Comes the (Electronic) Revolution

Comes the (Electronic) Revolution

It was bound to happen eventually. I just wasn’t quite ready for it.

I recently delivered two seminars in Pennsylvania on the topic of direct mail. I was specifically interested in helping PA land trusts get more from their membership and annual giving programs by sharing the costs of a robust direct mail recruitment program.

And there it was – buried in the comments section of the evaluations:

Presenter is 16 years removed from practical work, and some of the suggestions were not current, or I felt were inaccurate.


I don’t have any context for the comment because no further elaboration was offered. I assume the author was referring to the use of direct mail as an effective method of recruiting first gift donors, because that was the point of the seminar. S/he was the first to blame my age, however, which is why it smarted.

And I’m not going to take this stooping over!

Dr. Stan Temple was a board member with whom I worked closely at both The Nature Conservancy and Sand County Foundation. He shared with me that once upon a time, his doctoral students did all their research work in the Library. Today, virtually no one does. The transition period from all to nothing was two years.

I’m convinced that there will be similar revolutions in all sorts of disciplines – including possibly direct mail recruitment of new annual donors. And I’m ready for that revolution to happen relatively suddenly.

It just isn’t happening now. And it’s not happening yet.

The confusion may very well be related to the stated objectives. I’ve always been looking for people who will give every year, steadily increasing both their emotional engagement and their annual gifts, periodically contributing a major gift to a particular project or two, and ending with making a bequest gift.

I haven’t necessarily targeted Millennials – who reportedly are more likely to respond to an email or social media message than to direct mail. In fact, many people who seem to fit the above description more neatly appear to be in their late 40s and 50s.

The problem as I see it is that we’re not keeping track of data that will support either doubling down on direct mail programs or converting to recruitment strategies that are more dependent on electronic media.

So here’s a thought: why don’t we all start collecting the raw data that will help us recognize the revolution when it happens? Here are the raw data points that need to be collected:

  1. The recruitment source. Someone makes a first gift. Where did they come from? What did they respond to? Did they receive something in the mail, click on a Facebook ad, find you on the web after hiking on a preserve, or attend an event? And WHICH letter/ad/webpage, or event? Be as specific as you can be. (Sometimes, if you can’t tell, you can ask!)
  2. The gift data. Date, amount, restriction, form (cash, check, credit card), and so on.
  3. How much it cost to recruit them. This is easier than it sounds. Simply divide the total costs across the number of members that were recruited.

If you’re like most organizations, you collect data related to the gift only, and ignore data about where donors came from or the costs associated with recruitment. So we really don’t know whether the “suggestions are current” or not, and we won’t really know when and if the revolution actually occurs.

Beginning in January of 2017, I will be working with at least three clients who can begin keeping this data, and I promise to publish their results, even if I have to hide their names to do so.


And I invite you to join me.


In the first year, we’ll be able to report how many first gift donors have made gifts, how they were recruited, how much it cost to recruit them, and how much they gave. By the end of 2018, we’ll have initial renewal rate and upgrade giving information to report. And over time, we can report on the net return on recruitment investment by source.

Maybe we’ll do a Rally presentation together sometime with the data.

Are you “in?” If so, let me know at David (at) DevelopmentForConservation (dot) com.

And when the data eventually does prove me wrong, I’ll respond as hundreds of elders have before me – by pretending not to hear you.





Photo by Redd Angelo courtesy of

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Will I see you at Rally in Minneapolis?

  • Booth Table – Come find me!
  • Workshop Session C03, Saturday 3:30-5:00pm, How to Write Better Fundraising Letters
  • Workshop Session D03, Sunday 8:30-10:00am, Development Committee Makeover


* * * * *


Fundraiser’s Almanac
Here’s what I’ve been thinking about for October. What are YOU thinking about?


Donor Appreciation Events

For a significant number of organizations, donors giving at least $1,000 as their membership gift account for less than 10% of the donor base and more than 60% of the operations funding. Time to say THANK YOU! Time to get the most out of your appreciation events!


Getting that First Fall Appeal Letter to the Post Office

Mailing this early means that you can get a reminder letter out before Thanksgiving, and if you are inclined to send out a third letter, you will still have time to drop it before Christmas. BUT, If you will be mailing after October 20 or so, know that your results will be somewhat affected by the election mail. Mailings dropped after November 15 will have better results that mailings dropped between October 20 and the election.


Acknowledging Non-Cash Donations

I am NOT a tax advisor, and I am NOT an attorney. However, with that critical disclaimer:

Acknowledge any gift with a sincere statement of appreciation for what was actually given. For example,

  • Thank you very much for your gift of $35.
  • Thank you very much for your gift of 25 shares of XYZ stock.
  • Thank you very much for donating your 4-wheel-drive truck.
  • Thank you very much for volunteering to help us with the mailing last Saturday.
  • Thank you for donating a homemade meal for 6-8 people for the auction.


