fundraisers – and no doubt most executives in the nonprofit
sector – don’t like to think of themselves as marketers.
The word conveys a feeling of commercialism, of phrases like
“hurry, supply is limited”, “on sale now” or “buy one, get one
free”. To us, this smacks of hucksterism, opportunism – even
taking advantage by manipulating the customers’ perceptions.
Our work is noble. We chose this sector to serve humanity. To
save sentient beings. To maintain our very globe for the
generations who will follow us. Our work is the stuff of poetry.
It’s work we can be proud of. Much prouder than the guy who,
say, pitches discount furniture on TV with promises of “no
payments until January 2008”.
We love the word philanthropy. It fits us like a warm blanket on
a cold night. We’re in the philanthropy business – not the
marketing business. The P-word makes us feel proud. The M-word
makes us feel cheap. We prefer proud.
The simple “m”
probably does direct mail, or telefundraising, or runs
lotteries, or sells products like Girl Guide cookies, or has
special events to raise money. If your charity does one or more
of these activities, you’re already doing marketing. Go ahead
and keep calling it philanthropy. Everyone will continue to feel
better. But do understand that you are doing marketing.
In fact, you’re probably marketing to 80% or more of your donor
If you’re going to market, you should do it well. You owe this
to your founders, your colleagues, your donors, the
beneficiaries of your service and those who will follow you into
If you’re ever going to market truly well, you’re going to need
to do effective market research.
It’s really that simple.
We went to Wikipedia to find a nice, digestible
definition of marketing … here’s the one we liked best.
"The most widely accepted definition of marketing on a global
scale comes from the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM )in
the UK which is the largest marketing body in the world in terms
of membership. The definition claims marketing to be the
‘management process of anticipating, identifying and satisfying
customer requirements profitably’. Thus, operative marketing
involves the processes of market research, new product
development, product life cycle management, pricing, channel
management as well as promotion."
Marketing differs from selling in that it’s much more
strategic – and, we think, a lot more fun.
Prospects are selected with care. Messages are honed and
crafted. Offers are carefully worded. Success is carefully
measured – and constant improvement is sought.
In fact, the rage in marketing today is customer (substitute
donor) satisfaction and loyalty. The corporate sector spends
billions on measuring these issues every year. A Google search
of Amazon.com will find more than 1,000 book titles
dealing specifically with customer satisfaction.
So what can you do with the M word?
Here’s just a partial list of what a properly planned and
executed market research program can give you:
- A demographic
description of your current donors (age, ethnicity, income,
employment, education, gender, region).
- A psychographic description of your
donors (values, beliefs, ideas).
- An understanding of why they chose you in
the first place.
- A statistical read of how satisfied they
are in their relationship with your charity.
- Who your closest competition is (this
might surprise you).
- How likely your donors are to give again.
- How you might convince your donors to
give more often.
- Which types of donors might convert to
monthly giving, major gifts and/or legacy gifts.
- How your donors would describe your
organization to a friend or neighbour (in other words, their
- Do they read your newsletter? Why? Why
- Why your lapsed donors stopped giving.
- How you can get lapsed donors to come
This can get ridiculously simple.
For example, when asking direct mail donors to come to a focus
group, it’s important to remind them to bring reading glasses.
(One of the most common complaints about a charity’s written
materials is that the typeface is too small.)
We want you to do a very brief exercise right now. Review the
list in the previous section and ask yourself “which of these
items would I not want to know?”
If you’re a smart fundraiser, you would no doubt like to know
the answers to all of them, because the answers to these
questions can help you do a better job of connecting with
prospects and donors in a crazily over-communicated world.
The Q words
There are two types of commonly-practiced market research:
Quantitative research involves asking very specific questions –
often in multiple choice format – to a large number of people
within a specific timeframe. This type of research gives us a
"thinner" read on a larger number of people. The tradeoff here
is “depth” for “breadth”. It is commonly referred to as polling.
This is the type of research that has told us for example that
just under half of Canadian donors don’t like the ways we
solicit them and just under half don’t have confidence that we
spend their donated money the way we said we would.
Qualitative research involves looser face-to-face discussions
that take place among groups of similar people (like monthly
donors). Rather than responding to multiple choice questions
asked by a telephone interviewer, these discussions happen in a
social format, and there’s often a synergy to the discussion.
Focus groups don’t give us results that can be considered
statistically valid because the number of participants is small.
But the information generated can be rich – like the elderly
donor who said that her legacy will be “the footprint I’ll leave
on this world”.
Let’s now briefly take a look at how these two types of research
can complement each other. In 2002, the Canadian Centre for
Philanthropy conducted its Canada Survey of Giving,
Volunteering and Participating. In that survey of thousands
of Canadians it discovered an alarming (at least to us)
percentages of grumpy donors.
The poll told us the breadth of that grumpiness (ie how many are
grumpy), but it didn’t explain why these donors felt that way,
or, even more importantly, what we can do to reduce grumpiness
and increase confidence. Focus groups of grumpy donors would
probably reveal the whys. Further polling could then project how
many grumpy donors we could move back into the confident camp
with a well-planned and well-executed strategy based on the
focus group findings.
When done properly, quantitative and qualitative research go
hand in hand in lovely symmetry.
Market research works
We in the charitable sector are late getting into the market
research game. Very late. Corporations have understood its
importance for decades. Market research helped Coke become “the
real thing” (and market leader) and Pepsi nail down its number
two spot as “the taste of a new generation”.
Think of cars. Volvo and safety. BMW and engineering. Mazda and
youthful fun (“vroom vroom”). Saturn and the (often female)
customer experience of buying a car and dealing with car
It’s not only in the business world that success results from
knowing your constituents/customers. Bill Clinton became US
President by focussing on the domestic economy while Ronald
Regan became President by asking Americans to return to their
Stephen Harper became Canadian Prime Minister in large part
because his campaign advisers understood marketing. They
understood their prospects (voters). And they found the messages
(like a GST cut from 7% to 6%) that stuck and resonated with
their target audience. The policies might be questionable to
many. But they resulted from VERY successful market research and
So don’t be scared
There’s a learning curve to market research. There’s no
question about that. Getting started can be a little daunting to
But it’s challenging. It’s fun. And it needn’t be prohibitively
So start. Find a way to ask your donors – or your prospects –
what they want. What they like. What they expect. What pisses
We can guarantee you one thing. Really knowing your donors is
going to be a necessity in the future of fundraising. The
journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Take that
step. Do it this year. You won’t be disappointed with the
For further information: Fraser Green, Principal, The Flag
firstname.lastname@example.org; Tony Myers, Adviser to the
President (Strategic Initiatives), University of Calgary,