Do Donors Have to Be Bribed into Giving?

Pat is Cygnus’ Manager of Customer Service. In cleaning out her late mother’s home, she discovered four boxes of address labels, cards and other premiums sent by not-for-profit organizations. This photo depicts the contents of just one of those four boxes.


Last week I was sifting through my mail and was surprised to find an acquisition solicitation from a well-known national charity. It wasn’t the fact that I was solicited that surprised me (it being the season of the year-end ask, after all;) it was its size. The 10” X 13” envelope and the sheer weight of its content piqued my curiosity. So, in spite of the fact that my name was misspelled and my gender incorrect, I opened the envelope.

Accompanying the usual four-page appeal letter, pledge card, stamped addressed envelope, and a couple of other pamphlets, was a full-sized, full color  calendar for 2010, the kind you get from your real estate agent or local gardening store.

I turned first to the letter.  For four pages, it appealed to me through various print versions of screaming, to send them a donation in order to, well, have “hope”. No evidence of recent accomplishments with contributions from donors in the past; no indication of how the money raised through this appeal would be used.

So, taking their “hope theme” to heart, I turned to the calendar, hoping against hope that each month would feature a research breakthrough, a patient testimony, or a community outreach innovation that showcased the charity’s accomplishments. But, no. It really was a real estate calendar, with scenes of pretty houses and pastoral landscapes.

Fundraising by Anxiety and Guilt

This calendar is an example of premium mailings taken to a whole new level (and I don’t mean up.)  Premium mailings are solicitations containing presents that have no relationship to the charities’ mandates.  They induce giving by preying on donors’ feelings of anxiety and guilt — anxiety that charities who send these things will lose money if donors fail to respond; guilt over feeling they should thank not-for-profits for the gesture by making contributions — even though these presents were neither requested nor desired.

By pushing those sensitive buttons, charities make more money on premium than on non-premium solicitations — in the short term.  The problem is they are counter-productive in the long run.  In fact, after rescuing charities from a potential fundraising disaster, donors are, ironically, left only with hope – hope that you will stop sending this junk in the future; hope that you will replace those gift cards, address labels (misspelled), fridge magnets, and now calendars, with measurable results on their gifts at work.

But, their hope is seldom realized.  Responding to premium mailings generally unleashes a stream of additional solicitations aimed at overcoming that huge up-front investment.  And, now, donors who felt coerced into giving in the first place, have over-solicitation to fuel their growing frustration.

Recession Sensitivity

Premium mailings may get more people to give initially, but they are not effective at sustaining donor loyalty. Donor attrition in direct marketing programs is still over 90% and climbing, and early donor attrition (first gift to second ask) is now about 65%.

Upping the ante on the cost of acquisition in a recession is particularly risky.  In our national study on the impact of the economy on philanthropy, we asked 22,000 donors about how their giving philosophies and practices are changing.  Dropping charities earlier who over-solicit, and eliminating those with real or perceived high cost-per-dollar raised, were their top two responses.

I know that direct marketers are trying to do their best in the toughest of times.  But, fundraising profit is made by increasing the margin between the gift amount and the cost to get it, not by increasing the volume of donors giving at an entry level value – especially when the cost per dollar raised is so high.

Development Directors need to help their direct marketers (and their Boards and CEOs) understand that an approach to fundraising that relies on coercion has negative consequences down the line.  Everything is connected to everything else in fundraising, which means that the decisions you make in direct marketing today will affect your major and planned gifts pipeline tomorrow.

Be careful.

Showing 7 comments
  • Jonathan Coke

    Thanks for this bit of encouragement. Given the perceptions of the economy, it is helpful to have a grounded perspective in donor values.

  • Susan Alexander

    I believe I received the solicitation to which you are referring. I kept the calendar but did not make a donation, although I did once in the past. A couple of years ago they sent me a set of labels that were actually correct and I sent them a donation for that fact alone. A little reward for getting it right. I have several other causes that have a higher priority for me, so I will likely not give to them again…but I will use the now correct labels, which now arrive with regularity.

  • Jim Heckman

    Once again your clear insight has highlighted some of the most unproductive and damaging fundraising practices of charities. Let me add some leavening. Recently I received from a recognized national charity a fairly nice T-shirt in a lapsed donor mailing! Just came in the mail out of the blue. This was the same charity that had sent me a mug in response to my first modest contribution, the astonishing overaggressiveness of which amazed me and forever removed me from their donor rolls. And then of course there are the mailings that on the front envelope give the donor an order like “Respond within ten days” or “immediately”. The fundamental fact that people should be treated with respect seems to be not in the awareness of whoever the people are sending these destructive mailings. But then I’m sure all of us have plenty of examples of what you illustrate in this blog. It is, unfortunately, easy to see why fundraising has a mixed image in this country. Many thanks for your continued excellent work.

  • Frances Hall

    As always, Penelope is right on target with valuable insight to what donors want and need from organizations! Thank you!

  • Sean Triner

    Like Penelope, I hate Premium Mailings. But I have quite a lot of data that shows that they should NOT be dismissed. They can work incredibly well for charities.

    As Jeff Brooks in Donor Power Blog said: “It’s not about whether or how much we like something that matters. It’s whether or not it works.”

    Unfortunately for taste, but fortunately for charities – premiums often work.

    You work in Direct Marketing, you know the rule – put prejudices aside and test. But measure the right thing, like Penelope says – look at the LONG term donations…


  • Bill Wildey

    Thanks for these insights. We have found through the years that premiums (and ours have been directly tied to our mission) have actually suppressed results. We have a lot of frugal donors who do not want to see their funds used to provide them with “gifts” they did not ask for.

  • Wendy

    Well said. As a daughter, I have to help an elderly mother cope with these appeals. She suffers over the ones she can not support. As a professional, I find it to be the lowest common denominator of fundraising — slightly above starving puppies. It is a red flag for me when an organization doesn’t think their case is compelling enough in itself!

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