Once and Done

How one tiny checkbox resulted in 17 times more donors when it should have done just the opposite.

Pictured: a mock-up of the envelope used in the California Symphony’s July 2016 fundraising solicitation.

Just about every arts organization runs a donation campaign as they approach the end of their fiscal year. The California Symphony is no exception as it’s the last chance we have to raise the funds necessary to end our season in the black. The problem is that this mid-summer deadline where we close the financial books on one year and begin another is important for us as an organization, but not in any way relevant — even arbitrary, perhaps — in the eyes of the donor. In other words, this is among the worst times and reasons to raise money.

Despite all that, not running a fiscal year-end fundraising campaign this year was not an option. We needed the money. An added parameter was that we needed to continue broadening our donor base, because our database of potential donors looked like this:

So this summer, we decided to run an experiment to answer the question: how can we tap the largest segment of our database — the people who have had no interaction with us in the last three or more years? No concert attendance, no donations, no special events, no free tours of our education programs, nothing. Zero interaction. Think about that. The largest group of untapped potential in our database is the people who care about us the least. Ouch. To make this even more painful, this absent group is not MIA for lack of us trying: they receive mailings with information for every concert, invitations to special events, and of course other donation appeals about three times a year. And if they’re on our email list (which a little more than a third of them are), they’re hearing from us even more. That’s a lot of effort we spend to invite people to engage with us, and for whatever reason it has all fallen flat for this group. In fact it has fallen flat for three years (and longer for some!).

“The largest group of untapped potential in our database is the people who care about us the least. Ouch.”

So what do you do to get this group’s attention? Offer them a chance to have us leave them alone.

A Risky Solution

Usually, giving someone a chance to opt-out of communications is marketing suicide. That’s why unsubscribe links at the bottom of emails are so tiny and buried…no one wants to actively direct your attention to the place where you can escape all their wonderful marketing and fundraising messages. However, we rationalized that when everything else we’ve done for the last 3+ years has had no effect on this group whatsoever, something — anything — needed to change.

At about the time we were coming to this conclusion, Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer came across the work of University of Chicago Economics Professor and Department Chair John List. He and his team had published a handful of case studies where they partnered with a few large non-profits who purchased mailing lists for their fundraising solicitations. They frequently refer to these purchased lists as “cold lists,” as opposed to “warm lists” which contain people who have made a donation in the last three years. John List and his team experimented with these large non-profits, and in a mailing to 800,000 names (that’s a huge solicitation by the way — nearly a million people!), they offered a test group an option along the lines of “give now and we’ll never bother you again if you check this box.” They also mailed to a control group without the “once and done” option, as they aptly called it (give once and you can be done with us forever). The results were fascinating to us:

  • They raised 3 times more money from the “once and done” group than the control group
  • Only about 30% of the respondents actually checked the box
  • It did not reduce future mailing results

We decided we would try this with our own cold list. Not a purchased list of strangers, but with our own database of people who had gone cold, that large segment of people who had no interaction with us in three or more years. Risky? Perhaps. But what was the worst-case scenario, we figured? Worst case #1: someone who had no desire to interact with us anymore mails us back without a donation and checks the box. In that case, we agreed, we’d remove them from our mailing list per their request and we’d stop wasting money on someone who not only doesn’t want to hear from us, they’ve not produced any revenue for us in at least three years. Worth it, we decided. Worst case #2: people give, but a lot of them ask to be removed from the mailing list. Let’s just stop at the first phrase there — when has “people giving” ever been a problem? Especially in this scenario when these people were otherwise basically dead to the organization. Worth it, we decided. Worst case #3: People just don’t get it, don’t care, or it’s not an effective piece. That would be no different than everything else we’ve tried for the last 3+ years with this group. Worth it. Best case: some people who were cold as ice suddenly jump back in with a donation. Not even a ticket sale, but a cash-is-king donation. WORTH IT.

The Results

Over the next three months, we got to work executing the campaign. We developed special campaign materials for this group with “Once & Done” branding. We even added a line to the envelope that said “Make one gift now and we’ll never ask you again,” just to help ensure the open rates were as high as possible, because the first hurdle with a cold group like this is to get them to even look at your envelope for more than two seconds before tossing it into the recycle bin, let alone get them to actually open it and — gasp — read it.

