It’s noisy out there. You must start asking questions. No one piece of information will tell you all you need to know about a supporter.


Every day it’s estimated the average adult is exposed to over 5,000 marketing messages. So it’s probably not surprising that even household names can struggle to get themselves heard.

It’s a challenging environment for any charity trying to connect with existing supporters and looking for new ones. Many of our own charity partners have seen a decrease in their active donor numbers over the past two years and a growing number of lapsed donors they struggle to re-engage.

A quick look at the statistics shows the broader picture. In 2016 to 2017, 32.6% of Australians made and claimed tax-deductible donations, falling from 33.4% in the previous year. In fact, from 2010 to 2016, the number of donating taxpayers in Australia declined by more than 400,000.

It’s clear something needs to change with the way we retain and develop our supporters.

So, how do you make yourself heard above the noise? Traditionally, upgrade and reactivation activity has relied heavily on transactional data to determine which supporters are worth contacting. The focus is almost exclusively on the ‘what’ and the ‘when’:

The what

Supporters are often categorised by their channel of recruitment. As fundraisers we regularly, and mistakenly, believe channel is the most important thing about a new supporter. The motivations and values that led Mrs Jones to start supporting you is reduced to the simple label of face-to-face supporter or phone-converted lead.

The when

Have they given a gift in the past 12 months? Then they’re ‘active’. Between 12 and 24 months ago? Then maybe we decide they’re ‘lapsing’. In some cases, we’re then able to add some channel specific data. Perhaps they have previously upgraded a gift by phone or they have previously lapsed and then reactivated?

If so, we might take that into account when we’re making our selections and when we’re building our scripts.

But it’s only half the story. With this approach it’s all about us: how we recruited Mrs Jones, what we decide Mrs Jones is going to hear about and when we decide to contact her.

None of this tells us anything about the ‘why’ behind the support

Why did Mrs Jones stop to talk to the fundraiser in the shopping centre on that Tuesday in June last year? Why did that interaction move her to start a monthly donation? Why did she give an additional gift at Christmas, eight months later? And then, crucially, why did she stop giving?

Of course, offline surveys have an important role to play in uncovering supporter motivations but there are two significant issues that can restrict their effectiveness:

The first issue is reach

Mail surveys are run infrequently – every two years is a common interval – and often restricted to older donors. Supporters acquired through high-volume activity such as face-to- face or online lead generation are excluded based on age. This makes sense if the activity is viewed solely as a bequest prospecting tool but it also means you’ll have no information on most of the supporters in your reactivation and upgrade activity.

The second issue is flexibility

Questions in a print or online survey are fixed and can be geared towards eliciting a specific response. The most valuable information is often found in the open-ended, Let us know your thoughts section. Ironically, info given here is also the least likely to make it onto the supporter’s records on your database. It’s lost. Filed away on a piece of paper and not even considered in future interactions with the supporter.

Phone activity has neither of these restrictions. You can run multiple campaigns a year across a broad selection of supporters. Your callers can be flexible and reactive in their approach, able to tailor follow-up questions to the individual conversation. You can learn a lot in a short amount of time.

Since 2017, we’ve been working with our charity partners to help them build a complete picture of their supporters. In many ways, it’s a simple change in approach, but it’s been a significant and powerful one for our callers and our charities.

It starts with one simple question

In May and June last year, we added the following question to our call scripts when speaking with lapsing supporters. The question appeared at the end of the call, for those who declined a gift: “Just before you go, we value the input of past supporters and would love to gain some insight as to why you have been unable to support us for a little while?”

The results showed two clear areas of focus with the potential to improve results. Over half of those who answered cited “financial circumstances” as the reason for stopping support. A further 16% said “oversaturation of communications” had caused them to stop their support.

While neither of these reasons came as a surprise, being able to attribute a specific reason to an individual supporter and then immediately address that concern had a significant effect on results.

For the over-saturation segment, our teams were able to offer a twice a year and once a year contact frequency and a channel preference. Never contact rates were reduced by an astonishing 85% on previous campaigns. The control segment converted at a rate of 19%, while the twice a year segment converted at over 34%.

For the financial circumstances segment, ask handles were dropped significantly, from $55 to $15, which increased positive response by 212%.

Results from this initial test were extremely encouraging. Testing will now continue to assess the longer-term profitability and strategy behind this approach.

We continued this approach in 2019 with our charity Epworth Medical Foundation. In addition to the organisation’s Spring Donor Renewal script, we added the following questions:

“What do you like about Epworth?” and “Epworth wants to know if you feel their communication clearly explains the difference your gift/support makes.”

Almost 50% of supporters we spoke to were happy to answer the additional questions, allaying any concerns we had over low participation rates. From these responses we were able to build a much clearer picture of both the demographics of the Epworth supporter base and the key motivations driving support.

For example, the majority of Epworth’s supporters were aged 69 or over – an older age than had previously been assumed. Personal experience was the key driver of response, with being a past patient and the “high standard of care/services and treatment offered” accounting for over 70% of responses.

Interestingly, the survey also uncovered a significant group of supporters who mentioned the names of the doctors or nurses. It was clear that this group would need a tailored approach to increase the effectiveness of fundraising in future.

The next phase of the campaign will build on the information already uncovered to give choice around areas for designation. For example, Epworth can offer supporters the opportunity to designate their donation to research or patient care. With such a close personal connection for supporters, it seems likely that this offer could be extremely effective.

Kathleen Lambrick, Direct Marketing Manager at the Epworth Medical Foundation, said about the research, “The value add the team provided from strategic planning and implementation to donor research helps us shape our program.”

While personal connection was a clear driver for support for Epworth, our supporter survey uncovered a different motivational profile for another charity, the Epilepsy Foundation.

This time, our callers were asked the following questions: “What inspired you to support the Epilepsy Foundation?” and “Have you ever used the Epilepsy Helpline? If yes, how important was it to you to have access to this helpline?”

The donor profile was slightly younger than Epworth, with the majority of supporters aged 59 or over. Perhaps surprisingly, the most significant single motivation for support was simply “good cause” at 37% of respondents.
This was followed by “family member with epilepsy” at 29%.

Findings were also split along gender lines, with male supporters less likely to cite a personal connection as motivation for support. The hotline question also had a beneficial awareness raising outcome, with almost 9% of respondents saying they were previously unaware of the hotline.

The next steps for the Epilepsy Foundation will be to build on the supporter connection information and find out about other charitable giving to ascertain whether there are any commonalities in the types of organisations that are supported.

So, what does this mean for future campaigns?

You must start asking questions. No one piece of information will tell you all you need to know about a supporter, but by building a fuller picture, you’ll be able to tailor your communications to meet your supporter needs.

If you are agile and flexible in your approach and take the opportunity to show your supporters that you know them and care about their interests, you’ll set yourselves apart from the others competing for their attention.

You also need to trust your callers. Give them the freedom, and the time, to have meaningful conversations. Any additional investment in training or call length will be more than recouped by the increase in lifetime value from supporters who can see that you share their values and are interested in their lives.

It’s time to stop talking and start listening.


Darren Musilli

Darren is the CEO of Apple Marketing Group. He leads a team of more than 150 fundraisers and for more than 16 years has been working with charities and not-for-profit organisations across medical research, community and social services, health, disability and children’s charities. He is passionate about finding new and innovative fundraising solutions that continue to transform the ways in which Apple Marketing integrates and delivers success for its partner charities. To date the team has raised in excess of $509 million for Australian charities.

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