Data-driven fundraising and storytelling: the genius of the and

February 16, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


Two random things before we start:

  1. We’ll be at the DMA Nonprofit Foundation meeting next week and we’d love to meet with you. Feel free to drop us a line if you would like to meet. Also, DonorVoice folks will be participating two sessions: one about how to use behavioral science in your program and another about the debate around donorcentricity (at which there will be an actual debate and potentially chairs thrown) — hope to see you there!
  2. There was an excellent discussion on last week’s persona post here. Make-a-Wish has done an interesting project with personas where they use them as a way of educating their chapters about different types of stories they can tell and different ways to tell them.  While personas may not be helpful for direct marketing, this brand approach is interesting to getting through to potential communicators.

Now, to the blog post.  I was reading one of the approximately 2,349,087,222,495,873,945 posts about why the 2016 election went the way it did.

Wait!  Before you leave, I won’t talk about politics at all.  Nor will I engage in my own dissection thereof.

But the thesis of the article struck me: that Democrats lost because they focused on data-driven marketing, rather than traditional storytelling and narrative.

I believe this is a false choice faced often by marketers.  We don’t need data over stories or stories over data – we need the two of them working together.

I have a significant bias toward data.  I have argued that there are two types of marketers: those who use data effectively and those who will be the first up against the wall when the revolution comes.  When I say things like this, I get comments with upwards of 70% of the words spelled correctly.  But I should probably not rant against non-data-driven marketers because they fight dirty and their knuckles are closer to the ground.

In short, I believe marketing is a science, with aspects of art that intrude, rather than an art with science looming like an inconvenient truth.

That said, when you look at science, narratives are an important part of why we believe things and why we give.  Specifically, when people empathize with a story, they have 47% higher oxytocin levels and oxytocin leads to greater giving.  In fact, when we see vivid imagery in a narrative, our brain processes it as if it is a visual and motor experience – almost as though it happened to you.

So storytelling is important, even to we cold-hearted numbers people.

But storytelling is not enough itself.  Data is needed to know what story to tell.  For example, when you sign up for the ASPCA newsletter, they ask you to fill out a survey.  One of the questions on that survey is whether you are a cat or dog person.  They then use that information to customize the pictures they show you and the stories they tell.  This simple differentiator is the first line of customization and segmentation for ASPCA and it allows them to tell stories that their donors and prospective donors will care about.  Each nonprofit has these differences.

But of the nonprofits we secret shopped, fewer than a quarter asked about any topic preferences and only six percent asked for any attributes about the donor or connections to the cause.  That makes that for most people for most organizations, a new subscriber is nothing more than a name and contact info.

Incidentally, we will be releasing the full study shortly; please sign up for our newsletter here if you’ve like to get it first:

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Beyond picking which story goes to whom, data tells you what stories are worth telling.  Each person we serve as a nonprofit is a story waiting to happen.  By analyzing what causes people to commit to an organization, you can use just the ones that you know will work for your audience.

So don’t fall into the either/or trap.  Data without storytelling gives you insight, but no way to practice it; storytelling without data ends up telling a great yarn to people who don’t care.


Persona non grata

February 9, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


There’s an interesting piece at called “Don’t Take It Personally, But Innovators Are Done With Personas.”  In essence, leading for-profit CMOs are saying the same thing: giving a set of demographic and weak psychographic viewpoints a name and endeavoring toward it doesn’t work:

  • “Traditional personas tell you very little because they are based on simplistic models and transactions. They cannot help understand why customers bought, what motivated them to buy, etc.” – Shinola CMO Bridget Russo
  • “The reason personas failed to achieve true personalization is that they were too simplistic to reflect the unique attributes that differentiate individual customers and prospects from the mass of other similar customers and prospects. And that is the essence of true personalization.” – TIAA CMO Connie Weaver
  • “We recently analyzed the personas we had been using and found that the customer had changed dramatically. We are now rethinking the real-world, human differences, versus just transactional differences, among our individual customers and formulating a plan to engage with them as individual gamers versus superficial aggregates of different gamer personas.” – Darin Smith GameStop senior director

They conclude that traditional personas from implicit data don’t increase response rates; you need explicit data that people tell you about themselves.

I haven’t used formal personas in the past, but I’ve used proxies: things like trying to figure out what the difference is among “Red, White, and Blues,” “Heartlanders,” and “Blue Highways” (three real segments from PRIZM social groups), looking at the love child of transactional data and cooperative data that is Target Analytics Loyalty Insights), or my own anthropomorphization of a demographic profile (I often thought of “writing for Ethel,” a nice 67-year-old grandmother when writing copy).

