We like choices, right? At any given coffee shop, you get to be king (or queen) of the world for a moment as you decide whether you want coffee or tea, what size, what type of roast, caffeinated or decaf, and more.
Malcolm Gladwell in his TED talk on “Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce” confirms the link between customization and happiness. We are happier when the market provides us with “horizontally segmented” choices: like dozens of varieties of spaghetti sauce: spicy, chunky, thin, with cheese, etc.
Clearly, we should be providing the same buffet of options for our donors, right?
Long drop down lists of designations on our website? Eight different ask amounts on our direct mail reply cards? Won’t this make our donors happy?
I would argue that it will not make them happy. And on top of that it will hurt results for our mission.
Here’s the difference between endless varieties of spaghetti sauce and giving: The donor sees you and your fundraising materials as ambassadors to the mission of the organization. Donors are looking to staff to inform them of the needs of the institution and its priorities.
If you provide so many choices (in both ask amount options and designations) the message the donor receives (consciously or not) is that it does not matter how much I give or what I give to, therefore it does not matter THAT I give at all.
Having umpteen varieties of spaghetti sauce does not communicate a subtext that spaghetti sauce is unimportant. But, by giving an overabundance of options to donors, we unfortunately communicate that our missions are not important.
Let me restate this to make it clear: If you present a range of ask amounts options that too wide and varied, the donor will feel no urgency to act because he or she has no guidance as to how much the organization needs at this time.
If you present a list of designations that is too long, it communicates that the organization does not have a clear set of priorities.
Furthermore, if you do not do the legwork to write a customized letter with a targeted appeal for one designation with tailored ask amounts, the donor learns that you do not KNOW them and therefore you don’t value their contributions.
If you’ll take any amount for any fund, why bother giving any amount for any of your funds.
Here’s an example of the reply cards sent out the year before I arrived at one of the previous institutions I worked for:
Too many choices of ask amounts. Also, the choices were static not variable text ask levels (meaning all the donors got the same list of choices). The $1,000 starting ask was just high enough to scare away modest donors and low enough to insult those with high capacity. This mailing should have been a breakout success since it was a centennial mailer. As it was, the results were less than lackluster.
Also, all of those designation choices make it seem like the college didn’t care where you gave just that you gave something. This is true for many colleges and universities who are focused on improving alumni participation rates. (For the record, there is nothing wrong with this as a pitch. The problem is most organizations operate on that assumption without informing donors that what you need is participation. Be clear.)
However, if what you want is to guide the donor to increase their commitment to the institution, a broad swath of designations won’t work. They want to know that you know their priorities and the priorities of the institution. Match those with a clear case for giving and they will send in checks.
See, if you really listen to Gladwell's TED Talk, you would see that Howard Moskowitz (the guy who "discovered" horizontal segmentation and thereby is responsible for dozens of varieties of spaghetti sauce) didn't exactly advocate for countless choices. (In other writings, Gladwell discusses analysis paralysis, a condition where too many choices makes deciding impossible.)
Moskowitz saw in his research that people's preferences "clustered" around 3-4 varieties of spaghetti sauce.
There is a happy medium between no choice and too many choices. It's Goldilocks. Not too many choices, not too few. I call this the principle of limited choices.
Knowing this, here’s how I modified the reply cards during my first year at this institution.
Don’t you feel calmer looking at this card? As a donor, you still have choice available but you understand clearly the hierarchy of the university’s priorities and a sense of the level of gifts that the institution wants to receive.
Behind the scenes in the production of these letters, there is a segmentation strategy at work which customizes the letter content and ask amounts to the donor, but what the donor feels is clarity.
Upon implementing this more streamlined system, the average gift given through direct mail went from $118 to $149 and the response rates increased from 0.36% to 0.85%. (This was a large state school with lots of non-donors.) The mailings garnered over $41,000 more than the centennial mailer sent the previous year. The principle of limited choices, combined with smart segmentation is powerful stuff.
Confused donors don’t write checks. Give them a well-constructed ask and a little direction and you’ll do much better. Don’t spoil your donors for choice.
How many ask amounts do you offer in your solicitations? How many designations do you promote as choices? Comments and questions are, as always, welcomed and encouraged!
