Nth Factor



Tackling the New Working Environment One Year Later

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed entire industries in ways we’ll still be measuring and experiencing in years ahead. But direct response fundraising isn’t one of them. Not really. Not if you were doing it right at least.

Before the pandemic, we already knew that for our programs to thrive …

  • We need to maintain new donor acquisition.
  • We need strong online giving and communication programs.
  • We need channel integration.
  • We need to be cost efficient, strategic, and data driven.
  • We need to be nimble and adaptable.

If anything, the pandemic has affirmed for us the imperative of these best practices and the durability of direct response fundraising when we stay true to core principles.

But if you think of your direct response program like a mixing console made up of dozens of strategies, and you’re the producer, you also know that the really good music relies on what you turn up, what you turn down, and what you keep steady.

Some of the strategies that we have turned up in our clients’ programs during the pandemic include:

  • Online registrant optimization and conversion. The boom in virtual events and engaging online content provided by nonprofits throughout the pandemic has driven significant growth in email revenue and registrant files for many organizations. Email registrant files are excellent prospects for membership conversion vie email and address append for direct mail prospect testing.
  • Budget austerity. By client mandates but also confident in the knowledge that a good “words on paper” package can yield great results, we produced some of our most stripped down direct mail packages in spring and summer of 2020. Even if a client’s direct response program wound up performing at or above goal, other fundraising areas such as events or major gifts were either down or at risk this time last year, so keeping costs as low as possible has been of heightened importance. 
  • Email communications/solicitations. Email and online communications are already essential in direct response fundraising. But in the past fifteen months email has taken on the additional job of stopgap in many of our clients’ programs. Email has been of heightened importance for making up shortfalls and communicating about moving targets like reopening dates and membership expiration and renewal implications.
  • Expressions of gratitude to donors and no-ask celebrations of mission. Whether to keep the lines of communication open in place of a postponed solicitation, or to convey a heartfelt thank you for a gift that is not to be taken granted, these times call for heightened attention to gratitude.
  • Prioritization of response rate over average gift. This generally holds true at any time of financial crisis or threat, and the pandemic has been no exception. It’s always easier to upgrade an active donor than it is to reactive a lapsed one, so setting the bar for inclusion is always the right choice. 
  • On that note, overarching all of the heightened strategies that emerged in 2020 has been a heightened priority: building inclusive direct response programs that represent and value supporter diversity.

Because all of the strategies on our mixing console are important, we have only turned down one thing (willfully) during the pandemic: testing that adds more than moderate costs. This doesn’t mean we can’t test meaningful things; we have just back burnered tests that require greater financial investment.

Finally, what have we kept steady wherever possible? You guessed it: acquisition. The organizations that didn’t turn it down have reaped the rewards. But not all of our clients had the budget and luxury of continuing direct mail acquisition as the pandemic intensified through 2020. For some, we were able to compensate through conversion of higher numbers of email registrants. And for the others, you bet acquisition is the first thing we turned back up as we turned the page to 2021.




Perfection is Overrated

It rarely pays off in direct response fundraising to wait until you have the perfect words, the perfect design, the perfect data.

The secret is showing up. In email, direct mail, online, on the phone. Make a plan and stick to it. Don’t cancel.

Just show up. The more you do, the better you’ll get at it. And the better your results will be in the long haul.




Now More Than Ever

It’s a pity “now more than ever” is one of the most abused phrases in fundraising. Because it actually applies now. More than ever.

But I’m not talking about the need for philanthropy at a time when 14 million Americans being unemployed is just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m talking about our approach to fundraising and advocacy.

Yes, giving is down and the need is up. Obviously, now more than ever our nonprofits need contributions to fund our missions.

But if you really want to make something happen, the first “now more than ever” your nonprofit should be thinking about shouldn’t be your donors’ call to action.

It should be your own.

What is your nonprofit doing – now more than ever – to earn your donors’ involvement and trust? Emotional support is the precursor to financial support, and it’s more valuable.

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How To Be a Better Fundraising Professional

1. Engage. Have you noticed that the best conversationalists – the people you always find yourself drawn to at gatherings – don’t actually talk that much? They ask questions. They stimulate ideas and opinion sharing. And they make you feel energized and special by their sincere interest in what you have say. If you want your nonprofit to be the one your donors are the most drawn to, try talking less and listening more.

2. Give. You ask your donors to upgrade, make extra gifts, respond to matching gift challenges, meet year-end shortfalls, and make stretch gifts. Do you do any of these things? If you want to effectively connect with donors, you yourself need to be one.

3. Dazzle. Whether you are talking to your donors in a ballroom or a living room, through a letter or a blog post, nothing inspires a donor like passion, intelligence and originality. It’s a lot of work to bring your A game to every donor communication. Fortunately your organization’s mission is well worth it.




