Editors’ Note: The following is an excerpt from Roger’s Retention Fundraising: the new art and science of keeping your donors for life. Available here in paper or e-book versions.


Among the many great insights in Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus (2010, Penguin), I came across one valuable lesson for those of us involved in fundraising, nonprofit market research, or strategy. Shirky describes a research project conducted at McDonald’s.

The aim was to improve the company’s milkshakes by learning which attributes could be changed to improve sales. As you would expect, researchers prepared questionnaires and polled random customers about the quality and characteristics of McDonald’s milkshakes.

bucketA typical outcome might have been a report with detailed analysis of customer preferences about sweetness, taste, flavors — with specific recommendations about changes to improve sales.

But one of the researchers adopted a completely different approach. He spent several days sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant observing customers who purchased the product. He discovered something unexpected — many were buying milkshakes during breakfast hours.

He further noticed an unusual pattern. Most of these customers came in alone, generally ordered the milkshake and nothing else, and wanted it to go.

Setting out to understand this behavior, the researcher learned that these customers by and large were commuting to work alone. The McDonald’s milkshake was serving as the breakfast meal they could consume while driving. Its attributes made it perfect for the role it was assigned — it was filling, somewhat nutritious, and consumed easily with one hand on the wheel.

Almost everyone else missed the unexpected use of the milkshake because they had focused on the product rather than the customer. They also missed it because they had preconceived notions of how and when a milkshake is consumed and certain fixed ideas about what constitutes a typical breakfast.

The role McDonald’s had assigned the milkshake wasn’t the role many customers assigned to it. As Shirky points out about the researchers:

“They made two kinds of mistakes, things we might call ‘milkshake mistakes.’ The first was to concentrate mainly on the product and assume that everything important about it was somehow implicit in its attributes, without regard to what role the customers wanted it to play — the job they were hiring the milkshake for.

“The second mistake was to adopt a narrow view of the type of food people have always eaten in the morning, as if all habits were deeply rooted traditions instead of accumulated accidents. Neither the shake itself nor the history of breakfast mattered as much as customers needing food to do a nontraditional job — serve as sustenance and amusement for their morning commute—for which they hired the milkshake.”

There are valuable lessons and insights here, not only for fast food chains, but for your organization as well.

First, as I emphasize in Retention Fundraising, a cause or organization cannot be viewed apart from the market it serves. It is defined not only by its intrinsic features but also by the people (including donors) it serves.

Second, the organizational insiders’ vision of the mission or brand may not always coincide with that of the donors. You may believe your organization does ABC, but your donors may contribute — and continue to contribute — because they believe it does XYZ.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that an organization connect with its donors’ values and beliefs. The path to poor performance is paved with trying to force your organization’s perception of itself onto donors.

A principal reason that often motivates nonprofits to re-brand is their sense that ‘donors don’t get us’. As a result, a brand consultant is hired, and countless dollars and loads of time are wasted. In The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications, Jeff Brooks accurately describes the effort:

“So, a brand is cooked up that will set those donors straight: Touche´ you ignorant persons! This is what we are about! Love us now! That’s the kind of brand that is deeply in trouble from the start. It’s going to cost you dearly to educate those donors. And you’ll fail to educate them.”

The milkshake mistake here is believing you can win people over by trying to change their core beliefs and values. Try that and they’ll leave you. Conversely, match the description of your organization with what they know and believe about it, and you’ll keep them.


P.S. Chapter 10 of Retention Fundraising, from which this excerpt is taken, tells you why understanding how donors feel about your organization is so important. Understanding the role donors want you to play in their lives is the starting point for improving retention rates.


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