When Not Listening to Your Donors Is the Right Thing to Do

One of the most important things any organization — nonprofits and for-profits alike — can do is listen to their target market and respond to their wants and needs.

But what does “listening” mean?

To answer that, let’s take a quick peek at what listening does NOT mean.

In 2009, Walmart wanted to improve customer satisfaction so they decided to ask a simple question of their customers, listen to what they had to say and made some changes in their stores. The result: “happier” customers and a $1,850,000,000 DROP in sales.

Yep… that’s $1.85 billion with a B. (Check out the full details on The Consumerist).

If their customers were happier, why didn’t sales increase? It just doesn’t make sense. Happiness should correlate to an increase in the number of visits to the store. More frequent visits should correlate to an increase in revenue. Right? RIGHT?

Where Did Walmart Go Wrong?

So what’s the deal? How and where did Walmart go off the rails?

Well, for starters, they asked (based upon the reporting I’ve seen) a really dumb question. To paraphrase, the question was somewhere in the neighborhood of “would you like Walmart to be less cluttered?” My guess would be roughly zero customers responded with: “heck yeah I want Walmart to be more cluttered. I’m a big fan of chaos and disorder.”

Most importantly, they listened to the wrong data — what customers said instead of what customers did. Not to pile on… but they took this critical mistake and decided to make it exponentially worse. They decided to take the response as gospel and forget everything they previously knew about customer purchasing behavior.

Has Your Nonprofit Ever Been a Walmart?

I’d like to say organizations dedicated to creating a better world have been immune to the behavior Walmart exhibited above… but I’d be lying to you.

I’ve worked with dozens of nonprofits in the past decade plus, and unfortunately, we all don’t fair much better. To give you a glimpse, here of some of the questions and statements I’ve literally heard while working with nonprofits:

  • Well, I’d unsubscribe if you sent me more than X emails per month.
  • I don’t think our supporters even read everything in our 4-page appeal letter, so let’s just save on printing costs and send a 2-page letter.
  • It’ll be more efficient to process giving once a month and it doesn’t matter to the donor when the gift gets entered into our CRM.
  • That’s too much information on the landing page. Let’s streamline things and just send supporters directly to the donation page.
  • Telemarketing? Pfft! It’s 2016. I mess with anyone that tries to call me on the phone.

Many of the times I’ve heard these remarks, the organization in question made, sometimes, sweeping changes to their marketing and communication strategy. Much like Walmart.

To be clear: on their face, these remarks aren’t inherently wrong. And I’m not saying each of these folks are misguided or don’t have the organization’s best interest at heart. It’s quite the opposite.

But to each of these statements, I’ve responded with some version of “why?” or “how do you know?” And each response tends to be a focus-group-of-one, not helpful, and trending towards Walmart’s $1.85B loss of revenue.

  • So what that YOU’D unsubscribe? What do our supporters want?
  • What are the ways a 2-page letter might impact giving in the long-haul?
  • How will receiving a receipt six weeks later impact donors’ perceptions of our organization?
  • Have you done an A/B test on landing page effectiveness that can back up your hypothesis?
  • Are you the target-market for telemarketing?

Most of the time I’ve posed these questions, the team members on the receiving end generally stare blankly as though I’ve asked the question in Mandarin.

The common thread, of course, in ALL my responses is: show me! Don’t give me a hypothesis. Give me hard data on our specific supporters that backs up your assumptions. If you have data to back up your assertion, then I’m all for proceeding with a broader test or making your suggestion our strategy moving forward and to be improved upon.

As always: test, test, test. There’s ALWAYS something you can approve upon.

Break the Cycle: Making Better Decisions to Drive Results

So when should you listen to what a donor says versus what a donor does? That’s tough to answer and there are too many variables. There’s just no clear-cut rule to help you navigate the donor-feedback-abyss. In general, let the numbers dictate your strategy. And ultimately, you’ll have to draw the line between “saying” and “doing” – and hopefully your CRM helps you in this endeavor and doesn’t handcuff you.

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