Your Questions, Our Answers on Starting Over with Individual Donors

By Roger Craver, JD and Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

The questions below were asked by attendees at our “Starting Over” webinar of April 21, 2021 which you can listen to here.

The questions are fascinating, and we hope you’ll find our answers equally so. The webinar focused on the new rules of individual giving fundraising.

We welcome your input as well by posting on our blog.

(P.s. – Make sure to click on the question to view our answers!)

Q. Beyond the goal of direct fundraising, how can direct mail be best used to motivate two-way exchanges and responses from donors?

Everyone loves getting mail –including millennials—you can use it to say thanks, to recognize a birthday/giving anniversary, send a survey, a photo of a project they helped fund, a note from a beneficiary, a volunteer, a program person.  All of this says, “You, Dear Donor, make a difference with your kindness and generosity. Sending mail also sets-up the likelihood that the donor will welcome your phone calls.

Q. Are old fashioned letters a better way than email to reach donors, especially older ones?

300+% better.  That’s why in the commercial world direct mail has grown 43% a year, while digital is down or has plateaued. Here are two Agitator posts that you’ll find helpful.  Here and here.

Q. What are tips for getting donors attention in an email?

Writing powerful emails is an art. Here are three tips. One tip is to focus the subject of the email clearly on one point, not multiples. For example, it’s better to say that you’re experiencing a spike in demand for your food pantry, as opposed to quoting stats on the overall crisis of hunger. A second tip is that there should be a clear action step, and that action should be stated in the first sentence of the email. A third tip is to resend the email to those recipients who have not opened it within 48 hours. Your email service can explain how to know who hasn’t opened them. This last step alone can increase your response rate.

Q. You mentioned that building fundraising infrastructure could be done with borrowed funds. Where would we borrow it from, and what do we use the borrowed money for, and how would we invest it in development?

You can borrow it from your bank…from the Small Business Loan Admin—from your endowment fund…from a donor…perhaps a well-heeled board member. 

Use the funds for acquisition of more donors/members…for better donor care, retention efforts…establishing a moves management program, for upgrading your CRM and for hiring staff and/or consultants.  I guarantee you’ll get a far better return on investment in fundraising than in the stock market or certificates of deposition.

Here are two Agitator posts – here and here—you’ll find helpful.  Plus, here’s an Agitator Guide for calculating return on your fundraising investment.

Q. What kinds of communication are best for major donors versus mid-range donors?

Both can be the same.  Most donors want information about the impact of their gifts and the importance of their generosity.  Generally, the larger the gift the more information.  In 40 years of running major and mid-level programs by mail, I’ve found that packages with longer letters, packed with goodies like photos, notes and board memos work best. 

Don’t buy into the nonsense advice that “we shouldn’t bother our wealthy donors with this kind of junk.  Donors are donors.  They all – regardless of their gift size – care about your impact.  Care about being thanked.  Care about being recognized.  Care about being involved.  In fact the larger the gift the more likely the desire to be involved some way.

Think of the kind of communication your mother or best friend would appreciate and then do it for your donors.  Mail.  Cards.  Videos.  Photos.   The works. Laurence speaks of what kinds of gifts to send to donors here.

Our answer also applies to the reader who asked, “Q. How can we recognize donors who give more than three times a year in a special way?” Q. How do you tactfully ask if a donor or funder is vaccinated if we want to explore meeting with them in person?

I start by disclosing that I am vaccinated, that I was lucky enough not to have a reaction, that we’ve asked all of our employees to verify that they are vaccinated. And then I pause. Usually the person self discloses. In fact, I have not had an experience of one not disclosing. However, if they do not disclose, I suggest saying this: “I respect your privacy if you’d prefer to not share your vaccination status with me. Do you have a view about that?”

Q. Are video messages an effective cultivation message?

A short 90-second to three minute video is extremely effective. We know this from fundraising surveys conducted by the Association for Fundraising Professionals and other reputable researchers. Your videos must provide an emotional hook about your mission or program. The video gives you a way to show, not just tell, how awareness and money can truly help.

