Viewpoint: Direct mail - why it pays to dance with donors

Are you talking to your donors yet? Listening to what motivates them and then delivering it? Good show. But the programme has moved on.

To get with it, you have learn to dance with your donors as well - in fact, you could say that dancing is the new listening.

The change is driven by the need to stay ahead in a fundraising world where more and more charities are getting quite expert at building good donor relationships. The shine can fade from any relationship over time, which makes it the fundraiser's job to keep donor relationships fresh with an endless stream of positive experiences.

But don't expect donor research to give you a map of the best path to take in the future - after all, our lovely donors can speak with certainty only about their values and preferences today. Instead, we must imagine a compelling future and try it out on donors in real time.

That means taking the lead, trying out new moves in your everyday dance with donors and receiving instant feedback. It's the opposite of avoiding risk - it's trial and error based on hunches and insights. Feedback is based on donors' experiences rather than theory, and may even go against predictions made by conventional research.

We've taken this fast and fearless approach with more than one client's welcome mailing, because the stakes are so high at this critical stage: the first communication a new donor receives is the most important one they'll ever get. We were amazed at the increase in second donations and feedback we achieved as we explored and adapted.

Working on a hunch we had about a homelessness charity's high-level givers, we invited them to jump from a mailing stream to online communications, and we found we can now communicate much more cost-effectively with this small group of VIP donors.

We've also recently tried a whole range of radically different approaches to a children's charity database. We now ensure new donors are exposed to a wide-ranging portfolio of propositions and techniques within their first six months, helping us understand their preferences for future campaigns.

And we have tested for the ideal religious tone of communication in a database made up of both church and non-church donors, helping us develop single messages that work for both constituencies.

If your organisation can handle it, dancing with donors like this can be a fast way to move beyond static donor relationships and into a future that is more engaging for your donors, and infinitely more rewarding for you, too. Neil Henderson is creative planning director at direct marketing agency DMS

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