How "The Man In The Chair" can help you recruit new donors more effectively

I’m not sure how many of you will have come across the old McGraw Hill advertisement popularly know as: “The Man in The Chair”? It's a marketing and advertising classic.

It’s also something of a direct marketing education staple too. I remember it being pulled out a handful of times when I was on the IDM’s Direct Marketing Diploma course back in 1991 (sigh . . . seems like just yesterday).

Originally used in 1958, this advertisement became so influential that it was voted the best business ad of the 20th century by Business Marketing Magazine in 1999 (now B2B Online).

My guess is that it’s still a staple favorite of direct marketing speakers and educators, because it really drives home the message that there’s quite a mountain to be climbed when it comes to winning new customers.

And, for that matter . . . new donors.

“The Man in the Chair” is probably less well known in fundraising circles than in the commercial marketing world, but that’s a great shame, because it has a lot to teach fundraisers too.

Here's my 'fundraising' version, “The Donor in the Chair”, which I hope will show why:

Donor recruitment is not easy. And it’s not cheap. But the biggest mistake you can possibly make is to try it once, look at the results and conclude: recruitment doesn’t work for us.

Of course it does. You just have to keep at it.

Not via one channel and one channel alone. But through a combination of channels: page ads, outbound telephone, online, cold direct mail, unaddressed mail/letter box drops, social media, face to face.

Apply the fundamentals first . . . make sure you answer the objections above and do it quickly. You have a matter of thirty seconds or so to communicate . . .

1. Who you are

2. What your organization does

3. Who you help and how you help them

4. What's unique about the way you make a difference in their lives

5. Why they should trust you with their money*

6. Exactly what you’ll do with it if they make a donation

7. Proof that it will get where it’s supposed to go and have real impact

*Expert endorsements and beneficiary testimonials are worth their weight in gold here.

Having applied the fundamentals, you have to keep trialing, testing, improving and refining. And two things will happen.

Firstly, you will recruit new donors. And in numbers. And over time a substantial proportion of them will become increasingly valuable and profitable to your organisation.

Secondly, your recruitment efforts will themselves become increasingly cost effective. Yes, it really is possible to recruit new donors at a 1 to 1 cost ratio. Or even better.

The absolute worst thing you can do, is turn your back on donor recruitment altogether, and simply hope that new supporters will show up in enough numbers to cancel out your natural attrition rates.

They won’t.

Your donor base is a leaky bucket. You can try to plug the leak, but the best you can hope to do is slow it down.

The harsh reality is that donors will keep leaking out the bottom. And the only solution is to keep pouring new ones in at the top.

Maybe “The Donor in the Chair” can help you the next time you’re putting a recruitment campaign together. 

Print her off and pin her to your notice board. Treat her mantra as your antidote to failure, your reminder to apply the fundementals, and your encouragement to keep at it.

Good luck!


Ask like you mean it: 9 tips to improve the way you ask in your fundraising direct mail...

One of the things I love about all those old-guard admen in the TV series Mad Men is the unabashed honesty they show when it comes to what they do for a living.

They don't (as so many of today’s advertising types do) try dressing it up in fancy terms like ‘building brand personalities’ or ‘shifting market paradigms’.

No, instead they openly admit they're in the business of "selling."

Of course, in the non-profit world, we don’t sell . . . we ask.

But how well are most non-profits doing this? Especially the smaller ones.

It should really go without saying that the primary goal of any fundraising direct mail appeal is to obtain a donation. 

Sadly however, a great many appeals I see either fail to make the most of every opportunity to ask for a gift, or actively stand in the way of doing so.

If your direct mail results are in the doldrums, addressing the way you ask is one of the first areas you should look at. Asking properly can dramatically lift your response rates, average gift levels and total income.

So here are 9 tips to help you ask like you really mean it . . .

1. Ask

Shockingly, many non-profits are simply too shy to ask at all (as the website Asking Matters shows). Many fundraisers don’t like to write what they feel are ‘begging letters’. They feel that simply sharing the wonder of their work will be enough. It isn’t.

The first law of fundraising applies: "If you don’t ask, you don’t get."

True, you may spare the sensibilities of some of your more prickly supporters. They may smile on you with appreciation for not stooping so low as to actually ask them for money. Wonderful! But your response rates will be paltry. Money will stay away. In droves. And you’ll be left wondering why it is your direct mail program is becoming increasingly less profitable.

You can’t afford to be shy. More importantly, your beneficiaries can’t afford for you to be shy.

2. Ask early

Make your first ask just as soon as you can. I believe this should be in one of three places:

  • Right up front on the envelope
  • At the very top of your letter in a headline
  • Or in a Kicker paragraph (Johnson Box or Standfirst) above your letter text

Failing this, make sure the first ask is made within the first three paragraphs of the letter’s body copy. Your donor deserves to know why you’re writing to her.

