We may be great fundraisers … but we don’t know it all

By Pareto Fundraising Team

It’s a well-known piece of advice: “What gets measured gets done: what gets measured and fed back gets done well; and what gets rewarded, gets repeated.”

If I were to apply that quote to fundraising it would translate to: “The best way to find out what works best is to test. Don’t guess. Be disciplined and let data drive your strategy.”

High performing charities test. And often that can be the difference between having a good fundraising program and a great one. Those not-for-profits consistently ensure that every piece of valid testing undertaken has been rigorously applied to improve the performance of their fundraising programs.

It’s one of the great joys of direct response. You can test what counts and get a definite result. You can test your assumptions (or those of your well-meaning board, staff or even donors) to strengthen the performance of your program one step at a time.

Plus, testing allows you to:

 – Test new angles and opportunities for your acquisition and retention programs. Both online and offline.

 – Test existing programs. Donor behaviour changes all the time so you can’t assume that past tactics will continue to work.

Don’t test the small stuff

At Pareto, we always recommend that our clients commit to a program of sustained and rigorous testing and improvement.

Because, without it, you really are just stabbing in the dark.

But, before you start a test program, it’s important that you’re very clear on what you’re setting out to test. And that every goal is concrete, measurable, achievable and worth doing.

Test the big things that may have a significant impact on future income. Don’t waste money and time on small things where you will probably see no real difference. Things like whether a signature on a letter should be in blue or black pen or who is the signatory.

And one that I can’t emphasise enough is don’t test the things that decades of fundraising research have already established, like:

– Long letters out-perform short letters

– Emotionally engaging stories work better than statistics

– Sad photos perform better than happy ones

– If you thank and report back, a donor is likely to give again.

Instead, spend your time and your money finding out the things that you don’t already know.

Is short-term or long-term testing better?

You should try to do them both.

Much of our short-term testing revolves around acquisition (the outer envelope, the offer, the ask levels etc). And there’s no doubt that if you test correctly it will help you improve your results.

Yet, we also know that many of the fundraising issues of today could be solved if we stabilised our existing donor base first. If we improved our second gift rate. If we delivered the service our donors want so they become regular givers, high value givers and then ultimately, bequestors.

To make that happen you have to commit to test your supporter communication program on a larger and long-term scale. And if you test well, it’s likely to have much more impact than, for example, the statistically significant 0.05% increase of your acquisition pack by making a change to one element.

So, don’t just focus your short-term testing on your acquisition program. Look to long-term testing to find out how to keep the donors you have. And find more like them.

Build a test bible for the future

When it comes to testing – just like retention – you have to be in it for the long haul.

So, one of the most important things to do is to build a testing calendar. And then have a mechanism and a plan in place to record your test results over the long-term. That way, whoever comes after you in your role has access to that information.

Create a ‘test bible’ and pour into it everything that you have learned through testing … what worked, what didn’t, by how much and when. And make sure its easily available to anyone in your organisation.

What if my donor base isn’t big enough to test?

If your donor base is too small to give you statistically significant results (as a guide, you need to be able to generate at least 300 responses in each test category) then research and find out what has worked for others. In many cases the notion of what you would like to test has already been established by other fundraisers.

And, no matter what you think, and what other fundraisers will tell you, many of your donors give to multiple charities, so their behaviour is likely to be the same.

Go to workshops, training, conferences and get your knowledge online. Look to fundraising blogs to learn from what other fundraisers have done. Fundraisers love to share so there is always plenty of testing insights to be found.

As an example, here’s a case study from Pareto Talk on how the Children’s Hospital Westmead added digital to their direct mail appeals with great results.

And check out SOFII for showcases of fundraising innovation and inspiration.

If you want to find out more about how to build a proven step-by-step testing program then email Kerren at kerren.morris@paretofundraising.com or call on 02 8823 5842. We offer a range of short-term and long-term testing packages that will help you understand better exactly what you need to do and exactly how to do it.

8 things we’ve learned about testing

1 – Test what’s likely to make the most difference
2 – Only test one thing at a time
3 – Keep it simple
4 – Record everything rigorously in your ‘test bible’
5 – Note external factors e.g. time of year, weather, external events
6 – Define concisely your results from each test
7 – If the difference is not clear, test again
8 – Test across different channels to build learning.

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