Monthly Archives: September 2008

Building a Fund-raising Mousetrap: a model study of appeal cost-effectiveness

So, if a big company is interested in underwriting a very large study on the cost-effectiveness of certain appeal types, this would be good, yes?


Posed with just such a question last week, I went into “thinking aloud” trance (those who know me will easily identify the look – dazed stare into the distance with occasional high-speed blinking, followed by rapid speech and many tangential comments and parenthetical thoughts, just like my writing!).  I was talking so much that I stopped eating fresh seafood in a coastal city, and that’s a rare moment indeed.

It just so happens that I was considering how I might present the fund-raising effectiveness analysis segment of a 75 minute AFP conference session and a 3 hour AFP training session, so I’m thinking about the down and dirty content.  If I were ever inclined to launch such a massive research project, I would be taking on tremendous responsibility to create and sustain a new industry standard in the midst of terrific legislative, statutory and wealth changes.  The acceptance of such a study would presume tremendous collaborative efforts in the sector!

There are so many variables to include in a research project, including: type of NPO (for example, is it a university or a research center or an arts center — how does it self-define in the absence of a SEC sub-category?); size of prospect and donor pools; geographic diversity; biographic diversity; definition of an appeal; definition of a cost; definition of gift; etc.  There is no standardization of these variables across software platforms, and this ain’t 990 info, so what is the standard for each variable for research’s sake?

So here’s my idea.  Wouldn’t it be most effective to run a small model project that will provide the opportunity to norm a large number of variables?  Yes!  Yes, it would!  And wouldn’t outcomes from the model project be a more realistic window through which we might peer at our effective fund-raising future?  Mais Oui!

I would select K-12 independent schools with an inclusive advancement operating budget between $750K-$1.5M (self-identified, or identified via benchmarking after a 990 search).  The annual average count of the donor and prospect pools of schools of this size and wealth would change little year to year because graduation class sizes typically hold steady over the decades.  With the exception of a small group of need-based scholarship students in more recent years, one can make a pretty basic set of assumptions about the alumni pool: wealth, gender differences, geographic disbursement, demographic and psychographic profiles, etc.  Additional populations, like parents, staff and corporations/foundations, would be of a small enough scale that they could be measured separately. Thus, the variable of types of solicitation or appeal method could be normed more easily.  Giving trending in this market would also be fairly stable, so small-scale variations could be identified more readily.  Measurement of a period of time either pre- or post-campaign (be it capital or other), or eliminating a statistically relevant percentage of the highest and lowest value gifts, would be important.  A crazy person might also look at identified date ranges that would show periods of stability in the Dow to norm out market fluctuations — one could presume a stable period of stock wealth in an individual’s personal wealth profile, and the income from estate-based appeals would make a lot more sense.  The affluent K-12 market happens to be a pretty important donor segment to follow right now, given the market issues and the presumed wealth transfer to come. 

I know this isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but I’d like to do it.  I am a Freak…


Body vs. The Machine: The ‘Can Jan Scan’ Test

In my past life as a fund-raiser, before e-mail, before WYSIWYG, I remember writing a butt-load of solicitation and acknowledgement letters in DOS every year.  It was the top-of-the-line technology — and in a few years, we might be able to move donor records from index cards to ADIS!  Fear not, visitor from the future: we still licked all the tasty stamp glue we could eat. 

Dark ink against light-colored paper is one of the purest visual technologies of all time.  Have you ever read a whole book on a Sony or Kindle portable book reading device?  I have, and I missed good old light refraction by the fifth chapter (and I missed a coherent plot-line, and a set of consistent characterizations, but that’s another post for another day…).  The light source in the readers is coming from behind the text, and light from outside the device can inhibit readability with glare.

Where does biology meet fund-raising technology and methodology?  In the simplest terms, it means that the font on your Powerpoint presentation is large enough to be seen from the back of the room by middle-aged eyes.  It means that your board meeting food spread includes low-fat protein options for the South Beach dieters and caffeine-free tea for the jittery mortgage brokers in the room.

In more expensive terms, it means real attention to the human-computer interface.  Of particular concern to me is the increasing default to a solicitation/networking format like those in use by almost every illness-based charity in the U.S.  The standard interface of some of the most market-pervasive social networking solicitation products is filled with small-font text-filled boxes and links that are hard to distinguish from the color fill around them.  The contact import function is more text-driven than graphically designed.  Often, one must re-enter the edit pages by re-entering a password, or by going through the entire process of starting from the homepage ( Convio site, I’m looking at you…).

As a demographic litmus, I have created the “Can Jan Scan” test.  My mom Janet, a smart cookie in her 70s, is afraid of her shiny new laptop computer.  She received the laptop as a gift my one of my sisters for Christmas 2007, and she has used it about 35 times.  I have to sneak out of her house to trick her into putting her computer in stand-by mode by herself.  It is unlikely that she will navigate screens and send solicitation e-mails to her friends when all of the screen options are so overwhelming.  So I interviewed her as she took a social networking software test-drive.*

Jana:  Mom, how does this page look to you?

Jan:  I don’t like the colors, but you know I don’t like primary colors.

Jana:  You could change the colors.

Jan:  Oh, then it’s just fine.

Jana:  By ‘just fine,’ do you mean you would create a page and send an e-mail message to your friends to ask them to give?

Jan:  Oh no.  I think the colors could be prettier, and that’s fine.  The other colors glared at me.

Jana:  Glare from the colors and light reflection on the screen, or colors that assume anthropomorphic glaring abilities?  To whom would you send a message about this page?

Jan:  Jana, don’t be a smartaleck.**  I’d send it to people for whom I have an e-mail address — would you write the addresses down for me so I can type them in (my hands are really tired, though, so could you type them)?  But I wouldn’t send it to [names didacted because Mom is a really polite person] because they will turn around and ask me to give right back to something for one of their kids.  I don’t want to owe them anything.  You didn’t ask them to give did you?  You’ve got to tell me about these giving things so I don’t ignore them when I get them.

Jana:  When was the last time you checked your e-mail to see if you’ve been asked to give?

Jan:  About 2 months ago, when you fixed the computer after the screen went blank.

Jana:  For God’s sake mom, you have a better laptop than I do!  How can you not use it for 2 months?  It’s such a waste.

Jan:  Tell me about it.  I wanted a dual-power stove-oven so I can have a cooktop with gas and an oven with electric.  Do you think I should put hard-wood floors all the way into the kitchen?

My whiz-bang tech brain said yes to the wood floor.  But the Can Jan Scan test failed the basic interface presented.  I’ve heard the research — the older crowd is adopting web use faster than any other age group.  Sure, but these folks have physical challenges that will limit their interest and their patience as they try to use high detail density interfaces. 

* I may or may not have spiked her iced green tea to loosen her up, a sort of a grandma truth serum if you will…

** She didn’t say ‘smartaleck,’ if you know what I mean…

Rock, meet Hard Place — at the beautiful San Diego Convention Center!


I'm counting my mileage points...

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As a veteran fund-raising conference attender, I am increasingly struck by the growing disparity in programming validity.  There is a clear gap in the understanding of future industry need between the long-time letter-writin’, stamp-lickin’ NPO staffer and the tech-savvy-er aspiring social media guru.  Ne’er the twain shall meet?

Here’s the challenge I see in conference programming — the gaping maw of leadership development. 

The old guard fund-raisers, those who have spent years building the relationships that have set the standard for major giving results, are looking for that proof of return for the investment dollar in new media.  They are not wrong to do this — ultimately, the measure of success for the investment in any media is the yield it brings.