The adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is, of course, nonsense.  A metaphor so often used as an excuse to adapt and change.

Kevin’s post on Doggy Personality got me thinking even more than I usually do about change and risk-taking,  His post outlined how a donor file could be tagged, at scale, with individual donor Personalities thus providing the opportunity to deliver messages and images tailored to a particular donor’s Personality.

My guess is that very few folks will follow up and give this latest development a test even though we know from experiences that breakthroughs like this have enabled some fundraisers to reap impressive rewards.


A lot of the excuses in avoiding change through innovation are rooted in two main reasons:

  1. Fear that moving away from the status quo and conventional business-as-usual practices may lead to not making this year’s numbers.


  1. So much of our direct response trade –online and offline– is trapped in the cult of volume that relentlessly leads to a one-size fits all approach.

Without question it’s a lot easier to sign a purchase order for an extra two or three appeals than it is to reach out to donors to find out “why” or analyze a file for personality and then tailor future appeals to reinforce that “why”. And far simpler and presumably “safer to keep doing the things the same old way rather than pose new hypotheses or theories to be tested.

Of course, the penchant for hanging on to the status quo lies in the horribly mistaken belief that the least ‘risk” lies in maintaining, not challenging the status quo. It’s that sort of misguided belief that led many organizations to drag their feet in investing in and improving their digital capacities –and then the Covid-19 Pandemic hit leaving them in the lurch.   And then, with virtually free money available post-pandemic they refused to borrow the very low-interest funds that would have enabled them to grow at little or no cost before interest rates spiked.

“Best Practices” Aren’t Forever

Moving forward with new innovations is the way all trades and professions advance. Modern medicine, for example, evolves and changes somewhere around half if its “best practices” every few years.  Yet direct response fundraisers continue struggling with unchanging “best practices” where volume rules…where readily observable data like RFM rules…and where donor attitudes are gauged using survey techniques employed in the late ‘70s.

It doesn’t –and shouldn’t be this way given the improved and proven results that research, and testing have uncovered in recent years. Innovations that can easily be tested through ‘pilot projects’ that don’t expose the entire fundraising program to unknown risk and thus protect “meeting this year’s number.”

Little Understanding of Failure

In my experience a good deal of the resistance to change is rooted in the reality that  fundraisers (and boards, CEOs, and CFOs) have very little  understanding of the risk and cost of FAILURE.

In facing an uncertain future it’s helpful to understand that the default position for most of our sector is to resist experimenting with innovative tools and processes because we insist that ‘It’ – the ‘It’ being a predictive model, a new online tool, a new multi-channel process, changing the composition of a board, seeking donor feedback, improving donor services, you name it — be 100% correct, 100% of the time. Otherwise, forget it, we’ll just stick with the same-old-same-old, thank you.

Failure Rates of Status Quo Techniques

Of course, we arrive at such a silly belief without the foggiest idea of what the ‘failure rates’ are on the techniques and technologies we’ve been using — without questioning — for years.

The examples are nearly infinite.  Here are but a few.

  • We reject the use of predictive models because they only work 80% of the time, not realizing of course that our old RFM segmentation processes may work only 50% or 60% of the time — if we only knew.
  • We reject the use of telemarketing for securing monthly donors because ‘it costs more’ and ‘upsets donors at dinner time’, not realizing or bothering to calculate that our ‘failure rate’ for acquiring sustainers by mail is 5 times higher than over the phone.(And heaven only knows what the multiple is for digital.)
  • We resist firing and replacing a lousy board because we don’t want to rock the boat or feel we don’t have power, without calculating the ‘failure rate’ of a board that doesn’t give, get or often doesn’t even both to attend. (And it’s sure not difficult to calculate the failure rate of boards who forbade fundraising in the pandemic as ‘not in good taste’.)
  • We resist thanking and properly welcoming donors because ‘we just don’t have the time’…’it’s a cost center’…’we don’t have the money or system to determine a donor’s identity’ without calculating the ‘failure rate’ of poor retention and decreased lifetime value.
  • We resist using direct mail in the mistaken belief that digital is ‘inexpensive’ and easy without calculating the ‘failure rate’ of avoiding a channel that is far more productive but may require the time to learn or work with an expert.
  • For those who do use direct mail in some quantity the old method of incremental and often insignificant A/B testing rules the day. It’s time to calculate the “failure rate” of not using multi-variate testing, conjoint analysis, and predictive analytics. Too often they’re dismissed or resisted as some sort of witchcraft — all snake oil, lizard’s tails, and newt’s eyes — simply because they don’t succeed 100% of the time. Even though the ‘good old ways’ succeed only 16% of the time when it comes to beating acquisition controls.

Mercifully, there are fundraisers, copywriters, data analysts, and entrepreneurs who understand the danger of  remaining rooted in the status quo and are willing to take the risks involved in innovation and change.  Without them there would be no CRMs, no predictive analytics, few good “how to books, little automation and on and on and on.

Tradition and aversion to risk usually determine what’s defined as “Best Practices”. Sadly, too few fundraisers realize that sticking with the status quo is the greatest risk of all.


P.S.   At what age is it too late to train a dog? Canine behavioral scientists say it’s never too late. Training works at any point in a dog’s life. Whether you start the day you bring your puppy home, or when your 10-year-old dog finally needs to stop his leash pulling habit.

Hope for our trade springs eternal.