2 min Read
January 12, 2017

Stop looking at how much you raise

Big Duck

This might sound radical to many fundraisers, but here’s my top recommendation for 2017: Stop looking at how much you raise.

I’ve been in the trenches of year-end fundraising for more than a decade now, and I’m not looking to take your hard fought wins away. It’s just that those big numbers can be misleading.

Staff and board politics will almost always require that you plug that big number into a Powerpoint or two and bring it up at some meetings, so that’s likely unavoidable.But if you really want to grow your fundraising program, you should let it go at that.

What you should be looking at instead is your percentage change, year over year. Here’s an example to illustrate why. Let’s say your year-end campaign finally hit the one million mark. That’s pretty exciting! But what if you raised $975,000 in 2015? One million minus $975,000…divided by…oh, that’s just a 3% increase. Not bad, but you’d think a lot differently about how your campaign performed when you look at it that way. (If you’ve been running a sizeable acquisition program, that increase may be kind of bad, but that’s another post.)

Looking at percent change rather than total raised means that you can see whether, at the end of the day, you’re really growing your program or more-or-less just maintaining the status quo. But if you’re just calculating the overall percentage change you’re still stuck on the totals. And the devil (and god) is in the details.

If you’re not seeing a breakdown by channels (online, offline) and mediums (direct mail, white mail, email, social, etc.), you may be missing big wins and losses. Let’s say you see an unimpressive overall percent change, but after breaking it down you see that direct mail decreased while online fundraising saw a huge increase. If you hadn’t looked at that, you would miss that your offline approach might need some TLC, and that it would likely be worth the time to dig into your online results until you understand what exactly drove such a great increase.

But here’s the big thing that way, way too many fundraisers miss: You need to look at large gifts separately from low-level donations. Let me use another name for large gifts: Outliers. Every organization receives gifts that are simply so large that they can significantly skew your results. And those donors don’t always come back next year.

Taking this step can be hard to swallow—we all want to take credit for the biggest increases possible. I’ve seen fundraising results go from showing a 57% increase to a 1.5% increase after just a single large gift was removed. Similarly large differences can easily be produced by a handful of $5,000 gifts. You might think twice before doubling down on your fundraising strategy after you see the percentage change with outliers removed.

The overall lesson? Beware of totals. It’s the change—and, more importantly, what changes—that matters.