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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.

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