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Do we ask too much from donors too often?


It’s an old and often-debated question and the answer varies depending on what kind of organisation is doing the asking and the target audience’s wants and needs.

I’ve been speaking with marketers and fundraisers this week about this very problem.  The background is the ubiquitous Christmas appeal with this particular charity receiving a wide range of feedback from their target audience.  On the one-hand the fundraising team received thank you notes for the good work the charity does along with donations.  One example comprised a handwritten note asking them to “please accept the enclosed cheque for £1,000”.  From a £25 ask, you can see why they are happy that some donors are so keen to support their cause.

On the other hand, they hadn’t received as many complaints as previous campaigns and were pondering whether this was a positive indicator regarding their efforts.  In my experience, it may well be a positive indicator but, like many measures we use, it probably doesn’t tell the whole story if we only look at this indicator in isolation.

We need to understand more about our audiences’ wants, needs and preferences before we can make any firm decisions on our communications.  As proof, here is an excerpt from the same charity’s online forum:

“I am wondering if someone out there knows something I do not.  Like, have I won the lottery, premium bonds or what.  Do I go round throwing my money, whatever I have, around.  I know it’s coming up to Christmas, but my letter box is crammed full of begging letters every day.
And what do you do with all the ones you receive?  I don’t want to sound mean, but I just cannot afford to donate this or that amount every month… Some years ago, I did send a donation to the XXXXXXX and ever since I’ve been inundated with begging letters from them.
Do you think I am being mean?”

Does this look familiar?  As individuals, are we feeling any differently?

Clearly, not every recipient of the Christmas appeal is as keen (or able) to support the campaign as the generous donor above.  The groundswell of support this individual received (ie; no, you are not mean…) from subsequent posts was interesting in that it was supportive of their view but did not go as far as to denigrate this charity.  Rather, there seemed to be an acceptance that all charities need to fundraise in tough times but it would be great if they could do it in a way more targeted at the individual.

Incidentally, there were also lots of comments about direct mail practices, with ‘crap gifts’ and ‘making me feel guilty’ featuring as major turn-offs.  This is a big enough subject for a future blog but at least backs up the Institute of Fundraising’s current stance on stamping out negative practices.

Unless we are communicating with very small groups of people, it’s incredibly difficult to get any message and media mix 100% right.  We also need to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a major financial recession so people are tightening their belts more than previously.  As a result we may need to adjust both our expectations and activities accordingly.

Notwithstanding these common-sense considerations, here are a few suggestions of actions we can all take to get as close as possible to the right message and media mix:

  • Regularly ask your audiences about their message and media preferences through non-appeal communications like newsletters or magazines them.  Use media you already have; this shouldn’t be an industry and shouldn’t cost any more than thinking time.

  • Actually engage them in the process of creating your campaigns, eg: why not ask your supporters in the summer what kind of Christmas appeal they would like to see?  Then include in the Christmas messages that they are the result of what your audiences told you they wanted.

  • Use third party research to understand societal and demographic trends as they pertain to your communications activity.  Your 30 year-old audience is going to have a lot in common with 30 year-olds per se so do your homework before writing copy and choosing images.  There is also a lot of free research available so take advantage of what’s around before commissioning anything specific for your organisation.  This can include case studies from agency websites, presentations from, studies from the Institute of Fundraising etc. There is lots of useful information out there.

  • Use internal research.  This is so frequently forgotten it makes me angry.  How many people in your organisation meet with or talk to the donors, supporters, members of the public (ie; target audiences)?  Ask them what they are hearing.  Arrange for regular feedback sessions to pick their brains about what issues or opportunities might be out there and of interest to your target audiences.

  • When you make audience-driven changes, it can be useful to tell the audience that this is what you have done.  For example, I receive Christmas raffle tickets from a number of charities asking me to sell them on their behalf.  Some of last year’s packs were pretty low on quality (but will remain nameless) and I fed this back to the charities concerned.  What would have really inspired me to engage this Christmas would be if one of those charities had contacted me, made reference to the fact that I had told them I wasn’t a fan of festive raffle tickets and given me an alternative way to help.

  • Use organisational experience. Be honest; how many of you conduct campaign reviews or at least collect results but then put them away?  They should be one of the first things you look at when planning any new activity.  Why risk making the same mistakes again or not benefitting from that great success next time around?  This also includes picking the brains of anyone who has worked elsewhere and learning from other organisation’s successes and flops.

  • Accept that, despite what some ‘gurus’ might tell you, you can’t please all of the people all of the time; life doesn’t work like that.  Your job is to understand as much as you can about motivators and preferences for your target audiences, put your campaigns together AND listen to what they tell you as a result.  Learn from the feedback (verify it with them if necessary – see point 1) and change your approach accordingly.
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