Direct Response Fundraising



Turning the Tables: What Big Nonprofits Can Learn From Smaller Ones


There is no shortage of advice in our industry on what small and mid-sized nonprofits can learn from larger nonprofits. It’s a frequent and valuable topic at conferences and in publications.

But larger nonprofits can learn quite a lot from smaller ones too, particularly when it comes to direct response fundraising. Here are a few “habits of highly successful” smaller nonprofits – and food for thought for larger organizations.

1. Smaller nonprofits think of their donors by name, not segment. Nonprofits with large programs think of their donors in terms of segments that are predictive of response, with names like “0-12 Multi,” “Lybunt” or “A3XQP12B.” To smaller nonprofits, donors are “Grace,” “Fred” or “Mr. and Mrs. Walker.”

2. Communications from smaller nonprofits look and feel “real.” Because they are. The handwritten address on the carrier envelope isn’t a font – a person actually addressed the envelope! The rubber stamp on the carrier envelope marked “urgent” is a real rubber stamp. The insert in the year end appeal looks a little grainy because it was actually photocopied, and on a 30-year-old machine to boot.

3. Smaller nonprofits can mobilize quickly. When there is breaking news, lengthy communication routing and approval processes don’t hold smaller nonprofits back from communicating with their donors in a timely manner.

4. Smaller nonprofits don’t write “copy;” they write letters and emails. When you know someone personally, you talk to them differently and are more accountable for what you say. Smaller nonprofits have the advantage of knowing many of the donors they’re communicating with, and this can translate to more genuine – and effective – communications. On the other hand, when an organization starts thinking of its letters as just “direct mail” or its emails as “eblasts” as Kivi Leroux Miller points out, face it, they they probably suck.




Three Fundraising Conferences Every Nonprofit Should Attend

If you want to hone your direct response fundraising skills and stay apprised of the latest trends in nonprofit membership development, the good news is there’s no shortage of conferences and educational events to help you do just that. Unfortunately that’s the bad news too. With an unending supply of webinars and workshops promising to teach you how to do everything from conquer social media to overhaul your acquisition program, how do you choose?

Obviously you want to put your time and professional development budget to the best possible use. But this doesn’t just mean getting quality information and case studies from industry experts. It also means getting unbiased information – or at least sometimes taking the information you receive with a grain of salt. For instance, free webinars from service providers can be a great source of information and the price is nice, but just keep in mind that they are, by nature, intended to showcase the supplier’s services.

So which conferences should you attend? No matter what coast you’re on, if your organization is serious about direct response fundraising, it’s well worth making space in your calendar and budget for these three essentials:

2011-bridge-conference-logo1. The Bridge Conference, July 20-22, 2011. For five years the Washington DC Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals has teamed up with the Direct Marking Association of Washington to bring nonprofit fundraising and marketing professionals this two-day, information-rich conference in Washington DC. The sessions cover nonprofit branding, online giving and advocacy, direct mail, social media and other marketing and fundraising tools and techniques. Register by April 15, 2011 for best rates. And if you’re interested in speaking the Call for Papers Deadline is October 30.

2. NTC, March 17-19, 2011. NTEN‘s Nonprofit Technology Conference is the single largest annual conference focusing on nonprofits’ use of technology. It’s not strictly a fundraising conference, but it’s all about the tools you need to understand and integrate into your programs for successful membership development and advocacy. In 2011 the conference will be held in Washington, DC (the location alternates between San Francisco and Washington DC, with a wildcard city in between).


Sessions cover everything from driving traffic to your website and online conversion techniques to email fundraising and advocacy, to cloud computing and content management systems. Whether you’re an uber techie or just a smart media-agnostic fundraising professional, NTC offers essential information and case studies in online communications, fundraising and new media that you can’t afford to miss.

3.dmanf-logo1 DMA Nonprofit Conference, February 17-18, 2011 (DC Conference). The DMA Nonprofit Federation holds two annual nonprofit conferences in Washington, DC (winter) and New York (summer). Focusing exclusively on direct marketing for nonprofits, it’s a high impact conference that delivers up a wealth of case studies and ideas that you can put into action in your own program. You don’t need to attend both conferences – just attend whichever one is closest to you and you’ll be glad you did.

