Our issue is on the news. Now what?

August 17, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


My wife turned to me and said “How do we defeat these assholes?”

(Yes, perhaps there should be a content warning on this post.  But this was about white supremacist Neo-Nazis.  DonorVoice has proudly worked for conservative, moderate, liberal, and nonpartisan groups and organizations from several different religions.  When I asked whether I could use “assholes” in the blog to describe Nazis and white supremacists, the answer was “they are assholes.”)

She was angry.  And ready to rage-donate.  Ready, as in credit-card-out-point-me-in-the-right-direction ready.  She wanted to support a group looking to stamp out hate, to prevent the next Charlottesville attack.

She was also not alone.  Among the top trending searches from this weekend were Charlottesville, neo-Nazis, Charlottesville attack, racism, Trump Charlottesville, and Game of Thrones.  (This last one is probably par because of last week’s blog post and part because it trends every weekend.)

(Google Trends for “Charlottesville”)

For those working to end racism and anti-Semitism in the United States, the spotlight is on.  People are searching and willing to be persuaded to donate.  Huffington Post and Medium both created “where to donate” articles.

But it was crickets on Google ads.  Even now, if you search “donate Charlottesville,” you get general donation advertisements like Red Cross and Women for Women.  “Oppose KKK” brings up organic content from the Southern Poverty Law Center, but no ads.  “Oppose racism” brings up the first ad to mention Charlottesville, from a nonprofit newspaper running ads.

This is hardly unique.  Google has given advertising grants to nonprofits for well over a decade — $10,000 per month to spend spreading your message.  But these are underutilized as a way of attracting donors.  So, some tips:

  • Get Google Grants if you don’t have them. It’s here, easy, and quick to set up.
  • Make sure you are maxing out your ad spend… An iterative process of adding content and keywords to your AdWords account and accepting Google’s recommendations for additional keywords should get you to your maximum rather quickly.  (If not, writing more content is not a bad idea.)
  • …but don’t put up stupid stuff. An AdWords account we recently audited had “jobs in Hyderabad” as their number one search term by a huge margin.  They were not a jobs organization.  They did not work in India.  Their agency had simply taken the previous bullet point to its illogical extreme by sending them worthless traffic.
  • Prepare for news events. Because it takes a small amount of time for Google to approve new ads, a disaster charity had a general “hurricane” ad group.  They could turn this ad group on instantly when disaster struck, add keywords to this, and run it while they were waiting for the version with the specific hurricane name in it to be approved.
  • Empower the person doing your ads. Charlottesville was on a weekend. Someone who managed the Google Ad Words account would have to feel empowered to create an ad and a donation form specific to the circumstances.  No – one step beyond that: they would have to feel like it was their responsibility.  This is rare.  But if you are going to compete on rapid response to issues in the news, you must have people who know what is and isn’t allowed and have to act on that.

If you need help, email me here.  We can help you get set up free of charge.  We have also managed Google Ad Grants for some organizations.

So, now you have these donors.  Now what?

First, you immediately want to play back to them why they gave.  The Southern Poverty Law Center’s post-donation email highlights exactly why you gave:

“Your gift will have a profound impact in our fight against hate groups and support our work in classrooms and courtrooms across the nation.  The events of the last several months have troubled m and, as the founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, I wanted to explain why I’m so determined to keep fighting…”

Contrast this with the organizations that use the same autoresponder for all their donations.  We frequently see feedback from donors wondering if they donated for the thing they were told they were donating for, given the disparity between front and back end.

Yes, restricted funds are anathema to many organizations (although IMHO and in many donors’ opinions, unjustly so).  But you can talk about the reason that someone gave in the follow-up with appropriate “and other good works” language.

You should also learn as much as you can about the donor.  Post-donation is the perfect time to learn a donor’s identity, how committed they are to your organization, what their contact preferences are, and so on.  As we’ve highlighted, these factors are critical to increasing your retention and donor value (even more so when they are non-traditional donors).

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Winter is coming. How do you explain that to donors?

August 10, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


(Warning: spoilers for both Game of Thrones and fundraising success.  If you aren’t a GoT fan, skip down to just below the picture)

At first blush, Game of Thrones is 90% people fighting the wrong war: who gets to be on the throne, rather than the White Walkers.  In fact, writers penned many a think-piece arguing the White Walkers symbolize global warming.  This makes some sense with their catastrophic power and powerful people denying their existence.

But only Sansa Stark cares about a timeless existential threat: there isn’t enough food.  In a world of dragons, ice zombies, fire gods, assassin shadow babies, etc., people still need to eat.  Including armies.  And a large food stock just went up in smoke.

