Seven Things We Hear Often that May or May Not Be Helpful

Seven Things We Hear Often that May or May Not Be Helpful


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I’m going to delay another week reporting back to you on the 5-year-value data I’m collecting in hopes of getting information back from a couple more land trusts who participated last year. The results are interesting thus far, but I don’t want to influence their decision to participate by presenting the results too early.

If you are willing to participate – and participation is intentionally anonymous! – here’s what I need from you:

  • Isolate the members and donors you have who made a first gift to your organization at some point – any point – during the calendar year 2014.
  • Now add up everything that group has given to your organization – as a group – since then.
  • Send those two numbers to me – the number of donors and the total amount they have given. The email address is David (at) DevelopmentForConservation (dot) com.


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It’s not uncommon to have helpful voices in our ears repeating ideas they have heard that we should try. Never mind that the single most effective strategy any of us could employ is to make giving personal by getting on the phone and meeting donors in person.

All of these ideas are well-intended. Almost all of them have at least some merit. But most are, at best, distractions. I will quote Jeff Brooks here, and repeat that “Not all new ideas are automatically good, but not all traditional ideas are necessarily bad either.”

So here are seven of them. Please push back if you have data you can share.


Challenge Grants really work – you should find us a challenge grant


Challenge Grants DO work, which is part of the problem. And if someone comes to you and offers you a challenge grant, I suggest you use it. But there is an opportunity cost involved in going out looking for one. What could you be doing instead (like getting on the phone and meeting donors in person?) that would result in raising more money? Further, there is at least some evidence that challenge grants can be used too much – that you are actually training your donors to wait until there is a challenge grant available before making their gift. This may erode giving support in the long run.


Newsletters are too expensive and they waste paper – ENews works just as well


Newsletters ARE expensive, so when times are tight, they stick out in the budget as something that could be trimmed. Email and ENews seem more attractive because they cost less. But do they work “just as well”? The evidence would suggest not. Paper newsletters are more likely to be kept and shared in every sense except, notably, in the marketing of events. At best, ENews is a complement to paper, not an equivalent replacement. Further, paper newsletters can be effective sources of giving support. Why not retool the newsletter into a more and more effective tool for funding? This is one of many examples of untested conclusions: ENews is just as effective as paper News. Instead of blindly accepting it, why not test it?


I know a great graphic designer who will do our appeal pro bono – she will help us raise more money


Does she have specific expertise in using graphic design to help raise money? Or is she offering something that will serve more to showcase her graphic talents? The problem with in-kind contributions is that they are free. So, we’re tempted to accept them just for that reason. Regardless of whether they are actually helpful. A great example is donated wine. We should accept donated wine for donor events only if we can choose it or at least control the quality. Often donated wine is borderline undrinkable. A donor event almost anywhere in the country will be better served by the would-be in-kind donors giving money that you can use to buy better wine. The same is true of graphic design. Be the expert in what will or will not work best for your donors and feel free to reject even free stuff that won’t work quite as well. Or at least test it!


People join because they get involved. We need to go out and get more people involved.


This is a variation on the “If-you-build-it-they-will-come” theme. It’s true that some people join because they get involved. Others join even without getting involved. And there are plenty of people who get involved and think of their involvement as a replacement for giving money. All of this is a distraction. Giving IS involvement! Involve as many people as possible, but also specifically ask everyone – even those who are NOT involved in other ways – to give.


Direct mail doesn’t work anymore – you need a social media strategy


Both of these statements are true to some extent, but they are NOT connected to each other. Direct mail is not working as well as it used to – especially for recruitment. But there isn’t another strategy that even comes close to working as well – including social media. Two data points really stand out for me here: I don’t know of any land trust that has more than 1,000 members that does not use the mail for recruitment. And the land trusts I DO know that have the highest penetration rate into their communities are mailing to every single household in their communities. And what about the second part – that you need a social media strategy? Well that’s easy to agree with regardless. And maybe – just maybe – the purpose of the social media strategy should be to gather names and addresses that you can mail to!


Telephone calls just irritate people


People who say this don’t really mean it the way they say it. What they really mean is, “Unsolicited telephone calls from people I don’t know that come in right when we are sitting down to dinner to ask me for money and are designed to make me feel guilty just irritate me.” That’s easy to agree with. Fortunately, you can pick up the phone effectively without doing all of those things and be very effective: inviting people to events, calling attention to something they might have received in the mail, saying THANK YOU!


I wouldn’t read a four-page letter, therefore no one will read a four-page letter


The metric should not be whether someone would read the letter. The metric should be whether people will respond to it. I have long promoted the idea that longer letters raise more money than shorter letters. And I fully accept that this is a difficult theory to test because of the need to keep all of the other variables constant. But each time I have tested it, the longer letter performs better. For what it’s worth, I accept the idea that no one reads the four-page letter. I just don’t care.


What do you hear?


Cheers, and Have a great week!




Photo by Walt Kaesler



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1 Comment
  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 07:17h, 19 February

    All good points that i agree with. Some made me chuckle and go yep, been there, tried that!