It’s proven that people are more likely to watch a video rather than reading a lot of text. According to Vidyard, people are 12 times more likely to watch videos than they are to read text. The brain processes video much faster than text and it’s often more enjoyable to watch a video versus reading, proving why video is such a powerful storytelling tool.

Incorporating nonprofit digital storytelling into your fundraiser pages, updates, and social posts is one way to boost your message and encourage not only donations, but awareness as well.

Q. Is text to donate an effective method to fundraise?

Yes.  Particularly for urgent causes to known donors. (That’s the reason it’s widely used in politics and disaster relief)  You can’t make much of a case or provide much detail in a text, but you sure can sound the urgency bell.  Don’t overdo it.  Use judiciously when things are really urgent, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. While we don’t have an opinion about which service to use, many nonprofits have found and to be reputable providers.

Q. How can we segment donors without spending so much time on the data analysis?

There’s always the danger of ‘analysis paralysis’ and you’re wise to be aware of this as seen by your question. If you go to the Agitator’s Archive and type in “Segmentation” you’ll find a treasure trove of ways to go about this.

The easiest, cheapest way is to use predictive analytics—far more accurate than RFM or demographic segmentation. And far less expensive.  I recommend DonorTrends where they’ll do this quickly and cheaply for every type of program—from second gift, to monthly giving, to mid and major level giving, reinstatements and planned gifts.  Takes about a day, costs just pennies. LAPA Fundraising can also provide you a proposal for this work.

Q. What suggestions do you have on ways to move away from direct mail?

Don’t move away.  In fact, if your organization is like most, you should be doing more mailing, not less.  See these posts for reasons why. Here and here.

Q. What are the best sources or journals to read on the behavioral science of donors?

Quite selfishly, but equally in all honesty.  I’d read the Agitator.  Our Partner DonorVoice employs a staff of behavioral scientists and also has a team of academic behaviorists.  The application of behavioral science is specific to various fields and fundraising is no exception.  On the Agitator there’s a section where you can ask questions and in our Archives you’ll find scores of articles on behavioral science and fundraising.

Q. Ways to show donors how they make an impact?

Impact reports are terrific ways to explain your impact. Here’s an example of one we did to showcase the impact we made to raise $4.25 million in 22-months. Notice that it’s a two minute read. Additionally, we’re big fans of the impact report templates at

Q. How do we ask major donors to meet with us again (or for the first time)?

Andrew Navarette of the LAPA Fundraising team shares six points about this issue that are a must read.

The six points also apply to this question: Q. We’re still in a PANDEMIC. How do we manage that in our donor cultivation plans? We can’t just ignore it.

Q. How do we figure out the right level of donor segmentation? We have the feeling that each donor is so unique!

Every donor is indeed unique.  And one-size-fits-all messaging and segmentation, while practiced by nearly everyone, is a mistake.  To be truly effective you should segment by donor identity.  For example, if you’re an animal charity separate dog people from cat people and message them differently.  There’s a  ton of important insights and testing on Donor Identity in the Agitator Archives of the Agitator.  You should check out the categories “Donor Identity” and Segmentation.”

Q. Is there a problem with giving donors too much information?

In terms of quantity and frequency there can be overload.  I’m not speaking of long letters (they almost always work better than short letters) I’m thinking of dumping huge and random quantities of communication too frequently on donors.  Here’s an Agitator post you may find helpful. Plus under the category “Communications” in the Agitator Archives there’s a treasure trove of goodies on the subject of Donor Communications. The key is giving them the right and relevant information to meet their needs and preferences.  This is why understanding donor interests and identity is so important.  (See the Agitator Archives and check out the categories “Donor Identity” and Segmentation.”)

Q. How do we manage the perception of zoom fatigue while that is still the optimum way to communicate for now?

We think the key is asking the donor for a time when they are most available and free. Laurence often asks donors, “Is there a time on a certain day when you are most free to talk at leisure?” The point is that it isn’t so much about Zoom but about their emotional availability.

