What comes second matters most

Seeking the elusive second gift

In direct response fundraising, it’s axiomatic that the second gift is more important than the first. By some industry reports, as many as two-thirds of people who respond to a solicitation and make a first-time gift to an organization never make a second gift.

The first gift typically is more expensive to generate than any following gifts, and there simply are not enough donors in the world to treat any as dispensable. So the one-time gift is welcome on the one hand and a huge problem on the other. This is a source of great angst in development departments, where time is not our friend: the common wisdom now is that getting a second gift relatively soon -- within 60 -120 days is commonly cited – is also crucial.

In addition to asking soon, we should ask for something specific when appealing for a second gift. Although difficult to do for many organizations, linking what the first gift helped to accomplish to the appeal for a second gift reinforces the value proposition offered to the donor and helps her or him buy in to your work.

So in my narrow, unscientific experiment, how was I asked for the next gift? I saw three patterns.

Systematic but impersonal – From some I receievd a very speedy response, and from then on, a flow of periodic mailings. But after the initial "welcome," no mailing has given any signal of dealing with a first-time donor. For example, the faith-based international aid charity mails at least monthly, and are still going. Still, they get full marks for timeliness and the specificity of their appeals – almost every appeal is for a highly defined need and response. 

Eventual recognition of "new donor" position – After not responding to the "welcome" or subsquent mailings, the charity becames aware I hadn't made a gift within a certain time period. Then then the appeals became more targeted. For example, after the initial exchange the “Social service-broad mandate-national-faith based” charity waited four months to contact me, with a newsletter and a request to consider becoming a monthly donor.  Only after a year passed did they begin to ask me specifically in a strategic way, using the language of “renewal,” and techniques such as a hand-written message and a first-class postage stamp.   

In newsletters we trust – The default for many organizations is the quarterly newsletter, mailed with an appeal, a reply card and a business reply envelope. There are periodic about monthly giving and/or bequests. In our experiment the “Social service - urban need - local- faith based” agency does this very well. The newsletter is engaging, appealing and very accessible and the letters are crisp and warm. Two dangers lurk in this pattern. One is that many recipients extract the newsletter and discard the rest of the package. The second is that organizational ego is such that we convince ourselves that distribution of our newsletter (so people will be “informed”) has long-term value, whether or not people give.

Beyond general patterns, one agency earned solid respect. The first is “Social service - women – local” who evidently recognize that they have limited resources, and are not going to devote them to me. They produced a great welcome in November 2013, some good newsletters, in December 2014 offered me a very strong matching gift opportunity to give again, and have not sent me anything in 2015. I infer from their silence they have the discipline and will to decide I should not be sent more mail.  I respect that enormously.

Then, in the “most improved” category is “cultural-regional profile.” The initial communications were very austere and then they were silent from the January 2014 receipt until I received a letter in September 2014. What a difference! Something major happened. The letter was excellent, focusing on outreach to children and the public. The enclosed collateral piece was engaging. The ask was intelligent and clear: three options – renew my specific gift (which they identified), give $150 to join the “Friends of” club with a few benefits typical of performing arts organizations, or become a monthly donor. Nothing else has come since, so perhaps they too have made a strategic choice about whom to pursue.

I’m guessing there’s been a staffing or leadership change. If I lived in that city I'd have made another gift, just to reward the change.

Why don’t all of us do well asking for a second gift? It takes time and money – scarce resources in overloaded and underfunded departments.

But if we can find the resources, let’s try to do the obvious: ask me for another gift fairly soon; connect the second ask to the first gift so I know you see me in the transaction; ask me for something specific. And, if after I’ve been approached a few times I don’t respond, then let me go.

- Larry Matthews

Next: The e-mail letter-mail tango


Asking for the second gift


* = initial gift made online

Second gift ask

* International aid - faith-based

instant by email; next appeal  by email 2-3 weeks later; receipt by mail a month later - with prayer card

* Social service-broad mandate-national-faith based

No contact after initial exchange for 4 months. A year later (in 2014) a hand-written message holiday card message asking for renewal by name plus 2 other mailings; very direct "2015 renewal enclosed" in Jan 2015; April 2015 hand-addressed card, hand-written note, real postage stamp

* Environmental

regular mail stream; plus recognition list; subtle "renewal" message in Nov 2014; explicit in March 2015, and one more in April 2015

Hospital foundation - regional catchment

January 2014 – request to join monthly donor program but not tied to any specific previous gift or in reference to my status as a “new” donor. Regular newsletters and appeals. End of year appeal in Nov-Dec 2014, from a patient was subtle and well done; No specific “renewal” until a new “member” card in Jan 2015

Social service - urban need - local- faith based

Quarterly newsletter

Major comprehensive research university

Sept 2014 and Nov 2014 letters- specific renewal request - mentioned previous gift

Social service - women - local

Nothing specific to my gift after the welcome. Two newsletters and one more appeal (Dec. 2014).

Cultural - regional profile

Sept 2014-invited to become a friend - at $150- or to renew my gift at $100 –very different look and feel

Medical research- start up


Cultural - national profile


Social service-children - local


 *Social service-broad mandate- national

Part of "annual" appeal – 17 months later