It’s a very natural reaction to accede to a donor’s request when they ask to be solicited only once each year.
But those of us who have had a lot of personal interaction with donors have continuously entertained second thoughts. We know that donors who resonate most with an organization’s values, mission, and work want to know more, not less, about what’s going on. We know that as donors stay active in their support many tend to increase not just the amount but also the incidence of their giving, especially when given good reasons to consider additional gifts.
We’ve been critical of efforts we’ve seen over the years to protect donors presumed to be most valuable as if offering good, relevant information about organizations and opportunities to give were abusing rather than deepening relationships with them.
We have also many times been able to document substantial financial opportunities lost to organizations through misapplication of donor-sheltering practices and policies. Three examples come to mind:
- An organization sending out solidly case-based additional gift appeals invited donors to say if their gifts were intended to renew annual general support rather than the purpose of the appeal. The implicit message was, “this really isn’t a good appeal.” The practice reduced both donor retention and income.
- Another organization’s CEO, weary of mail from members and never properly coached on how to respond, wanted to reduce his organization’s annual renewal series to one effort. Fortunately, it was a test, because it showed there really is wisdom in multiple effort renewal campaigns. We had to scramble to recover lapsing members.
- A highly respectable and well supported organization failed to train its donor services staff and within a short time found that 10+% of their donor base had been flagged “no mail.” Test mailings of both membership renewal efforts and a substantive appeal produced results suggesting these were actually better than average donors.
Research has taught us that there are many reasons why donors ask to be solicited only once or not at all. But disfavor with the organization they have already supported is only one of the many and, arguably, the least common. When we probe the issue in focus groups the main complaint is getting too many solicitations from too many organizations and especially those donors don’t want to support. This cautions us to be careful that an organization’s solicitations do not look like those of competing organizations, a very basic branding principle.
This year we have had the opportunity to test lists of donors who had been flagged “limited mail” after requesting they be solicited only once each year. We collaborated with one of our clients whose donor relationship management practices are, we think, best in the business. We both wanted to find out if donors really won’t respond to mailings (only conventional mailings, we didn’t have the volume to test online contacts) when they’ve asked to be mailed only once each year.
The test universe was divided into four groups: 12-month active first-year and multi-year donors, and 13-24-month one-year and multi-year donors. Twenty-six tests were conducted with the intent of aggregating response data. Single year donors were sent three very different appeals spread across 12 months, a newsletter, and the first effort of a renewal campaign. Multi-year donors were sent all four of the renewal efforts, a appeal with follow-up efforts, and a newsletter.
The aggregate response from the 1,350 donors was just under 12% and produced $102,000 in gross income — $94,000 net — with an average net per donor of $70.
The active, one-year donors responded best, at 17.7% in the aggregate with an average net per donor of $77. Next, active multi-year donors responded in the aggregate at 11.5% with an average net per donor of $76. One year lapsed, single year donors responded at 10% with an average net per donor of $54. Responses from multi-year lapsed donors were positive, but their numbers were too small to produce statistically reliable data.
This is an organization whose work gives it the capacity to make a good case for support virtually every day. A good case is one that engages the donor by the prospect that something she would want to have happen is more likely to happen with her financial participation. Each one of the mailings in each of the 26 tests needed to pass a donor worthiness test, It’s a simple test; it asks, “Is this worthy of the donor’s time and consideration?”
To donors who have become engaged by a good case for support, a solicitation is as much or more an opportunity to participate than an imposition. When we withhold solicitations, we have to ask ourselves, “Are we protecting our donors or hiding from them?”