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What to Do When the Fundraising Experts Are Wrong

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Every once in a while, I hear from a fundraiser who says something like this:

Our direct mail is not at all the way you say it should be. It’s wordy, complicated, and written at a very high reading level. We bury the ask, we never underline anything, and there’s no P.S. But we’re doing fine. In fact, our response rates are above 10% and average gifts keep going up. Do you experts even know what you’re talking about?

The experts do know what they’re talking about.  But they don’t know your file.

All donor files are different. Some are just plain weird.

It’s especially possible if you’re a smaller organization. You might be flying in the face of everything the experts say, yet doing well anyway. What’s the deal? It’s probably one of these things:

  1. You have a great group of donors who believe in your cause and give a lot, in spite of your fundraising. If you’d follow best practices, you’d do even better than you are now.
  2. You have an unusual, even eccentric, group of donors — and you’ve found an effective way to motivate them that’s different from most fundraising. If you followed best practices, you might not do as well as you do now.
  3. Your donors care about your cause, not the way you communicate. It doesn’t really matter whether you follow best practices or not. They’re going to keep supporting you at about the same level.

If #1 one is the truth, you should start doing things right. If it’s #2, you shouldn’t change anything. If it’s #3, you have some flexibility.

The trick is to figure out what’s true about your donors and their connection with you. (Spoiler: It turns out to be #1 most of the time!)

Here’s how you can find out: Test a lot. If the size of your file is too small for valid testing (that is, you mail less than around 10,000 at a time), then cautiously introduce best practice techniques (just one at a time!) and see what happens.

One test (or try) won’t tell you the whole truth, but you’ll start to see if best practices are best for your donors.

Don’t draw quick conclusions — after all, if you’re doing okay, there’s no huge urgency to change.

Try a lot of different best-practice techniques. A pattern will eventually emerge, and you’ll know the right way to connect with your donors.

If you’re a growing organization, note that the larger you get, the more “normal” your file will be — that is, the more likely the best-practice techniques will work.

Think of the advice of the experts as what’s most likely to work for most organizations, most of the time. It’s possible we’re wrong about your donors. But before you write us off, make sure you know for sure!

Find out some of the amazing best practices of direct mail fundraising by taking my 7 Steps To Creating Record-Smashing Direct Mail online course that is available to all members of The Fundraisingology Lab.


  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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