Applying Data-Driven Ask Strings to Nonprofit Appeals
by Mike Montalto
September 5, 2019

There are few constants in the world of fundraising. But, if you’ve been reading our blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed that strong data is the core of many of the strategies we discuss. It’s an essential tool, whether you are building targeted audiences, creating more personal communications, or developing data-driven ask strings.

You probably spend a lot of time using data to make your outreach feel more relevant for your audience (or at least you should be!). But, if you don’t put the same effort into to your ask string, you could still fail to reach your fundraising goals!

Sure, there are some easy ways to improve your ask by using human psychology to your advantage. But those strategies are like the icing on a cake. The most effective ask strings are rooted in an analytical approach.

There are a few questions that you need to ask yourself before we get into the technical weeds:

  • What do I consider my major donor gift level?
  • What do I want as my lowest gift ask?
  • How do I want to address mid-level donors?

Every organization will have different answers. In fact, some will adjust giving levels appeal by appeal.  But it’s critical to define these parameters before building out data-driven ask strings.

Now, we’re going to share some of the ways we develop more targeted ask strings for our clients based on how they answer those questions.

For Regular Donors

Let’s start with the bulk of your donor base.

Now that you’ve defined where you draw the line between mid-level and major donors, you need to determine how to make an appropriate ask.

You probably have donors that give $100. But if your lowest major gift is $2,000, you can’t present the same ask string to a $100 donor and someone whose last gift was $1,000!

This is why using variable formulas based on past giving is so important.

You also want to present a safe donor choice. You’ll see we recommend no more than three targeted asks in our examples. We also include a fourth option of “Other: $_____” so the recipient can write in their desired gift.

There are a number of ways to create personalized ask strings. Below are three simple strategies you can implement in your solicitations:

1. Mathematical Formula

This is the most common and straightforward method of the three. It’s also a great way for nonprofits with limited data to get started. The only thing you need to know is the value of a donor’s most recent gift, or their average gift value during a fiscal year if you send multiple appeals in a year.

Our standard is to use the last gift as the low-end ask, and double that number as the highest of the three. The center target ask falls right in between, subtly encouraging a donor to increase their gift by 50 percent.

Your data can help you go further. Use the suggestion above for your current donors, and a less aggressive ask string for donors whose last gift was some time ago.

So, if a current donor’s last gift was $100, you would present them with an ask string of $100, $150, $200. But a lapsed donor whose last gift was also $100 would see an ask string of $75, $100, $150.

You should round a donor’s last gift to an even number to avoid odd ask amounts like $83. And don’t forget to remind donors of their last gift amount and the impact it made! This shows them you pay attention to your supporters and it can influence the value of their donation.

As always, spot check your list, especially for those recipients who are extremely important to the organization or who tend to complain, and make sure you are comfortable with their asks. If not, just change them to what you feel is the right fit!

2. Pre-Set Formulas

This is where the more labor-intensive work gets involved. To use pre-set formulas in your data-driven ask string, you have to create general giving levels for donors based on their past gifts.  

So, your asks are still based on how much a donor previously gave. But this approach will utilize pre-set levels to determine the right ask string, rather than a mathematical formula personalized for each recipient.

Of course, where you draw the lines between these giving levels is dependent on factors unique to your organization. Putting the thought into where to cut each level is more time consuming than using a standard formula.

For example, if a donor’s gift was $350 last year, their pre-determined ask might be $250, $350, $500 since they fall in the $250 – $499 giving level.

However, this means some donors may receive a base level ask lower than their last gift amount.

3. Individual Targets

Coming up with a unique ask string is by far the most time consuming of these three approaches to variable asks. It involves digging through every record in your database, and using past giving history and your intuition to determine the best ask for each unique donor.

While we know that every nonprofit would want to put this level of care into their donor outreach, this approach might only be practical for nonprofits and local organizations with a small donor base.

For Major Donors

Data-driven ask strings need to be much more personal for major donors. You’re probably already personalizing your ask in your one-on-one conversations. So, using a mathematical formula or level-based ask may not reflect what you’ve previously discussed with a major donor!

We recommend a different approach for this group, which involves abandoning the three-string ask all together. How you approach this is dependent on your definition of a major donor and how you determine leadership tiers. You might even use some of these approaches for mid-level donors.

Now, we know what you are thinking.

“If we don’t include specific giving options, how will they know what to give?”

You can still remind donors of their last gift on your reply card or appeal letter. This will serve as a general guideline of what they are expected to give. However, the way you present this information depends on the action you want a major donor to take.

For example, are you trying to increase gifts from current major donors, or are you content with maintaining them at the level they’re at? This will determine how aggressive you want to be with your message.

Passive: Blank Gift/No Specific Ask

This option gives the donor the most freedom to write in a gift amount they are comfortable with. Of course, the reply card will provide a glimpse of their past giving.

This strategy usually results in a gift that is around the same amount as their last donation. But this approach can backfire and result in a lower gift if you do not remind them of their prior giving history! 

Aggressive: Renew/Increase

Keeping it simple and providing two options, renew or increase, can guide major and mid-level donors towards the desired result.

“Please renew my gift of $XXXX”

“I want to increase my gift to: $_________”

Aggressive: Leadership Level Asks

Our third option focuses on encouraging donors to join your leadership ranks, rather than using a specific dollar amount. Only the highest-level donors will have a blank ask string for this approach. This will usually be accompanied by some graphic of a leadership table that show the dollar ranges for each level.

Please consider joining our Platinum Level supporters by increasing your gift.”

For Non-Donors and Small Gift Donors

Whether your reaching out to former donors who are inactive or sending an acquisition appeal, you need a separate strategy to build data-driven ask strings for non-donors. The key here is finding the right minimum ask.

Many organizations find success with a $25, $50, $100 ask string for non-donors. But like everything else, it really depends on what works best for your organization. Don’t be afraid to A/B test two versions of ask strings on your next appeal!

Use what you already know about your donors to determine the right minimum ask. For example, If you have a younger donor base with less earning potential, you may want to start smaller.

Analyzing your data could present a need to use different minimum asks for different constituency groups. For example, an independent school might use a lower ask of $15, $25, $50 for young alumni and a higher ask string of $100, $250, $500 for current parents.

We also recommend using your minimum ask strings for current donors whose last gift was less than your first ask. It’s important for every donor to receive an ask that they feel comfortable with. But you don’t want to build ask strings based on prior gifts of $1.

Find Out What Works

You need to build processes and rules for data-driven ask strings that work for your organization. No two nonprofits are the same. You’re reaching out to different audiences, with a different message, about a different mission.

There’s no guarantee that a strategy that works for one organization will get results for the next!

Successful appeals show the recipient that you really know them as an individual. Data-driven ask strings serve as an extension of that principle. But as we discussed, making a truly personal and powerful ask requires a deep analytical approach.

So, develop a plan, test it out, and track your results. Without strong data, it is impossible to know if the changes you are making are having a positive impact on your fundraising.

Then, use what you learn about what works best for your audience segments the next time you launch an appeal!   

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