In the run-up to last year’s winter holidays I posted Don’t Eat the Poinsettia as an appropriate reminder that in fundraising — as in life — there are many myths we take for gospel.

Some false or untrue myths like “Don’t swallow your gum; it stays in your stomach for seven years”,  or “Don’t sit too close to the TV, you’ll hurt your eyes”, or “Don’t crack your knuckles, you’ll get arthritis” are harmless, even if adhered to religiously.

But when it comes to fundraising there are some myths that are not only untrue, but if put into practice will prove damaging to your fundraising.

So, I’ve decided to mount a mini-crusade against those myths I consider the most dangerous — beginning with …

Dangerous Myth #1: Too Much Solicitation Causes Poor Retention.

Bottomline: Across a range of studies on donors to 250+ nonprofits in the U.S. and the U.K. conducted by our colleagues at DonorVoice over the past four years, there is absolutely no evidence that frequency of solicitation negatively impacts retention and lifetime value. Period.

I know that some consultants, boards, CEOs and, heaven forbid, even some fundraisers love to engage in the navel-gazing exercise jargonistically labeled ‘cadence’ — the frequency and timing of appeals and other communications touches to donors.

While such exercises may make for interesting fodder at a board meeting or a staff bull session, they are worthless when it comes to raising money. In the end, any fundraiser worth his or her salt will tell you that more mailings on the house file equals more net revenue.

For an excellent discussion on this subject listen to Jeff Brooks’ Future Fundraising Now podcast here.

So, I was more than a little troubled when last month I came across a post by Penelope Burk, of Cygnus Research, claiming:

“Over-soliciting and insisting on unrestricted gifts are largely why 65% of donors who make a first gift never make a second and why 90% or more of donors who start giving are gone within five subsequent appeals.”

I can’t think of a more inaccurate claim or conclusion. Or one more potentially damaging to your bottom line if you blindly follow it. Penelope’s claim contradicts virtually all of the retention research by the field’s two experts — Adrian Sargeant and Kevin Schulman. See also Agitator’s Why Donors Drop Out.

I’m not sure how Penelope arrived at her conclusions. I could find no evidence in her post or in the executive summary of The 2013 Burk Donor Survey to back up her claims. Nor is there any evidence in any other research I’ve seen elsewhere that indicates either the frequency of appeals or the donor’s inability to designate their gift makes a whit’s worth of difference in retention.

What I can report is that Penelope’s methodology did draw a rebuke or at least some raised eyebrows from the retention researchers over at DonorVoice. You can read those here.

Tom and I follow retention trends and retention research like hawks on the hunt. When it comes to frequency of communications and appeals, here are the facts versus myth as we see them:

  • The frequency of ‘touches’ or contacts is not a driver of donor relationship strength and  retention rates. What this means is that sending more or less within the frequency ranges in the industry today, does not negatively OR positively impact relationship strength or value.
  • We hypothesize, but have not seen proof, that extreme frequency on either end — sending 100 solicitations or just 1 — will negatively impact relationship, retention and value.
  • Fundraisers can argue correctly that if they solicit less they raise less. That fact is often based on a short-term financial snapshot that places a premium on ‘now’ vs. future.
  • The larger question is whether sending a ton of stuff out now negatively impacts LTV and retention rates long term. The work we’ve seen over at DonorVoice has shown this is not the case.
  • The relationship between ‘frequency of ask’ (or ‘cadence’) and relationship strength/retention is not linear. This means at some point, beyond the range of solicitation frequency seen in the nonprofit sector today (generally between 6 and 24 times a year), it can or will have a negative impact.
  • The corollary to this is having too few touches — just a single appeal as an extreme example — will prove detrimental to relationship strength, retention and value.

In short: Do not set out to build a donor/supporter journey plan that is different than whatever you’re currently doing if you’re using number of touches or appeals as the primary or even secondary criterion for what you think should be ‘in’ or ‘out’ in the plan. Doing so will not move the needle — one way or the other — on retention.

What’s your experience on frequency?


P.S. This is my first post since taking a few weeks’ leave to enjoy the great customer (donor) service of the Cleveland Clinic for a hip replacement. My thanks to Tom for doing double duty.

P.P.S. And please send along your candidates for ‘Dangerous Myths’ you’d like exploded.

This article was posted in: Direct mail, Donor retention / loyalty / commitment, DonorTrends / DonorVoice, Research.
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