Few topics yield more heat and shed less light than the debate over how frequently we should communicate with donors.

Some fundraisers take the stance “mail more, make more.” Others –like The Agitator—feel the evidence is clear on the side of “mail less, make more”. Here, here, here and here.

This week we’re wading back into the fray,  prompted in part by a recent Paying Attention to Retention post by Steve Daigenault of M+R, the online consulting firm. In his post Steve, acknowledges the likely importance of volume/frequency and its effect on retention.  And to the credit of M+R promises to study the subject and make data available.  Good on ‘em.

Quite mistakenly however, Steve states that “the conventional wisdom … says ‘bombarding’ your list with appeals will drive down your donor retention.”

In fact, “conventional wisdom” is, sadly, just the opposite: that volume works.  And, the more the better.  You can see this in M+Rs own annual benchmarks showing steady increases in email volume year over year.

I’m not about to quibble with Steve (Nick will do that in his post tomorrow).  What’s important is that we address this critical topic with some facts, research and case histories.

Let’s start with the current situation.  Leaving out startups and most small organizations that generally don’t contact their donors frequently enough, the modus operandi for the preponderance of large and mid-sized brands is to rely on increasing volume to increase income.

This more-is-better logic seems to go something as follows.  Donors give because they are asked.  The more they’re asked the more they’ll give.  Ergo: The factor causing our success is all the asks.  That’s the conventional wisdom.

Let’s pause to think about this.  If you were starting a new organization and your goal was to get donors to give you two, “one-off” or cash contributions a year (which would put you at top of pack in benchmarking) and repeat that pattern year after year would you start by saying “let’s mail them 23 times a year and send them 50 emails”?

Of course not, but that’s what dozens and dozens of large organizations are doing right now because they have either run out of strategic alternatives or they truly believe volume is the critical lever in steering toward maximum income, “closing the gap” or “meeting the numbers.”

As I hope you’ll see in this week’s series it’s not that simple. The reason the volume model ultimately fails is that it isn’t based on why people give, it is based on what is convenient, available and “understood”.

But understanding is never absolute, or the learning task completed. And yet, the sector operates the way it has for decades with no discernable change (evidenced by flat to declining trendlines) other than applying the highly limited understanding of human behavior to more channels, that not surprisingly, have us running faster to stay in place.

In short, the path to a sustainable growth model comes from subject matter expertise in human behavior (which is unlikely to come from reading the latest, business book bestseller on the topic) and the ability to not only apply that understanding but increase and evolve it over time.

And it sure doesn’t  come from applying platitudes like “mail more, make more” or “ask-thank-report back” or my personal favorite, “people like to give so we should ask a lot to give them what they want”.  This treats the act of giving, which often (but not always) delivers positive, emotional highs as equivalent to the act of sending/receiving ask after ask after ask.  For those to whom this distinction is lost then the volume hamster wheel awaits.

Not only is this issue nuanced, it also requires some understanding and insight into the status quo forces that resist any change in the conventional volume model.

There are the internal silos: direct mail folks must care about incremental costs, while online folks think the more the merrier because email is “free.”  And then there are the external forces whose incentives often run to volume: printers and mail houses, CRMs, consultants with volume-based fees, not to mention my sainted brothers and sisters in our copywriters’ guild who are always delighted to write yet another communication.

So, over the next four parts of this Agitator series Nick takes us through DonorVoice research about volume, best testing methods, case histories demonstrating how organizations cut volume and improved revenue and retention.

We’ll end the week with 5 Tips on how you can benefit by turning down the volume.

As we go through this series I urge you to share your thoughts, experiences and questions.

Roger