Maybe there is a Westerosi Norman Borlaug in waiting in the Seven Kingdoms.  Because as Bronn put it in season two:

It's not the fighting that kills most people. It's the straving.

(BTW, if you are a fan, this piece got me thinking about this issue)

We face the same thing in fundraising.  We face the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II – our White Walkers.  Yet there has been more coverage of Mooch Briefly Visits the White House (coming soon to a children’s book store).

This is because humans are horrid at assessing risk, scope, and importance.  We give to cancer charities more that have fewer fatalitiesWe donated more to help three million people in Haiti post-earthquake than 20 million people Pakistan post-flood.  People donate relatively the same amount to save 2,000, 20,000, and 200,000 birds.

So if you are a fundraiser (or Sansa), how do you draw attention to a mass tragedy in a way that does not numb your audience?  Five tips:

Tell one story at a time. A prominent study found a story of a child does better than that same story with information about the general problem of poverty in Africa. Additionally, a story of one boy did as well as the story of one girl; both did better than the story of the boy and the girl together.

When we hear a single story, we react with emotion and affect. When we hear the story of many, we react with logic and calculation. Or as Stalin put it: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

Save the statistics for the right audience.  Educational and information appeals are usually anathema to direct marketing fundraisers.  And they do depress response among most people.  However, mid- and major donors are more receptive to analytical appeals, so your appeals may have to be targeted or customized.

If you need to talk about a group, talk about a coherent whole.  Researchers found that groups perform better in appeals if they are entitative.  Don’t worry – I had to look it up too.  It means how much people consider something to be a coherent whole.  They found that donations to help children increased when children were part of the same family.  They also asked about saving butterflies with pictures that showed them flying randomly (low entitativity) or together (high entitativity). The butterfly flock raised 69% more on average.

Make the people you are helping positive.  In the same study as above, when the starving children in Africa were in the same prison, rather than the same family, the group dynamic hurt donations rather than helping them.  Group identities only help when they are good groups.

Use the unit asking effect. Researchers asked people how much they would donate to help 20 children in need.  Half of the audience had a preceding question: “Before you decide how much to donate to help these 20 children, please first think about one such child and answer a hypothetical question: How much would you donate to help this one child? Please indicate the amount here: $____.”

People who got this question were willing to donate $49 overall to the children, versus $18 for the control.  When they tested this effect in mail, unit ask donors had gifts 4x to 5x more than those who received a plea for the 40 children alone.

So, in your appeals, whether to donors or bannermen, you want to lead with a story of one person if possible.  If not, make sure they are a laudable, coherent group, and center on the individual first before zooming out.

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Just this once…: A way to defeat mental accounting

July 27, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


Since there have been stats on such things, Americans have given two percent of GDP (plus or minus a tiny amount). And we are likely to be in that box, because of mental accounting, until we do something about it. Fortunately, there’s a solution.

What is mental accounting? You can spend money on anything. Economists call this fungibility, which has nothing to do with mushrooms and everything to do with the dollar bill in your pocket can we used for rent or food or entertainment or whatever.

But one of the many areas where classical economic assumptions don’t square with reality is in this idea of fungibility. People have sophisticated mental jars of money earmarked for different purposes – that’s mental accounting. And we experience mental pain every time we take from one jar to compensate another.

Given this, how do we get our donors to reappraise what giving is worth and what our organization is worth? Researchers found a way.

Researchers put up two sets of ads for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s. As you can see, they don’t look that different. The difference is one reminds people that the walk happens every year; the other frames this as “only once a year.”

This latter framing is called an exceptional expense. The idea is that in our mental accounting, there’s usually a contingency fund for if the alternator goes out on the car or the U-bend comes off the sink again (yes, I have some experience with these particular maladies). The hypothesis was that by framing the gift as “only once a year,” you could get people to break into that piggy bank.

And break they did.

People were more likely to donate to the exceptional expense (46% versus 35%). They were also willing to give more ($7.13 versus $4.82). When they tested this live, the exceptional expense ad had an 11% greater click-through rate.

They also tested this in the mail, where:

“This mailing is part of a special charity drive that happens only once a year. Alex’s Lemonade Stand is requesting only one donation a year going forward.”


“This mailing is part of a regular charity drive that happens annually. The charity is requesting a donation every year going forward.”

