When creating donor ask systems at your non-profit, it is important to remember this basic fact: not all asks are created equal.
At many small and mid-sized organizations, when the topic of donor asks comes up, someone (often a member of the board) will often say, “Let’s just send out a letter.” When the organization does, the returns are frequently less than what had been hoped for. The reason for this is that the non-profit was looking for the type of return that are only available through personal asks, but decided to replace those asks with a mail appeal.
Fundraising letters and e-mails can be effective as part of an overall development strategy, but they are “easy” asks that can never be a replacement for more personal, one-on-one asks. In-person asks are always more effective then letters and e-mails one simple reason: because they are more personal, and fundraising is all about relationships.
What is the Hierarchy of Fundraising Asks?
The general rule of thumb in fundraising is that the more personal an ask is, the more effective it will be. This means that at the tactical level:
In-Person > Phone > Snail Mail Letter > E-Mail > Mass Broadcast
Thus, an ask made in-person will always be more effective than an ask made over the phone. An ask made over the phone will be more effective than an ask made through a snail mail letter. An ask made through a letter will be more effective than an ask made through e-mail, and an ask through e-mail will be more effective than an ask that is mass broadcast through social media, newspaper advertising, billboards, etc.
As you can see, the more personal the ask, the more successful it will be. The one corollary to the hierarchy laid out above is that the younger your prospect, the more likely it is that e-mail and snail mail letter are reversed. For older donors, snail mail letters often feel more personal than e-mails. But many younger donors think of snail mail as “junk mail only,” because they rarely get any personal letters through the mail. Thus, for younger donors, e-mail can feel more personal than snail mail.
Where Do Events and Other Tactics Fit In?
Upon seeing the hierarchy above, many fundraisers ask where fundraising events, walk-a-thons, and other development tactics fit in (e.g. are events more effective than asks over the phone, etc.) The answer is that the hierarchy above applies to all other fundraising tactics.
For example, if you are holding an event, asking someone to sponsor the event in-person will be more effective than asking them over the phone, which will be more effective than mailing them a sponsorship appeal, etc.
Figuring Out a System Based on Your Bandwidth
One final point: when creating an ask strategy for your non-profit, it would be easy to simply say, “in-person asks are the most effective, so let’s do all of our asks in person.” That would be easy to say if you had unlimited staff, with unlimited time, wielding an unlimited fundraising budget. But of course, that’s not the case for your (or any) non-profit.
Thus, you need to build a donor ask system based on your bandwidth… you need to take an honest look at your resources and say, “ok, we have the staff, time, and budget to do 10 donor visits per month, 25 donor calls per month, and send out 1,000 pieces of mail per month,” or whatever works for your organization. Then, your team can sit down and figure out, as part of your strategy, which donors will get the visits, which will get the calls, which will get letters, etc.