Q. How to explain & justify the amount of time it takes to steward a portfolio of individual donors.

It’s interesting to me that you use the word justify. Ouch. Is that how it feels? I assume you’re reporting to a CEO or a Board Dev. Cmt.? I am all about accountability and documenting the engagement steps I use to cultivate a donor. I often just use the report function built into whichever donor software I am using. I also have used a well-designed excel spreadsheet to report on closed prospects, prospects in cultivation, prospects under research, etc.

Of note, managing 25 to 40 major donors at one time, and then cycling to a fresh batch is about standard for a major gift officer at any one time. Annually personally cultivating and soliciting 250 to 400 major donors is about the workload of one major gifts officer.

Q. How do you approach donors currently without a Covid focus?

For many donors the imperative of your mission is sufficient. One example I recently encountered was from a national science center. They asked the same question. Their science work was not Covid related. I suggested that they gather testimonies from their donors under the heading “I Believe In Science” and share those testimonies far and wide. Speak to your mission urgency. 

This answer also applies to the reader who asked this question: Q. How do you best encourage your donors to share the joy they have in supporting the organization with their friends and colleagues?

Q. How do you approach introducing a monthly giving program now?

I always look forward to when M+R Strategic launches its annual benchmarks. It just released this year’s edition, and you can find the full report right here.

As you can see, and as I’m sure you expected, it was a great year for digital engagement in general. I, of course, tend to focus on monthly giving developments. You can find that data on this specific page, along with some charts. Great stuff.

Let’s establish why monthly giving is so effective. Here’s the good news from 2020:

            Revenue from monthly gifts increased by 25%.

            Revenue from one-time gifts increased by 37%.

            Monthly giving accounted for 19% of all online revenue in 2020, down from 2019. (Source: M+R Strategic Research)

Monthly giving is a key program for the future.  Period. Roger has done a four part series on this beginning here, plus pretty much every month we have additional tips and advice.  You can sign up free to receive the Agitator in your email inbox. 

Harvey McKinnon’s How to Create Lifelong Donors Through Monthly Giving is also a good resource.

This answer also applies to the reader who asked this question: Q. What advice do you have in getting donors to stay engaged and/or become monthly donors?

Q. How do you recommend customizing donor communications for large lists where we have little background info on interests/issues?

Unless your organization is prepared to invest in the smart move for assuring its future, it’s basically cursed to wallow in slow/no growth mediocrity by resorting to the common “one-size-fits-all” school of fundraising.

Those nonprofits that have bit the bullet, developed the patience, the skillset, and made the investment are thriving. 

Q. How do you start the conversation with a new prospect?

I assume you’ve done a prospect research profile on the donor, otherwise you probably are not ready to talk with them. In the research you will see what other charitable causes they support and at what level. Understanding their affinity with your mission (if any) is a key place to start, after getting to know each other in a friendly and professional way.

Q. How do you determine whether someone is a good potential prospect?

You must conduct donor research. You can read all about that here. If you write Laurence privately and tell him about your current donor pipeline he will send you a free PowerPoint on the benefits of prospect research.

Q. How have capital campaigns changed?

Many of the old rules about campaigning have changed because of prospect research, because of digital fundraising, because of the role government funding can play in your campaign. Overall, our sector still does not do enough campaigning. Campaigning is a major gifts drive on steroids. Laurence writes about this in Chapter 12 of The Nonprofit Fundraising Solution. It’s a must read if you want to know how campaigns have changed. LAPA is also planning a webinar on this subject so stay tuned.

Q. How is asking via Zoom impacting the new rules?

Zoom has often made it easier for donors to meet with us. It’s easier than arranging to meet at a café or at the nonprofit’s site. Zoom, like the phone, truncates communication. We generally only take 30 to 40 minutes by Zoom whereas in person we may spend an hour or two. Zoom also allows us to bring more key people into the meeting more easily. They can meet your program director or even a client for part of the call. This Chronicle article will shed more light on the subject.

Q. How much segmentation is needed to identify & cater to different types of donors?

Frankly, the more the better.  The best type of data is First Party data, and you have to deal directly with the donor to get that.  There are other sources called “proxy data” which might work well for you.

