Nathaniel Ward

Why test in fundraising? Because your gut instincts are probably wrong

Testing is fundamentally about learning and making decisions based on data. It’s about understanding who your donors are and what inspires them. Moreover, it reflects a humility — a recognition that we fundraisers don’t necessarily have the answers.

There’s a great quote from a senior member of Barack Obama’s 2012 email team: “We basically found our guts were worthless.”

Here was a team that ran circles around Mitt Romney when it came to fundraising. It turns out the campaign wasn’t run by a bunch of fundraising naturals who knew just what to send their donors.

Instead, this effective fundraising team was great at learning what works and what doesn’t through testing. They made decisions based on data, not gut instinct or some fundraising “best practice.”

Testing is not a check-the-box exercise

It’s not something you do at the last minute. It needs to be fundamental to your process.

Testing needs to deliver results you can learn from and apply to your next campaign, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Let’s think again about the 2012 Obama campaign.

They famously tested their way into an email with the subject line of “Hey.” That email made huge sums of money.

A lot of email marketers learned from that that they should send emails with the subject line of “Hey.” I got a lot of emails with that subject line in 2012. We tried one too at Heritage. It didn’t really work.

The Obama campaign learned a different lesson, the right lesson. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people.” That’s according to Toby Fallsgraff, the campaign’s email director.

That’s a useful insight, because it’s about what their donors think and believe. It can inform future fundraising campaigns.

When testing, you don’t want to test this word against that word. You want to test different theories of the donor against one another - theories about how your donors think and act.