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…


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