These are helpful in helping remember “I am not the donor; the donor will not necessarily like what I like.” But beyond that, you are looking for some level of predictive value and these simply don’t deliver.
Moreover, a heavy-handed persona or segment can make a donor feel like they are little more than the box that you’ve put them in. One person in the CMO piece said:

“When I receive generic emails, it is obvious that you do not care enough to understand my individual needs. Instead, you are trying distill my complex needs into simple generalities to make your email blast easier for you … and useless to me!”


But we need to segment. We need something to differentiate among different groups of people. So if it isn’t demographics, personas, or RFM, what is it?

The for-profits also have a guide for this – understanding why, at a basic level, people give. In the article Dennis Kopitz, Shinola’s director of ecommerce said:

“To achieve and scale true personalization, we need to obtain deep human insights regarding who buys which category of our products, why they buy, what their needs and expectations are, and what they want next from us. This will take us to a far deeper level of understanding than traditional personas.”

We know that for disease charities, for example, people who give because they personally have the disease are far more like each other in their giving behavior than:

  • A 70-year-old woman is like another a 70-year-old woman
  • A 4-6 month, $20-$24.99 multigiver is like another a 4-6 month, $20-$24.99 multigiver
  • A Tipper is like another Tipper
  • Or a mail donor is like another mail donor

In other words, demographics, RFM, model, and channel preference all pale compared to a deeper understanding of donor identity in terms of predictive power and customization opportunities.

And every nonprofit has these key differentiates. It could be cat v dog people (or, like one DonorVoice partner, birders versus general nature people). It could be people who give to you because of your advocacy versus your services. Or another partner who found that there was a segment of people giving to live vicariously through the exploits and adventures of their volunteers versus another who was giving so that someone else would take care of the field work.

We’d love to help find this differentiator with you, but it’s more important that you find it, because finding out why different people give to you, beyond a one-size-fits-all answer is the key to not just messaging but audience.


The data points you need from the new Fundraising Effectiveness Project

February 2, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


There is a quality debate going on right now at The Agitator (is there any other kind there?) about the extent to which nonprofits use donor identities to customize their appeals. This is subtopic of the big introspective question we have as fundraisers: how are we doing?

This discussion is wonderfully timed, because we have some new evidence to assess ourselves — data from the 2016 Fundraising Effectiveness Project.  So how are we doing at retaining donors?

Not great, it seems. We’ve lost four percentage points and eight percent off of our retention rates since 2008. And, if you’ll recall, 2008 was not a banner year for the economy or fundraising.

This also compounds, so if you had five years of 46% retention instead of 50%, you’d find yourselves with a third fewer donors retained.  Even these small amounts can wreak havoc on a file.  And on the flip side, the value of increasing retention is significant.

And how are we doing at welcoming donors to our organizations?  Even worse, it would seem:

This is a drop of 6.4 percentage points and almost 22% from 2008. With first-year retention at 23%, a new perspective is required. Let’s say your cost to acquire a donor in an acquisition mail piece is $20.  In reality, it’s $87, because 77% of those people you acquired aren’t retaining.  This necessitates a drop in acquisition cost, an increase in second-gift retention, an increase in the lifetime value of donors, or some combination thereof.

Repeat donor retention is also down, but “only” down 11%.

To quote the study authors:

“The question then becomes what can be done about retention and what resources should an organization employ toward improving their retention. This question is not easily answered, and likely varies widely depending on a variety of factors.”

We are either getting worse at retaining people or lower retention is happening to us because of systemic changes. Either way, we need to adapt in order to keep our files intact long term. And with first-year retention plummeting, there may be indications that what got us here may not be what gets us to our next there.

That’s why The Agitator discussion is so valuable: it’s all talented people grappling with a changing landscape and the extent to which we need to change as a result.

Here, we think the combination of commitment + identity + experience is the key to understanding why donors give and why they stop and that that understanding is what will drive our fundraising in the years to come.

Since the drop in first-year retention is especially perilous, we’re in the final stages of a white paper and webinar on online welcome serieses. Specifically, we’ll look at opportunities — taken and missed — to learn constituents’ identities and improve their experiences. If you’d like to learn more about these, please sign up for our email updates we’ll send you a notice when they go up:

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And, if you want a much more eyecatching version of the FEP data, Bloomerang did a nice infographic version of it here.


