Saturday, December 1, 2012

Better to Give Than Receive?

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on.....................................

Christmas giving and Future Getting:
The Christmas ethic is that it is better to give than to receive.  We have, for a long time, counted on that altruistic inclination to help us raise money.  That said, while there is a kind of spiritual satisfaction in giving, in truth, most of us like to receive too.

We are in the end of the year fundraising frenzy where everybody in every field is making a pitch for donations to support their worthy causes.  Email inboxes and mailboxes are jammed with appeals.  We in the arts compete with a wide swatch of worthy causes in this highly competitive arena.

There is no shortage of advice (or theories) as to how to maximize these campaigns, and increase the bottom line.  But what works for one, may not work for another.  What works at one point in time, may not work at another.  We need more reliable data and analysis on which to base our conclusions and then actions.  And we need to investigate new and untried strategies if we are to stay ahead of the game.

I wonder if perhaps a reverse sort of appeal might work.  Instead of asking for support - especially from that contingent of supporters who have given a little, and from whom we seek to get more - what if we were to give those people a present without asking for anything in return?  What if we were to identify those who are past marginal supporters (those we really want to convert to bigger supporters) and said simply that we want to thank them for being involved with us, and really want them to be more involved with our organizations, and so we are pleased to give them a present during the holidays - perhaps a voucher for two tickets to a future performance or exhibition of their choice.  No strings attached - except that we hope they will come to want to be more familiar with us.

In terms of being gift givers, we really do it all the time, when we break down giving into certain (Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze et. al) levels, each with something given in return for support at the given level.  And the most successful Kickstarter and other crowd funding appeals always offer a quid quo pro return for the help.

The idea of offering a gift for a donation as a thank-you has been around for a long time.  The theory is that people will be grateful and thus more likely to give more.  Some studies suggest the opposite is true:  that “the prospect of receiving a gift activated a feeling of selfishness which, in turn, reduced altruism and hence cut the average donation.”  But rather than advertising the thank-you gift in advance, would giving something (seemingly) for nothing be an effective fundraising tool or mere folly?

There is the added benefit, when giving a gift with the organizational logo on it (coffee mugs, calendars, desktop items etc.), of working the brand.  When I was in the music industry, this kind of merchandising worked well.  A coffee mug with an Aerosmith logo on it, would sit on a radio programmer’s desk all year - a visible message to all who saw it - and lots of people saw it.

Is it possible that an approach of giving a gift with no immediate simultaneous “pitch” attached to it - followed up after they redeem their voucher - with a specific thank you and then a plea for support - might yield new returns that would otherwise not have materialized?  The question, of course, is would the cost of such generosity justify the potential that it would result in a net gain?  The other question is:  would we be squandering the peak period of giving by following such a course?

And here’s an idea along the logo gift lines:  How about ordering piggy banks (you can get them customized with your logo in different sizes pretty cheap online), and sending those to your supporters and asking them to keep it on their desks and add their spare change over the course of the year (and encourage others to do the same) and send the proceeds to you the following year (or in six months or whenever).  A year long reminder to keep your organization in mind (or even an "annual" ongoing fundraising tool?); an easy way for people to help you; and a branding device too!  If you could get a local artist to use the piggy bank as a canvas (remember the public painted Cows in Chicago, or the Hearts in SF?), you could suggest your supporters send you the money and keep the collectible piggy bank art as a gift.  Maybe if it worked, you could add a new collectible art piggy bank every year.

This idea is more in line with the “freemiums” strategy - e.g., the appeal letter includes something like personal address labels, note pads or holiday cards - which theoretically obligates the donor to give because you have sent them something; a hybrid freemium and pitch.   Some studies indicate that freemiums bring in new donors, though those are small donors and they are difficult to turn into consistent donors.  What if that theory were taken to the next step - a gift without the “ask” included, or the ask comes later?

While it may be risky (and at this point not timely) to mount some huge experiment along these lines, perhaps it might be worth a small pilot to test the hypothesis that increasingly asking for support has a better chance of success if  we are on the giving as well as the receiving end.    The piggy bank idea, or some variation thereof) could go out anytime really.

There are lots of questions about whether or not quid pro quo gift giving works, and lots of evidence to suggest it does - and perhaps doesn’t.  The evidence on freemiums is mixed.  Not much evidence on whether a no-strings-attached gift giving strategy might work.  More data would be helpful on all theories, particularly about “our” donors when compared with other nonprofit donors.  How different are the behaviors of various donor constituent groups?  And what affect, if any, does geography, education, ethnicity, income-level, gender, age or any other classification have on that behavior?  For our sector as compared with other sectors?

I don’t know.  We need to know.  This is yet another area of research that we ought to be undertaking.

And we need to consider and either embrace or reject a range of strategies (based ideally on more data and reliable conclusions based thereon) to compete in the current marketplace.  The tried and true rules of fundraising are doubtless changing.

Have a great week, and may your holiday fundraising exceed your expectations.

Don’t Quit