Taking Stock and Beginning to Plan for Next Year

Given what you know right now about what foundations, corporations, and individuals have committed, and what you know right now about what requests are still out there, and what you know right now about the requests you will yet write before 12/31, can you still project meeting your fundraising goals and getting to each of the budget numbers? If not, where will each number end up? If you wait until December 20th to figure out that you’re going to be short – it’s too late. Forewarned is forearmed.

Share this!
  • Peggy
    Posted at 09:21h, 28 October

    Hi David –

    Queen of the Afterthought. As one of the fortunate attendees of one of your PA seminars I am reviewing my notes and another question from those notes.

    You mentioned keeping track of not only how much it costs to recruit a new donor, but how much it costs to “serve” them (renew them).

    Again, a general list to help me begin to understand how to quantify this, because this seems a bit more nebulous. The cost of membership events over the year? The cost of membership communications? Other costs?

    Thanks –

  • Peggy
    Posted at 09:14h, 28 October

    Hi David –

    A few questions I am thinking about:

    1. For the “easier than it sounds” recruitment costs, can you list the items we should be considering in the total cost? I am including outright physical supplies, printing, mailing, design cost for new acquisitions from a direct mail. But what about staff time? What about volunteer time?

    2. Sometimes we get a brand new donor and we don’t know the source. I currently have a category “unknown”. Is that the best way to go?

    3. For return slips, I think there are ways that we can better code them to know where they come from and we aren’t making assumptions, or they aren’t “unknown”. But we aren’t there yet. However, sometimes we send a mailing, and people will then seek out our website and donate online. I think this is rare at this point, but it happens. Should we be asking them the question, “how did you hear about us”? What if they aren’t specific, and we don’t know which campaign? Am I splitting hairs and getting too detailed here? (It happens!)

    Looking forward to learning and refining some of our data collection techniques and metrics.


  • David Allen
    Posted at 12:14h, 26 October

    From my email In-Box this morning:


    Saw your blog post. I’m in. It’s stuff we have to figure out how to do anyway. I am concerned with how I can connect and manipulate data in our remedial donor software; so take that as a caveat. We know we need to upgrade our software, and we’re getting evaluation on the schedule. But diving into this is going to help us understand what data and information we really need to put in and pull out of donor software, which will help us make a good choice. So it seems like a good time.

    And hey, I’m 16 or so years removed too. But you know what – that’s not always bad. For example, I’m hesitant to jump on the bandwagon for cloud-based donor management software. It would be SO convenient. Remarkably convenient. However, as an old-time IT nerd, I’m hesitant to put all of my eggs in the depending-on-someone-else’s-infrastructure basket.


  • David Allen
    Posted at 09:10h, 26 October

    From my email in-box this morning.


    We’ve been keeping tracking of where a new donor comes from and the costs associated with the mailing/event, etc, so we’re in! Like so many things, diversification seems to be key, reaching out to new donors via multiple methods – events, mailings, emails, etc, and realizing that it takes multiple touches and could take several years to capture someone’s gift. I think we’re still finding that direct mail is the most effective way to bring on new donors.

    We have 3 direct mail campaigns we’re doing this year and I’m really excited about one in particular, to the Town of Dunn. Next year is our 20th anniv of partnering with the Town on their Rural Preservation Program. We co-hold 27+ easements with them and almost 3,000 acres. They’ve given us their Dunn newsletter mailing list of ~2,000 residents at no cost. We’re mailing to them now and will do the same next year.

    See you at Rally,


  • David Allen
    Posted at 09:52h, 25 October


    Let’s acknowledge up front that the data will not be perfect.

    With that said, my answer is that you do the best you can, try to be as consistent as possible, and remember that this is a qualitative exercise more so than a quantitative one. A year or two from now, you’ll want to know how the various entry point strategies perform against each other and how they might change over time – not necessarily what they are absolutely and precisely at some arbitrary point in time.

    Thanks for writing, and Cheers,


  • David Allen
    Posted at 09:51h, 25 October

    From my Email In-Box this morning:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your recent post regarding data. I am into collecting as much data as I can – my challenge is when someone clearly is responding to a current appeal and yet sends in some old appeal slip or responds by going online. What do I call that? Yes, the gift may have come to us online but they clearly received x appeal in the mail from me. Or vice versa: they send in a direct mail appeal and yet they received an email from me most recently. So I am attempting to catch both streams of data and yet it is challenging. Any thoughts?