PS - If you liked this post, you might also like these:
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An alternate title for this post could be “How I was able to coach my daughter to complete her raffle ticket sales for dance in 30 minutes”
I had no idea it was coming but my daughter left her acrobatics class with an envelope informing us that we had to sell 20 raffle tickets at $2 each. My family has a lot going on and I wanted to finish this project quickly and simply. But, I also wanted her (at age seven) to take responsibility for this project and learn something from it.
We discussed it on the way home and I had her practice a “pitch”. It was simple: “Would you like to support my dance school by purchasing a raffle ticket for a chance to win $200 for only $2?” By the time we made it home, she had it nearly memorized. Then I had an insight! I would film a short 30 second video of her saying the line and then doing a backbend. Then I would post it on Facebook so friends and colleagues would see it.
We had commitments for the entire batch and then some in about 30 minutes! We had to pick up another 20 tickets today. There are 3 reasons that I think this little project worked so well:
The right audience
I’m pretty active on Facebook and I often post videos of my kids and their accomplishments. So, my daughter had a kind of fan club already ready to be interested in whatever she’s doing. (Don’t worry. I am super careful about my privacy settings.)
The right medium
I could have walked around the neighborhood with her or had her ask people at church to buy a ticket, but that would have taken all week probably. I’m already connected on Facebook to everyone from the neighborhood and church anyway. So, this was perfect as an initial step. A soft ask first on Facebook and if we need to go to a harder sell, we could later.
The right messenger
Coming from me, it would be people doing me a favor. That’s not as compelling as supporting a very cute little girl who just learned to do a backbend and delivered her fundraising pitch perfectly on video.
Next time you have to do a fundraiser quick for a specific purpose, consider seriously what the best niche audience is, where the best place to meet them with the pitch is (medium), and who is the best person to do the asking. If you get these three things right, you can raise the funds and raise them quick.
Writing a fundraising letter is tough. Making it sound original and compelling is even tougher. Sometimes you can become stuck, too afraid of writing something that is stale and boring to get anything done. If this sounds like you, you have DMWB: Direct Mail Writer's Block.
Here's 5 steps you can take in about half an hour to break through your writer's block and get a draft completed ASAP:
Step 1: Understand that some words are better than no words.
The most important thing about fundraising is THAT you ask. Sending some mediocre letters out will generate more money than sending zero perfect letters out. Once you realize this, it is a liberating feeling. Something is better than nothing. So, don't worry so much about it being super-compelling and perfect at this point.
Step 2: Find a white board (preferably a big one)
On the top of this whiteboard, write what you are raising money for. This might be "OPERATING FUNDS" or "SCHOLARSHIPS" or something else.
Now go one level deeper and take that (in just a few words) to what it means for people. How will lives be changed because of raising money for this designation. So, it might say, "Funds to allow more students to study abroad", "more meals for the homeless" or "students able to graduate with less debt".
Next, you need to make a short list of 3-5 possible signatories for your letter. Do this step even when you think you've already decided who will sign it. Sometimes a traditional "dean's letter" or "president's letter" isn't the way to go. The best letters I've ever written were signed by students, the recipients of the support.
Step 3: Generate reasons to give
Add a list of 3 EMOTIONAL reasons that your constituents should want to give and 3 ANALYTICAL reasons that they should give.
You need a mix of both of these. Most people tend toward one or the other. For example, I'm wholly analytical. I like to know things like the percentage of the cost of an education that's covered by tuition. I like to know about challenge grants and alumni giving percentages and whatnot. The data makes a rational argument to my mind and that style is much easier for me to write.
If you are like me, you're not great at coming up with the emotional reasons to give, but an exercise like this forces you to work with both kinds of case making. The emotional reasons usually include a story of a grateful recipient of the support and can include nostalgia for the organization or pride in past work that the donor participated in.
Step 4: Evaluate
Based on what you see on your whiteboard so far, can you take the story or voice of one of those possible signatories and work in several of the analytical AND emotional reasons to give in one letter? (If yes, go to Step 5.)
If no, return to the top of your whiteboard. Do you need to re-address what you’re fundraising for or do you need signatories with more authority or better personal stories?
Step 5: Write without self-censoring
At this point in the process, you have a focus for your pitch (your designation), a signatory, emotional reasons to give, and analytical reasons to give. Now, get out of your own way and WRITE, without self-censoring. Don't judge. Just get enough text down in written form. Later, with the magic of cut and paste, you can remove, move and juggle all the juicy bits of language. But you can't get to that point until you generate all the phrases and sentences. Don't forget to think about customizing the language for your different segments along the way.
