2 min Read
March 17, 2011

The Direct Response Fundraising Flywheel

We’re still in the first few months of 2011—time for new ideas, right? Perhaps you’re busy thinking up new fundraising campaign concepts. Or maybe figuring out new ways to conduct outreach or mobilize your grassroots?

Thinking up new ideas is fun. It gets our creative juices flowing and makes our work feel fresh and new, even when we’re dealing with essentially the same content.

Yep, new ideas are great—but real success usually comes from sustained efforts.

Take a look, for instance, at the big nonprofits that make the most money on direct mail or email. Do they send a new letter out every month? Nope. They use controls. If they get a new idea, they’ll test it, then monitor the performance and use it to inform future actions. If something’s working they don’t change it. Change comes cautiously—and only when informed by good data.

The trick is to marry the inspiration and momentum of new ideas with the nuts and bolts that are the essence of a successful direct response machine.

In his 2001 book “Good To Great”, Jim Collins talks about a number of principles successful companies employ to grow and sustain success. One of my favorites is the “flywheel.” Basically, the idea is that you have to build momentum before you see real results: getting started can be rough going and hard work. Nonprofits that have successful direct response programs understand the flywheel principal: they’re building and sustaining a machine.

So how do you build a direct response fundraising flywheel with momentum? Here are three tips:

1.     Plan to do it more than once. Trying out direct mail or email asks for the first time? Budget the resources to do it consistently over time so you can capture useful data and start to see results. A one-time direct mail campaign or one-time email ask isn’t likely to do enough for you to warrant the effort they require to develop. Instead, start your direct response program with a three-year commitment to testing and measuring before you expect it to be profitable.

2.     Do less; review and refine more. Reviewing results (response rates, click throughs, Google analytics, etc) takes time—but we rarely plan for that. Instead, we anticipate that most of the time goes into creating the stuff. Analytics process gets short shrift. Try creating fewer pieces and spending more time reviewing the results of your work, using that data to inform future initiatives. Over time, each project will be smarter and better developed, leading to better results in the long-term.

3.     Work with a pro. Direct response success is part art, part science. Work with a pro that understands the science and can guide you through it. You should see the benefits of that work in your results. If you can’t afford to hire a consultant or an agency, read books. Mal Warwick’s books, in particular, are great resources for folks new to direct response fundraising.