How often can you ask in a year without driving off donors? I needed to know for my new book, If Only You’d Known, You Would Have Raised So Much More.
Once a year? Three times a year? A dozen times a year? Twenty-one times year?
I was at the first Nonprofit Storytelling Conference in Seattle with Jeff Brooks, a senior copywriter at one of America's best direct mail firms. The hall held a rare concentration of top experts.
A fundraiser in the audience asked a seemingly simple question: “How often can you ask in a year without losing donors?”
I glanced at Jeff. He flashed the number 20 with his fingers. Really?
Then another fundraiser took the floor to describe a test he’d done, to see what the limit was. His charity mailed 21 solicitations in a year before gifts tapered off. These were postal mail, too, not email.
Are 21 solicitations really all that intrusive? It comes down to less than 2 solicitations per month. During the last U.S. presidential campaign, more than two emailed solicitations per day hit my in-box from the candidate I favored.
Veteran Steven Screen, co-founder of Better Fundraising, shared this insight at the 2018 Nonprofit Storytelling Conference: “In 20 years, I’ve only come across one organization that was asking for donations too often. The sweet spot is thirty-six times a year.”
Over-solicitation is probably NOT your charity's problem.
Most charities are nowhere close to 21 solicitations a year. Which means you might be leaving serious money on the table. It could be yours if you just asked a few more times.
In answer to the question “How many times a year should I mail my donors?” Canadian expert Alan Sharpe advises, “Mail at least eight times a year. Mail at least four appeal letters and mail at least four newsletters (or donor cultivation, donor information type pieces).”
It’s funny, though. In focus groups, donors complain long and loud about being over-solicited by their favorite charities.
The catch? If you watch their behavior, you will see that they actually don’t stop giving as a result.
Fabienne, my French cousin-in-law, is a perfect example. She’s a retired teacher, happily married with one beloved adult son. And she’s got a big heart. She gives to about two dozen charities a year, prompted by direct mail. She’s given to some for decades.
And the ONLY thing she doesn't like about them and will sharply criticize is over-solicitation. “I give every year,” she steams. “Why do they send me appeals all the time?” She sees it as wasteful. Her opinion, in sum: “Spend that money on the mission, not extra mailings!” Yet ... despite this "appeal harassment" and a presumption of donor fatigue ... Fabienne continues to give to the same charities year after year.
In the October 3, 2013, issue of The Agitator, Roger Craver, author of Retention Fundraising, reported, “Bottom line: Across a range of studies on donors to 250+ nonprofits in the US and the UK conducted by our colleagues at DonorVoice over the past four years, there is absolutely no evidence that frequency of solicitation negatively impacts retention and lifetime value. Period.”
In fact, maybe just the opposite?
In November 2014, the CEO of Grizzard, Chip Grizzard, reported on some surprising test results. In the test, donors of $500 or more were allowed to limit the number of appeals they'd receive in the coming year. If they didn't specify otherwise, they'd receive twelve appeals. “Of the 500 in the group,” Chip wrote, “186 [37%] wrote back and designated the specific mailings they wanted during the next 12-month mailing cycle. Interestingly, the most mailings anyone selected was three.”
The end-of-year results surprised everyone. “The donors who received all 12 mailings gave 35% more than the ones [who'd limited their appeals].” The conclusion drawn? Unless a major donor asks you to limit mailings, stick with your normal mailing calendar. “You never know when something will strike a donor’s fancy. Each appeal is different.”
Jeff Brooks commented, “There's an important lesson here: less mail, less giving. That's true in nearly every situation. Including major donors. Never assume donors will give more or retain longer if they get less contact. It almost never works that way.”
And don't over-react to complaints about over-solicitation, either. They're probably false alarms. And certainly don't listen to the timid amongst us who fret, “We'll drive off our donors if we ask too often." While it sounds reasonable, even polite and considerate, the science says it's dead wrong. The correct view is, "We'll leave a lot of money on the table if we don't ask often enough.”
Tom Ahern is author of If Only You’d Known, You Would Have Raised So Much More, from which this article is adapted. His other books include What Donors Want … and Why, Making Money with Donor Newsletters, Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes, and How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money.