Parent, Adult, Child – what can the insights of psychotherapy bring to alumni relations and fundraising?

Alumni fundraising is a bit different. Of course with any kind of fundraising you’re going to get angry responses, it goes with the territory. But sometimes those of us who work in the fundraising offices of universities get responses so out of proportion to the nature of our appeals, that it does make us sit and wonder what on earth is going on?

Before I became a fundraiser, I was a couple of other things. I was a semi-professional singer, but also, when I realised I wasn’t on track to become the next Peter Pears, I started training as a counsellor and psychotherapist.

In the course of my training I came across the ideas of Eric Berne, and Transactional Analysis, or TA for short. And so, many years later, as I started reading these appeal responses full of anger and a personal sense of grievance that we had dared to ask for a donation it began to occur to me, “Oh, these are classic crossed transactions!”

So, what’s Berne’s insight, and how can it help us understand our alumni better?

Well, Berne’s hypothesis is that there are three ego-states which we all move between, more or less fluidly, moment to moment in our daily lives:

The Parent, which is the internalisation of ideas, beliefs and values we have taken from our parents, families and other authority figures in our lives.

The Child, which is the internalisation of our own childhood self as we processed the input from our parents, families and other authority figures

The Adult, a more neutral ego-state, that corresponds to our more rational decision-making persona

Each of these ego-states affects the others, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on our own personal histories.

For example, someone who has experienced love, affection and prizing of themselves in their childhood is likely to have internalised a Nurturing Parent ego-state, and a corresponding Free Child.

Someone who has experienced the opposite is more likely to have internalised a Criticising Parent and Adapted Child.

The Parent and Child ego-states can have profound effects on the ability of the Adult ego-state to function freely, or even at all.

The nature of our ego-states lead to 4 basic ‘life-positions’ that Berne suggests underpin all our subsequent transactions with others:

  1. I’m OK and you are OK.
  2. I’m OK and you are not OK.
  3. I’m not OK and you are OK.
  4. I’m not OK and you are not OK.

We may hold one of these positions consistently in all our dealings with the world, or we may switch between them in different circumstances.

I hope it’s starting to become clear how the university – alumni relationship may be a bit more psychologically loaded than donor – charity relationships in the wider sector?

Because if we accept Berne’s hypotheses, it would seem to naturally place us and our alumni in a Parent – Child ego-state relationship, dating back to their time as students.

Have we been perceived as Nurturing parents – or Criticising, even Abandoning, parents by our alumni?

Because, if Berne’s structure is valid, this may govern whether, when we subsequently attempt to reconnect, we receive a joyful Free Child response in return, or a sullen and angry Adapted Child jab.

And how could we work with this better in the way we communicate with our alumni?



Filed under Fundraising, Life and big stuff, Universities, University fundraising

An affirming flame – RIP Robin Williams

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

“Days” by Philip Larkin

And so another of my teenage heroes, Robin Williams, has left us – and already the ‘sad clown’ archetype is being rolled out once more, with commentators professing to find it a mystery, that those with the talent to make us all laugh so often have difficulty doing the same service for themselves.

It is no mystery to me. The twin poles of drama, comedy and tragedy, exist as two of our attempts to answer our fundamental unanswerable question – why do we live? What are our days for?

We live in a time where we know more than we have ever known about the ‘how’ of our lives.

But the ‘why’ still stubbornly eludes us.

And each one of us in our own particular way must find our own accommodation to its absence.

We can seek to ignore it in the minutiae of ordinary life, drowning it out with the ‘what now’ and the ‘how’.

Or we can seek the certainties religions seem to offer us. Or seek power over others, or a life in their service. (But unless we are prepared to tread these paths with unwavering humility the consequences of these choices can be terrible, as we know from history and from the events unfolding around the world as I write).

Or we can pour our uncertainty into an art, or a craft, into science or philosophy, and seek to make, shape and write our own versions of answers – tragic or absurd, sublime or banal, precious glimmers of insight or failed speculations.

So it is not so hard to see that a comedian – one who shows us all the absurdity of our lives and invites us to laugh – may feel the uncertainty underlying their art rather more than those of us who are privileged to enjoy it.

For all of us, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, life, and our continuance in it, is a question of faith. Not as it is generally understood in the religious sense – because that is so often tied to a set of beliefs that can be badly, tragically, wrong.

But a faith expressed by Walt Whitman, which Williams’ character quotes so memorably in Dead Poets Society:

“…’what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.”

But this faith, like all faith, is fragile.
One in four of us will experience depression within the course of any year, when our biochemical and philosophical accommodations with our existence fail.

All any of us can hope, amid the uncertainty of our lives, is to try and act as another great, dead, poet, W H Auden, suggests in 1 September 1939:

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

RIP Robin Williams, o Captain my Captain. You showed your flame for as long as you could, and the verse you have contributed stands as your memorial.

