Along the path to becoming a professional fundraiser, you learn a number of very valuable things. One of them is string strategy.

String strategy? I know that sounds an awful lot like a knitting project gone wrong or, if you watch Big Bang Theory, something Sheldon does in his physics lab.

But string strategy is simply your plan of action about the specific amounts to ask each donor to give. Because people want to know: How much are you asking me for?

Smart string strategy could mean the difference between a donation to your organization, or a mailing that goes straight to the recycling bin.

Danger of default amounts

I see far too many nonprofits defaulting to the old $25, $50, $75 and $100 model. That may work fine when you’re mailing people who have never given a donation.

But if you already have hard-won data about each donor’s giving habits, why wouldn’t you use that to personalize his or her ask – and urge them to invest a little more in the cause they love?

And the donor who is most likely to give you a gift today isn’t the one who gave to you last year, or two years ago. It’s the one who made a gift 1-3 months ago.

Don’t waste the opportunity to build the relationship with them that will inspire them to give more, and often. Giving makes us feel good!

So, how can up-and-coming fundraisers put string strategy to work?

String strategy basics

In general, what you do is take the donor's most recent contribution amount and use that as the first ask. The second ask is usually 1.5 times that amount and the third is 2 times.

Another approach is to use the donor’s biggest gift ever as the starting point for the formula.

Some fundraisers suggest listing ask amounts in the reverse order: highest to lowest. But I believe that can have unintended consequences: Things that lift average gift size depress response. And vice versa.

Smaller average gifts usually mean a higher response rate. Sometimes this makes for “net neutral” dollar amounts coming in, but if your primary goal is to retain more donors, go for an ask string that produces higher response instead of higher average gift size. Another good reason to have your goals well established and documented.

Now, this is the simple version of string strategy. If you’re really interested, here’s where you can get an entire 28 page e-book about this subject. But from what I see in the mail, what most charities need is more basic.

This strategy is best suited to standard donor letters, as opposed to special campaigns, which I’ll cover in a minute. But if any of the amounts look too wonky using this formula, go ahead and use numbers that make the most sense.

Here’s where the rules get bent a little.

When to get creative

For example, for upper-level donors I'll actually default them to something like $250, $500 and $750 because much more than that looks silly in my particular nonprofit niche. This is where sound, data-based judgment comes in.

And where normally I would never ask regular donors to write something in – that’s a common stopper – an “open ask” for very, high-dollar donors can sometimes be appropriate. If they are dedicated and long-time donors who have given about $1,000 or more, leaving a blank line can work.

Of course, if you're doing a special mailing – something like $60 spays or neuters a homeless pet – make the ask amounts make sense with the mailing. In this case, you could alter 1, 2 or 3 pets for $60, $120 or $180 respectively.

The point is, you don’t have to get all tied up in knots when it comes to deciding how much to ask. Nor do you need to default to what the fundraiser before you did.

And when it comes to string strategy (should you want to research it even more) just remember: Unless you have tested different amounts with your audience at your organization, you don’t know the data of what works best for YOUR donor audience.

Use your data to make more informed decisions about donor amounts. All things equal, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the performance of your next mailing.

Terri Shoemaker is co-founder of Abeja Solutions, a fundraising marketing firm in Phoenix, Arizona. A professional fundraiser, Terri has raised millions of dollars for nonprofit and higher education institutions. Read more from Terri.

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