Do donors remember the stories we tell?

We get questions. Like this one: Can my organization use the same story multiple times?

The answer is Yes. And we do that. Occasionally. We tell the same story, especially a powerful one, in an appeal and newsletter a month or two apart, and also in a coordinating e-appeal. I’ve never once heard a client say, “We got a call from a donor who asked why we retold this story.”

But what about the following situation . . . ?

Recently, two clients came to us with the same question: Can we mail the same cultivation appeal, including the same story, more than once?

In both cases, these organizations needed to cut costs. We agreed to try remailing appeal letters — but not newsletters — two years in a row. We’d make only minor, necessary updates. These kits included the same stories of need and life transformation from before, as well as offer, photography, design, headlines and letter copy.

This move — a calculated risk, I guess you’d say — allowed us to direct more of the organizations’ limited budgets to testing and other fundraising endeavors where the return might be more attractive: digital cultivation and acquisition, for example. We all wondered, of course, if donors would care. Or even notice. And keep in mind, this wasn’t a test. We just did it.

Two examples

With the first organization, there was no measurable performance impact during the one year we did this. And they received no complaints from donors who objected to the rehash. This client is back to mailing fresh appeals each month, which we believe is a good move. We got away with one year of repeats. Two years would have been pushing it.

With the second organization, we’re mailing mostly repeats. With several key appeals, such as major donor proposal-style kits and year-end packages where a lot is at stake, we’re using new content. Overall, this has allowed us to test, innovate, and grow in digital channels, as well as launch a new monthly sustainer program. Here again, we’ve seen no measurable decline and heard of no donor pushback. If they recognized a story, photo, or letter theme, they never said anything.

Of course, the COVID bubble may have masked what would have otherwise been a decline. But the pandemic was a boon for both organizations, as it was for so many.

Still, you have to wonder, Are donors paying enough attention to notice this? We’d like to think they are. But, really, if they are that engaged, wouldn’t response rates be two or three times what they are? I believe so. Still, in the end, maybe some superfan donors did notice. They just weren’t concerned enough about it to say anything. Donor research might give us the answer. But do you see yourself calling donors and asking, “Hey, did you notice we smoked a few repeats by you?”

Fresh content vs. Repeat

Here’s where we come down at Masterworks: Overall, we’re fans of fresh stories that point clearly and unmistakably to an unmet need. That’s best practice. But we recognize that at many resource-limited non-profits, it may not be possible to gather new stories to support every appeal or newsletter.

You do the best you can, remembering that donors are time-pressed, harried, occupied. They’re just not thinking about us all the time. Our job as fundraisers is to inspire them to think about us a whole lot more. Then we’d never have to ask whether it’s a good idea to keep on hand an abundance of fresh stories and photos. The answer would be obvious.