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February 10, 2020

Are You Overcomplicating Your Donor Communications?

3 key questions to ask yourself before customizing your approach.


Remember the days when donor journeys were linear? You would send a donor a letter in the mail, and she would send a check back to you in the mail.  Her communication-to-gift experience was easy to track.

We all know those days are long gone — and for the better! With the dawn of digital communication, the fundraising landscape changed dramatically, and donor journeys are far more robust. (Although donors’ hearts haven’t changed.) Your donor may still send her gift via check in the mail — but that gift was likely influenced by multiple touchpoints: a mailing, a social ad, your website homepage banner, a billboard …

Today’s vast communication landscape provides fundraisers with infinite ways to customize their communication strategy. From personalization and variable content to segmenting and donor preferences, the sky’s the limit. But with all of the best intentions, a strategy meant to create more meaningful interactions can sometimes become overcomplicated and produce the opposite result.

So, before you invest in another layer of complexity, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is the juice worth the squeeze? You could research every single donor on your file and write them a personal letter that is completely unique and custom to their life. But, of course, you can’t do that because the revenue generated wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of the increased staff you would need to make this happen.

    This is an extreme example, but the same question can — and should — be posed for any strategic discussion around customization.

    In some cases, creating a more personalized experience will yield higher results. In that case, invest! However, in many instances, that outcome “juice” just won’t be worth the investment “squeeze.” Before you sink time, talent, and treasure into a custom approach, make sure you think through what the return would need to be to cover your investment — and then monitor your results to ensure it’s a strategy you could or should continue into the future.
  2. Can we honor that? This is so important. Just like personal relationships, your donor relationship is built on trust. You provide her with opportunities to make the world a better place, and she trusts that you’ll use her gift to make it happen. On the flip side, the quickest way to erode that relationship is the mistrust bred by lack of follow-through.

    If you choose to provide donors with custom communication options (i.e., receive one mailing per year, only receive newsletters, limit emails to one specific topic, etc.), make sure you have the right tools and the right logic setup to fulfill that commitment. The more you break down your communication options, the more important it is to honor those preferences. If you’re not confident you can fully manage an option, don’t make it available.
  3. Can my actions meet my intentions? Customizing communications sounds great on paper — and in the excitement of planning, it’s very easy to walk away with amazing intentions but limited resources.

    As an example, let’s focus on major gift prospects. Many nonprofits, with the very best intentions, overload their major gift portfolios. You want your committed mid and major donors to feel special, and rightfully so! But if your case load is so large that your Development Officer(s) cannot regularly communicate with every one of these special donors, you’ve very likely replaced consistent annual fund communication with loneliness.

    Before you adjust a donor’s communication strategy, make sure you can follow through on your intended plan. If your case load is already full and you won’t have time to steward the donor in question, leave her in a situation where she will continue to hear from your organization until you reach a point where you can actively communicate with her.

“Simplicity is complexity resolved.” — Constantin Brancusi

There are many ways to make your strategy more complex, but “complexity” is not necessarily “better.” In fact, the best recipe for success often comes from the clarity of a simplified plan. 

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