If you can afford it, professionally conducted market research may help you dramatically improve the results of your direct mail fundraising program. By intelligent use of focus groups and of donor, member or subscriber surveys, you can tailor your direct mail packages for maximum effectiveness.
But don't expect to undertake a professional market research program unless you can spend a minimum of $10,000 – and two or three times that much would get you a whole lot farther.
If you can't afford to spend $10,000, you might consider any one or more of the following information-gathering techniques. These techniques don't constitute rigorous marketing research; carelessly conducted, or used to draw premature conclusions, efforts of the following sort could easily mislead you. But, if you're careful, they may tell you more than you now know about your market and help you fine-tune your fundraising program.
Enclose a brief, simple New Member (or New Donor) Survey in every welcome or thank-you package. Try asking questions that bear on demographic factors, basic attitudes, program preferences, donor habits and preferences. (And be sure to expand your computer storage system to keep at least some of this information on the permanent donor file. It could prove to be invaluable in future resolicitations.)
Incorporate a longer written survey in one issue of your newsletter – perhaps the summer issue. Be sure either to format it as a self-mailer with a Business Reply Mail panel, or to enclose a Business Reply Envelope. And be certain that the survey is highlighted in the text of your newsletter, so that no one misses it. (If this device is successful, consider making it an annual feature of your newsletter program.)
Develop a brief survey, incorporating some or all of the factors listed in #1 above, and then telephone your top 50 (or 500) donors – not to ask them for gifts but simply to acquire information. It's okay to be conversational, but be sure you consistently use the same questionnaire with every donor. (By the way, you're likely to find that this may be even more useful as a cultivation device: many of your donors will be very grateful for the attention.)
Recruit at random among your members or donors to form Donor Advisory Forums or Feedback Panels that will function somewhat like focus groups. (If you can get help from experienced facilitators, all the better.) Convene these groups of 8 to 12 people each at convenient times in a comfortable location, and serve light refreshments. Have a facilitator ask them honest and probing questions you've carefully prepared in advance, and then listen to what they say. With permission, tape-record the sessions, so others not present can later hear portions of the discussion. Do not depend on what you hear from any one discussion group; repeat the exercise at least twice, and preferably three or four times, with a completely different group of people each time – and ideally in different parts of the city (or the nation).
The testing you conduct in your direct mail and/or telephone resolicitation program is probably your primary form of market research. With every list test, you learn more about your market. Often, too, you can learn from package testing. So, when planning what you'll test this year, and when, consider not just how you might refine your direct mail or telephone appeals but what you know (or don't know) about your members or donors.
For example, your organization may be trying to decide whether to undertake a major Planned Giving program, but you don't know whether your members would respond favorably. To get some advance reading on this question, you might add – on the reply device of a special appeal or membership renewal package, but without additional comment – an offer of free information about Planned Giving. To fulfill the offer, all you'll really need is a simple brochure on the subject and a brief cover letter that also describes how to add your organization as a beneficiary in a will. But if response is heavy, you may want to send more than that – and then use the inquiry list as a starting point for your Planned Giving program.
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