Six Assumptions Worth Challenging

Six Assumptions Worth Challenging

18 April 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


A few years ago, a Board member complained to me that the land trust wasn’t growing. “We have the same 250 donors we had ten years ago,” he said.

I thought that was unlikely.

This Board member was concerned about permanence. If the “average age of our members gets 12 months older each year,” as another Board member told me around the same time, the work is vulnerable because of our inability to recruit younger people.

The problem with both statements, of course, is that they are not based on data. They are based on feelings. It feels like our donors are getting older because we are getting older, and the people we know are getting older.

So, I did some digging. After all, the data can be had. The first land trust had a renewal rate of about 80% – high enough that I would have been worried about recruitment (which tends to drag down overall renewal rates). Still, over the course of ten years, close to a third of the membership would have been in their first few years of association. The Board member simply didn’t know any of the new (and younger) folks, and therefore assumed there weren’t any.

The second land trust’s membership HAD, in fact, gotten older. I was only able to work with about eight years of data, but the average age had increased from 65 to 66 during that time – and again the problem would have been related to recruitment.

If it was actually a problem.

The Board member was getting older. Not the membership.

By checking out underlying assumptions, we have the opportunity to address more significant problems – like Board members losing touch with current membership.


The process got me thinking about other assumptions we make all the time. Perhaps they, too, should be challenged. Here are another five from me, but feel free to add your own to this list:

Memberships last twelve months. OK, so for the great majority of our members, this makes great sense. It’s what people are used to and it works well with the seasonal aspects of our experience.

But what about memberships that are more on the periphery? Like gift memberships? Or memberships comped with event participation, merchandise sales, or project campaigns?

In each case, we complain about renewal rates and conversion rates being very low. It might be related to the fact that we are waiting a year to request renewed engagement. Could we get better results by “renewing” these “members” after six months? Or four? Or three?

It’s worth challenging.


We can’t raise money because we don’t know rich people. We only know people like us. That’s mostly true, and it’s independent of economic circumstances. Rich people tend to know rich people. Middle- and working-class folks tend to know middle- and working-class folks. We tend to know the folks in our neighborhoods.

Fine, but does that also mean that we can’t raise money? What about people giving $25 who could be giving $100 just as easily. Most people with heartbeats can “afford” $20/month. That’s nearly $250 each year, yet the great majority of our members and donors aren’t giving that much. They also have smart phones, cable TV, and internet service, so “affording” even $1,000 and more isn’t necessarily an obstacle. Are they not giving more because they are not rich? Or are they not giving more because WE aren’t giving more? And therefore because we are not asking?

This bothers me most when we make assumptions about BIPOC communities. We handicap ourselves unnecessarily when we start with an assumption that DEI means “working poor.” Wouldn’t our programs be better served by approaching BIPOC communities as equals?

It’s worth challenging.


Donors are unperturbed by the transaction fee they are asked to pay when donating. Several of the online donation services offer donors an option to pay the “fee” for the service, so that “all of your donation goes to the land trust.” Well that’s just so much BS. All of their donation always goes to the land trust. The question is who pays the fee – the portion of their transaction that isn’t a donation.

I find it off-putting, and I readily admit that it might be a generational thing. I’m donating money to you. It’s a gift. I shouldn’t have to pay a fee to do so. I feel the same way about having to pay a fee to withdraw my own money from an ATM. And I appreciate my bank all the more for reimbursing all the ATM fees charged by other banks.

Maybe it’s just me. But what if it isn’t? What if several donors are similarly off-put? Or many? Or even most? Is collecting the extra $0.75 worth it?

It’s worth challenging.


Mail is expensive. I’ve worked with many organizations that have stopped mailing information and appeals to members based on an economic argument. We save money by cutting back from four newsletters to just two or even none. A renewal letter and three follow-up letters is too expensive. We can mail just one letter and save money.

Isn’t “expensive” always relative by definition? Expensive related to what?

The problem with these economic arguments is that they are based on an assumption that we will raise just as much money when we cut expenses. Spend less, pocket more. And it never works that way. By focusing on the expense, we fail to focus on the NET return – that amount of money we are actually raising in the process. By NOT spending, we will also be NOT pocketing.

Email IS far cheaper than postal mail. But at what cost? Counter-intuitively, when we spend MORE on mail, our donors stay more engaged, our renewal rates go up, we see rising five-year values of membership, and we raise more money – in real dollars – for our programs.

What’s wrong with that?

It’s worth challenging.


People who don’t respond are saying No. There are lots of reasons someone might say NO to our requests for financial support. ONE of them relates to a considered response. “I’ve thought about it and discussed it my wife. This just isn’t something we feel comfortable doing again this year.” You shouldn’t and wouldn’t send that person a reminder letter. Right?

But how many people does that actually describe? Isn’t it more likely that the letter was never opened? Or that it was opened and left on the kitchen table until someone else came along and “cleaned up?” Or that the wrong person opened the mail that day?

Isn’t it possible that a reminder might actually help?

It’s worth challenging.


Love to hear your contributions here. What assumptions are YOU making that should be challenged?


Cheers, and have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by SUNFLAIR, courtesy


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  • Rich
    Posted at 14:54h, 18 April

    Great thinking here David. Thank you. Here’s an assumption I hear often–typically from people who have “served on a lot of boards”: that it is hard to raise unrestricted money for operations. That hasn’t been my experience. The trick, I think, is to tell the truth, in terms of outcomes.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 15:39h, 18 April

      It’s all about the messaging, isn’t it? “Unrestricted giving supports the mission” is compelling. “Unrestricted giving provides critical overhead” is not.

      Thanks for your comment!


  • Jill Boullion
    Posted at 10:59h, 18 April

    Our normal fundraising channels don’t have the option to “add the fee” but the platform we used for our gala last year did. Every single person who either purchased seats/sponsorship/silent auction/donated through that event added the fee. I was a bit surprised by that.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 11:35h, 18 April

      Thank you for the story – it surprises me a bit also. But let’s not miss the point. People will voluntarily add the fee when we ask for it. Maybe even most people. But how do they feel afterward? – all warm and fuzzy for the land trust? Well worth it and ready for more? Or do people feel like they really didn’t have much of a choice? I still find the on-screen pop-up asking for a tip difficult at to-go restaurants. Tips used to be an expression of appreciation for great service. Now they’re rendered meaningless. And I guess it’s a sign of the times. Maybe I just need to get with the program. But let’s say that a dozen people feel this way about the gala. Is requesting an extra 3% from everyone really worth it? Couldn’t we just increase the ticket price by $10 instead? Or just pay our own banking fees?


  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 08:50h, 18 April

    I feel the same as you on the fee issues, though we have it on our website. However, a donor from NYC, older than me suggested it be added!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 09:32h, 18 April

      Thank you so much for the comment! All of these assumptions seem reasonable to someone. I’m not surprised that someone would suggest it. But that person’s motivation is to help us keep more of their money. My answer would be to help them help us by ASKING them to give more money. In the meantime, they are not thinking about the possible downside of “user fees” turning other people off. I just believe WE should think about that.


  • David Brant
    Posted at 07:32h, 18 April

    Another good post, David! Thank you!