This magic word could unlock your fundraising (because psychology says so)

This was pretty interesting – the “Copy Machine Experiment” was a study done back in 1978 (holy shit, 40 years ago…). It showed that giving a reason made it considerably more likely that people would respond to a small request.

Here’s a little summary of the experiment:

A man and a woman (the participants) both approached approximately 60 subjects each asking to cut in front of them in the line with one of 3 questions:

  • Request only: “Excuse me, I have 5/20 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
  • Placebic information: “Excuse me, I have 5/20 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies?”
  • Real information: “Excuse me, I have 5/20 pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”

And the results:

The results were astounding for the small request:

  • Where the request was made with no reason given (request only), 60% of subjects complied with the request to allow the participant to jump in line in front of them
  • Where the request was made with placebic information given, a huge 93% of subjects complied
  • Where the participant used real information, this was 94%


Professor Ellen Langer who conducted the experiment concluded that it was the power of giving a reason, the “because”, that led to an increased chance of people responding positively to a small request.

In fundraising

I feel like this is a no-brainer: give people an explicit – and true – reason to donate when you make your ask.

But in this case, using the word “because” could be worth the time to test it out to see if it has any impact.

Hey {firstname}, these are the best email openings

Hey {firstname},

Some nerdy types did analysis of over 300,000 emails to see which common email openings had the best response rate. And it really goes to show that this stuff is seriously worth testing out:

Using a more casual greeting (like hey/hello) had almost 10% higher responses than “Dear”. And as the article highlights, a more formal greeting is typically used when there’s less shared context or if people don’t like each other – which isn’t great if you’re looking to build trust with your supporters.

Interestingly enough, just including an opening (any opening at all) generally increased response rate.

The team at Quartz include this very helpful insight, too:

Before you toss “Dear” in the dustbin, keep in mind that the data we analyzed may not be representative of email data at large. Online communities tend to be more informal, so you might find a different distribution of openings, and different response rates across them, in more formal settings. The same research also showed that participants in online communication tend to mimic each other in the formality of their writing. So keep your audience in mind when you’re starting to write a new message.

So, remember who you’re talking to. You know your audience better than anyone (hopefully) – but if in doubt, test it out!

The rules don’t apply anymore (part 2)

Bequest/legacy giving is fundraising’s next Big Thing. In the next 20 years, $30 TRILLION will pass between generations in the United States alone. At an average donation of $40,000 a pop. Nothing to sneeze at.

Enter Jennifer Xia and Patrick Schmitt, a couple of students at Stanford.

They didn’t know all the rules about bequest giving. About warming up donors with a long mailing series, making the solicitation at the end. So they developed an online-based free bequest tool.

And just like that, they showed that asking for – and securing – online bequests is a real thing.

To the tune of over $100 million pledged, and counting.

In their research in building their online tools, they found some key takeaways:

Team-wide planned giving goals are a good thing

Sharing responsibility for obtaining new bequest donors amongst the team – including your digital team – was shown to have proven success. Silo-ing planning giving to the major gifts team or a planning giving officer isn’t a great idea.

Ask donors straight up if you’re in their will

From Jennifer and Patrick: “To fill in the missing data on planned giving, organizations should regularly ask supporters: “Have you chosen to include us in your will or estate plan?” and “What motivated you to do so?” These questions must come with a clear explanation of why the information is valuable: It helps the organization plan for the future and understand how to motivate other donors.”

And of course, using that information to conduct a whole series of tests to find out what’s resonating with your audience.

Estate planning is in dire need of innovation if we want to unlock the power of bequests

The general population puts off writing their wills, and estate planners don’t discuss giving. It’s not a great combo. But with tools like FreeWill that make it easy to give, people can (and do) take advantage.

I’m super impressed.

You can read more about the thinking behind FreeWill in the Stanford Social Innovation Review here.


The Trust Equation will make or break your fundraising

The Trust Equation was introduced to me last year by my friend Hanna and it’s really stuck with me since.

First, a quick intro to the Trust Equation.

The equation is made up of four variables:

Credibility has to do with the words we speak. In a sentence we might say, “I can trust what she says about intellectual property; she’s very credible on the subject.”

Reliability has to do with actions. We might say, “If he says he’ll deliver the product tomorrow, I trust him, because he’s dependable.”

Intimacy refers to the safety or security that we feel when entrusting someone with something. We might say, “I can trust her with that information; she’s never violated my confidentiality before, and she would never embarrass me.”

Self-Orientation refers to the person’s focus. In particular, whether the person’s focus is primarily on him or herself, or on the other person. We might say, “I can’t trust him on this deal — I don’t think he cares enough about me, he’s focused on what he gets out of it.” Or more commonly, “I don’t trust him — I think he’s too concerned about how he’s appearing, so he’s not really paying attention.”

Add Credibility, Reliability and Intimacy together and then divide by Self-Orientation. It ends up looking like this:

the trust equation

If you remember fractions at school, you want those ones across the top to be as high as possible, and the one of the bottom to be as low as possible.

The equation is mostly geared towards individual behaviour. But it’s totally relevant to organisational behaviour too.

I think you’ve got an opportunity here to run your own organisation through the Trust Equation.

Totally honestly, I don’t even think you need to assign values to each variable – it’s just helpful to know that the top line should be high, and the bottom should be low.

The Trust Equation for nonprofits:

Credibility for your organisation is what you’re saying to people about the work you do and how you’re positioning yourself. This encompasses pretty much all of your outgoing comms (including fundraising).

Reliability is whether or not you actually deliver on what you say you do. This is one of the easiest areas you can improve as an organisation: report back on how you’re spending donations. Show the impact you’re having in the world.