You might want to explore the category labelled “First Party Data” in the Agitator archive for current thinking/testing on all this. LAPA’s president, Michael L. Taylor, CFRE address this question here.

Q. How many categories of donors is too many?

Every donor is unique.  Fortunately, their identities and personalities do fit into groupings.  The question for most organizations is how many categories can be effectively dealt with.  Some organizations prefer categories by size of gift – general, mid-level, major, planned giving, monthly and deal with the categories that way.  However, aspiration as to gift size or type still requires knowing the donor’s identity, needs and preferences. Laurence adds the segment TRANSFORMATIONAL DONORS applying to the 1% of your potential donors who can give gifts 5 to 10Xs a major gift.

When onboarding a new donor seek her preferences right from the start.  Here’s a classic example of how to do this well.

Q. If a donor gives to you regularly, more than once a year, but in a small way, when is good timing to ask for a larger gift?

It may never be the time to ask for a larger gift. It all depends on their capacity to give, and their affinity with your work. For donors with lower capacity, think about asking for a monthly or quarterly commitment of a great amount.  Think about calling the donor to thank them for their regular commitment and tell them about new needs or additional opportunities.  Listen carefully.  Are they interested or not.  The move toward a larger gift begins with seeking information—listening.

There’s a reason most successful fundraisers were created with two ears and one mouth.

Q. If we are improving our donor communication, how do we get long-time donors to not think we are spending a lot of money doing so?

I think this concern is a thing of the past. Maybe you have fresh feedback to say differently and I respect that. However, you surely don’t want to enter the marketplace with poor quality materials. That will certainly not be wise. I suggest focusing on producing quality four color materials that are graphically powerful and stand by them if questioned. But seriously I have not gotten this question from donors in eons.

Q. Should you send your direct mail/ email appeals to your major gift’s society members?

Absolutely.  Well, let me qualify that a bit.  Too many organizations think they shouldn’t send that ‘junk stuff’ to their top donors.  Nonsense.  Because it’s often the best ‘slice of life’, ‘slice of the organization’ information.

What I often do is send the direct mail, low-dollar appeal (without the low dollar response form) to the major donors letting them know this is a communications we’ve just sent to other donors who haven’t been as generous as they, but wanted them to know what we’re doing.

And, for heaven’s sake, don’t limit the communication to your best donors on the poor belief that ‘we shouldn’t disturb them.’

Q. What advice do you have in reaching out to get new donors?

Speak to their affinity with your mission. You can discover what that affinity is through conversation with them. Also, define the steps for a cultivation roll-out, and automate those steps through your CRM or email vendor and direct mail house.

Q. What are overall considerations in donor stewardship during this hybrid era?

Same as they’ve always been, except do a bit more.  Care about their well-being…report on the good things they’ve helped the organization accomplish…ask for even more in this time of increased need.

Q. What are the top three takeaways from this “Starting Over” webinar?

  • Invest more money in donor acquisition and retention—now while money is so cheap.
  • Spend time and money on getting more information about individual donors.
  • Stop the nonsense of assuming one-size-fits-all and start tailoring messaging and asks to individual donors.

Q. What are some ways to build better relationships with donors?

Donor surveys are essential. Here’s a sample donor survey that you can modify for your own use.

Q. What are the top five things you should know about your donors?

  • Why they give.
  • What’s their connection to your organization.
  • What is their preference for communication – mail, phone, internet, personal meeting.
  • What is their ‘social capital’.  Are they on social media and will they become your advocate.  Nothing more trustworthy than one friend to another.
  • Use more, not less, direct mail.

Q. What does it mean to be generous to your donors?

Thank them.  Have a Donor Service function that is truly responsive.  Ask for their feedback and opinion.  Recognize them on various giving and personal anniversaries.  Report on the impact they’re making.  Have a donation page that doesn’t require the Rosetta Stone to figure out.

Most important:  Seek –and listen—to their feedback.  Here’s a link to get you started.

Q. What is the number one rule on engaging individuals?

The Golden Rule.  Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

Start a relationship.  Ask their opinion.  Respond to their questions.  Thank them.

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

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