This is a technique you can’t deploy all the time, or you would be the nonprofit that cried exceptional expense. However, there are some implications of this:
• You may want to shy away from branding your events as the “10th annual” (or whatever). Rather, you probably want to stress the uniqueness of this particular event.
• Member campaigns are historically strong performers for membership organizations. Part of their success may be that they are budgeted for. For some, though, a framing of “this is the only time this year we ask all members to make their membership gift” may persuade more people.
• This can also give you the other end of the spectrum from the “pennies-a-day” strategy, which is also effective. This daily breakdown works well when the total can be divided into small amounts that people round to near zero. But framing the donation as a one-off occurrence may be more productive for larger sums of money.

Hope this technique works for you!

PS. If you would like to walk to end Alzheimer’s, you can find a walk in your area here.


Less contact, more revenue? Some for-profits think so

July 20, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


The nonprofits who have made the decision to mail less frequently must think they are going nuts. Organizations like Union of Concerned Scientists, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and others have seen positive net results by communicating less frequently and with more focus on the donor. Yet I have heard three different people from three different agencies opine they have never seen a case where fewer communications means more net revenue in the short or long term.

Am I taking crazy pills?

(As a side note, all three agencies to say this either were getting paid per piece or owned their own printing presses. I’m sure this is entirely coincidental.)

This “I’ve never seen it; therefore, it can never happen” is one of the three most frequently marshaled arguments against trying what donors are most frequently asking for – fewer communications asking for donations. The other two are:
1. If fewer communications made more money, then the most money would be made by people who don’t communicate at all. This argument is easily set aside.
2. If this were successful, then for-profit companies would do it.

Setting aside that many retailers don’t mail you 20-30 times per year and have customized their marketing to you (see also: Target knows you are pregnant), this latter argument has more heft. It would be compelling if for-profit companies would not “leave money on the table” by decreasing frequency. After all, many sites right now have so many ads on them, NASCAR drivers are asking them to tone it down a bit.

That’s why it was great to see the Wall Street Journal’s piece entitled “Online Publishers Try Reducing Ads to Boost Revenue” (thanks to the This Old Marketing podcast for making me aware of the article).

In it, they say “some publishers say they’re now taking a “less is more” approach when it comes to placing ads across their sites. Stripping out irritating ad formats and limiting the number of ads forced on visitors can actually result in more engaged consumers and ultimately increased ad revenue, they say.”

But is it working, or is this one of those trend pieces that tries to tell me that hip young men will be wearing jodhpurs this fall (according to the American Jodhpurs Council)?

Spoiler: it’s working. Publisher LittleThings removed a form of advertising from its site every quarter. And the results? The site generates less revenue from each page, but more revenue overall. The CDO there says “Users view more pages, share more content and are generally more engaged.” The same thing holds true for donor experience and engagement – people are more likely to want to stay your donors if you are using their time and attention wisely.

LittleThings also found that fewer ads help the ads that remain. That’s what we’ve found as well when removing communications: you lose the revenue from the communication itself, but because most of that revenue was cannibalized from other communications, the performance of the surrounding communications increases 10-30%. This (plus the decreased costs from not mailing) increases net revenue.

Yes, this is just a few companies trying this. And, yes, online ads are not quite the same as nonprofit communications. But the direction here is important – for-profit companies are noticing that they can increase their long-term revenue by trimming the marketing and customer experiences that subtract value for their customers.

We know it’s tough to tell, though, what is adding value. That’s why we combine commitment and experiential data – survey results that aren’t in your CRM – with the results data that you already track. From there, we can figure out what matters, how much, and what people think of the experiences that matter. If this interests you, you can learn more here.

Are you doing your own experiments to mail less and make more? Please let us know in the comments – there’s strength in numbers!


There’s a complaint born every minute…

July 13, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


No, it’s not anyone-you-know’s Twitter feed…

It’s the rate at which donors asked to be removed from charity solicitation lists on a new UK government hotline. The full story is here.

Now, here in the good ol’ US of A, we have neither a hotline nor the regulations requiring explicit opting in to communications that the UK is now facing.

Yet there were a few things that stuck out at me, especially given cultural similarities between our two nations (we even, allegedly, speak the same language):

Nonprofits aren’t making it very easy to opt out. A rational person (always a potentially flawed assumption) will look at two alternatives to get off of a charity’s list(s): contacting the charity or contacting the government. Here, people looked at that chose and decided that contacting the government was easier.

Think about your last personal interaction with a government agency and you’ll realize how damning a statement this is (of course, my last one was with the DMV, so I might be especially wary). Part of this may be some publicity around the hotline, but in order to call the hotline, you would have to have a communication physically in your hand (or have just hung up from a call). The email, mail piece, text, or call didn’t have something that made it easy to opt out.

