We use deadlines in matching gifts, end of year, Giving Tuesday, end of fiscal year, and sometimes we just make up deadlines. All of this because urgency is a fundraising superpower, one of the key principles of influence.
Here at DonorVoice, we aim to focus our tactics around what is meaningful to the individual donor or general principles of behavioral science. But who can be against a direct marketing tactic that works?
If it works? Unfortunately, deadlines may have no effect or even be counterproductive.
A Dutch charity looked at the deadline for their matching gift. They sent emails (with the subject line “Lokwang is grilling rats” — tell me you wouldn’t open that!) at three different time periods: 3 days before their deadline, 10 days before, and 34 days before. Similarly, with texts, they did one two days before and another three days before.
The results? All shorter deadlines did was increase in unsubscribe rates (actually, it was correlated with an increase in unsubscribe rates, not necessarily causal). The only thing that increased giving was a reminder email, which increased giving rates by 50% (or, to put it another way, a second email was half as effective as the first).
The authors of this study hypothesize that this counterintuitive result was because email and text are “now or never” media — that 2-3 days was too long a deadline. And this was born out by most of the responses coming in the first day.
So perhaps a mail program will show deadlines working. Another study looked at New Zealand donors. They were mailed an invitation to a five-minute online survey on charitable giving with a $10 donation going to either World Vision or Salvation Army if they completed it. And the letters had three possible deadlines: one week, one month, and no deadline.
And the response rates?
- One week: 6.3%
- One month: 5.5%
- No deadline: 8.3%
That’s right: a deadline was related to a suppression of response. You actually got better response with no urgency attached.
Why? Looking at when the gifts came in, there were no responses to the one-week deadline after day nine. But responses to the no deadline piece came in until day 27. And pity the poor one-month deadline, the worst of both worlds: not urgent enough to prompt action, but was urgent enough to prompt distaste.
All in all, this puts the world of invented deadlines on its ear.
When I asked Dr. Kiki Koutmeridou, DonorVoice’s behavioral scientist about these results, she counseled:
- Do not have an RSVP date in the initial mailing – only have a generic message “response needed” or “Respond Now”
- If you really need to have an answer by a certain date, then introduce a short deadline in the reminder mailing. Ideally, the deadline should be a week away. That’s the amount of time which will prompt people to action.
- If you don’t need to have people’s answers by a certain date, then don’t have an RSVP date. This way, people might still respond after a few weeks have gone by.
And if you really want to stimulate responses, how about that “learning about what your donors want” idea?