Selling Alone Can’t Close the First Sale

It is more difficult today than it was even five years ago to convince donors to give to a cause for the first time. Cygnus’ annual Burk Donor Survey that tracks changes in how donors manage their philanthropy has consistently found that donors are supporting fewer causes than before. And ours is not the only research alerting the fundraising industry to significant shifts in donor behavior. Blackbaud’s most recent analysis of direct marketing health reveals a serious problem: donor acquisition is down 3.4% in the last year alone and an accumulative 14.4% over five years[1].

In spite of these gloomy statistics, our research has found that donors remain open to contributing to a not-for-profit they have never supported before – if the cause and the fundraising approach are compatible with their interests and sensibilities.

The 2014 Burk Donor survey asked 23,000 donors in the US and Canada to consider the not-for-profit they began supporting most recently and identify the factors that persuaded them to start giving. These were their top two reasons: 58% said that their chosen not-for-profit’s mission was aligned with their interests; 29% said they had been considering this particular organization for support for some time. Only 11% said that the solicitation alone inspired their first gift.

This speaks to the symbiotic nature of fundraising and marketing and the obvious conclusion that, in a rapidly changing giving environment, not-for-profits will be more successful at donor acquisition when they don’t rely on appeals alone to do the job.

Every acquisition appeal plays a dual role – being a “last push” to prospective donors who are close to making a decision while simultaneously developing early interest among those who will become donors sometime in the future. While direct marketing and some events are inherently beneficial to building brand awareness, asks overpower whatever other information is included in appeals. Marketing and communications ensure that brand awareness is reinforced but also that complex information concerning what a not-for-profit is attempting to achieve is heard.

Time and variety are the keys to effective donor acquisition


Consumer research on the number of impressions it takes to convert a prospect into a customer (or into a donor in the case of fundraising) has remained relatively consistent since the 1970’s.  It takes anywhere from five to twelve contacts to get someone to buy (give) for the first time. And variety of impressions is just as important as frequency, which is why acquisition appeals alone should not be relied upon to convince donors to give. The same message delivered in the same way all the time causes potential donors to just stop paying attention. But surrounding appeals with marketing messages delivered through a variety of communications media, offers the best hope for maximizing the acquisition of new donors.

Of course, a diverse marketing strategy includes social media but a strategy that serves fundraising really well pays more than lip service to this critical communications platform.  The 2014 Burk Donor Survey found that while middle-age and older donors are narrowing their focus and becoming harder to reach, young donors are on a different path. 41% of donors under the age of 35 gave to more causes in 2013 than in the previous year and 61% gave more money. Young donors are today’s critical hope for rebuilding robust donor acquisition programs, but only if not-for-profits communicate with them through their media of choice.


For more evidence-based information on how donors are changing the ways in which they give and what fundraisers can do to maximize success, download the 2014 Burk Donor Survey here. Previous years’ surveys are also available.


[1] donorCentrics Index of Direct Marketing Fundraising, 2014 Second Calendar Quarter Results, H. Flannery, P Grainger, R Harris, C Rhine, Target Analytics, a division of Blackbaud, Inc., October, 2014

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