This is odd, considering that the person who wishes to opt out is almost certainly to be someone who doesn’t want to donate. Thus, it’s in the organization’s best interest to hear the complaint and take action to cut costs.

We can be faster about removals. Here’s a part of the Telegraph piece about the new regs:

“If an individual continues to receive direct marketing communications 28 days after a complaint, the charity can be reported to the information watchdog which can levy fines running into tens of thousands of pounds.”

Now, 28 days is glacial for phone, text, and email lists. But for mail, major US nonprofits wouldn’t be able to meet the 28-day standard. Part of this is the slooooooooowness of inexpensive nonprofit mail. But processes for pulling data and, specifically, pulling data out of mailings. I’ve gone through a few RFPs for mail vendors and never thought to ask how much notice they need to get a mailer out of the queue.

But here, in black and white, is what a similar country to ours is saying is the socially acceptable amount of time to forbear. Thus, we should take note.

These removals are a missed opportunity. My Spidey-sense says that many of these folks requesting removal are getting acquisition solicitations and thus have no relationship to the charity. However, for those where there was once a relationship, there is a strong likelihood that the relationship could have been saved. Presumably, having donated previously, these are people who would still want to receive communications as long as they could control the types, quantity, and/or means of communication. Not being to do that, however, they picked a nuclear option of no contact.

DonorVoice’s Dr. Kiki Koutmeridou has done significant research on this type. Here’s a five-minute video of her talking about how you can increase your opt ins by allowing control over quantity and means of communication:

Also, just yesterday, she released research about gaining supporter consent by allowing them to control message. She also did a webinar about this here:

So you can see that allowing donors the ability to opt out and to customize their communications easily is best for retaining those donors in the long run.


The most effective ways to get someone to opt in

July 12, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


There’s an excellent piece by Dr. Kiki Koutmeridou, DonorVoice’s behavioral scientist, about how to get people to opt in here. Well worth the read!


What happens after the Trump Bump?

June 28, 2017

Post by: Nick Ellinger


We’d all heard the rumblings: since November, some nonprofits have been raking in donations. The weirdness then got a name: the Trump Bump.

Sorry, Vitruvius, I wasn’t willing to take it on faith and on rhyming that this was real.

But it turns out to be real. A new report highlights that intent to give is increasing on both ideological wings. For the left, it’s increasing to those institutions that it feels are under threat; for the right, increased security in the economy is causing increased giving to traditional groups like religious and veterans organizations.

Yay! Huzzah! Slaughter the fatted calf (mandatory for some religious organizations; forbidden for others and animal rights organizations)!

But let’s look ahead a moment, past the Trump Bump to once we’re over the Trump Hump into a Trump Slump in the Trump Dumps where we’re taking our Trump Lumps*.

Because the donors we’re getting in now may not look the donors we are used to getting. Someone who rage-donates because of the tweet that broke the camel’s back has a different reason for donating, connection to the organization, and personal identity than someone who has donated to you for 20 years despite, not because of, your ideological inclinations.

And treating one like the other will lose that one at best and both at worst.

So how do you craft a donor journey for an audience you barely know and barely knows you? One way is to listen to the webinar we have coming out tomorrow about creating identity-based donor journeys (and don’t worry about it if you are reading this after — it should be archived there; if not, drop me a line at nellinger@thedonorvoice.com.

One example we’ll talk about there that you can adopt immediately is an identity call-and-response. A health-care-focused nonprofit asked its new donors whether they had been a direct, indirect, or non-beneficiary of the nonprofit’s services. In doing so, they saw what may be obviously — those who were direct beneficiaries had greater lifetime value across channels.

What they didn’t expect to find is that the difference in why people gave went far beyond gratitude for the services they received. Those who had a direct connection to the organization gave to help support nurses giving medical care at home and nurses supporting the families of those they were treating. And they were looking for a greatest sense of connectedness to the organization through newsletters and volunteer opportunities. These were things that they had been promoting in all of the communications.

The trick was that those with no direct connection to the organization didn’t care about this at all. In fact, it was actively negative in some cases. These no-connection donors didn’t want to have a greater connection to the organization — they didn’t like all the mail they were getting — and they found in-home services to be a distraction from the greater mission.

Two different audiences with two different reasons for supporting the organization, but they were getting one system of communication. When they started customizing their communications, retention rates (and average gifts) went up.

So what if you tried this with your new donors — asking them what about them makes them want to give to you, then customized your pitches? My guess is even if your Trump Bump donors are fickle, you will be able to better retain them the more you know (and the more they know you know them).

* Launched in 1993, Trump Lumps, a licensed breakfast cereal, turned out to be an abject commercial failure.