Your top 3 burning questions — answered, Part 3

In my work with charities, I hear a lot of questions. Many seem to come up over and over again. And some I would describe as “burning questions” — the kind that keep nonprofit professionals up at night.

This is the third in our burning questions series — and my best shot at an answer:


My donors keep complaining that we mail them too much. How can we respond to their needs without hurting income to the ministry?

This certainly isn’t a new burning question — it’s as old as fundraising itself. Older than I am. But it’s darned important, remains controversial to this day, and comes up frequently with most nonprofits.


This issue itself is, in a sense, a natural effect of human nature. None of us has the ability to fully understand why we spend money on a certain thing, at a certain time. Much of this — 98%, in fact, according to some research we’ve seen — happens beneath the surface of self-awareness.

We make an emotional, subconscious decision to spend, and then buttress that with a considered rationale to justify the decision we’ve already made. What we remember is the rationale. But what actually motivates us is the initial, visceral response. That’s just how humans act.

This leads to a chronic misunderstanding of the kind and amount of marketing that is required to motivate us to spend. We all believe we need less than we really do. In reality, the sheer frequency of marketing reminds us of the option to spend. And the emotional power of a given marketing piece triggers a decision to spend that logically would not otherwise have happened.

That’s the reality. It creates inherent cognitive dissonance — we’ll always think the organizations we support are sending us too much mail (or email or whatever).

And in fact, donors may be less annoyed by mail volume than we think — or, maybe I should say, their annoyance (when it exists at all) may not be related to actual mail volume. Over the course of several research projects, Masterworks polled donors regarding mail frequency. About 3 of 5 answered that volume was “just right.”

What’s interesting, though, is that increased contact volume is not predictive of satisfaction regarding mail frequency. People receiving more than 20 contacts a year are just as likely to be satisfied with mail volume as those receiving 6 to 7. And the adverse is also true.

What we may be missing from our considerations is the impact that audience-centric customization can have on donor perception. Actual volume may not impact donor perception, but the relevance and quality of the contact almost certainly does. Undifferentiated mass marketing is a blunt instrument, and to the recipient, that’s exactly what it feels like. Meanwhile, our favorite brands market to us far more than the charities we support. But when they do it effectively, we appreciate the experience and welcome it.

Amazon provides an excellent example of this. The company markets its goods to customers at a level of frequency exponentially greater than the most aggressive charity. When people plan their next hiking trip, they’ll see Amazon ads for hiking equipment. When they check consumer reports for household appliances, they receive direct, integrated links to Amazon merchandise. When they sit down to read the news or watch TV at night, the experience will be infested with Amazon. And to them, it will feel like a service. That’s because it’s relevant to what they’re doing at the moment, and because it’s integrated into the medium they’re employing.

Amazon is doing this. And now, we are too. Masterworks is rapidly moving toward segment-specific offers, variable messaging and relevant content experiences as the norm, not the exception. The result, we believe, will be happier donors giving more to their preferred ministries.


Read part 1 in the series.

Read part 2 in the series.