And yet it moves: Galileo on mail quantity

January 26, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


It is the fate of glass to break. Likewise, dogmas.

Galileo knew it.  Whether or not he actually said “and yet it moves” after recanting the heresy that the earth moves around the sun*, he knew that knowledge, like life or science, finds a way.

I have believed the one about “mail more, make more” for most of my direct marketing career. And at the time it was espoused, it was the best advice. Nonprofits used to hide their asking light under a bushel basket, couching it a series of “would you consider”s and “if you aren’t too busy”s and “mother may I”s.

Few of us do this now; so should it be. Giving of ourselves is a good thing, perhaps the best thing. Asking for one to give can and should be a joyful act for both asker and giver.

But the “ask more, make more” orthodoxy remained even after we put away our fundraising fainting couches.

The study that 63% of a new mailing’s revenue isn’t new, but is stolen from surrounding pieces was a crack in the glass. I pondered all of the mail pieces that I had sent in my life that did negative good, robbing both from coffers and from the joy of giving.

And it does rob of joy.  We’ve been analyzing tens of thousands of comments given to numerous nonprofits around the globe.  Comment #1 is “keep up the good work.” Comments #2 and #3 are invariably, in some order, “no more mail” or “mail me less often.”  (BTW, if you would like to get the feedback white paper when it launches, please sign up for our newsletter at right)

Now, in today’s wonderful Agitator post (appropriately enough from not just one concerned scientist, but an entire union of them), there is a full year test of mailing four pieces instead of 12.  Turns out that this change, along with socializing this change with donors led to:

  • Increased net revenues
  • Cuts in the cost to raise a dollar by almost half
  • Increased value per donor
  • Decreased donor services calls and increased the quality of donor services

And more.  I won’t spoil it because it deserves a read on its own.  But going from 12 to four is a particularly bold and dramatic example.  And less is more is what we are seeing in early testing with other nonprofits as well.

As more evidence accumulates, we may/will have to make the shift from “burn the witch!” to “this can’t be the way the world works” to “is this the way the world works?” to “how do we deal with this new world?”

Like Galileo before us, I think we’ll find beauty there, new worlds to explore.  We’ll find that volume is but one lever to pull, one arrow in our quiver.

When we can no longer add a mailing to make up a gap, we will have to delve into deeper understandings of why people give and why they stop. I look forward to the exploration with you.

Special thanks to Laurie Marden, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Agitator for sharing this great case study.  And please share your stories in the comments.

*President Bartlett: I know of one guy they were ready to carve up with instruments of torture because he had this silly idea that the Earth revolved around the sun.

Ellie Bartlett: If this is an object lesson about how scientists have it better today because there’s no Inquisition…

President Bartlett: I enjoy talking about Galileo, and don’t you start with me!

Ellie Bartlett: It’s apocryphal, Dad. A story for tourists. If Galileo had muttered “It still moves” after they made him recant his life’s work, they would have killed him on the spot, and I don’t know why I let you do this to me!…

President Bartlett: When Galileo said “Eppur si muove”, it meant that he would continue no matter what to study and publish.

— The West Wing, “Eppur Si Muove”


Do you want likes or loves?

January 19, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


Our friends at the Agitator are having an excellent discussion here about the value of social media to fundraisers.  There is, unsurprisingly, a dearth of case studies of significant value from social media driving donations not involving buckets or ice or challenges (or advertising in highly targeted and relevant ads – we’re speaking here of “free” social media).

The more common experience is the one that Lacetera, Macis, and Mele found when they researched social media campaigns.  The campaign that reached 6.4 million users generated an incremental lift of 30 donations.

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a lift of point-many-zeroes-followed-by-a-five percent.

But wait, you may say, social media may not directly stimulate donations, but it can influence them.  Jono Smith of Make-A-Wish makes this point in the comments, saying that social influences about eight percent of online conversions.

This is consistent with what DonorVoice sees.  There’s a correlation between giving and social media presence.  This is most often explained by your most committed supporters seeking you out on social media, rather than social media creating your most committed supporters.  Look no further than Kevin’s post about what a Facebook like is worth: people who interact with you are Facebook or Twitter are disproportionately high commitment.  He concludes that social media is a good way to preserve the tribe, but not to acquire one.

But unbelievably I came here to praise one much-maligned aspect of social media acquisition – slacktivism – not to bury it.

