How Seasonal is Fundraising Really?

As the mercury rises, expectations among fundraisers drop. How can summer appeals compete with all the distractions in your donors’ lives? It’s natural to compensate by setting modest targets and saving your best stories for the fall appeal season when you’ll have everyone’s undivided attention.

But there’s a problem with this way of thinking. Are we making fundraising more seasonal than it actually is? Some nonprofits we work with bring their strongest cases to their supporters throughout the year. They don’t see a dip in July. Their supporters are supposed to be on the beach, but their checks keep flowing in.

Aside from obvious sweet spots like calendar year-end (which is more about deductions than distractions), success ultimately comes down to the value of your message, not when you deliver it. If you have something really compelling to say to your donors, would they ignore you?

We urge you to look again at how you adjust for seasonality in your planning. Test the notion that what you say is more important than when you say it. Find out if the right case for support still resonates during ‘noisy’ periods like summer vacation time, Thanksgiving or, come to think of it, general elections. In our experience, people who care deeply about your cause are always going to listen if your message interests them. It might just brighten up their summer. And yours.

Are you pricing out your prospects?

We love getting acquisition mail from all kinds of nonprofit organizations. We study their packages, read their letters and—occasionally—see a few red flags.

One troubling development concerns how much fundraisers are asking prospects for their first ever gift. These individuals have zero relationship with the organizations asking them for money. And yet, we’re noticing that gift prompt amounts are on the rise so we want to pass on one of Chris Dann’s favorite aphorisms: “All giving is voluntary.”

Donors decide your value. Always have, always will. The moment you start to insert your own opinions and instincts, you risk undermining your finely crafted case for support. So how do you put a price on what you do?

No prizes for guessing the answer. You do it through testing. Followed by more testing. First, make sure that everyone agrees and supports the campaign goals with respect to both donors acquired and investment made. Next, align the strategy accordingly. And finally, crunch the numbers from previous prospecting campaigns and similar audiences until a clear picture emerges of a donation amount the market will bear.

Don’t stop there. Why not use the acquisition mailing to test a range of gift amounts or “ask strings” to further refine your understanding? This way, you’re always learning about your donors and making future success more likely.

Even when the data tells you an amount that is uncomfortably low, don’t worry about devaluing your brand. If you’re persuasive about your cause, your prospects are likely to give more than you ask. Sometimes, a lot more.

There’s a place for intuition and strong opinions in fundraising. Just not when you’re figuring out gift amounts. The only people worth listening to are your donors.


Religious Decline: A Cautionary Tale

Have you attended a religious service in the past 12 months? You’ll find some form of this question in every donor base survey I’ve conducted for our clients, and I have consistently found that religious people are more generous than non-religious people. As a group, they give more and support more organizations.

So should we be alarmed by the Pew Foundation’s Research Center report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape? They discovered a decline in American religiosity through a more wholesome method than my question, asking people whether or not they are affiliated with any religion, what religion they are affiliated with, and whether or not that is a change from the past. The survey went on to ask the unaffiliated whether they regard themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.”

Looking closer at the findings, it seems that religious non-affiliation rose across all generation cohorts from 2007 to 2014, but in inverse correlation to age, with 35% of Millennials (1981—1996) declaring themselves unaffiliated in 2014 contrasting with 8% of the Greatest Generation (pre-1928).

Seems pretty alarming to me when you consider the ample evidence that declining religiosity is a key indicator of what the future of American giving has in store for the nonprofit sector. But the foundation’s findings beg further research specific to fundraising. We can’t just wring our hands.

First, are we seeing correlation or causation here? While I feel confident there is a causal relationship between religious experience – a term chosen carefully – and altruism, it hasn’t been proved.

Second, we should listen to Peter Manseau[1] who cautioned in the New York Times, “…we are not necessarily seeing a period of religious decline. Rather this may be the latest in a series of moments when more Americans are intent on custom-tailoring their religious identities.” In other words, the causal relationship between religiosity and giving is alive and well and maybe even stronger; we just lack the language to define it.

Third, there is the perennial question of whether generations change with age or ages change with generations. We think the question has been answered in favor of generations, but it’s worth keeping on the table in this context. The Pew researchers seem to think so.

[1] Author of One Nation, Under God: A New American History