And for professional development in between conferences, DMFA educational programs offered in New York, Washington, DC and Boston provide high quality direct resonse training and networking opportunities whether you’re just getting started in membership development or are an old pro. Next week on October 21 the DMFA will be offering DM101, a full-day workshop in DC covering online fundraising, direct mail, targeting, analytics and more.

What are your must-attend conferences and resources for fundraising information and ideas? Share your tips here.




Make New Friends But Keep the Old

If you’ve ever been a Girl Scout, you probably have this campfire song permanently imprinted on your brain. I think about this song a lot as we encounter and test new membership development strategies with what seems to be increasing speed and frequency. As Tony Elischer pointed out at last week’s Bridge Conference, we can easily get so caught up in seeking the next big thing in fundraising that we take for granted – or even dismiss – the tried and true techniques that our programs were built on.

Blackbaud‘s newly released Index of Online Giving neatly affirms the old Girl Scout adage. In its survey of over 1,400 nonprofits of all sizes, it showed online giving to be the fastest growing segment of charitable giving. Small and mid-sized organizations in particular, are finding online giving to be an attractively cost effective channel, and a preferred method of giving among younger donors, while organizations focused on major gift fundraising are enhancing online fundraising efforts in support of their annual funds.

Blackbaud Index for Online Giving

At the same time, Blackbaud reported that online gifts to the organizations in the study accounted for just 5.7% of overall fundraising revenue. In fact, Target Analytics‘ last report on national fundraising performance released last year showed that the overwhelming majority of charitable contributions are still made via direct mail: 77% as of Fall 2008.

As we continually refine and update our programs to keep pace with our donor’s preferences, we would all be well served to keep in mind our old direct response friends that, while perhaps no longer shiny, are as golden as ever. They’re also more than willing to get to know, and work with, our new friends.




5 Ways to Screw Up Your Next Direct Mail Campaign



The road to direct response fundraising failure is paved with good intentions. Here are five ways you can really harm your direct mail results – so be sure to steer clear of these easily avoidable pitfalls as you start work on your fall appeals:

1. Mail early. If you want to stand out from the crowd, get ahead of them, right? Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way in year end fundraising. Successful direct response fundraising is about the right message, at the right time, to the right people. Sending a message at a time when no one is ready for it all but guarantees a weak response. The fact that organizations send year end appeals in the same timeframe doesn’t mean yours won’t get noticed; it means it’s a timeframe that works.

2. Mail late. Q4 is the single most important time of the year for fundraising. Why jeopardize critical funding for your organization’s programs with poor planning? Get started on your year end appeal in the first week of August.

3. Do something “different.” There’s good different and bad different in direct mail fundraising. Good different, for instance, might be recognizing that your control format isn’t performing as well as it used to and testing a proven direct response technique to help boost results such as hand addressing, or a follow-up reminder notice. Bad different, on the other hand, would be testing a completely unproven direct response idea suggested by someone whose direct response experience consists solely of receiving, and occasionally responding to, direct mail.

4. Make your campaign all about you. “The problem is our donors just don’t understand us. If we could make them understand us, I mean really get us, they’d give more.” Sound familiar? It’s the perennial lament of Development committees – and it’s totally backwards. If you want your campaigns to succeed, stop obsessing about getting your donors to understand you and start obsessing about understanding your donors. Forget about writing the perfect explanation of what your organization does and instead focus on making the perfect connection with your donors.

5. Don’t ask for money. It seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to get so caught up in making the case for support that you forget to actually ask for money in your direct mail appeal. Make sure you have a clear, direct ask within the first few paragraphs of your letter and repeat it at least three more times throughout, and definitely in the p.s.

Do you have any do’s and don’ts to share? Cautionary tales? Stunning successes? Questions about improving your direct mail results? By all means, share them here, or drop us a line at




Looking for Membership and Advocacy Ideas?

MKDM‘s annual Idea Book is here!

Highlighting some of our most effective membership and advocacy campaigns for national and regional nonprofits, the book is part portfolio, part how-to guide, part idea-generator – and it’s yours for free.