This is the best method I've used for snapping out of a direct mail writer's block: get your psychology straight, focus on what you are raising money for, the reasons to give and how that matches with who should sign the letter. Then get out of your own way and get it all down in words.
Happy writing! If you try this, let me know how it works out for you.
Among office workers, fundraisers are some of the toughest folks out there. #1 you have to develop the gumption to ask on a regular basis and #2 you get told “No” a lot. If you’re doing it right, you get told no more often than yes, a good deal more often. Lastly, fundraisers have to do this knowing that most of our organizations have persistent need and you’ll be asking year after year. Even if you finally complete a campaign or finally raise an endowment, there are always more people to help and more programs to create.
Is it fun to get told "no"? Nah, but what it does for fundraisers is builds resiliency. Fundraisers become warriors. They take their mission out there and champion it no matter the cost to their own egos. For example, it is such a feeling of freedom when you realize that if you expect 20% of your prospects to make a gift, which means 80% won’t! How wonderful to know that you can be told no that many times and it constitutes SUCCESS!
Without having been a fundraiser for so long, overcoming obstacles and the fear of failure might have held me back in my career and in life. But, I’ve fallen off that bicycle so much and had to get back on immediately, it just doesn’t bother me much anymore. I have fundraising to thank for giving me such a steely outlook.
Ironically, it’s getting told no that signals that you are asking enough. And it’s continuing to ask even though you get told no that makes fundraisers resilient. That’s another reason why I love my career in fundraising.
If you haven’t heard, Stanford University ruffled some feathers last week by announcing that is doing away with its phonathon. Here's the announcement from Stanford. Donor Relations Guru and Annual Giving Network wrote about it.
Here’s my take. Stanford is not the first to get rid of their phonathon and they won’t be the last. Does that mean that phonathon is dead? No way!
One friend of mine said “So It Begins” on Facebook about this because with such a high profile university ditching their phonathon, annual giving specialists all over the country will have to go into a new cycle of justifying their programs to administrators who think that their universities are also Stanford.
The truth is that Stanford could afford to stop fundraising full stop and they wouldn’t lose any market share for years. Eventually revenues might drop, but it would take a while. The loss of new fundraising revenue wouldn’t seriously impact their rankings or ability to recruit students for decades probably.
Stanford has two very powerful things that your university probably doesn’t have that make it possible for them to say to donors: “You meet us on our terms. We don’t feel like calling you anymore.” Or as they put it in their paperwork. “Give online. It’s the modern way to give!”
Donor Relations Guru makes the point that we should be multichannel and of course we should. Giving donors options and honoring their choices should be part of your plan. But if you aren’t Stanford and you don’t have a long game plan to replace the things that phonathon brings you (up-to-date data, donors, positive public relations, dollars, and donor education) proceed with caution. Don’t get rid of any medium that you can afford that gives your donors another way to give. I work for an institution that stopped communicating with donors via phone a while back and now we have to rebuild and repair those relationships.
Phone calls have significant advantages that haven’t changed:
Imagine if we just gave up trying to visit major donors and just decided to tell them all to give online. I don’t think we would clutch our pearls. We would laugh and wish that institution the best in their experiment. (I guarantee that political candidates aren't even considering giving up their "Get Out the Vote" phonathons!) Personal interaction works best. We know this because fundraising is about relationships. But it is also about asking. Phonathon allows us to do both and reach a large amount of people at the same time. No other medium does this.
If your phonathon isn’t working, it probably isn’t because the medium is dying. It’s more likely that the problem originates from poor caller training/management, you have poor contact rates or ironically, you aren’t calling enough to make your fixed costs worthwhile. There are solutions to all of these issues.
One of my most favorite techniques for improving caller motivation is to write letters to local businesses to ask for “gifts-in-kind” to use as prizes for outstanding callers. That idea is far from new, but there is one tweak that I think many haven’t thought of that makes all the difference in terms of success.
Many universities and colleges commission economic impact studies that quantify the value that these higher educational institutions have on their local economies. These studies usually herald impressive numbers, from the number of jobs provided by the university to the total estimated dollars of economic impact.
Here are a few examples to show you what you’re looking for:
If you can get your hands on a study like this specific to your institution, you will be able to craft a letter that is optimally successful. Some studies have a statistic that actually shows how much money university students spend in the local marketplace, like the ones from Notre Dame and South Carolina above. If you can get this figure, it’s clutch.
