I love home remedies and old folk tales. They have their place in the Farmer’s Almanac and on embroidered wall hangings, but they’re grossly over-used and too often accepted as ‘truth’ or ‘best practices’ in fundraising.

Perhaps no myth is potentially more dangerous for the long-term health of an organization than the clichéd dictum: “Mail more, raise more.” It leads to the callous abuse of donors whose rising disaffection level is generally  unheeded until it’s too late.

The Agitator opened discussion on this topic two years ago in our series Raise More, Ask Less appearing in four parts: here, here, here and here.

We received some  evidence-based feedback in support of asking less and raising more, and lots of non-empirical blowback — the normal reaction whenever sacred cows get gored. And believe me, where myths about mailing frequency and volume are concerned, it’s a mighty big sacred cow. Lots of fees, reputations and ingrained beliefs involved.

To be fair and empathetic to those who really believe and practice the myth, the conventional model used by most direct response fundraisers is so flawed or little understood that about the only thing most business-as-usual fundraisers can think of to increase income is to mail more.

It’s time to rev up the discussion and start parading more evidence and sparking more discussion. This is an important issue that goes not only to the heart of short-term revenue, but also to long-term retention and the all-important concerns of donor experience and attitudes.

I’ve been carefully tracking tests conducted by five major organizations aimed at measuring the effect of less frequent appeals — and by “less” I’m talking 40% to 60% less —  on net income and retention. These are properly designed and carefully controlled tests run over a long period — a year or multiple years.

So far, every one of these tests is clearly demonstrating that by mailing less, organizations make more net income and have better retention rates. AND … they increase the net in the very same year despite the conventional wisdom that, by taking on a test like this, “we won’t make this year’s numbers.”

I intend to share the results with Agitator readers as the testing organizations allow their data to be made public. I’ll also follow the work of the folks over at DonorVoice where they’ve set up a lab group of nonprofit fundraisers who share and discuss results.

Meanwhile, to get the ball rolling I want to  feature a  presentation by Lauri Marden, Chief Development Officer at the Union of Concerned Scientists … a ‘must-view’ presentation she gave at this year’s npNEXT conference organized by Blackbaud.

Titled  Is Mailing More Really the Answer, Lauri reports on the results of a year-long test comparing results of the ‘old way’ of soliciting support (12-15 times a year) versus 4 appeals and 4 ‘impact’ statements a year.

You can see Lauri’s complete presentation in the video below. I urge you to watch it all the way through because she clearly details the methodology, and techniques, donor segments and findings.

A brief summary of the results in a moment.

First, a note on the reason behind the test. As Lauri asks at the start of her presentation: “How many organizations receive complaints from their donors that they’re receiving too much mail?” Most folks attending the presentation raised their hands and their response was almost universal, “Yes, we know, but doing it this way is really necessary.” (Sound familiar?)

That commonly held belief that we’ll lose income if we reduce frequency may not be true. And proving that more appeals are not necessarily the path to greater net income was the basic hypothesis of the UCS test.

The Test: 25,000 donors exposed to the Test and Control. The Control: 12 to 15 appeals a year. The Test: 4 appeals a year.  

The Results:

  • Small differences (b/c of email/non-email). Sample sizes and returns are statistically significant.
  • Test groups got within 5% of gross revenue of results for the control.
  • Average gift $2.60 higher for Test group.
  • Frequency of giving almost identical between Test and Control groups.
  • Cost savings $250,000 a year for Test approach.
  • Net income: $8,000 higher for Test group.
  • 2-year retention rate: 3.9% higher for Control, but year-end giving still to report.
  • Cost per dollar raised: $.13 for Control; $.06 for Test.
  • Net income per donor: $9.69 higher for the Test group.

Here a two charts from Lauri’s presentation summarizing the results:


Non-quantitative results according to Lauri:

“Fewer complaints, increased bandwidth for team to get more involved with donors — thank you calls, better donor service.”

Additional insights from Lauri:

  • “Are UCS donors unique? I doubt it?”
  • “Will this work for everyone?  Maybe not.”
  • “Is it worth testing:  Absolutely.”

Critically Important

According to Lauri — and I agree given results in similar tests I’m following — an essential element in the approach to the Test Group was informing donors ahead of time of the lowered frequency and how it would work. “We wanted them to know we heard from them about too much mail and therefore we were reducing our mail stream and needed their help. We told them we wanted to see if we can raise the same or more by mailing less. And we reminded them in all subsequent mailings that they were receiving less mail and more substance. In addition, we gave them a special email address where they could share comments or complaints.”

Wow! Image that! Real donor-centricity.

Please listen to Lauri’s presentation all the way through, then share your thoughts, questions and insights on this approach.

AND … if you’re testing raising more by mailing less and wish to share the results, please drop me a line at Roger@theagitator.net.

Finally, an Agitator Raise for Lauri Marden with hopes that she’ll continue to work on myth-busting.


P.S.  Of course fixing the the volume/frequency problem is just part of the solution to improving donor experiences and therefore long-term donor value.  Because changing volume is a helpful step, but not all that’s needed, we plan to deal with other essential parts of a real donor-centric equation. We’ll tackle these additional  evidence-based approaches in future posts.



This article was posted in: Breaking Out of the Status Quo, Communications, Direct mail, Donor retention / loyalty / commitment, Fundraising analytics / data, Research.
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