To order your free copy, email your name, organization/company and mailing address to




10 Ideas in 20 Minutes from Fundraising Day


Last week, I spoke at Fundraising Day in New York with Dennis Lonergan and Jeff Brooks in the session 30 Ideas in 60 Minutes. If you weren’t able to catch our session, you can read the 10 tips I shared right here in Fundraising Success.

One excellent question we received during our session was how smaller organizations could go about testing the ideas we presented. Answer: many can’t conduct statistically valid tests (see Eliza’s earlier post about testing and statistical validity). Fortunately, you don’t need a large budget or donor file to implement a smart direct response program. 

Instead, let larger organizations “pay” for your testing by mirroring best practices demonstrated in their programs. Be sure to share your gratitude – and keep the ideas coming – by giving regularly to their programs.




Want to lift your direct mail results? Unbrand.

When you really want to get noticed in the mail, sometimes – just sometimes – the best way to do this is to toss aside the things you usually do to get noticed.

Ditch your logo. Forget your official fonts. Chuck your PMS colors. Unbrand.


Instead, think totally unembellished, pure and simple words on paper. Once a year, have a meaningful conversation with your donors undistracted by the usual marketing devices. You’ll likely find that occasionally un-marketing can be very good marketing indeed.

Join me this Friday June 11 at Fundraising Day in New York where Dennis Lonergan, Jeff Brooks and I will be sharing 29 more direct response fundraising ideas that can make a big impact in your program.




Rethinking Reinstatement

Good direct response membership programs put a great deal of effort into recapturing lapsed donors, constructing dedicated, and often complex, plans for special solicitation and monitoring of lapsed donors – a.k.a. The Reinstatement Program.

That’s because it’s almost always less expensive to reinstate a lapsed donor than it is to acquire a brand new one. Plus, reinstated donors often have a greater lifetime value than their counterparts. But for all the effort our programs put into saying “we want you back” to our donors when they’re practically gone, oddly enough, many don’t put the same effort into saying “stay” to the donors who are still on the fence. Nor do many programs define what being on the fence is, for that matter.

Do you wait for donors to lapse to focus special analytics, strategy and creative – i.e. a whole reinstatement program – on them? If so, rethink your reinstatement strategy, and think about starting earlier, by starting a PREinstatement Program.

Here are three steps to get you started:

1. Know the vulnerable times in your donor relationships with your organization. Preventing donors from lapsing means understanding when and why they typically lapse. For instance, a universally vulnerable time in the donor life cycle is immediately after a donor’s initial gift. What’s the relationship between recency and attrition for your organization? Look more closely at your donor giving data and you may find, for instance, that once a donor goes 13 months without giving, their likelihood of never giving again spikes significantly. Simply doing the analysis to quantify the relationship between recency and attrition is a huge step toward developing corrective strategies.

2. Develop and test strategies to prevent donors from lapsing. Now that you’ve identified the vulnerable times in a donor’s relationship with your organization, you can intervene. For instance, if you find that the 13-month giving lag tends to signify an ultimate lapse, think about what you can do to reengage donors who fit this particular profile. A standing preinstatement phone call, mailing, or email every month with a special offer to individuals who fit the profile?

3. Measure your results. After you’ve defined your preinstatement candidates and developed your preinstatement strategies, measure your results. Don’t be daunted if it takes a few different approaches to make an impact. Above all, measure your attrition rates before launching your preinstatement program and after. Though you are likely to improve results over time with testing, you’ll probably make your biggest impact right in the beginning, simply by recognizing and addressing pre-lapse signals.




Five Signs Your Organization Is Under Asking Its Donors

help boxDonor development is a daily exercise in balance, particularly when it comes to solicitation frequency. How often should you ask? Are you asking too often? Or not often enough? Fortunately, your donors answer these questions by how they respond to your communications and solicitations. Here are five ways to tell if you’re not soliciting your donors as often as you should, and some suggestions for how you can optimize your solicitation calendars based on what your donors are telling you.

1. Your newsletter raises a lot of money. Your organization’s newsletter is a tool for donor cultivation, not solicitation. So if your donors give enthusiastically to your newsletter, where you don’t directly ask, imagine how they might respond when you do ask. As a rule of thumb, if your newsletter raises more than 25% of what you raise through a typical appeal, that’s probably a sign that you’re not asking often enough, and you should consider adding an appeal to your solicitation schedule.

