The Ask String: Decisions You Have To Make

Here’s a question you probably often ponder: What is the right ask? That also includes decisions on how much should you ask a prospective or active donor to give. And, what about supporters who have lapsed, and your sustainers and “middies?” Then you have your digital channels where you’re looking to make an “ask.” Sometimes the ask isn’t even money, well at least not at first. 

These are issues all fundraisers contemplate and test on a regular basis. And while this article won’t give you the simple answer to those questions, it will give you some insight into “ask testing” you might not have considered or tried recently.

Wouldn’t it be great if test results were always as orderly and straightforward as their setup? But like life, the results can be all over the place. Sometimes tests perform better at different times of the year and for different verticals. While one strategy might work for one organization it might not work for another. And then, it might work, but at a different time of the year.

Let’s jump into a few tests on the direct mail side. Starting with your active donors, the obvious one is: highest previous contribution (HPC) vs. most recent contribution (MRC), or vice versa. As these are the most common ask strategies, take a look at your control. Have you tested the opposite recently? 

A quick and easy win is to move to MRC when looking to boost your response a little. You need to keep donors active and renewing, and sometimes giving up a little in the current campaign revenue can pay off with a larger, stronger file in the long run. Also, take a look at your HPC — you might want to test using HPC24 (highest previous contribution in last 24 months) or at least HPC36. Asking for the donor’s true HPC could potentially be offensive, especially if you don’t default at a set cap. That one gift of $1,000, was likely a one-off.

What about the modal amount? The “mode” is the value that occurs most often. There is no mode if no number in the list is repeated. Take a look at your donor’s most frequent gift amount. Do you see a pattern? Consider offering them their modal gift with the same upgrades you do for your current control. With this strategy, you’re likely to see a lift in response.

What about your lapsed or expired donors? These donors are usually your most valuable once they are brought back into the fold. While MRC is typically the best option for this audience, try dropping the first ask below that of their last gift amount. Also, work with your co-op list firms. They offer ask optimization. 

Remember to keep your cost to re-acquire in mind, as you can often sacrifice a little on average gift to get those names back on file. These donors are worth it.

Within acquisition, the ask string was likely tested back in the days of old, right? There is always room to refine and retest, as what’s old is new again. You never know what might move the needle, even just a little, to help your program over time. Are you using co-op names as part of your list mix? If so, work with them on asks based on those donors’ potential. While you might see a lower response, the average gift usually pays off with a higher-value donor. It’s worth a test. 

You might think about trying an extra-long ask string (aka a “French Ask”) with up to seven suggested amounts. It seems like a bit much but you might just see enough of a lift in response and average gift to validate the test to those who wonder what you are doing. 

Mail isn’t the only place where you are pitching asks to donors and prospects. Within the many digital channels, you must look not only at the ask string, but also at actions and engagements. 

Fundraising campaigns aim to evoke emotions. Does positive or negative messaging work to get the responses and results you need? You might be surprised to learn that using positive images in a Facebook advertising campaign results in a higher conversion rate than using negative images, which are traditionally used in fundraising creative. Is this conclusive evidence that you should always use positive messaging in digital? No, but it does demonstrate that there’s a place for both types of messaging in campaigns depending on the channel.

What about the age-old debate about whether donate buttons or copy links are better in emails? Well, people are creatures of habit and most of decisions are made subconsciously. Our brains are trained and conditioned to take the easy option. It was learned in a recent test that 92 percent of email clicks were from buttons and image and 91 percent of the email revenue came from button and image clicks. With that determination, you can now start tackling a new question: How can you best use buttons and images to get the desired results?

There are so many ask options out there. The fact is that you’ll never know what will work for you until you test it. An ask test is usually a low-risk test that could have a big payback at rollout. Finally, a quick reminder: As when doing any testing, make sure you are only changing one element (whenever possible) to ensure a clean head-to-head test and accurate results. 

Even with rhythm and music, you can always ask for more.


DeDi Oxenberg is vice president, client services at CDR Fundraising Group in Bowie, Md. Her email is doxenberg@cdrfg.com