One way to really screw up your fundraising is to make bad assumptions about your donors. The most common way we do this is to assume donors are (or should be) exactly like us.
Another common way we make incorrect assumptions about donors is to think all of them are just like the small number of donors we interact with personally. This error is outlined at PhilanTopic, at Blinded By the ‘Sophisticated Donor’?
The donors you most likely talk with face-to-face are major donors and institutional donors. What they know, and what they want, are very different from the large mass of more typical donors:
Not everyone is a “sophisticated” donor. Not everyone is a professional fundraiser or works for a foundation or corporate giving program. In fact, very few people do. And people … seldom give to a charitable cause or organization because they’re looking to achieve impact or based on a chart of performance metrics; they give because it makes them feel good, or because it’s a worthy cause, or because, like me, they want to help a friend.
I’ve rarely seen a fundraising message that failed because it was too simple.
I’ve seen hundreds of fundraising messages that failed because they were too complicated.
We are constantly tempted to fundraising from ourselves or our friends — or those atypical donors we know and like best. Complexity and sophistication do not translate well to normal donors.
Some interesting and useful observations on the Obama ’12 email fundraising machine, from M+R Research Labs: Surprises from Obama’s New Media Staff.
- Segmentation based on donor behavior is the only segmentation worth doing.
- Novelty worked … until it didn’t!
- Shorter vs. longer? It mostly didn’t matter.
- Micro-goals worked for advocacy but not for fundraising.
- Facebook app made a huge difference for their mobilization efforts.
- Best performing appeals often had the highest unsubscribe rates.
- They hardly integrated with snail mail. The online program was mostly a separate entity from the direct mail stream.
- Clickers and visitors to donation pages were strong prospects for resends.
Not all these apply completely to fundraising email, but some do, and they’re all good hypotheses we can learn from.
Good fundraising design (the kind that motivates the most giving) is typically corny, old-fashioned, and not terribly pretty. I say that with confidence because I’ve seen it again and again, for years and years. I’m comfortable spreading this word, because I know anyone who takes my advice on this will be happy with their results.
But a funny thing happens when people hear me or anyone else say that about fundraising design. They think we’re saying fundraising design should be bad design — that bad design works better than good design.
Bad design doesn’t work well anywhere. Please, don’t ever do bad design, if you can help it!
Unfortunately, what a lot of people think of when they think “good design” is slick, modern, and pretty. That’s where things get sticky, because that is not the definition of good design.
Let’s define good design. It is:
- Emotionally resonant with the message
- Appropriate for its audience
Take note of that last one. That’s the reason good fundraising design is usually corny, old-fashioned, and not terribly pretty. That’s what reaches most donors.
In fundraising, corny, old-fashioned, not terribly pretty design can be good or bad, depending on how well it conforms with the characteristics above.
But slick, modern, pretty can only be bad. It may nail the other characteristics, but it misses #4: It’s not right for its audience. (There are exceptions, but not many of them.)
Design, like writing, is all about knowing your audience and reaching out to them in the look and language that stirs their hearts. It’s not about conforming to your own preferences.
The other day, my daughter (a college student) sent a short thank-you note to my godmother (a lady in her 70s).
Within minutes of receiving it, my godmother called me. She gushed and gushed at the wonder of it. She told me, among other things, that it “brought sunshine into my home.” (She talks that way.)
She had considerably more to say about the note than the note itself said.
When I get a note from somebody, I look at it, think to myself, Well, isn’t that nice, and move on to other things. Not that big a deal. I imagine you’re like me.
Which got me thinking about the differences between older people (which I’ll define as people over 70) and us (which I’ll define as people comfortably under 70).
- They have more time on their hands than we do. They take time to savor small pleasures that we often rush past in our urgency to get everything done.
- They deeply value relational connections, even distant ones that we tend to hurry past.
- They really love getting stuff in the mail. For us, the mailbox is mainly a depressing wasteland of bills, bad-deal credit offers, and irrelevant catalogs. They still get real stuff from real people.
Most of our donors are these older people. That’s why direct-mail fundraising hasn’t just faded away like some people have thought it would.
It also tells us a few things we should know about getting fundraising to work that we might not figure out if we only look within our younger selves:
- Make it personal
- Connect with the donor
- Remember that you’re cultivating a relationship, not making a business transaction.
Most important: Always have a mental picture of a specific older woman in mind when you create fundraising materials.