2. Your mailing list is 10+ times the size of your actual donor file. It’s important for organizations to create and value varied ways for individuals to be involved in their missions, whether by making a financial contribution, staying apprised of the issues by reading the organization’s communications, or by taking an action like signing a petition. But when an organization has a really big mailing list (i.e. non-donor addresses) relative to its donor list, in all likelihood it’s not offering its non-donor constituents enough opportunities to participate by making a financial contribution. After all, the individuals who read your organization’s newsletter and/or take action on behalf of your organization are already invested in your work and should be more willing than the average citizen to make a small financial investment. For good tips on converting online activists to donors, be sure to check out this post from Frogloop.

3. Your average gift is very high. Organizations that solicit their donors once or twice a year almost always have donor files with a high average gift. But the higher average gift, while nice, is also associated with a smaller donor file. Not only does a smaller donor file translate to less revenue for your organization, but it also means a smaller major and planned gift donor prospect pool. If your average gift seems high relative to other organizations like yours, this too is a sign that you are probably under asking. When you increase the number of solicitations, your average gift will decline but your overall revenue and number of donors will increase.

4. Your attrition rates are high. Donors stop giving to organizations for many reasons. Message, offer and medium, for example, all play a role in how long a donor stays with an organization but they can be very difficult to measure. There’s one highly quantifiable reason however that donors stop giving: they’re not asked often enough. If your organization’s attrition rates seem higher than that of your peers, don’t just look at how you’re asking; take a hard look at how often you’re asking. You can find some good ideas on curbing donor attrition by the way right here on Guidestar.

5. Your final membership renewal notice nets revenue. The vast majority of organizations acquire new donors at a net loss, which is recovered over time through subsequent cultivation and solicitation. So when soliciting a donor’s renewed support, organizations should weigh the per donor cost in renewal/reinstatement against the per donor cost in acquisition. If your organization’s final membership renewal notice nets revenue, or even just breaks even, you should consider adding at least one more renewal effort. Not only will your additional renewal effort probably yield renewed donors at a lower cost than a new donor acquisition would, but it may also result in more revenue over the long term, as reinstated donors are known to have higher lifetime value than first-time donors.

Have you observed any other signs of under asking in your organization? As always, we want to hear from you, so mkdm-2010-idea-bookpost your experiences here.

On another note, we’ll be releasing our 2010 Idea Book in just a couple of weeks!

To request your free copy in advance, email us at with your name and address, and anything else you’d like to share.




Do You Have an Idea to Share?


Fundraising Day in New York 2010 is June 11. If you haven’t registered yet, I hope you will. Not only because it’s the largest one-day conference on philanthropy in the country and chock-full of valuable fundraising information for nonprofits, but because I’ll be doing a rapid-fire session in the direct response track with Dennis Lonergan of Eidolon Communications and Jeff Brooks of TrueSense Marketing and the Future Fundraising Now blog.

It’s a session called 30 Ideas in 60 minutes in which we’ll share our most innovative, results-generating direct response fundraising ideas, with a special focus on recession- and clutter-busting tactics. No abstract philosophies, no fluff, and definitely no sales pitches. Just highly concrete strategies that you can test right away in your own program.

I didn’t just bring this up as a shameless plug for FRDNY though. You see, my contribution to the 3-person panel, as the name implies, will be 10 ideas in 20 minutes. I have 9 pretty good ones. But I need one more.

So, I’m extending an open invitation to my nonprofit constituency-building friends to contribute the 10th idea. If you have a direct response fundraising idea, something you did in direct mail, email, on the web, via text, or any other direct response vehicle that really moved the dial – and results to back it up – email me directly or better yet post it here for consideration and the benefit of your colleagues.

If I choose yours as the 10th idea, I’ll credit you at the conference (of course), and on this blog. You’ll get the satisfaction of helping worthy nonprofits who will benefit from your idea. And you’ll get to help demonstrate another important idea in membership development: the power of online community.

So I hope you’ll share your ideas. I’m looking forward to hearing them – and I’ll be sure to continue sharing mine.

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