Sample of the appeal letter and actual return slip from one of the “cold” prospects who made a donation after having no account history with us for several years. The red check on the return slip was made by a staff member when they processed the gift.

The mailing hit homes right after Independence Day with a deadline of July 31 (i.e. the end of our fiscal year, which was the impetus for this whole campaign), and the letter talked about the successes of the past year and how we were 94% towards our income goal for the season. (Side note: this idea of listing the highest percentage toward goal possible also came from John List’s research; his data showed that the closer you are to your goal, the more people are likely to give and the higher the average gift received. This is contrary to most nonprofit “best practices,” whereas usually, the industry standard is to publicize when you are at 60–70% towards a campaign goal. So we included that stat as a secondary test — it was true, we were very close (94%) to balancing our budget for the year — in every version of our appeal letter, not just to this Once & Done group.) Here’s how it all played out:

  • The Once & Done group resulted in 24% of all campaign donors. Of our other segments solicited (i.e. other appeals to people who did not get the “once and done” message such as ticket buyers, subscribers, recently lapsed donors, etc.), only our current, existing donors came in with a higher percentage of campaign gifts.
  • The Once & Done group made 17 times more gifts compared to the year prior, and generated nearly 15 times more revenue.
  • The side experiment of listing our very high progress towards goal in every prospect group’s letter resulted in exceeding last year’s totals in every category.
  • [Updated 9/19] Seven different households of the Once & Done group purchased tickets to attend our season opener concert. Extra fascinating given that they had gone at least three years without attending.
  • How many people checked the box to have us never contact them again? Only 5.

Just for fun (and full disclosure): we did have one donor mail us back an envelope containing only a dime and two pennies. But they didn’t check the box…

“The Once & Done group made 17 times more gifts compared to the year prior, and generated nearly 15 times more revenue.”

Post Script

A few more clarifying notes that hopefully are helpful to those who have read this far:

For this experiment, we mailed to a lot of people. Normally, we don’t mail to every person in the database (too costly to always do that!) and generally target people who have interacted with us in the last 4–5 years. We wanted to make a special exception for the purpose of this experiment and mail to accounts that were older and colder, just to see how it would pan out.

This fall we are taking a deeper look at which “cold” people are better prospects to come back into the fold than others. For example, is a person who purchased season tickets three years ago but not since more likely to donate with this type of solicitation than a person who donated five years ago (but not since)? And how do these people compare to someone who came to a special event fundraiser dinner three years ago but hasn’t interacted with us since? Is there any difference in likelihood to donate between a donor who gave four years ago versus five years ago? All of these questions are being explored as we head into our next big fundraising campaign this fall.

And speaking of our next big campaign…shameless plug: through November 4, we’re running what has proven to be our largest fundraising campaign of the year for the last three seasons, a matching challenge where every donation up to $200,000 will be matched dollar for dollar. If you’ve enjoyed reading about the work the California Symphony is doing in this or other posts, please consider supporting these efforts by joining the campaign at any amount and having your donation doubled by the match.

Lastly, we have another plan for this inactive/cold group that we’ll be implementing before this year is over with the specific goal to get them back into the concert hall. We’ll tell you all about it in a future post.

About the Author

Aubrey Bergauer, Executive Director, California Symphony
Aubrey Bergauer defies trends, and then makes her own. In a time when most arts organizations are scaling back programs, tightening budgets, and seeing declines in tickets and subscriptions, Bergauer has dramatically increased earned and contributed revenue at organizations ranging from Seattle Opera to the Bumbershoot Music & Arts Festival to the California Symphony. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club (young patrons group for audience members in their 20’s and 30’s) to the largest group of its kind nationwide, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to quadruple the size of its donor base. From growing audiences, increasing concerts, and expanding programs to instilling and achieving common goals across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, Bergauer is someone you want to follow — on the nationally-recognized blog she created to discuss what actually works in a changing arts landscape, and in real life, too.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, for the last 15 years Bergauer has used music to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through ground-breaking marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of technology, and through taking strategically calculated risks in a risk-averse field. If ideas are a dime a dozen, what separates Bergauer is her experience and record of impact and execution at institutions of all sizes. Praised for her leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” (Wall Street Journal) and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around.” (Mercury News) Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization’s mission and vision is creating a transformational change in the office, on the stage, in the audience, in the community, and going well beyond the industry of classical music.

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.

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