Best Practices Never Go Out of Style

Someone asked me last week for a list of best practices for direct-response fundraising. Oh, if it were that easy!

After all, I love checklists. Being able to look at a list of best practices and check them off one by one, knowing that when I had them all checked off, my copy would be successful — well, that’s as close to heaven as I can imagine.

But the ambiguity is no excuse to flounder along, never paying attention to what works best in your direct-response efforts. So, instead of a “Top 10 List of Best Practices,” here are four steps to help you establish your own best practices.

STEP 1: Accept the truth: There is no one formula that works for everyone
It’s good to study what other people are doing in direct response. Reading articles, attending seminars or webinars — all good. But these aren’t magic bullets. Donor files are built from different sources; alumni respond differently than event-acquired donors or direct-mail-acquired donors. Political donors may respond very differently than donors giving for religious motivations. You can apply everything you learn and still fail. Instead …

STEP 2: Test. That’s how you find best practices for your donor file
While some things are best practices just because they are intuitive (for example, “Use a font size that is big enough for people to read”), many others are unique to your nonprofit. You have to test your way into knowing what is a best practice.

But remember a critical rule of testing — test only one variable at a time. If you change the font, color, photo, offer and size, all you know is that one combination of font/color/photo/offer/size did better than the other combination of font/color/photo/offer/size. That’s not too helpful if you hope to use your learnings on future mailings. Instead, test one thing at a time. Learn, and then move on to the next test.

STEP 3: Keep testing. Successful fundraising is a marathon, not a sprint
After you figure out one thing that appears to be a best practice, retest it or test a variation of it. Do your donors respond better to “X” instead of “Y”? Great! But how to they respond to “Z”? This isn’t an eye exam where you check minuscule changes that half of us can’t even decipher. Test things that are meaningful, retest them and test new options.

STEP 4: Never underestimate the power of common sense (which is far too uncommon)
Let’s be honest — testing costs money and requires a fairly large mailing list. If you have 500 donors, you aren’t going to have meaningful test results if you split your list in half and mail each one a letter with a different color envelope. But don’t give up on finding best practices.

Testing in fundraising is a science, but when you can’t afford “science,” keep in mind that fundraising is also an art. So, put yourself in the shoes of your donor. How old is she? How did she first become a donor to your organization? Does she live in a metropolitan area or a rural area? (I’ve used “she” because direct-response donors are typically female. But don’t take my word for it. Your file composition may be different.) In other words, look at your data and draw some general observations about your donor file as a whole.

With this information, make smart decisions. Most of your donors are older than 55? Trust me — small fonts don’t get read. We baby boomers are a vain lot, and putting on reading glasses to read a direct-mail appeal isn’t happening. Did you attract donors through a family bike-a-thon? If so, a photo of a child may speak to them more than one of a middle-aged man. Are your donors heavily concentrated in rural areas? An offer to help farmers grow drought-resistant crops may resonate with them.

Common sense may lead you to something that looks like a winner, but still find a creative way to test it if you can. For example, if you have a small list, prepare two letters and mail half letter A this month and the other half letter B. Next month, mail the other letter to each group. Sure, you have factors that can skew results, but sometimes, when there’s no other choice, “good enough” is good enough. (My apologies to all of you who are cringing at that statement. But I stand by it.)

There’s a memorable scene in the movie “City Slickers” between Billy Crystal (Mitch) and Jack Palance (Curly). Curly asks Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is? This …” (He holds up one finger.) Mitch replies, “Your finger?” Ignoring the humor, Curly continues, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean …”

Mitch, like direct-response marketers everywhere, presses for more, asking, “But, what is the ‘one thing’?” Curly responds, “That’s what you have to find out.”

What is the one thing in direct response that is going to make your income grow and your donors deepen their conviction? That’s what you have to find out.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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