Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice? Lose a donor.



A home security company recently launched a direct mail campaign featuring an ingenious mailer:  a plain non-descript cube-shaped box that could be pressed flat, slid underneath the recipient’s front door, and would pop back into shape on the other side. 

The campaign is meant to draw attention to the ease with which an intruder could access an unprotected home.  The recipient is meant to have a little laugh and hopefully remember that company in the future.

I have to admit, as far as direct mail creativity goes, this campaign is a 10.  It’s very noticeable, it gets the point of the product across, and it’s definitely not the same-old-same-old. 

But is there a point where these clever design gimmicks can hurt your relationship with your customers?

It’s possible that same box mailer that made you and me laugh could have a wildly different effect on someone else. 

Consider that this campaign was targeted at apartment dwellers, specifically.  And now consider that the recipient might be someone who comes home late at night to an empty apartment -- an apartment many other people have keys to access, such as the property manager, maintenance staff, or utility workers.

                                                                   0/10 would not donate again.

                                                                  0/10 would not donate again.

Coming home to a mystery box sitting inexplicably on the floor in the dark might not seem so hilarious to her.  And when she discovers it was nothing more than a quirky sales pitch that put her on edge, she might not be too happy with the company that sent it.

What seems like a funny and interesting pitch to me could seem downright offensive to someone else -- that’s because there’s a fine line between grabbing your donor’s attention and making her feel “tricked.”

The foundation of a long-lasting and dedicated relationship between you and your donors is trust: your organization trusting your donor with honest information about your cause, and your donor trusting you to be sincere and straightforward with your needs, your progress, and how you’ll be using their contributions.

But repeated attempts to use vagueness, secrecy, or wild design ideas to spark curiosity in your donors could be interpreted as deception or just plain insulting.  In the case of the mystery box, it could even be frightening them -- not the sort of thing anyone needs arriving home after a long day at work.

Earning and maintaining the trust of your donors is not only good for your cause, but vital to your fundraising success.  And like with anything else, gaining someone’s trust is a lot harder than losing it.

A 2015 poll conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found 35% of the American public has “little or no confidence in charities”” -- a poll that has changed little in its results since it was last conducted in 2008.

This means before you send your very first letter to your potential donors, 1/3 of your list is already predisposed to mistrust or lack faith in your organization. 

Among the reasons why donors lack confidence in charities?  Lack of transparency, lack of communication, and lack of impact reporting and evidence of progress.

Your donors value honesty, engagement, respect, and appreciation above all else.  And of course they do -- these are all features of a relationship built on trust.  And for as hard as you may work to build and preserve it, it can be lost over something as seemingly simple as a tricky design or a failure to focus on providing honest and straightforward “no funny stuff” updates to the people who support you.