The data from these sorts of studies will motivate the businessperson to get their business more in front of students. They will see what a significant portion of their business that students (and the university in general) represents. And you will be providing them with a quick and easy way to advertise to students. All they need to do is provided a few coupons for free merchandise or services and you will not only put them on your webpage or Facebook (or both) but you’ll give these out only to the top performers so they get to try their products.
To find an economic impact study for your institution, start just by googling “economic impact study” and your institution’s name. If nothing comes up, contact the College of Business or Economic Development department at your institution and they may know of a study or where to find it. Some universities do a great job of promoting this important information and others don't exactly. It may be hidden away in some office of institutional research. Put it to good use.
Do you solicit “gifts-in-kind” from local business for your phonathon?
If you have a killer letter that you use, please share the text in the comments!
Mock Calling is a critical part of any new caller training session. It's also important for new major gift officers and leadership giving officers to practice in this same way. All-to-often, though, the exercise becomes stale and perfunctory. Here are 5 ideas to re-invigorate your mock calling practice, whether you work in phonathon, annual giving, or major gifts.
Have your callers each call from their cell phones and leave a voicemail on your office line of an abbreviated script. Then have the entire training class listen to each voicemail and critique the caller based on enunciation, speed, sincerity and other qualities.
Create a set of cards with fake prospects on them. Create corresponding cards with background information on how the prospect is predisposed to react to an ask. Pair up callers and give them several sets of cards to work through alternating between caller and prospects. (This works for leadership and major gift officers too. Just practice asking for a visit and handling objections to taking the visit.)
Have one caller go to a nearby office (far enough so they cannot see or hear the group) and have them call a line with a speaker phone function. Put the call on speaker phone so the rest of the class can hear the conversation. Make sure everyone gets a turn and that you debrief after every call what went well and what could be done better.
Rapid Fire Objection Practice
Divide callers into teams and have them stand in two rows. Give each caller at the front of the line an objection. “I can’t give this year. I just had a baby.” Caller must respond immediately. After each round, have an impartial judge (student supervisors or lead caller) award a point to the team whose caller handled that round best. Winning team gets a prize. Judge selects an MVP from both teams. (For full-time fundraising staff, just practice objections to taking the visit.)
Power Intro Drills
Practice just the first 10-15 of a call, including asking for the prospect, introducing the institution and yourself and lastly stating why you are calling. Every caller gets several chances and then everyone gets to go again at the end of practice. Select a most improved caller or two who show significant improvement. Judge their intros on sincerity, diction, energy and enthusiasm. Every fundraiser needs a strong introduction whether they are a student caller or the CEO.
If you found this article helpful, you may also be interested in my e-book How to Staff Your Phonathon Super-Fast: Seven Secrets to Fill the Seats. It's on sale now for $40 with the coupon code fillseats (valid through 9/1/16). This book guides you through innovative ideas and practices to turbo-charge your phonathon staffing efforts and break free from the hamster wheel of turnover. It also includes an appendix full of templates and samples to get you started implementing this system fast.
Before the fall semester ramps up, now is the time to check in and assess the effectiveness of your phonathon scripts. What follows is an excerpt from my book, Successful Fundraising Calls: A Phonathon Scripting Workshop from Academic Impressions. If your scripts need some punching up, this guide walks you through the process of giving your scripts a makeover step by step.
1. Does your script/policies require callers to do at least three distinct asks if the prospect is objecting?
a) No way, we trust our callers to make the right decision and not pressure prospects.
b) We require it but we don’t monitor it through write-ups or other disciplinary action.
c) Yes, absolutely. Callers must overcome objections and ask for the next level.
2. Do you allow open-ended or soft asks without an amount?
a) Yes. As long as they are asking, the amount is not important.
b) If the prospect sounds mad or needs to speak to his or her spouse, sometimes we do.
c) No. An ask is constituted by a direct question and an exact dollar amount.
3. Which of these sounds most like the rapport section of your call?
a) I am not sure what our rapport currently sounds like.
b) “Last year, ABU was rated #1 in biological sciences research by the American Society for awesome biological stuff…..”
c) “Did you know that ABU continues to get more accolades? For instance we were recently named #1 for biological sciences research.”
d) “I see you graduated in biology. Do you still work in that field? Wow. That’s interesting! Well, you’ll be pleased to know that we recently named #1 in biological sciences research. Isn’t that great?”