Running online campaigns with advocacy components has some attractive benefits.  The names you acquire are less likely to be used by other organizations (as much of our direct marketing names come from other organizations or coops).  They are more likely to buy into organizational messaging, not support you because you have an address book or labels or check or what-have-you as a premium inducement.  And for the people who care about such things, they skew younger than the general population (however, the fact that you have 90-year-olds who do online advocacy and 40-something who donate through the mail is yet another reason to look to attributes, not demographics, as your North Star).

But how do you get supporters who will donate?  The knock on slacktivists has been that they take the minimum possible amount of action to make themselves look good.  Or as Seth Meyers put it:

“Look, if you make a Facebook page we will “like” it:
it’s the least we can do. But it’s also the most we can do.”

The science bears this out.  Researchers found that when people make public declarations of support, they tend not to follow through on them (or take them back).  One study of 3500 online pledges found that people who broadcast pledges on social media are more likely to delete and not fulfill their pledges.

This is because of what is called moral licensing or moral balancing.  If we feel like the world thinks of us as a good person, we have license to do bad things, especially if those things are covert.  Likewise, if we think the world thinks less of us, we are more likely to try to compensate positively.  Or as Michael Rosenwald put it in the Washington Post:

“We drink Diet Coke – with Quarter Pounders and fries at McDonald’s.
We go to the gym – and ride the elevator to the second floor.
We install tankless water heaters – then take longer showers.
We drive SUVs to see Al Gore’s speeches on global warming.”

This would seem to be the final nail in the coffin of running social media campaigns – people are likely to use them to make themselves look good to the world and not actually to do the most good for the world.

However, all the advantages of running online advocacy campaigns still apply.  The key is do private, not public, petitions.

My favorite study on this is from Kristofferson, White, and Peloza.  At one end of a hallway, the team randomized passersby into three groups: one who were given a poppy to wear in honor of veterans, one who were given that same poppy in an envelope so it would be for private support, and one who were given nothing.  At the end of the hallway, the groups were asked to donate.  Those who showed private support (poppy in the envelope) gave an average of $.86, public supporters gave $.34, and the control gave $.15.  They further refined this study and found that generally, people who gave private support were more likely to support in the future; people who gave public support were either no more likely or less likely to support the cause than those who did nothing.

So don’t shy away from online advocacy campaigns to acquire new people and engage your supporters.  I’ve seen advocacy campaigns with a soft ask post-petition beat actual hard ask email campaigns.

But as ever, it’s best to do it with the science at your back.  And if you are interested in seeing how much social media has an impact on the commitment of your supporters, we’d love to work with you on a commitment study.


How can Oxfam’s new approach to donor control work for you?

January 12, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


On Monday, Oxfam took a new step in Europe with the first ever (that I know of) app allowing donors to control their donations.  You can read the full story here.

Even if the medium turns out not to be the right one (who knows if we are going to want to make space on our phones and tablets for another app when we still haven’t cracked level 71 of Kwazy Cupcakes?), it’s an interesting effort to try to engage donors.  And it’s probably a first step toward also being able to customize communications in a similar way.

This brings up two questions: why did they do this and how would I do something similar for my organization.

Why do this?  First, the obvious: donors are asking for it.  We’ve recently combined through tens of thousands of comments from our partner organizations.  While, I don’t want to spoil what will certainly be a fascinating white paper and webinar…

…which you can sign up to learn about here the moment we get them finished/scheduled:

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I can say that many of the most frequent comments are from people trying to change their communication preferences (e.g., by channel, topic, or frequency) or their personal information (e.g., change credit card, amount of recurring donation, name, address, etc.).

So there is a hunger for the ability to do this in the marketplace.

But does that hunger translate into more donations?  Yes, Mr. Rhetorical Question Asker, it does.  Here’s five minutes of video from Dr. Kiki Koutmeridou presenting research on about donor control:

For those who skipped the video assuming I was going to summarize, you are in luck.  What the research found was:

  • Giving donors a measure of control over their communications makes people significantly more likely to want to opt-in – usually by a 2:1 margin or more
  • People prefer to choose channel(s) over frequency, but both are better than nothing
  • This control works better than any other opt-in technique tested

(Incidentally, if you would like to watch the whole opt-in webinar, it’s available here and it has some great insights in it.)

So allowing donors to change their own records makes them more likely to become and stay donors.  Yay!

