Should fundraisers be feeling fine?

Published by James Long on

Ever heard the joke about the statistician who put his head in an oven, feet in a freezer and confidently claimed “On average, I feel fine”? It came to mind as I read the recent UK report from the NCVO, ‘Charities relationships with donors – a vision for a better future’.

Along with fundraisers from a variety of countries, I spend a considerable time quantifying and making sense of how donors perceive their charity experiences and relationships. And within the NCVO report I was drawn to one very important metric, the proportion of charity supporters who answer they want fewer communications.

Given criticism over recent years, it’s heartening to see that 67% of UK donors believe the level of communication received from charities they support is ‘just right’ and 12% who say it’s ‘not enough’. 21% say they receive ‘too much’. It would appear just like the statistician we can surmise that on average, we should feel fine, 21% doesn’t seem too bad. But our summation may hide potential dangers.

What if the 21% were your most valuable supporters, or even legacy pledgers? What if the 21% were those that also supported you’re closest competitors?   What if those 21% tended to come in via certain recruitment channels – what then?

Across the globe fundraisers painstakingly calculate channel and creative performance to an incredibly precise level, how many can take even a wild guess at what proportion of their supporters want less communications – and more importantly how does that figure differ across their supporter groups?

We took the liberty of examining that 21% further.

What 33,000 donors told us.

The 21% figure is based on 796 donors Harris Interactive surveyed on behalf of NCVO. We compared this to the same question we asked to 33,729 UK charity supporters over a four-year period. Over that time the average proportion wanting fewer communications is 17.90% – remarkably similar to the 21%, given the very different sampling sizes.



Looking at our responder data we see how the proportion saying they want less communications has changed from 15.1% in 2013, right through the media storm, to a peak of 18.6% in 2015 and dropping to 18.2% this year.


Note – the figures in brackets represent the volume of respondents to the question that year


One of our key findings is that when it comes to supporter expectations, experience and satisfaction there are significant differences within a supporter base. One clear area is age. Year after year, the older the supporter, the fewer communications they want – under 45s rank at 13.5% whereas 65 and overs are at 20.5%.


Perhaps most interesting is how wide the difference is between the most committed and the least committed supporters.   It’s in this attitudinal score, rather than by profile or behaviour, that we see the greatest difference.


Commitment bands are based on each person’s commitment score, which is comprised of their answers to a six item scale that include factors such as trust, satisfaction and involvement


The bigger the picture the better the view

The degree of difference between supporters shows that having an overall average for any experiential or relationship metric is not the complete picture. It doesn’t enable charities to properly implement targeted strategies.

I’d argue, as do others, that fundraisers from all sectors and across all countries need to question our over-reliance upon defining relationships by RFV metrics. Instead, we should supplement transactional segmentation with how supporters feel about their relationship. Not everyone will have the same expectation of their relationship, nor have the same level of satisfaction. It’s about time we created supporter experiences that reflect this rather than relying entirely upon their behaviour to define types and frequencies of communication.

Reducing frequency isn’t always the answer.

Upon finding that a fifth of its supporters want fewer communications a charity’s knee jerk reaction may be to reduce the mailing frequency. But I’d suggest this doesn’t tackle the root problem. We’ve compared the ‘want fewer communications’ metric for charities with very different mailing frequencies. And in some cases those charities mailing less frequently had a higher proportion of supporters saying they wanted fewer communications. Conversely, those mailing more often had less supporters wanting fewer.

How do we make sense of this? One answer becomes clear when we compare each charity’s overall supporter commitment score, which includes experiential factors such as trust, satisfaction, importance and involvement. In each case, the higher a charity’s commitment score the lower the percentage of supporters saying they wanted fewer communications – regardless of mailing frequency.

Whilst it’s good to investigate how supporters feel about their relationship, I’d suggest keeping a close eye out for significant differences among supporter segments or profiles. And if you identify segments with poor scores think hard about how you can change their supporter experience to build commitment, rather than simply reducing their communication programme.

James Long

James has worked as a strategist within the UK fundraising sector for over 15 years. His main area of interest is supporter motivations. James is currently working with UK based fundraising agency DMS to develop a better understanding of how the sector can create more meaningful supporter experiences. He’s also a member of the Advisory Council for the Rogare Think Tank at Plymouth University, UK.

1 Comment

Rob Lavery · October 6, 2016 at 17:36

You treat ‘mail’ as if it’s one monolithic thing. Is it a combination of thank you letters, holiday cards, ask packages, newsletters indicating how donors’ money is used?
It’s nice to see an attitudinal quotient in there, but I suspect that survey respondents’ answers don’t always reflect their behaviour. As in the question regarding how donors value the tax benefit of making a donation always ranks very low – I highly suspect this isn’t the case. So when you ask a donor if they’d like less mail, their reflex is to answer, o yes please – don’t waste my money on sending me more mail. But if you asked if they’d like to receive information on how their donations are being used to benefit the client base, they would be eager to see that.

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