4. What percentage of your callers would know what an “assumptive” credit card ask sounds like
a) Huh? What is an assumptive ask? 0%
b) Some of the best ones. Maybe 40%
c) Any caller that has been around awhile. Over 80%
d) All our callers are required to follow an assumptive ask structure. 100%
5. How would you rate the transition between the rapport and first ask in your script?
a) We let the callers figure that out. It’s important that the rapport be natural.
b) It’s a little clunky. Sometimes when I am coaching that part feels awkward.
c) Pretty solid. We try to tie the fantastic things going on at our school to the need for private support.
For every A, give yourself 1 point. For each B you marked, give yourself 2 points, for every C give yourself 3 points and if you selected D give yourself 4 points.
Your scripts need some work. The scripts don’t provide callers with enough structure for them to feel confident and comfortable asking for money. If you are not requiring three asks or enforcing the delivery of those asks, you are leaving money on the table for your institution. Your alums might not be enjoying these calls as much as they could. Your callers are in danger of becoming de-motivated because they aren’t seeing success.
You are on the right track. Your scripts may be having trouble striking that balance between over-scripting and not providing adequate guidance for transitions or special circumstances. Some key tweaks to your system and scripts could result in huge improvements in revenue and fundraising success for your institution. Your callers might need a little boot-camp to get them on board but they’ll thank you as they begin raising lots of money and having a great time at work.
Way to go! Your scripts are making it happen! You might need to freshen up key sections, like rapport, your credit card ask, or your transitions. But, you have a great foundation from which to build. Perhaps most of what you need is to put a great coaching and pledge verification system in place to make sure that your awesome script is being put to use in calls. Rock on!
If you found this quiz helpful, visit this page to learn more about my book. And subscribe to Real Deal Fundraising and you'll get a free copy of my e-book on Call Center Games.
People love a good theme.
They will deny it but it is true. Ask for $25 and it falls flat. Ask for $20.16 in honor of your Class of 2016 and suddenly the same group is completely inspired.
Throw a Faculty-Staff Campaign kickoff and it is just another reception with peach tea. Throw a Glee inspired Lip Sync Contest with an ironic high school prom theme and it’s something no one has ever seen before.
Is your leadership annual giving society threshold $1,000 per year? What if it were named for your first president or most beloved president? What if the threshold were based on your founding year, for instance $1,904? (You could have special lower levels for young alumni.)
When I worked for The University of Southern Mississippi, our team started the Aubrey K. Lucas Society. It is named for our longest serving president, who also happens to be our longest consecutive year donor. He is famous for wearing bow ties. Each year those donors who have given a gift in each of the last three fiscal years gets a black and gold bow tie-themed car decal. Who would ever want to miss a year of giving? It's too fun to miss out on.
The key is that the themed events and ideas are specific. They show off the unique character of your institution and your personality as a fundraiser. Therefore they work on two levels: they are fun and enjoyable but they also reinforce and strengthen ties to your institution.
Go ahead and embrace the theme. Your job will be more meaningful and fun. Your donors will be amused and happy to participate in something fun and original.
"The #1 Reason People Give Is Because They Are Asked"
This slogan was emblazoned on posters in nearly all of the call centers where I have worked. Asking, almost as much as relationships, is key to successful fundraising. I have said that new major gift officers should be made to spend some training time in the call center, asking. The concentrated experience in persistent asking would accelerate their learning curve.
This truth that asking is at the core of fundraising was brought home to me recently from an unlikely source: my 18 month old son. My 6 year old daughter had just received $5 from her grandmother to get a "subaru" (her word for a souvenir) on our next trip. My baby son stood in line behind her and waited patiently for "his" money. Obviously, the baby didn't need $5 but she hunted in her purse and gave him a dollar. He was quite pleased with his results. (See photo above).
I posted the cute picture on Facebook and someone said "Oh gosh, another fundraiser in the family!" and I realized the meaning of the photo. My mother gave because she was asked. It didn't occur to her that baby boy had a need until he expressed it. He asked and was rewarded.
Donors can have a relationship with us, admire our organizations and the work those institutions do in the world and still not give to us financially. If we do not state our needs and desires and set expectations about the kind of support we want to receive by ASKING, we will not get the gifts. You must ask.
Jessica Cloud, CFRE
I've been called the Tasmanian Devil of fundraising and I'm here to talk shop with you.