So what exactly do Unicorns, Loch Ness and Big Foot have to do with your fundraising, huh?

The answer?  Well, they’re just as mythical as the following 6 assumptions you and others in and around your organization might have about your fundraising program.

1. If a donor makes a gift, you should let them rest for a time before soliciting them again, or you’ll fatigue them and they won’t give again.

I think this myth comes from two places.  First, it is likely derived from the old school annual campaign model that suggested the goal in nonprofit fundraising was literally to secure an annual gift from a donor.  And once that contribution was made, you didn’t ask the donor again until the next campaign year.

Secondly, I think it comes from a desire not to be seen as greedy.  We don’t want to offend someone who has just made a generous contribution by asking them for another.  It just doesn’t seem like the gracious way to treat someone.

Here’s the problem with both of these issues . . . they are squarely in opposition to what the results say.  We’ve tested this time and again, and the bottom line is that recency of last gift is the single greatest indicator of a donor’s likelihood to make another gift to your organization.

So you’ve got a significantly better chance of getting a contribution from the donor who sent you a check 3 weeks ago than you do from the donor who last sent you a check 3 months ago. 

If your organization let’s donors rest between solicitations, you’re taking a risky gamble – and you’re gambling with your clients’ futures. 

2. Most donors only want to hear from you every other month.  Or once a quarter.  Or less.

This is probably the single most dangerous assumption you can make.  And what’s worse, some so-called experts tout survey research that suggests donors don’t want to be solicited by organizations they support on a regular basis.  HOWEVER, you need to know that these surveys, and the opinions of well intentioned staff, board members and volunteers are not accurate. 

It is true that some donors will not want to hear from you every month.  You will get donors who tell you that you mail them too much.  But don’t generalize what those few (usually less than 2%-3% of your file) and turn it into an organization-wide policy.  If you do, you will lose revenue in the short term, and your retention rates will fall each year that you cut back on your appeal schedule.  And lower retention rates means less long-term revenue, higher rates of donor attrition, and increased acquisition costs. 

So for those donors who do express frustration with your solicitation schedule, go ahead and reduce the frequency of solicitations you send them.  But please, don’t modify the schedule for your entire donor base.  It will have a significant negative impact on your organization.

3. You, your staff or your board members “know exactly what your donors want.”

I wish this were true.  It would make fundraising so much easier!  But the reality is, you probably don’t know what your donors want.  Many a well intentioned nonprofit executive, front line staffer or board member have made changes to fundraising appeals, newsletters, or overall strategy because they “know exactly what their donors want.” 

Unfortunately, when this happens, it usually ends in failure.  And that’s because usually there are assumptions driving these beliefs, and those assumptions are rarely rooted in factual results-driven analyses.  I’m not saying you don’t know your donors better than the outside world.  And I’m not saying that your intuitions are always wrong.  However, what I am saying is, just because you believe something to be true doesn’t necessarily make it true. So don’t risk your organization’s current and future income by acting based on assumptions and gut feelings.

If you believe strongly that your donors want or need something different, the best thing you can do (for them and your organization) is to test it.  A simple A/B split test will tell you if your gut feeling was right.  And if you’re right, use those test results to convince the rest of the organization that you need to make change.  But if the results of your test indicate otherwise, you need to be ready to put that gut feeling aside and keep moving in the direction that delivers the results and income your organization needs.

4. Major donors should NEVER receive your direct mail.

This is a sweeping generalization that could rob your organization of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Let me illustrate with a story I just heard from a client a few days ago.  There is a donor to a social service org in Texas who gives $10,000 each year.  In the years when the organization has their gala event (they do it every other year), that donor makes a $10,000 gift at the gala.  However, in the years off years, that donor sends her $10,000 check in response to their Christmas direct mail appeal.  If they were to automatically remove major donors from the mail stream, they’d risk losing this $10,000 gift every other year.  And more importantly, they’d risk the relationship with this donor going cold.

I’m not advocating that your major donors receive all of your direct mail appeals, or that they receive the same appeals that donors at the lower end of your file get.  What I’m saying though, is that you can’t pull these donors out of the mail stream just because they have more money than your other donors. 

5. Acquiring donors can be cheap, easy and anyone can do it.

Recently I’ve seen several blog posts about the relative ease with which anyone can build a nonprofit donor file.  And worse yet, some of these even suggest that building a donor list can be done cheaply. 

Oh, how I wish this were the case.  It would make the fundraising so much easier.  But this is rarely the case. 

The reality is, building a large, high-value donor base is a complicated, costly process.  Chances are you can get people to register to receive your e-newsletter, or sign your online petition, or even to give you their name and contact info when they participate in one of your low cost events.  But just because someone shares their information doesn’t make them a donor.  The process of identifying large numbers of people who not only believe in what you do AND are willing to support your cause with their hard earned dollars is not as simple as some would like you to believe.  Identifying and acquiring high-value donors in any significant quantity takes expertise in media planning, buying, creative development, marketing, etc.  These are not aspects that should be left up to volunteers or inexperienced staff.  In fact, if there is one aspect of your fundraising that you would consider outsourcing, I would suggest you make it donor acquisition.

6. Planned giving is only for big nonprofits that can afford to hire experts.

FALSE!!!  And this myth could cost you millions of dollars.  Here’s the reality . . . the majority of all planned gifts come in the form of simple bequests.  You don’t need to have a staff of financial planners or lawyers in order to solicit and accept bequests.  In fact, pretty much all you have to do is let people know that they can designate your organization as a beneficiary in their will!  If you’ve been holding off on launching a planned giving program because you thought it required an expertise level you don’t have on staff, think again! 

You can begin asking donors to include you in their will in your direct mail, newsletters, online, and even through telemarketing.  One of the best ways to do this is by asking an existing planned gift donor to provide an endorsement that you can use in your marketing efforts.  The more you promote it, the more successful your planned giving efforts will be.