Don’t look now, but a secret donor may be watching you

A Masterworks colleague who once worked at Starbucks said he’d occasionally have a patron come in, order a coffee — sometimes something complicated, like a triple venti no-foam cinnamon dolce skinny soy latte — then shuffle off to the corner and plop a thermometer into the drink.

They were secret shoppers, of course, sent by company snoops to check up on how well the coffee chain’s baristas serve their customers (wait time, drink quality, friendliness, etc.).

We recently played “secret donor” with 15 non-profit organizations so that we could track how well each communicates with supporters.

Using a fictitious name and local P.O. box, we gave a $25 gift at the website of each organization on the morning of March 13, 2014. Whenever possible, the gift was designated for the general donation offering on the homepage. All communication option opt-in boxes were selected (or left selected).

Then we watched for the next 90 days to see how each non-profit treated its donors. It was interesting and, at times, deeply concerning.

For our own clients, the communication stream and its timing varied widely . . .

  • The total number of contacts within the first 90 days ranged from as many as 27 (25 email, 2 direct mail) to as few as 3 (1 email, 2 direct mail). The median was 11 contacts (9 email, 2 direct mail).
  • The ratio of straight fundraising impacts (those with a clear ask) to those oriented toward information and/or gratitude ranged from 4:23 at one organization to 18:2 at another. The median was 4:2.
  • The number of days to first contact (excluding auto-responder emails) ranged from 1 day to 70 days. (Yes, you read that right — 70!) The median was 10 days. (Too long, in our book.)
  • The number of days to first letter ranged from 4 to no letter at all, even after 90 days. (Something went seriously wrong at that organization. We’re looking into it.)

Clearly, there’s lots of room for improvement in the way many organizations communicate with new donors.

Here are 3 big takeaways:

  1. Be absolutely sure your new donor welcome series is a timely and effective tool for bringing new supporters into the fold. It’s harder to get a second gift than a first gift. That’s why for each impact, the timing, format, channel and offer in your follow-up series are critical. Test, test, test.
  2. Your biggest opportunity may be with triggered email communications — a stream of digital impacts that is tested, proven and fully automated.
  3. You’ll almost certainly benefit from figuring out a way to add as many brand-new donors as possible to your appeal and newsletter list selects at the last possible moment. Otherwise, the time until the next direct-mail touch will almost certainly be too long.

With the critical year-end giving season coming quickly, there’s no time to lose in making a plan with your team to ensure that you are continuously and accurately monitoring your new and existing donors’ experience.

The last thing you want to learn too late is that your valued supporters are not seeing, hearing or believing what you think they are.

If you’d like to know more about how you can cement the bond with new donors on your file, I encourage you contact us at Masterworks. If you’re a current client, call your account executive. If not, get in touch with Rory Starks, our executive vice president of strategic engagement, at or 360-394-4300.