That’s just one of the basic premises of our new book Start Over explores. The problem with getting the manuscript off to the publisher is that new research findings keep coming in. So, another chapter or two have to be re-written.

Let me explain.

In preparing my earlier book, Retention Fundraising: the art and science of keeping your donors for life, I kept the promise to myself that I’d avoid tribal wisdom and so-called ‘best practices’ in favor of recommendations based solely on empirical research. I did. And used 3 years of research conducted by DonorVoice on 250+ U.S. and UK charities.

For Start Over I’ve made the same commitment and asked my empirically hard-assed colleague Kevin Schulman, CEO of DonorVoice to co-author the book with me. He agreed, but warned that the outline I showed him would lead to a book making lots of folks unhappy. So be it. In the end, facts are facts.  Findings are findings. Lots of pissed off ‘best practices’ folks.

This month we’ve been working on several chapters involving a number of key ‘best practices’ that are turning out — from an empirical standpoint — to be ‘not so good practices’. We’ll explain why in the book, but I wanted to telegraph ahead to Agitator readers a couple of findings and observations to get you thinking — and sharing.

Some of the findings in the book are ‘definitive’ in as much as science can ever be final. Some are preliminary and we’re conducting more tests to confirm or modify or discard.

But here are a couple of areas that deserve your attention, your thought, and a respectful request to send on to us any empirical data and testing you might possess.

Is Email Bloat Wrecking Donor Retention?

Our main concern is the abusive overuse of email and the damage its indiscriminate use by those who have no understanding of donor experience and commitment is doing to retention rates. Few organizations bother to find out.

In the mistaken belief that email is basically ‘costless’, most organizations are costing themselves boatloads of revenue both short and long term.

Unlike postal mail and the principles of its application that have evolved over the past 50 years, email is new and unprincipled — meaning there’s little proven nuanced knowledge of how it works. (Hint: It works the same as direct mail except most of those who work in the digital space don’t have the remotest idea of basic, proven principles of marketing and communications.)

Currently, even the more sophisticated folks in the digital email trade concentrate on things like ‘deliverability’, ‘open rates’, ‘click throughs’ and other metrics that are superficial at best.

Few bother to understand the issues of frequency, content and audience — and what that combination of factors does to help or damage donor commitment and lifetime value.

At the basic level, Tom’s excellent post Are Your Fundraising Emails Getting Delivered? focuses on the importance of the awful term ‘data hygiene’ and the illusions most organizations labor under. If you haven’t read it, it and the study accompanying it, please do.

As both Tom and Nick Ellinger in his post The Cost of Costless Communication point out, the true average cost for the average nonprofit of sending emails is somewhere around $24,000 a year. Their posts explain this figure.

I highlight these posts because it’s so important to understand the damage that a technique/channel/medium as seemingly ‘free’ and ‘easy’ and ‘modern’ as email seems to be.

This is all very nuanced. But very real. So don’t let your eyes glaze over as we dig into this stuff. Being blind to the wrong metrics can be dangerous and very, very costly.

Have you looked at the frequency of mail and email communications you’re sending to your donors and determined whether more is better? ( It most certainly isn’t, but you need to study that on your file.)

Tom and I get a lot of negative response when we raise these sort of issues. But honestly, we all need to pay attention and not exempt the digital and the tactics the digiterati swoon over. Some of the stuff they do unsupervised in their silos is dangerous.

So, back to the basics of email. For example, the DonorVoice blog  here and The Agitator set off  a mini-firestorm when we suggested that maybe let’s not everyone send out indistinguishable matching gift offers for Giving Tuesday.

So what happened on Giving Tuesday with spam rates? The deliverability report said:

“For #GivingTuesday specifically, the data showed modest growth in email sends and open rates, but the spam figures revealed something shocking: the rate at which fundraising emails were rerouted to junk folders nearly quadrupled.”


“Using our research and benchmark figures, we found that a nonprofit with a list of 100,000, the average spam rate of 36.68%, and sending the average of 3 emails loses an incredible $6,184.47 on #GivingTuesday as a result of spam.”

As Nick Ellinger points out, “This isn’t surprising. If you were somehow assigned to Dante’s eleventh circle of hell (they’ve added some on in modernity) and had to personally filter emails for spam, you’d see that an email was the third from an organization in one day and the 12th from any organization with the word ‘match’ in the subject line and you’d drop it into the trash like it was an 800-pound maggot. Same thing with the computer spam filters.

“And once you have one email that triggers a spam filter for a donor, the more likely you are to go into that spam filter for that donor and to go to junk for other donors. Deliverability is like trust — easy to lose, hard to gain back.”

Damage of the Frequency of Email and Postal Mail to Retention and Donor Value

And then we have the perennially contentious debate over the frequency of communications. Our series, Ask Less, Make More, is a perennial favorite of those who hate to have ‘best practices’ challenged.

But, again, fact is fact. We all need to get used to demanding more information and start challenging the status quo. Why? Because nothing, absolutely nothing is more dangerous to our future than acceptance of the status quo.


P.S. In my next post I’ll deal with the most popular and most misunderstood of all current concepts:  Acquisition and the Thank You process. And how research shows how the combination of frequency, audience and content can help or harm critical First Year Retention.