The Case for Cliffhangers

Fundraising appeals rely on story to pull readers in, create emotional connections and inspire donors to make a difference through giving. Knowing how essential stories are to success, the Frontier team is constantly trying to improve our techniques, so we can maximize results for our clients. Today we’d like to share the findings from one of our recent copy tests. 

How many fundraising stories are told 

Most appeals follow a similar pattern, introducing donors to someone whose life has been changed through accessing a charity’s services. Donors are immersed in the struggles someone has endured. Then the donor is told how their donation helped to turn a life around, and the story ends with the person housed or fed or reunited with family, all thanks to the donor’s support. The call to action is to give again to help the countless others still in need. 

Telling finished stories has an unfortunate consequence: it diminishes the need in the mind of the donor.
— Jeff Brooks

The idea behind this strategy is to show donors exactly where their last donation went, express gratitude, and create an emotional connection. The goal is for donors to see the real impact they’ve made. Such stories can inspire donors and they certainly have their place, but…

Is there a better way? 

According to some experts, sending appeals with “finished” stories that end with happy people who have already been helped may make donors feel good about their last donation. BUT this type of appeal may also decrease the motivation to give again because everything’s looking so rosy. 

As Jeff Brooks explains in his blog post titled Why (and how) you should not finish fundraising stories, he reminds us that actions have consequences! “Telling finished stories has an unfortunate consequence,” he says. “It diminishes the need in the mind of the donor. All donors hear about are people who have been helped, so they never emotionally feel the need your organization exists to serve, so they become less likely to give.”

On the other hand, by leaving stories unfinished - aka by writing “cliffhanger” stories, you create an URGENT call to action. You create space for the donor to step in and become the story’s hero. Without them, the story will not have a happy ending.

Sounds pretty good. But of course, the Frontier team can’t simply accept fundraising literature at face value. We need to test it!

The Test

An A/B test was conducted with Bissell Centre’s 2018 Easter appeal. The donor list was split in half randomly and two different versions of copy were written. 

Donor group A received an appeal that shared the story of a single mother of two who, with the support of donors, had escaped homelessness and was now housed, happily accessing Bissell Centre services and working hard to create a prosperous life for her children.

Donor group B received a story about that same single mother, except that in this version she had only recently connected with Bissell Centre and needed continued support to access services like free diapers, child care, parenting classes, housing services and support groups. 

Our hypothesis was that the unfinished version would bring in more revenue than the finished version. 

The Results

Although 14 fewer people from the “unfinished” story group gave, their average gift was $95 compared to $73 in the “finished” story group - that’s 30% higher and resulted in 15% more revenue! 

While these results are exciting, a single test conducted with 5,000 donors can’t prove that unfinished stories are the way to go, across the board. That’s why we retested with the Bissell Centre 2019 Summer Child Care appeal. We also sent Welcome Hall Mission’s entire list of 30,000 an unfinished story in their first Easter appeal, with the conclusion revealed in the follow-up, in order to make a year over year comparison. 

While we eagerly await the results of these appeals, we’re keeping story endings top of mind while we write, and planning even more tests for 2019.


The Innovation of Envelope Design

The Backstory

For 40 years, Kelowna’s Gospel Mission has been feeding, housing and supporting the vulnerable to turn homelessness into wholeness. Frontier has had the pleasure of partnering with this transformational organization for the last four years.

Our main goal is to help organizations create lasting change. In order to make this happen, we focus on what we can do to ensure constant growth. This means we analyze every detail that goes into our client’s campaigns to ensure optimal donor engagement. Our experiments  compare and contrast different characteristics so that we are constantly providing the best results possible.

The results of some of our tests and innovations are shared in blog posts such as Behind the Design: A Case Study and Victoria Dandelion Society: A Case Study. Constant testing helps us to further tailor our strategies to our client’s individual needs. That’s why we’re sharing one of our most recent tests with you, today.

The Test

Here at Frontier, we get pretty excited about the design of envelopes. Why? Because the design of a sealable paper container could be the difference between obtaining a donation or not.

Generally, for Kelowna’s Gospel Mission newsletters, we create outer envelopes that are minimalist in design. This is because we send out five per year, alternating with fundraising appeals that have much more vibrant and colourful outer envelopes. It’s a subtle way of branding the newsletters differently so that donors recognize them as soon as they open their mailbox. (See image below.)

KGM-NL1802-OE-B.jpg

When we wondered whether we were missing out on a chance to share imagery on the newsletter’s outer envelope, we decided to conduct an A/B test! We were curious to see if adding a human face to an alternative newsletter envelope would be a motivator to open it up and see what was inside.

"We were wondering if adding a face, an emotionally stimulating, humanizing element, might increase donor engagement and donation revenue from newsletters.” — Chantal, Frontier designer

The image used on the alternative envelope is of a woman whose story is featured in the centrefold of the newsletter. She overcame obstacles and transformed her life with help from Harmony House, Kelowna’s Gospel Mission’s women’s centre. She appears smiling and content on the envelope, an accurate representation of her success story. (See image below.)

KGM-NL1802-OE-A 2.jpg

The newsletter itself was the same for both versions, thanking donors for their support, recapping the previous year with a few stories, and providing an update for future initiatives and programs. The mailing list was randomly split in half, with half of donors receiving the regular, stripped-back version, and the other half receiving the trial version with the image.

Results

When the results came in, we saw a neck-and-neck race between donors receiving version A versus B. Without an indication of one version performing better or worse than the other, what we can do is retest. It’s the name of the game with data-driven fundraising. Even if the results had drastically favoured one version over the other, the nature of increasing donation revenue from a newsletter has a number of variables at play. In order to ensure that the results were an accurate reflection of the variables under assessment, we’d need to perform the same test again, to understand more fully what is happening and what is working.

This is just one example of the many tests we’re regularly running, to find out what’s working with our fundraising, and what might work better. Innovation is a process, and a process we take seriously! By understanding the psychology behind influencing a donor, we can further sharpen our skills and strategies to create incredibly impactful and long-lasting outcomes for our clients.

What’s Next

Newsletters do not typically raise as much revenue as more aggressive fundraising appeals. But while the focus in newsletters is generally on thanking donors, because recognizing their generosity is key to keeping them around, it’s not a waste of time to want more. We hope you’ll stay tuned for other innovations that we’re implementing in our clients’ newsletters!