Intimacy is about people. High levels of intimacy are why peer-to-peer fundraising does so well. It’s why so many nonprofits invest in major donor officers. But even if you don’t have those resources, you can create intimacy with people by telling stories about people. Be transparent about finances. Make people feel like they know you at more than just a surface level.

Put a human face on your organisation and don’t keep secrets.

Self-orientation is how much you’re looking out for your own interests vs. the interests of the people your non-profit is set up to serve. How much do you talk about how you can make your donor’s vision of the world become reality? Because that’s literally why people give – they’re giving through your organisation to make their dreams come true.

All of this sound kinda familiar? It’s essentially the basis of donor-centricity. It’s about just doing the right thing as an organisation that literally exists to help other people.

How to find out where you stand

Ask people. Survey your donors. Call them to say thanks and then have a chat. Set up a focus group. Make time to learn more about how people perceive you – because their perceptions of you are their reality.

Revisit your baselines each year.

Next steps

Trust doesn’t improve overnight – it takes months or years of repeated actions to build up trust.

Be critical with yourself as an organisation. Look at the equation variable-by-variable. You may discover there are some areas where you can quickly make changes to improve.

Do some testing. You’ve set your baselines, so focus on a variable in the equation and see how certain things improve trust – and results. Take self-orientation as an example. Try talking about yourself vs. talking about your donors and the people they can help. Reducing self-orientation is a no-brainer to me and the results from that experiment should be super clear.

Give it a go and let me know how you get on or read more about the Trust Equation here.

(p.s. Wanna learn more about how you can use the Trust Equation to make your fundraising better? Come to my full day workshop at #WCFC2018)

Come see me in Vancouver

I’m going to be at the Western Canada Fundraising Conference in Vancouver this year (May 30-June 1).

I’ll be doing a full day digital masterclass and workshop. No matter what size your nonprofit is, you’ll leave with a digital strategy – plus a whole bunch of practical skills you can start implementing as soon as you’re back in the office.

I personally think it’s the best value conference out there by a long shot (CAD $399 for the early bird, including a masterclass!). I’ll be joined by Simone Joyaux, Tom Ahern, Tony Myers, Harvey McKinnon, Sam Laprade, Jennifer Collins and more.

As a bonus, it’s at the Museum of Vancouver and HR MacMillan Space Centre (killer venue!)

Plus, Vancouver itself is pretty nice I guess…

Check out all the deets at

Best practices for online fundraising (part 1)

Best practices for digital fundraising are a funny thing to define.

Digital is relatively new and changing all the time – even just defining ‘digital’ is changing*. Because of that, best practices for online fundraising aren’t prescriptive**.

So here you go – my no-bullshit, non-definitive list of best practices for digital fundraising that (shouldn’t) rapidly go out of date:

1. Test. All the time.

I yammer on about testing for a reason: it’s the single best way to figure out how to engage with your audience and send them stuff you’re doing that they’re interested in too (and want to support!)

I wrote a testing guide, and there are lots of ideas for testing all over this blog.

There are a few things personal to you to make testing work best:

  • Be open to learning new stuff
  • Test your assumptions
  • Be OK with it being wrong, just learn it quickly
  • Actually change how you do things

2. Go to where your audience is

Find out who your key supporters are*** and then do some research on where they are online and how they use the internet.

Go for the low hanging fruit – focus your resources accordingly. Find out where you’re getting the best return, then test and optimise.

It’s almost 100% guaranteed they have an email address if they’re under 65 – and they’re checking it regularly. So building an email list probably makes sense.

If you’re in the UK, 82% of 45-54 year olds use their mobile phone to access the internet (65% of 55-64 year olds do too) – that’s significant, because odds are your online donors are aged between 45 and 65.

And top three things they’re doing online: checking email, searching for information on goods and services (how’s your website?), and looking at social media. That key age cohort is just as likely to use the internet for social media as they are to do their banking.

So it’s up to you to figure out what social media they use. If they’re on Facebook, go there. If they’re on Instagram, go there. You get the picture.

Remember this most of all: Use smart data to figure out where you should be putting your efforts. And then test!

3. Send good content when you have good content

I want to emphasise good content. Because you’re testing all the time, you’ll figure out what that is based on what’s resonating with your supporters (track actions to actually figure out what people like).

Here are some good ideas to help start you off:

  • Rapidly respond to things that are affecting you, especially stuff in the news (your equivalent of disaster funding!)
  • Let supporters know how you’ve spent/are currently spending their money
  • Give people a sneak peek behind-the-scenes – and it doesn’t need to be super-pro (probably better if it’s not)

Test what’s resonating with people.

Edit: Here’s another way to approach it from Jeff Brooks that I like

4. Make it as personal as you can

People love the human touch, and they love that you’re not just a robot.

There are lots of opportunities to add the personal touch – especially through email or social media when it’s SO easy to reply in real time. The Women’s March showed the potential of Messenger bots in being able to provide a personal experience to people online without necessarily needing a person involved.

And just because I’m talking digital, it doesn’t mean you have to keep your communication in the online space (even if their donation came in online).

Try calling, or hand-written cards, or anything else that’s been working for you in fundraising so far. And test out ways to do that same kind of personal touch in digital ways too (e.g. texts, IMs, video… so many choices).


Finally, a reminder: the single best thing you can do is test.


*Until fairly frequently, mobile was being chucked in its own category (hint: it’s digital)

**Beware anyone who tells you otherwise, especially consultants

***Don’t know? Ask them!

And check out the Office of National Statistics (UK) website for up-to-date internet stats. Tons of gold here.