If Only You'd Known, You Would Have Raised So Much More

If Only You'd Known, You Would Have Raised So Much More

Tom Ahern

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If Only You'd Known...You Would Have Raised So Much More
Airtight Answers to 40 Questions Essential to Your Fundraising Success

by Tom Ahern, 185 pp.

Forget any conjecture you've heard. Ignore the anecdotal advice. At last you have airtight answers to 40 questions crucial to your fundraising success.

In his book, If Only You'd Known, You Would Have Raised So Much More, Tom Ahern provides proof-positive answers to questions should as:

How old is the typical donor?

How long do donors stick around?

How quickly should you thank a first-time donor?

Should you include an ask in your thank-you letter?

How often in a single appeal can you ask for a gift?

How often can you ask without driving away donors?

What's the best length for a direct mail letter?

What is the number one reason you lose donors?

Which sequence of gift amounts raises the most, smallest to largest or largest to smallest?

In total, you'll find 40 definitive answers, each one world-sourced from top fundraising practitioners, creative agencies, and veteran researchers working in seven different countries.

Ahern writes in his signature style: fast, friendly, funny, plain-talking ... even blunt when the occasion demands. And his incontestable findings are critical to small and big nonprofits alike.

About the Author

Tom Ahern is considered one of the world’s top authorities on how to make donor communications more profitable. He is author of What Your Donors Want and WhySeeing Through a Donor’s Eyes, How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money, and Making Money with Donor Newsletters, all published by Emerson & Church. He collaborated with Adrian Sargeant and psychologist Jen Shang on prototyping innovative direct mail packages for PBS TV. As a “message strategist” he’s won three prestigious IABC Gold Quill awards, all for nonprofit communications campaigns that achieved unusual success.

Table of Contents

  1. Who are you talking to, really?
  2. The eyes have it
  3. Life review
  4. The evolutionary science behind charity
  5. "You are that good!"
  6. You'll need a donor acquisition program
  7. Overwhelming
  8. More thanks = more money
  9. Don't fall for your own nonsense
  10. The 100% Fallacy
  11. Know your SMIT
  12. Event ROI (return on investment)
  13. A donate button is not enough
  14. Wrong
  15. Grade level and speed reading
  16. "Looks unprofessional"
  17. ". . . with as much anticipation as possible"
  18. Research said
  19. More is more, up to a point
  20. Easy fixes
  21. Generosity in America
  22. Judging new donors
  23. When inertia works for you
  24. Why donors quit
  25. "That's so 2003"
  26. If donors enjoy what you're saying
  27. Putting statistics in their place
  28. Is ignorance a barrier to giving?
  29. "The difference between anger and compassion is huge"
  30. The lizard brain
  31. Faster
  32. Organization-focused vs. donor-focused
  33. Surprise!
  34. What comes first matters
  35. Prioritizing
  36. Get off the treadmill
  37. Swimming in money
  38. Meet Jacqueline
  39. Why fundraisers quit
  40. Repeat donors are different


This article is excerpted from Tom Ahern's book, If Only You'd Known, ©Emerson & Church, Publishers. To obtain reprint permission, call 508-359-0019 or email us.

Chapter 1

How old is the typical US donor?

[  ] 35 years of age

[  ] 50 years of age

[  ] 75 years of age

"A young donor in the US is sixty," expert Jeff Brooks noted in 2013.

Is it different for your charity? "It comes out this way no matter who does the research," Jeff told me. "I've seen it many times through the years.

Donors aged sixty-five and older comprise (by far) the largest slice of the American charity pie. Those under age thirty-five make up the smallest slice of the same pie.

What's typical? I know an animal rescue charity that acquired a new annual donor at age 55. She sent in her last donation at age 101, just before she died. The only thing unusual about that? Most of your donors won't stick around for forty-six years.

OK, but that's puppies and kittens. What about other kinds of charities? Are their donors also older?

For more than a decade, I've written direct mail appeals for a community hospital system in southern California. Tens of thousands of grateful ex-patients (i.e., the ones not suing) have chosen to become donors.

What's their average age? Not seventy-four. Nor seventy-six. Exactly seventy-five years old. Accurate? We know to the day when EX-patients-who-then-become-donors were born: the information is in their medical records.

So, again, OK: puppies, kittens; hospitals curing people. What about a charity without these advantages: what's the "age profile" there?

In 2017, one of America's top 10 brand-name charities, a group serving the homeless and addicted, analyzed its vast donor database by age. Its largest group of "active" (i.e., repeat) donors was eighty-seven years old on average. Its largest group of first-time (i.e., new) donors was age seventy on average.

Even in Australia, a philanthropic market that vigorously courts younger donors, older donors end up ruling the roost. Sean Triner, co-founder of Pareto, that country's largest direct mail and phone fundraising agency, ran the numbers. He simply concluded: "Older donors are better."

Why? They tend to stick longer and hence give more in total.       

So are younger Americans less generous? Not at all. But they lack one essential: money to give away.

Young adults are building lives. They're buying stuff. They're forming and furnishing households. They are as caring and concerned and compassionate as anyone else. But unless they were born with the proverbial silver spoon, they probably don't have all that much disposable income to throw around (especially if they choose to have children, an expensive proposition in America).          

And then things change.          

"At age fifty-five" Jeff Brooks observed, "people start to become reliably charitable. They're starting to have some extra money." There is some surplus in their wallets: the kids are launched, the house is almost paid for. "Then households begin giving to charity," said Jeff. "And their giving ramps up until age sixty-five, where it levels off. They'll continue giving until something intervenes." They get ill. They grow destitute. They die.          

It's tempting to romanticize the act of giving. We admire generosity. It's a positive trait, the sign of a "good" person. But circumstances have to be right. People give to charity because they have disposable income . . . and because something a charity said caught their eye and moved them.          

Did I give your nonprofit $30? That's because I think I can give away $30 at this particular time . . . without changing my lifestyle one bit. I sacrificed nothing (maybe a couple of lattes). Many gifts to charity are impulse purchases, the same purchases that fill your closets and drawers.     

Are major gifts different? What if someone gave you $30 million instead of $30?         

To the charity, the gift is massive, maybe transformational. Yet it probably didn't alter the donor's lifestyle in the least. Still have the summer place on Martha's Vineyard. Still have the plastic flamingos on the lawn (annoying the neighbors). Still have the gardener and pool crew to keep the place looking spiffy. Still have the top-notch financial advisors growing my fortune every year without fail.        

A $30 million gift won't necessarily be an impulse gift . . . but it's unlikely to be a sacrifice, either.

When you say "younger" donors, what do you mean exactly?

"The younger [youngest] groups will NOT stay with you in good numbers," Jeff Brooks noted, "even if you can find them.       

"But the 'almost old' are promising. They give higher average gifts than sixty-five-plus, and once they're aboard, they can stay with you for many years. This is the group that can turn around your fortunes and drive you to a brighter future."   

The next big "giving generation" will be baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. In 2018, the oldest were seventy-two, and the youngest were fifty-four. You won't see the last of them until 2064 or so. It's a rich river to fish in. Together, baby boomers control over 80 percent of personal financial assets in the US, says a well-sourced Wikipedia article.