The Giving Pledge, Donor Retention and Wishes for the New Year

The new round of Giving Pledges announced on December 9 has generated fresh excitement and debate. The movement which was started by Bill and Melinda Gates earlier this year has thus far enlisted 58 billionaires who have pledged to give at least half of their wealth to charity. The estimated value of the pledges – $600 billion attributed to the original 40 participants alone – is obvious reason for celebration.

The plan is not without its skeptics however, who argue that global redistribution of wealth – an explicit goal of the Giving Pledge – doesn’t  serve the immediate funding needs of charities. Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, may have pledged that he’ll eventually give half of his wealth to charity (and how those assets will benefit charity remains to be seen), but that doesn’t change the fact that nonprofits are struggling right now to provide services at a time when the need is up, but giving is down.

Perhaps the most biting criticism however is that the Giving Pledge doesn’t fundamentally advance philanthropy – another explicit goal of the movement. Case in point: $600 billion has been pledged this year through the Giving Pledge, but giving – actual giving – is down.

In spite of the grave ramifications of declines in charitable giving, we can’t lose sight of one important thing: how much money your organization raises isn’t the only measure of your fundraising program’s success. As an evaluation metric, it’s not even the most important one.

Consider the organization with 1,000 long-term donors giving varying amounts every year, versus the organization with just a few major donors giving annually. Each organization may raise the same amount in individual giving, but the first one is a healthy organization; the second one isn’t.

So what’s the most important metric? It’s the same one it’s always been, of course: donor loyalty.

Though we can influence giving level, ultimately how much our donors give is controlled by things that are out of our control, like the economy. But whether our donors stick with us, or leave … well, that’s all on us.

And so as we come to the end of a year and the beginning of a new one, let me be the first to wish you success where it matters most: inspiring donor loyalty and being an organization that inspires.

Thank you for contributing and reading. I can’t wait to continue the dialogue in the new year!




Things That Caught My Attention This Week

There’s a lot of noise out there and so I am fast on the “delete” (or recycle) trigger. It makes me appreciate the things I notice all the more though … like these stories, emails and letters that broke through to me this week:

  1. Nonprofit management salaries. The story was in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, USA Today, on NPR, and half a dozen people emailed me the various articles they’d come across, so how could it have not caught my attention? In case you missed it, it here’s the gist: there are some people at nonprofit organizations who make 7-figure salaries. About a third of nonprofit leaders have taken salary cuts this year in light of the current economy.
  2. Seth Godin’s announcement on Tuesday that he’s doing a free seminar for good cause organizations on 10/22. You need to apply. There are 40 seats available and the deadline is 10/5. (Godin wrote a strong post about nonprofits a couple of weeks ago incidentally that’s worth checking out. Be sure to read Beth Kanter’s response to his post too.)
  3. A nice letter I got from a print vendor – and, albeit last week, an even nicer letter I got from a nonprofit. Both letters were not just genuine; they were genuinely genuine. (There’s actually a difference.) It was refreshing.
  4. The DMA Nonprofit Federation Careers E-Bulletin. There are a lot of jobs out there for direct response fundraising professionals. If you’ve received a resume from someone who seems promising, I am sure they’d appreciate you referring them to the DMANF if you don’t have any openings at your organization.

I noticed these things not because they were interesting in the general sense, but because they interested me. (And I am passing them along to you now because I think they might interest you.)

You might have noticed that I refrained from sharing my opinion on any of these. That’s because I’m more interested in your opinions:

How do you break through the clutter so that you can be interesting to the people who are interested in what you have to say?

What do you think about nonprofit salaries, Seth Godin’s seminar, or any of the other things I noticed this week?

What did you notice this week?

Of course your comments will be one more thing that catches my attention this week.




Pull Up A Chair

helloHi there and welcome to MKDM’s new blog. The Nth Factor is MKDM’s break room and whiteboard – a place for ideas and collaboration, open to everyone involved or interested in donor action and philanthropy.

We’ll be dropping by every week or so with thoughts, experiences and conversation-starters on connecting with donors – and we hope you’ll do the same. Subscribe by RSS or email, and share your own opinions and ideas for everyone in the comments section at the bottom of each post. The Nth Factor’s contributors will be the MKDM team. Some of our good friends and colleagues will be stopping by too. What’ll we talk about? You name it. Anything related to donors, philanthropy, giving and action is on the table. (Feel free to email suggestions to Topics@NthFactor.com.)

And why is this blog named The Nth Factor? Well, the nth factor is MKDM’s real-life break room term for when donors don’t “behave” according to the usual predictors of response or – these days – when they don’t do what the economy says they should be doing.

It’s when they dazzle us with seemingly limitless (“nth”) compassion and determination. It’s when they show us what they’re made of in ways we never thought possible and could have never predicted in our spreadsheets and plans. And it’s what makes us embrace every new day of doing what we do, and partnering with our clients to build a better world.

So welcome to our break room. Pull up a chair. Share your ideas and we’ll do the same. We’re looking forward to connecting with you!