What difference does a GREAT fundraising case study make? $37K.

Call me a nerd. Go on, I admit it. But as a creative director, I love nothing better than grabbing a fistful of results and looking back over a DM appeal to see what did … and didn’t … work.

Great results, after all, are nice. But repeatability? That’s gold.

Sometimes it’s easy. A blank envelope pulled X% more response. The inclusion of a premium gave a Y% boost. It was Z% more effective to have two lifts instead of one.

And at others, it’s more challenging.

How can you tell the difference, for example, that something as immeasurable as the quality of a case study makes?  Usually, there are too many variables to arrive at a sensible conclusion.

But every now and again, the stars align and you find out something wonderful. This was one of those times.

Recently, I was reviewing two appeal packs, sent out a year apart to warm donors for a long-term Pareto Fundraising client.

The packs had arrived on my desk with an interesting note from a colleague:

“One appeal drew $25K in gifts from $1000+ donors, while the other drew around $62K from $1,000+ donors. Stuart, can you see why?”

Geek activated! I was busting to find out.

First things first, the client for this appeal is extremely rigorous with their data and testing. Their list is immaculate. So, the fact that this was coming to me as creative director said that they’d already eliminated that path of enquiry.

What then could it be? I had a look.

The packs were near like-for-like in almost every respect. The letters were the same length and had been written by the same copywriter. And very well-written at that.

There were enough asks. The urgency was evident. The appeal allowed the donor to see themselves as the agent of the change that needed to be made.

There were the same number of lifts, following similar themes. The response mechanism was clear and understandable, with comparable dollar handles. The reply-paid envelope was exactly the same.

They’d been mailed at the same time of year – although, as I mentioned earlier, a year apart. And in production and design terms, the packs were functionally indistinguishable.

And yet one had outperformed the other by $37K.

When I got into the guts of the letter, the difference was immediately apparent.  Each called on a case study about a client of the charity – a real person whose story embodied their work, the need and the good that it did.

Both, I had to say, were very powerful case studies. But one was just a little more moving than the other.

One told the story of Jason (names, symptoms and other details changed for courtesy and professionalism), a mid-50s father with a young family who had survived a brush with a particularly rare and nasty manifestation of a serious disease.

It was terrifying and, simultaneously, relatable. That could have been me, or my brother, or my dad, or one of my friends, or everyman.

I thought to myself, surely this is the appeal that has pulled the higher donations. Then I read the other.

It told another story of Elouise (again – names, symptoms and other details changed for courtesy and professionalism), a young sport-loving woman in her late teens, in the prime of her life, and the very vision of her family’s pride and hopes.

Once again, she was the victim of a rare and unexpected disease but, in her case, it had brought about her untimely and tragic death. And, as if that wasn’t heart-wrenching enough, her story was told through the eyes of her stoic, grieving mother.

This, I discovered, had been the story that had drawn more donations.

Perhaps being older and female, donors had identified with the mother and had been more moved by her point of view.

Or perhaps youth outperforms middle-age. Or female outperforms male. Or perhaps it was something else.

For my mind, I think the raw emotional content had been the difference. Elouise’s story was ultimately the greater tragedy, the greater illustration of the need, the greater opportunity for the reader to step in on the side of good in an unimaginably terrible fight.

Emotion had won the day in both letters – as it will against pragmatic logic every time – but more emotion had won more of the day in Elouise’s case.

I can’t say how it might have performed against a lesser case study, but in this case – where all else WAS equal – it had made a huge difference. A 260% difference.

So, how do you choose a case study to support your appeal? Simply, I say. Follow your very human heart. All the way to the hanky in your pocket. The more the story makes you feel, the harder it’s likely to work.

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