Back in the 1990’s, British fundraiser Ken Burnett wrote a book called Relationship Fundraising. In that book he advised, among other things, not to ask for money in a thank you letter. Too pushy.
He advised not to ask for too much money at the beginning of the donor “relationship”. Don’t look grasping or desperate. If a monthly donor quits, wait a year before asking again.
I first encountered this theory working in the UK from 1997 to 2000. I had come over to London from San Francisco to take over the fundraising for the British office of PETA. The financials between the two countries didn’t compare well. Even after adjusting for the smaller population of the UK, the British PETA office was raising far less money than the US.
Following standard direct marketing testing methodology, we broke our donor base into a set of test groups. One group was asked for a monthly gift in the thank you letter. With another group, we waited a month. With another group, we only asked for a monthly gift after they had given to us twice. And so on. The group that was asked immediately gave more money than anyone else.
In addition, they also gave more bequests (we tracked it over several years). Asking aggressively, early and often raised more money during the donor’s lifetime, and after they died.
Did more donors complain too? They sure did. Bitter complaints about being “bombarded” with appeals. Nevertheless, over any given time period (a month, a year, even many years) we raised more money when we asked for more, and more often.
When people rang to complain, we didn’t ignore their problem. We put them on a once-a-year mailing schedule if that’s what they wanted, or we took them off our list entirely if that’s what they wanted. Whatever they wanted us to do, we did it.
We just didn’t change our strategy because of them. Less than 5% ever complained, the other 95% just kept giving. When many of these folks rang or wrote, they’d swear they’re never giving to us again, and then they would.
The £1,000 Ask Strategy
This testing was in full swing when we got an unexpected £1 million gift. It was from a well known billionaire. As it turns out, this bloke had been giving us £20 a month for many years. I started to wonder: how many people like that are giving us only £20 a month?
So I took a test group of donors who had all given for the first time at least £20 or more and I asked all of them for £1,000, straight off.
Of course, I needed a good reason. PETA is an animal rights charity. There was a donkey sanctuary in Ecuador we wanted to financially support, so I asked these donors for £1,000 each to help save the donkeys. 100 responded.
Feeling a bit more confident, I asked them all for £1,000 again. This time, we needed to launch a new anti-fur campaign featuring supermodel Christy Turlington. 70 people responded and PETA’s “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” ad campaign is now probably the most notorious and legendary in non-profit advertising history.
We created a whole series of “test groups”. Some people were asked for £1,000 once. Some were asked twice, three times, and some not at all. Another group was only asked for a monthly gift, like we had always done (this was the “control group”), and so on.
We raised the most money, both immediately and over time, if we asked donors – straight away – for £1,000 no less than three times in the first 3 months after receiving their first contribution. Once we “found” all the potential major donors, we asked everyone who was left over for monthly gifts.
Back when I did those tests, there were a lot of people who thought I was crazy, and it took a lot of courage to give it a go. But now, my only regret is that I didn’t try it sooner.