But, you say, I can’t do an app like this because (pick one or more):

  • I don’t have an Oxfam-like budget
  • My board is so bad at technology, they think Android is a Rogue One character
  • I fear trying to sync anything else with my database, because the difference between trying to get an effective database sync and my last highly invasive gender-specific medical procedure is that the medical procedure is over.
  • Other really compelling reasons

Fear not, hypothetical reader.  You don’t need to have a separate app to give your donors some influence over how they interact with you.  You can:

  • Set up a special donor center where people can see their donations and make these types of changes. This was also a frequently-asked-for item in our donor feedback research.  The cost is nowhere near what a separate app development is.  And they function much like the automatic ticket kiosk at the airport – making it so that fewer people can focus on more specialized inquiries and on adding additional value while technology takes care of the mundane items.
  • Ask at sign-up. Whether online or offline, you can have a real or virtual checkbox that helps people designate their preferences ahead of time.
  • Ask for feedback. This fixes issues after they have already become issues. But it’s better than not fixing those issues.  Plus a feedback platform like DonorVoice’s can help address issues both with individuals and systemically, so it’s both cure and prevention.

But primarily, it needs to be something you want to do.  Many direct marketers worry about what happens when donors can customize their communications – will they select options that diminish or eliminate their giving.  The research evidence says the reverse: people are less likely to donate when they have only a passive role in communications.


Say you want a resolution…

January 5, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


Whither the New Year’s resolution? You know, the things you set at the beginning of the year like:

  • I will run five miles a day
  • I will not eat (many) donuts in the break room
  • I will stop starting blog posts with “Whither” to avoid sounding like I write while wearing a powdered wig and knee britches*

But seriously… Why do we set these things?

Because of the fresh start effect. And it’s something you may be able to take advantage of to maximize your donor outreach.

So what is the fresh start effect? Even though it logically makes as much sense to start the “eat less food” or “don’t drunk dial exes” plan on June 13th as it does on January 1st, it turns out we are more likely to change our lives and our goals at dates that indicate a break in time.

In their paper “The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior” (a title which makes me feel better about “Whither”), Dai, Milkman, and Riis found that landmarks that mark the passage of time, whether calendar-based (e.g., beginning of new week, month, year) or personal (e.g., birthday, holiday) are significant. They are the starts of our mental accounting periods (financial and otherwise) and we distance ourselves from the person we were before the landmark.

And while these won’t hold up in court (“No, officer, that was November Jason that did that. I’m January Jason!”), there are significant results across categories. People were significantly more likely to take on a commitment contract on a day early in the week or a month early in the year across all sorts of issues:

  • Career
  • Education
  • Exercise
  • Finances
  • Health
  • Smoking cessation
  • Weight loss/maintenance

For example, here is the Google search traffic for “diet” over the past five years. Big spikes for beginning of years; little ones for beginnings of months.

So how might you test taking advantage of this? There’s the obvious – timing your campaign well. More asks on Tuesday the 1st and not Friday the 29th.

But it’s also particularly helpful for the types of ask you should be going for mixed with timing.

Certain asks – membership, recurring donations, planned giving – are almost by definition going to work better when someone is looking at their year, month, week, or life with a blank slate. So monthly donation asks at the beginning of the month, one-time at the end.

It also doesn’t hurt to reference the fresh start effect in your ask. If you are trying to make that elusive one-time to monthly giving upgrade, you can say you want to start the new year off right. This primes the donor to be more accepting of something November Jason might now have done.

Finally, if the new year is a new set of mental accounting books for the donor, it can also be one for your organization. You can talk about goals completed and those yet to do. You can most easily roll out new programs or messaging. And, most importantly, if you’ve been collecting feedback throughout the year, you can announce your reaction to that feedback and what you are doing differently. Your donors will be more accepting of you working to be better if they are simultaneously trying to become their best selves.

So how would this all work together? Perhaps something like:

“We have been listening to you and donors like you. You’ve told us you want to make an even greater impact on the world, but with mail clogging your mailbox.

We are sorry for this. Starting today and for the rest of this year, you will get will fewer mailings asking for money.

We have also heard from many supporters that they want to give on a set schedule with even more control. So I’m glad to start the new year off right with a new program called the President’s Society.

Members of this Society pledge to gift four times per year…”

Want to see how it works? Watch DonorVoice’s Josh Whichard give an example of just this type of start to a multi-gift program heree.

* No picture available.