I’m an information gatherer.  I like to read, and think, and mull.  I like to be over-informed.  That’s why I like to get cozy with data.

When shaping your online program, or prospecting in general, there are several ways you can build your file. One of the ways charities can do this is by paying to acquire an online lead by working with folks like Care2 or Change.org.  Once you have an email address, it’s up to you decide what the best way is to convert this prospect into a donor.

At the NTEN conference earlier this year, I was delighted to attend a session on Multichannel Mythbusters delivered by Madeline Stanionis from M+R Strategic Services. Stanionis’ session piqued my curiosity because it was described as a data-informed session on what works and doesn’t work in integrated campaigns.

While it was a fantastic session, I left scratching my head because some of the insights gleaned from the data contradicted my professional experience as a fundraiser – the data concluded that the phone was not a recommended channel for converting online prospects.

The conversion funnel and options

Our work at Good Works, like M+R’s, has demonstrated that the optimal conversion funnel for new, online acquired leads is approximately 4-6 weeks.

While there are many variations to this process, a typical onboarding-to-conversion series of touch points may look something like this:

1)      Welcome email series.  During weeks 1-4 the newly acquired lead will receive a series of 3-6 emails introducing them to the charity.  Only the final email in this series is a direct fundraising ask.  In the case of M+R’s research, it was revealed that three emails ending with a monthly ask was the optimum strategy to quickly close on a monthly (or one-time gift) conversion.

2)      Telefundraising.  Following the welcome email series, leads that have not yet made their first gift to the charity are then called by an external agency in an effort to convert them from supporter to donor status.

3)      Direct mail.  Finally, any leads who have not yet converted via email or phone are then sent a direct mail piece in a final conversion attempt.

Here are the results for each channel according to a thumbs up/thumbs down rating system.*

  • Email. Thumbs up.
  • Telemarketing. Thumbs down.
  • Direct mail. Two thumbs down.**

When data contradicts

While Stanionis indicated that there were some bright spots with telefundraising success, broadly speaking, the results were pretty unremarkable and it wasn’t a tactic to be recommended.

What!?!?!? Telemarketing sucks at converting online acquired leads?  That was news to me! (Conversely, I wanted to know how good those email conversions really were and what I could do to achieve those results!)

In recent tests we’ve run for clients with online acquired leads, the phone blew email and direct mail out of the water with its performance.   For our clients, we typically project somewhere between a 4-6% conversion rate of online acquired prospects over the phone.  We even just had one client who saw an astonishing combined 9% monthly and one-time gift conversion rate for online acquired leads!

And we’re not the only ones seeing results like this.

I consulted with my colleagues – both consultant and charity-side – on the ground at NTEN, and they were also befuddled.  So I widened my scope, and the feedback I got was the same.

I couldn’t find anyone who was seeing better email than phone conversion rates for online leads.

Not all data is equal (or perhaps contextually relevant)

What do you do when someone else’s data contradicts your data?  Whose data is right? Whose data is wrong? Can you ever trust the data?

Let’s dig a little deeper on this one. There’s a reason why the methodology sections of research papers tend to be long, detailed and very process specific.  Here’s a cursory look at two of many factors that I’d want to further investigate before using this type of data to kill my telefundraising program.

Why the data stars don’t align, Canadians versus Americans

We’re a Canadian agency and all the colleagues I informally consulted with are Canadians.  As Canucks, sometimes our most effective fundraising approaches differ moderately to significantly from those used by our American counterparts (and Europeans, for that matter).  That little 49th parallel wouldn’t seemingly be a huge cultural divide, but it’s definitely one that adds nuances and flavors to our fundraising approaches.

Over and over again I’ve anecdotally heard that Canadians like the phone. But can the Canadian-ness of our donors really explain this anomaly?

Why the data stars don’t align, Different agencies get different results

When you’re mining the data, you’re not looking at WHO was calling to convert these donors.  Is there a performance difference between in-house staff or volunteers and an external agency?  Are there performance variations between different agencies?

Again, I’ve anecdotally heard some negative comments about agencies doing telefundraising from my American colleagues.  It’s been broadly characterized by awful, pushy and aggressive callers.  I’ve never heard a compliant about the medium of communication itself.

Conversely, the first thing I’m always asked when proposing a phone conversion campaign with my Canadian clients is “How good are the callers?”.  Or, I may be immediately asked to work with a particular vendor because the client likes the people they’ve hired to pick up the phone.

A good telefundraising vendor can help you make the most of your campaign approach and data, while it’s the callers who will dramatically impact the results your campaign will achieve.

Science of online data

I work in a shop that was founded on direct mail, and our approach to this medium is based upon 30 years of research and 25 years of agency practice.

In some cases, we were those very thought leaders and innovators who produced the cutting-edge research that changed a non-profit practice (if you haven’t yet read Iceberg Philanthropy  which pioneered the practice of converting direct mail donors to legacy prospects and gifts, you should do so…or wait till the next edition is released this fall).

The online realm is new.

We have 10 years of data, but the technology is evolving so rapidly that it’s impossible to keep up.  A tool that may have worked two years ago may no longer exist. There are things we want to try to do, but don’t even have the technological capacity to do yet. (Is anyone yet raving about the integration between their database and email client?)

The science of online data is ever changing in the digital realm. It’s not static.  And, it’s not something you can ever take at face value.

What can a fundraiser do to practice data-driven decision making

Here are a few tips to help you take a closer look at the data before making a blanket decision about your fundraising program’s direction.

1)      How closely does the data mirror your own situation? Have a look at the organization size, sector, methods, channels, etc.  The better the match, the better the research may apply to your specific situation.

2)      There are two types of data benchmarks – ours and theirs. Comparing your performance against other charities is a great way to garner a very general sense of how you’re doing.  But you also need to look at your donors and your file and compare back to that. What was your conversion rate of online donors last year versus this year? What channel worked best? How can you improve upon your results?  It’s fine and dandy to know that your peers may be converting 4-6% of their online leads via telefundraising, but you need to track and manage the performance metrics of your own fundraising program.

3)      Test it out. It takes courage to try new approaches and things.  Some have big costs and others small.  Create a testing roadmap at the beginning of the year so you can roll out the best improvements that will have a dramatic impact on your bottom line.  Maybe it’s the number of emails in your welcome series, or the messaging. Maybe it’s the timing. Or maybe it’s the ask. Remember that client I spoke of earlier who had the best conversion rate I’ve seen to date over the phone?  Not a single one of their prospects converted via the welcome series.


*Interested in other Multichannel Mythbusters or the actual statistical results behind this study?  Keep your eyes on the M+R site as Stanionis indicated a report would be released sharing this data sometime this year.

**Of particular interest, M+R’s data looked at a test between a monthy and one-time gift ask in direct mail, and it didn’t make any difference on the results.  The medium still sucked for converting online leads.


This article first appeared in Hilborn: the leading provider of information to Canada’s nonprofit sector.