Fundraising’s Rule of Three

By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

Many readers write in with questions and Laurence responds on our blog, but this one he wanted to feature because it frequently arises.

  1. A reader inquires, “How many times should I keep asking a prospective donor, or a renewing donor, to meet with me before I give up?”

From, Mary, Director of Development for a large cultural organization

  1. Mary, have you ever heard of the Rule of Three? It applies to your question and to fundraising from individual donors in general. There’s something magical about three. Think: The Three Musketeers, The Three Little Pigs, or, on a larger scale the Trinity, the three aspects of a unified God.
  2. The Latin phrase, omne trium perfectum (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the Rule of Three. And another blogger offers this list of familiar triads: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” “Government of the people, by the people, for the people;” “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…”

The point is that things that come in threes are inherently more compelling, more satisfying, or more effective than other multiples. To Mary’s question: In fundraising, we try three times to pursue a donor for a meeting, and then, if they’ve been non-responsive, we stop and let them direct what comes next. Of the three times that we try to reach them (“touches,” as my marketing friends would say), perhaps a phone call, or a note in the mail asking them to come for a tour, or a note saying that you will be calling soon, or asking them to call you, or three phone calls or emails in a row, each time waiting a week in between, or whatever the formula is, the point is to make the attempts and see how they respond—or not! Because we don’t want to be a nag, we stop after the third attempt. By the way, at LAPA we always make sure that postal mail is among our three attempts because we think a physical reminder still works.

We never actually give up on donor engagement, but after our third attempt we let our client’s continued presence and donation platform speak for itself.  The donor list will continue to receive your newsletter and direct marketing letters and emails, so, we hope, that at some future point when that errant donor is ready to give again, he or she will. In fact, there are many stories of donors who stopped giving later in their lives, perhaps when they shifted to living on a fixed income, and then, upon their death, the nonprofit received a nice planned gift.

So try three times to seek to meet with your donors, and then move on in the hope that they themselves will pick up the phone when it makes sense for them to do so.

Have you used the Rule of Three in attempting to contact donors? If so, what’s been your experience? Or do you have a different approach to this common dilemma?

We welcome your comments about this post on the LAPA blog.

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