I can’t tell you the number of meetings I’ve attended over the years focused on the topic of fundraising. Time and again, I’ve heard truisms about the topic that turn out to be nothing more than myths.
Looking back, there are several reoccurring beliefs that keep popping up. There are many differing schools of thought, however, so I reached out to fundraising experts and asked them to support or debunk these beliefs. Their advice was solid, wise, and, as usual, spot on.
Here are three of the most popular myths, and what experts say about them:
Myth # 1.Go completely digital, because print is dead.
Mary Cahalane, from Hands on Fundraising, believes that at first glance, going digital seems cost-effective and modern. But she cautions organizations to think again.
Direct mail is still very much alive, for one reason: its response rates are far stronger than email. Direct mail averaged 5.3% for house lists. That compares to 0.2% for email! It can take thousands of emails to generate a single gift. Yes, email is free or cheap to send. But if you don’t get a strong response, you’re just wasting time.
Direct mail requires 21% less cognitive effort on the part of recipients. Why? For one reason, you can actually feel it. (Don’t disregard the power of engaging your audience’s senses!) Another reason is that the content of a direct mail appeal stays in one’s memory longer. And while email may seem a better idea for younger audiences, young professionals aged 18 to 34 have one of the best response rates to direct mail campaigns.
Direct mail is still alive. But you don’t have to choose! You can boost your results by using direct mail and digital together.
Myth # 2. We need younger donors because our older donors are dying.
Gail Perry of Fired-up Fundraising says, “The average age of a major donor these days is 80-89 years old. The people who are making the larger gifts to nonprofits are boomers and older — they are the people who have educated their kids, paid for the necessities in life, and now have discretionary money.”
In addition, remember that only 1% of assets in the US are held in cash. The rest is in the form of stock, financial investments, real estate, etc. — which can all be donated as well. Neglecting your older donors cuts you off from potential estate/bequest gifts, and also cuts you off from the largest donor pool of all.
Of course you want to be nurturing new donors. But you also want to be developing your current (older) donors for larger and larger gifts.
“I believe in fishing where the fish are,” Gail says. “I fish where the money is, where people are really interested and have capacity. I'll be nice to the younger people, and keep them engaged, but I will be ‘all over’ my older donors who have funds right now.”
Gail adds, “I need to change the world now, so I need donors now. I can't wait 20 years for the millennials to get to the ‘giving age.’ So I go where the money is now. You want to spend your time where it’s most productive. That means with your older donors.”
Myth # 3. All we have to do is make people aware of us and they will give. We’re the best-kept secret.
Simone Joyaux of Joyaux Associates says, “First and foremost: People pay attention to what interests them. And no matter how visible a thing is, if I’m not interested in that thing, I won’t pay attention.”
Simone shared a family story to illustrate her point. “One day, my sister calls me, all excited, and tells me, ‘MSU is playing in the final four of the NCAA basketball championship.’” Simone was unimpressed.
Keep in mind, there’s only one MSU in Simone’s family life: Michigan State University. It’s where their dad was a professor, and where they all went to college. So, not getting the reaction she expected, Simone’s sister tried to explain what a big deal it was — how MSU had made it through the Sweet 16, the Elite 8 and the Final 4. And now, after a month of intense competition, they had earned the right to play in the final championship game.
Simone understood all that. But she still didn’t pay attention, because quite simply, she just didn’t care.
“I’m not interested in any sports anywhere, of any kind,” Simone explains. “I never have been, and don’t think I ever will be.” That is her position, no matter the wall-to-wall media coverage, or how aware other people may be about March Madness. Even a topic with the highest visibility won’t get a response, if the audience doesn’t care about it. The same is true, she says, about fundraising.
Not just overrated, but also overpriced
Hmmm… Let’s test Simone’s theory: When I’ve asked North American audiences if they’re familiar with the United Way, everyone says they’re aware of the organization. But when I ask: How many of you give to the United Way?, usually less than 50% raise their hands. This isn’t a matter of visibility or awareness; it’s a simple matter of interest.
But visibility isn’t just overvalued by many fundraisers — it’s also very expensive to attain. For example, do you remember when Apple (the company, not the fruit) was new and unknown? Think about how visible the organization is now, and how much money and time they’ve invested (and still invest) to maintain that level of awareness.
Now think about your organization, and imagine how much advertising money and effort you would need to invest to increase your visibility. And then compare that level of effort and reward with simply doing good fundraising. For Simone, the answer is clear: “Stop focusing on visibility, and do so now! Instead, just focus on really good fundraising.”
Wise words from three wise people in the trenches. The bottom line: stick with really good fundraising!
Discover three other fundraising myths to avoid in Part 2
Many thanks to these experts for their insights:
Mary Cahalane of Hands on Fundraising
Gail Perry of Fired Up Fundraising
Simone Joyaux of Joyaux Associates