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Fundraising: Instinct vs Insight By Andrew Olsen

As a fundraiser you’ll have many people offer suggestions on how best to do your job.  Well-intentioned board members, executive directors, program staffers, volunteers, and supporters will, at one time or another, probably all give you suggestions (requested or not).

Most of these suggestions are based on instinct.  Unless the person making the suggestion is an experienced fundraiser herself, chances are the suggestion is based on a “gut feel”.  Acting on a gut feeling (whether from a board member or even your own) can be devastating to your fundraising if it turns out to be wrong.  FYI, much of the time, acting on instinct isn’t the best course of action.

That’s where insight comes into play. Insight is knowledge based on a deep understanding of your consumer (or donor) and the fundraising techniques that yield most significant results.

When in doubt, choose insight over instinct.  Here are some examples to get you thinking…

Mail Frequency

Instinct: We only mail three times yearly because we don’t want to overload our donors.  Donors hate being solicited more than that, and they’ll stop giving if we ask more often.

Insight: Research and testing shows exactly the opposite is true.  As long as you do a good job thanking donors and sharing relevant, compelling opportunities with them, increased frequency helps retain more donors and deliver more revenue.  It’s naive to think that donors won’t continue to be solicited just because you stop asking.  They’ll just not be solicited by you.  Which means they’ll be more likely to give to someone else.  Why?  Because the #1 reason donors give is that SOMEONE ASKED.

Social and Mobile Media

Instinct: We’re shifting all of our fundraising to text messaging and Facebook.  Look what Obama’s campaign and Red Cross have been able to do on mobile and social media.  We’ll save a ton of money and be able to engage millions.

Insight: Your organization isn’t the Obama campaign (or any other Presidential campaign).  Facebook and mobile giving worked for Obama because he was getting millions of dollars in paid and free TV media and had an aggressive offline program as well.  Most of the Obama campaign’s revenue still came from direct mail and e-mail vs. Facebook and text giving.  Unless you’re a major disaster relief organization, you won’t be able to compete with the Red Cross either.  Mobile giving worked for them because they had (pardon the potential pun) the perfect storm.  Major natural disasters, days and days of free Television coverage, and a network of volunteers and donors built through traditional media that they could leverage in crisis.  Most organizations don’t have these options.

Photographs / Images

Instinct: We only want photos of happy kids.  We’re about positive change.  Those organizations that show sad-looking, needy kids are exploiting them for financial gain.

Insight: People give to meet a need.  To right a wrong.  To solve a problem.  If your photos and communications show only the happy “after” images, you remove the donor’s natural motivation to act.  You can show only happy photos but won’t raise as much money.  And that means you won’t meet as much need in the community.  Which is more important to you?  Which is more important to those you serve?


Instinct: We have too many old donors.  We need to change up our strategy and approach and focus on acquiring younger donors instead.  They’ll be the future of our organization.

Insight: Yes, younger people will be the donors of the future.  But you probably don’t have unlimited resources, so focus on the resources you do have where you’ll get the highest ROI.  It isn’t as sexy or interesting, but older donors still give most of all charitable dollars.  Spend a little time and money (no more than 20%) of your budget to test into new audiences.  But spend the bulk of your resources on the donors who are giving today and who are giving the most money (i.e., older donors).

Multi-channel Giving

Instinct: We never mail our online donors because they gave online.  They didn’t want to receive mail.  Besides, this saves us a lot of money.

Insight: Recent tests show that donors acquired online but cultivated offline also give significantly more than those not cultivated offline.  And their retention rates are higher as well.  While you might save a few dollars on the cost side, you’re missing out on a ton of income.  As a good friend of mine likes to say, “Stop wasting a dollar to save a dime!”

Major Donors

Instinct: Major donors get pulled out of our mail program.  We send them event invitations only.  They’re major donors.  They expect not to be hounded.

Insight: This decision results in more lost revenue opportunities than anything else in the nonprofit space today.  Yes, your major donors should get special appeal formats.  You should consider reducing their mail frequency (assuming you’re mailing 12+ times/year now).  They should get highly personalized treatment (including face-to-face relationship building).  But no, you shouldn’t pull them completely from your mail program (unless they specifically ask you to do so).


Instinct: Everything we send needs to adhere to our brand guidelines.

Insight: Everything you send should adhere in principle to your brand guidelines.  But direct mail is a unique monster, and donors are equally unique.  You often need to break brand guidelines and standard grammar rules to write copy that compels people to action.  The goal of your fundraising materials should be to raise money.  That’s it.  Not to be “on brand”.  If given the choice between being “on brand” and “on revenue”, you owe it to those you serve and those who support you to pick the revenue.

What other insights are at odds with your instincts regarding fundraising?


Andrew Olsen, CFRE, is an award-winning fundraiser whose work on behalf of some of the nation’s leading organizations has generated more than $60 million to help change lives, influence public policy, and shape the nation’s political landscape. Check out his blog, Fundraising Fundamentals.


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