There's some new research out there that's getting a lot of blog-love. It's the Cygnus 2011 North American Donor Survey.
Beware. It's not the fountain of actionable truth folks make it out to be. If you make major decisions based on the Cygnus survey, you risk real damage to your fundraising program.
(Go here to download the executive summary or purchase the full study.)
The main problem is the limitation inherent in almost all survey research: You learn what people say, which is not necessarily what they do. This is true of other surveys too, but this one seems not to recognize this about itself, and makes bold, sweeping statements that simply can't be supported by facts.
Here are two examples, taken from the executive summary:
Finding: 69% now prefer electronic over print communication.
Problem: This is what people say. Real life reports otherwise most of the time. The response rate of direct mail is consistently several times higher than that of email. In fact, direct mail is more effective at motivating online gifts than email is.
If you took this fact to mean you should shift a lot of your budget from print into electronic media, you'd almost surely be making a large and costly mistake.
Finding: 63% said they do not want to receive token gifts (freemiums/premiums) of any kind.
Problem: If that number is meaningful, why is premium-based fundraising increasing? People say I don't want or need premiums. Their behavior says otherwise. If you're using that approach, you should keep doing so until donor behavior shows you otherwise. If you are not using it, you should consider testing it. It might work. Don't let this study lead you astray on this important question.
There are many, many more findings like these in the executive summary alone. It's a cornucopia of deadly non-facts.
The Cygnus research compounds the inherent problems of survey research with sweeping statements that don't square with reality. Like this one:
While it is difficult to pin down the specific thing that causes someone to stop giving, the high cost of fundraising is a major consideration for donors and a reason contributing to donor attrition, which now exceeds 90%.
I don't know if this assertion is "supported" by any of the research, but I can say it contains some serious misinformation. If your organization's donor attrition is above 90%, it's time for you to shut the doors and go home, because you are failing. To claim that it's that bad across the board is wildly out of touch. Just as out of touch as saying the cost of fundraising is a major cause of attrition.
I'm sorry to speak so harshly of the work of fellow fundraising professionals, but this study is likely to cause real harm to organizations that take it as bankable truth. Don't let that happen to you.
Tomorrow: How to make survey research work for you.