3. Ask often

Opinions vary on just how often. As do tastes. But the guiding principle should be to ignore your personal feelings on the subject. You’re in the business of asking - so you need to make sure your donor finds an ask, no matter what part of your letter she happens to be looking at or reading.

Weave asks into the fabric of your letter so that your story and your case for support are married to your asks. Erect “signposts” throughout the letter using underlining, emboldening and maybe subheads to make your asks stand out.

My personal rule of thumb is:

  • One ask above the letter body - in the headline/kicker area
  • One ask in the P.S. - yes, you must have one of these
  • And at least one ask per page within the body of the letter itself

So for a 2 page letter, that’s four asks minimum. For a four page letter, at least six.

4. Ask strong

According to an old expression, “a faint heart never won a fair maid.” And when it comes to fundraising appeals, faint asks don’t win generous donations either.

Hinting at what you want is not good enough. Tentatively suggesting that your donor might, if it’s quite okay, like to consider making a small donation, simply won’t cut it.

You have to ask strong, and that means:

  • Say how much you want - precisely how much
  • Say what it will achieve for your beneficiaries
  • Be polite, but open, up front, and firm

You're a charity. Your donor understands that this is a giving relationship. She understands that you will ask her for money. So when you ask, ask strong.

5. Ask for more

If you’re average gifts are down. Then you’re probably not asking for enough. Ask for more and donors will give more. I’ve seen this happen time and time again.

Linking your asks to previous giving is the tried and tested method  - with recent research suggesting that your donor's average gift is the metric to pay attention to (See Roger Craver's article on "Asking Amounts" at The Agitator)

Try asking for 20% more from each of your donors. A 20% lift in average gift across the board for a small non-profit can amount to a significant increase in revenue.

6. Ask (properly) on your reply form too

Again, this should go without saying, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Many forms are confusing looking affairs with no clear directions to the donor.

Try thinking of your form as a page ad with a very large coupon. A good page ad needs an attention grabbing image, a benefit laden headline, and a good strong ask. So does your reply form.

A form without a good headline ask is like a bicycle without pedals. It’ll go. But not very well.

7. Don’t forget to include a reply paid envelope

Hard to believe anyone sends out appeals without reply paid envelopes these days. But just in case: you must include one. Making it hard for donors to respond is just chasing gifts away.

8. Use an implied ask on your reply envelope

Nothing too complicated, just a simple line on your reply envelope is all it takes, for example:

  • My life-saving gift is inside . . .
  • Here’s my gift to help a dog find a new home . . .
  • Please rush my gift to a child in need . . .

Not an explicit ask as such, but an implied one all the same. This single line lifts your reply envelope above the level of stationery, and makes it work to earn a gift.

9. Ask in your other enclosures as well

If you’re enclosing a separate case study, lift note, buckslip, gift catalogue, or anything printed – use it to make an ask as well.

How soft or hard this ask should be depends on the item in question. A lift note from someone else in your organisation should have a clear, strong ask. If it’s from a beneficiary, it could be softer. For charts and fact sheets, use large-type, bold headlines and subheads containing clear, strong asks that direct your donor to the reply form and envelope.

In conclusion

Asking like you mean it means making sure everything your donor sees in your pack states clearly that you are looking for a donation, why you’re looking for it, and what it will achieve for your beneficiaries.

It means weaving repeated and effective asks into the body copy of your letter. It means using headlines, kickers, bold paragraphs and your P.S. to create "ask signposts" for your donor.

It means being a fundraising Don Draper.

You're in the Ask Business. Own it with pride. Ask like you mean it . . . and the donations will flow in.


Bequest fundraising headline idea . . . feel free to adapt and use

I just received an email promoting Apple's current line up of sleek technological goodies, and the headline struck me as being rather a good one.

Here's a screen shot of the email header . . .

Perfect for iPad, iPhone, iTouch etc, isn't it?

And then I thought, with a little twist, it could also be a great theme headline for a Legacy or Bequest marketing campaign. For example:

The best gifts go on saving lives long after they're given

The best gifts build futures long after they're given

The best gifts spread hope long after they're given

I'm sure you get the drift. And I think it could be adapted to the planned giving work of almost any nonprofit. 

I've always felt it's a good idea to keep an eye on what the commercial sector is doing. True, they're all about "Selling" (or at least the good ones are) while we're all about "Asking". But the marketing fundementals are essentially the same:

  1. the effective communication of a central idea, and
  2. an exchange of money for something of real value in return

Of course, there are plenty of good headlines out there that may suit your specific situation better. But this angle might be good a place to start if you're putting a bequest pack together and need a good line.

Please feel free to use, adapt, improve, as neccessary!