My email inbox is still sore from its Labor Day weekend workout.

As predicted a hyperbolic tsunami of email flooded forth from candidates and causes on both ends of the political spectrum.  Failure to respond would result in an end to the world,  a more dangerous and rapid rise in fascism (or socialism), and basically the end of everything the reader cherishes.

Fortunately, if enough of those readers responded by midnight on that day their donation would be matched 10X thus averting some apocalypse.

I suspect most recipients of the most outrageous of these messages simply hit the delete key, vowing vowed never to give  to that Sender. Many no doubt also searched for the small print of “unsubscribe.”

While I find this kind of digital sludge annoying (and sometimes even ridiculously humorous here at The Agitator we do worry about the longer-term effect of too much, too frequent email, postal mail and most every channel of communication.

Digital is a bigger worry because there’s far more of it.  “Worry” not just because there’s too much of it, but the quality and value of so much of it is worthless bordering on infantile.

Enough whining and warning.

Apart from those who produce the politically oriented flood of messages those organizations seeking to be around after the next election cycle should be paying conscientious attention to the frequency of communications.

FREE Ain’t Costless


Deliverability.    Let’s quickly address the notion –and a significant cause – of digital promiscuity.  It lies in the mistaken belief that it’s free.  No ink. No paper. No stamps. Just hit the ‘send’ button on that platform  or CRM we’re already paying for.

Leaving out the cost of staff or creative talent, the  big hidden cost lies in the damage that’s being done to deliverability and results. Years ago we warned that the helter-skelter ways of most digital campaigns result in increased undeliverability and increased reputation damage for your organization among the providers like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.  This “spam rate” translates into an average cost of $24,000 a year for the average nonprofit and that’s from a study done 4 years ago by EveryAction.

As the Googles of the world grow more sophisticated in identifying and blocking bad practices and unresponded-to emails the spam rate continues to go up and income goes down. Deliverability and spam rates are nuanced and detailed topics but it’s well worth your time to understand them. ( Here and here.)

As Nick Ellinger pointed out in our post on deliverability, “If you were somehow assigned to Dante’s eleventh circle of hell and had to personally filter emails for spam, you’d see that an email was the third from an organization in one day and the 12th from any organization with the word ‘match’ in the subject line and you’d drop it into the trash like it was an 800-pound maggot.  Same thing with the email delivery systems’ spam filters.”

Volume/Frequency.  Regardless of what you think about email or direct mail or any other channel every fundraiser these days needs to challenge the status quo because nothing is more dangerous to our future than acceptance of the status quo.

Our series, Ask Less, Make More, is a perennial “favorite” of those who hate to have ‘best practices’ challenged.  And so, we ask, “Why do results decline as volume goes up?” I urge you to do the same whether you’re looking at email, postal mail, text, or any other channel.

Cannibalization.  At a basic level, each new communication cannibalizes results from those communications around it.  Looking at one study here, researchers found that each additional mailing generated 1.81 Euro in revenues, but that 1.21 Euros of that was cannibalized from future mailings.  Thus, only 37% of the revenues that are “new” when you add a mail piece are from that mail piece.

To quote the authors:

“A charity maximizing its own revenues will stop mailing once the marginal additional revenues – the direct revenues minus revenues lost through cannibalization – exceed the costs of sending out the mailing. Cannibalization is estimated to be about 63%, so mailings are profitable for the charity as long as the costs are lower than 37% of the revenues.”

That’s a passable answer to “how many mail pieces should I send out” if your goal is to maximize net revenues.  (Of course, it ignores any customization or personalization to fit the donor which you should do, but it will at least give you a default rate.)

How many times in my direct mail career did I mail a piece where the costs exceeded 37% of revenues?  I’ve done it a lot.  I was looking at marginal net revenue, which is a good measure, but I wasn’t testing the alternative – what would I get if I didn’t mail the piece?

That cannibalization is massive.

But why is there cannibalization?  Put bluntly, irritation.  Another study found that donors who have increased frequency to direct mail have increased irritation, decreased goodwill, and decreased likelihood of giving, quarter over quarter.  Here again, I’ll let the researchers speak for themselves:

“[Donors] who donate frequently are less likely to donate in the near future.  These findings are not only stable over time, but also replicate across two large data sets.”

Donor Dissatisfaction. When donors get too many communications, they set up defense mechanisms. This insight from a study titled Defensive Responses to Charitable Mail Solicitations.  These mechanisms includes lists of when they donated to a group of charities.  The more mail they get, the more they agree with the statement “I feel I must protect myself from the mail I get from charities.”

And before you email marketers think you’re immune from defensive responses, look at your open rates, your click-through rates, and the industry deliverability rates.  You are facing digital versions of these analog defensive responses.

When the Institute of Fundraising in the UK surveyed donors about charities asking often, here were their results.  Note the lack of positive news for asking more often:


Click to enlarge

Further interrogating these data, why do donors get irritated from solicitation?  Twenty percent of all comments to nonprofits are about too many or the wrong type of communications.

Listening to donors who ask to be removed from lists turns up three camps:

     1.“I never asked for this.” These are largely people whose relationship with  an organization started in one channel and the organization tried to move to another.

  1. “Why are you wasting your, and by extension my, money?”The tone of these comments is generally disappointed (“I don’t need snail-mail reminders; email is fine. [Organization] doesn’t need to waste paper and postage on me. Is there a way to be contacted by email ONLY?”), but sometimes pleading (“I am a committed [organization] donor. I regularly encourage others to donate to [organization]. Please stop sending me mailings. I will donate when I want to donate. Wasting paper and postage does not improve those odds. Please stop sending me mail! I am a teacher so my employer cannot match a donation. There is no reason to send me mailings. Please stop them! Please!”
  2.  “I tried, but this is too much.”These are constituents who don’t mind getting communications – they mind getting communications in what is to them an absurd amount.  And rather than request reduced communication like our people in the next category, they were so turned off by the experience that they just wanted out. One unretouched response: “DO NOT SEND ME ANYTHING IN THE MAIL. PLEASE DO NOT. EVERY SINGLE TIME I DONATE I ALWAYS GET MAILERS. STOPPPPP!!!”

It’s psychically painful to turn down a funding request.  Your donors believe themselves to be good and want to believe you ask an appropriate amount.  So, when they turn you down, there’s cognitive dissonance: they are a good person doing a bad thing to an organization that does good things.  The response to cognitive dissonance is to change one of these conditions.  And let’s face it, it’s easier to believe the organization is wrong rather than yourself.

But for too many fundraisers, it’s fine to send out 16 mailings, 36 emails, and four telemarketing campaigns asking for money and get 1.6 gifts per year .  That’s why so many in our trade believe that if donors renew their support at a rate in line with the stagnant industry standards, and make more upgrades than downgrades, and can acquire more new donor grist for the mill, it’s a good day’s work.

And so, too many fundraisers say, “If the donors don’t want the appeal, they can trash/not answer it.  Each appeal that doesn’t work has helped build brand and issue awareness and speeds the day the donor will give.”   Each snowflake in the avalanche pleads not guilty.

Each of these unanswered missives is painful to the donor.

This, at a donor level, is why volume is not a strategy.