We don’t typically name names in these posts. However, on occasion, it is required. Penelope Burk, of Cygnus Research makes this claim, “Over-soliciting and insisting on unrestricted gifts are largely why 65% of donors who make a first gift never make a second and why 90% or more donors who start giving are gone within five subsequent appeals.”
Burk draws this conclusion based on donor surveys. We don’t have an issue with using attitudinal data; in fact, we think it is the critical, missing ingredient from nonprofit CRM’s to fully and accurately crack the code on retention – at the individual organizational level.
However, there are right and wrong ways to ask questions and right and wrong ways to analyze the data. The Burk method is simply asking direct questions and taking those answers at face value. This is overly simplistic and in this case, leads to exactly the wrong answer.
We’ve analyzed this same question about why donors leave – or more accurately stated, how to keep them – and to do so we make use of attitudinal data in combination with transactional. We also only ask what donors are good at answering directly and rely on statistical modeling and back-end analysis to derive (or arrive if you prefer) at answers they simply cannot answer reliably.
Case in point, asking a donor why he/she left will not yield a reliable answer. This is not because they are trying to mislead or or because they are trying to provide an answer they think you want to hear. It is simply too difficult a cognitive task to faithfully report. Instead, one must derive the reasons. Additionally, one must understand how and where the attitudinal dimension of the “donor/non-profit” relationship fits in the equation. In other words, one must have a point of view on how the world works. Against this litmus test the Burk work also falls short.
On the question of over-soliciting or the “frequency of asks” we do ask for donor input via surveys. More specifically, we measure how good a job the charity is doing on that dimension in addition to approximately 40 to 50 other custom, client specific experiences. On the direct measure of “how good a job…” we affirm that water is wet and find what Burk finds – that donors will complain about frequency. Every non-profit already knows this. What we of course really want to know is “importance” and not just in a vacuum. The real question is whether frequency of solicitations negatively impacts the Donor’s Commitment to the organization and in turn, the decision to stay or go relative to all other experiences being served up by the organization.
Beyond the water is wet finding, Burk attempts to answer this by a direct line of inquiry. It yields a really bad, unreliable answer. Why? The donor cannot cognitively answer the multi-dimensional question we really need an answer too. This can only be answered via statistical modeling and deriving the answer and by combining attitudinal with transactional data.
Across all our clients and national studies in the US and UK we have found zero evidence for frequency of solicitation negatively impacting retention and lifetime value. Note we are examining its impact on the long-term metric that really matters for growth – LTV. Any fundraiser worth his or her salt will tell you that more mailings on the house (within reason) file equals more net revenue. That does not address the LTV question but we do. Both fundraiser experience and our data directly contradict the Burk finding. The same holds for the need to provide unrestricted giving. Her assertion is 100% wrong.
The main takeaway for our clients and anybody reading this post is do NOT let cadence or frequency dictate – in any manner – the donor experience/journey. Identify the experiences and touchpoints (via modeling and a framework guided by how your world works) that matter to loyalty and retention and by extension those that do not and build a new supporter journey that drops unimportant touches, increases those that work and fixes those that matter but are “broken”. The end result will be some set number of touchpoints ACROSS channel (and irrespective of whether it asks for money or not) that is the same, fewer or more than the current journey. The answer to this “count” question is immaterial.
The reason to be so pointed in this post is because the Burk information is out there in the public domain and it is dangerously off base. We feel an obligation to the truth and the sector to call this out. We will provide statistical and experiential proof to anybody who asks for it but it is beyond the purview of this blog or post to share those details. Suffice to say, it is worth making sure you are not only asking the right questions but analyzing the data properly. The cost for the right answer is no more than the cost for the wrong one.