calculated risks and they never stop challenging themselves to do better.
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Branding + Direct Response Fundraising = Love, Actually

Jack Lemmon Pointing At Walter Matthau

Much has been said about the tension between good nonprofit marketing & communications and good direct response fundraising. Good nonprofit marcom thrives on brand consistency; good direct response thrives on brand inconsistency.

But when you get right down to it, good nonprofit branding/marcom is actually an essential prerequisite to good direct response fundraising.

That’s because an organization must have a clear sense of self to communicate effectively. A strong voice, confident look and feel, a structured communications program, clarity on priority messages, a personality…. These are all things that come out of good marcom – not direct response – and get better defined over time.

If they’re any good, your organization’s direct response staff or agency will lobby to break from all that at times for better direct response results. They’ll argue for less perfect and more human. But rest assured, they only want to depart from brand technically. Agents of good direct response are deeply loyal to true brand.

In fact, we are lost without it.

So if you want your direct response fundraising to thrive, begin with a well developed brand. Then break it, but not really.




4 Reasons Your Nonprofit Needs a Monthly Giving Program

At the DMA Washington Nonprofit Conference earlier this month, I got the chance to speak about one of our favorite things – monthly giving.

Yet from some corners, I still heard this:

How did you convince your [board / boss / staff ] to invest in monthly giving?

For sure, monthly giving isn’t always easy. It takes an additional investment of time to implement a monthly giving program, to ensure gifts are processed correctly, to report on and fully understand your program metrics. But despite the challenges, your organization can’t afford to ignore it. Here’s why …

1. This is the donor climate we’re all working in …


Source: Target Analytics donorCentrics™ Index of National Fundraising Performance.

For years now, the universe of donors has been shrinking, and the number of new donors has been declining even faster. Although this trend was certainly not improved by the recent recession, declines in donor numbers began as early as 2005 and there’s no strong evidence that we’ll soon see a dramatic turnaround in this trend.

2. At the same time, we’re seeing more and more donors acquired online. While there are some benefits to online donors – they’re often younger, richer and give bigger gifts – donors acquired online are harder to retain, even controlling for age and income level.


Source: 2011 donorCentrics™ Internet and Multichannel Giving Benchmarking Report

Together, the picture that emerges is that it is harder than ever to get new donors … and harder than ever to hold on to those new donors.

As development professionals, our mandate is two-fold: to do whatever we can to retain donors, and focus on upgrading donors to higher levels of support, so that as we’re spending more on those ever-harder-to-acquire donors, we can be sure that our investment will pay off.

And this is exactly where monthly giving can help.

3. Monthly giving improves retention. Although rates vary by organization, retention for one-time donors is around 41%. In contrast, retention of monthly givers is 70% to 80%. Acquire a prospect as a monthly donor, or convert a new donor to a monthly donor, and you’ve immediately improved your long-term expectations.

4. Monthly giving will upgrade donors.  Consider the following example …

One-Time / Monthly Comparison

We’d all be thrilled to have the donor on the left on our file; she’s a dedicated supporter who makes nice gifts several times a year. Yet by accepting a far smaller monthly contribution, we can increase this donor’s value by $85 annually – a more than 48% increase.

So next time someone asks if you think your organization can afford to do monthly giving, ask the opposite – can you afford NOT to?

Stay tuned! Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing the seven steps your organization needs to consider to start – or improve – your monthly giving program. Many thanks once again to Matthew Rojas of Lambda Legal and Sanaya Kaufman of Friends of the High Line who joined me to talk about monthly giving at the 2013 Washington Nonprofit Conference and so generously shared their time and expertise!




8 Ways to Get the Most Out of the Washington Nonprofit Conference

The DMA Nonprofit Federation’s annual Washington Nonprofit Conference kicks off on Thursday. With information-rich sessions from leading direct response fundraising minds in the field, it’s well worth making time in your calendar and budget to attend.

For the past 10 months, Craig Zeltsar, Tricia Reyes and I have been working behind the scenes with an incredible planning committee to ensure that the 2013 conference is no exception. In fact, I’m blown away by the originality of the session topics, the caliber of the content, and the networking opportunities that the Washington Nonprofit Conference has in store this year.

Whether you’re a new or returning visitor, here are recommendations for what to do and see when you’re here to get the most out of the conference:

1. Check out the “Not-Your-Usual-Roundtable” discussions. This year, we turned the tables on the usual roundtable format and energized them with new topics to rev up the conversation and get your ideas flowing, like … Help! My Board Totally Doesn’t Get Direct Response Fundraising, 50 Shades of PMS 429, and I Am Not Sorry To Call You During Dinner.

2. Get to the ballroom at 9am sharp for the keynote address from Katya Andresen (Network for Good, Katya’s Non-Profit Marketing Blog). Katya will be talking about what technology can and can’t do for fundraising. Plus toast and butter.

3. Use your networking stickers. Be sure to stop by the information desk and pick up a set of networking stickers. Who do you want to meet at the conference? What’s your favorite movie? Put it on your sticker, wear it, and strike up a conversation with a colleague.

4. Go for an early morning run (or a walk). Join your colleagues on Thursday morning for a scenic 4-mile run/walk in the nation’s capital for a healthy start to a big day of learning and networking.

5. Soak up the sessions. Welcome messages that work, risky fundraising stunts, crisis communications for nonprofits, thinking beyond premiums … This year’s conference offers 24 sessions filled with valuable case studies and tips from leaders in the field. (And if you’re thinking of starting a monthly giving program – or want to improve the one you have, drop by Monthly Giving and Your Organization: 7 Steps to Success at 3:45 on Thursday with Friends of the High Line‘s Sanaya Kaufman, Matthew Rojas from Lambda Legal, and MKDM‘s Eliza Slone.)

6. Check out the Gallery of Breakthrough Fundraising Campaigns. During the conference, you’ll have a chance to view innovative multichannel fundraising campaigns – and vote for your favorite. Voting ends at Midnight February 7 and the winner will be announced at the closing luncheon on February 8.

7. Go to the networking reception at The Carnegie Library (6:15-7:30pm, 2/7). Wind down after the conference and catch up with colleagues at the Carnegie Library networking reception (pre-registration required).

8. Join the conversation. Share what you learn and keep up with the conference by following the DMANF on twitter @dmanf and via hashtag #DCNP2013.

Be sure to check out the full list of sessions and networking opportunities. Hope to see you there!