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Filed under Film, books and TV, Life and big stuff

A ‘Power Index’ for fundraising channels?

OK, hold onto your hats – because this post contains stats! But I’ll try to make them as simple as possible.

If you’re a direct marketing fundraiser like me, you probably juggle a wide variety of channels – direct mail, online, phone, etc. etc. And I want to make sure I use the right ones, in the right order, to get the best results. And sometimes the ‘common sense’ answer isn’t the right one.

For example. Let’s say I have a lot of people who have given me cash gifts and I want to find the most cost-effective way to encourage as many of them as possible to give again, or go onto regular giving.

The ‘common sense’ way might say:

  • An email costs 6p
  • A mail pack costs roughly £1 – £1.50
  • A phone contact costs £7 – £9

So I should email first, follow up with mail, and then phone those who don’t respond to either of the first two approaches. That way I am being smart and getting the ‘cheapest’ results quickest. Right?

Not necessarily! What we have done here is mistake cost per appeal for cost per donor.

Because each of those channels has very different response rates. Cost per donor, as I’m sure you know, is obtained by dividing the cost of your appeal by the number of donors who give as a result of it.

When I look at my own appeal responses and costs and work out the costs per donor for email, mail and phone for existing cash donors I get the following:

  • Email – £3.50
  • Mail – £26
  • Phone – £26

Interesting. Email is still cheapest, but phone and mail are now tied. Will Return On Investment help us break them apart?

So I look at my ROI figures (on a 5 year basis) and I get the following:

  • Email – 36:1
  • Mail – 5:1
  • Phone – 4:1

OK, that would seem to settle it. Email beats mail, beats phone. But something is still niggling away at me.

Net income levels.

You see, I know email and mail have much lower response rates than phone, and I know I get much more net income per phone contact than per mail pack or email. It might be at a lower ROI but it will still be a lot more income for 1000 phone contacts, say, than for 1000 mail packs or 1000 emails. And I haven’t taken that into account in my workings yet.

So I look at net 5 year income (i.e. with costs already subtracted) per appeal for each channel and I get:

  • Email – £2
  • Mail – £7
  • Phone – £26

Ah. As I thought. Phone delivers 13 times as much net income per appeal than email and nearly 4 times as much as mail.

But which wins on the combination of ROI and net income? How can we express this as just one number that will balance the ROI vs the net income per appeal and make it really easy to make these comparisons?

Let’s multiply up to get some nice sized numbers! If we multiply the net 5 year income per appeal by the 5 year ROI for each channel we get:

  • Email – £2 * 36 (low income per appeal, great ROI) = 72
  • Mail – £7 * 5 (moderate income per appeal, good ROI) = 35
  • Phone – £26 * 4 (best net income per appeal, OK ROI) = 104

Aha! This seems to suggest I will get the best balance of ROI and net income by phoning first, then emailing, and then mailing.

It looks like we have come up with a Power Index here. I may be using the term ‘index’ incorrectly, I know! (I’m an English Literature graduate, after all.) I’m just thinking of it as a nice shortcut number.

Please note that of course the index number in and of itself is meaningless, except in relation to the other indices. And it will be different for everyone, depending on your ROI and net income per appeal figures, per channel, per appeal purpose. I’m not saying phone beats email beats mail for everyone – just for me, for this particular purpose.

Do you use a power index like this already to rank your fundraising channels? Over 1 year, 3 years or 5? I would love to know.



Filed under Analytics, Direct mail fundraising, Email fundraising, Fundraising, Online fundraising, Telephone fundraising

I Want To Talk At That? Get On The Floor!

Are you a young, innovative fundraiser? Want a chance to get support from an industry role model and speak at SOFII’s ‘I Wish I’d Thought Of That’ (#IWITOT) event in September?

Well this is your chance. My Twitter friend Paul de Gregorio and his colleagues at Open Fundraising are running ‘I Want To Talk At That’ for SOFII. If you’re a young fundraiser, the scheme gives you the chance to present the fundraising idea you wish you’d thought of to three of the country’s top experts – Paul de Gregorio (Head of Mobile at Open Fundraising), Tanya Steele (Director of Fundraising at Save the Children), and Imogen Ward (CEO at The Lessons for Life Foundation). If you’re a winner, you’ll get one-to-one mentoring, and speak at this year’s ‘I Wish I’d Thought Of That’ event in September.

I Wish I’d Thought Of That is brilliant. 20-odd fundraisers get seven minutes each to talk about the fundraising idea they wish they’d thought of. You can see presentations from the last two years here, including yours truly, dressed up as a 1960s ad man in New York to showcase a rather extraordinary fundraising letter.

So what are you waiting for? As J-Lo might have said (if she’d written On The Floor about IWITOT):

“If you do mail you gotta get on the floor
If you’re a digi freak then step on the floor
If you’re in telephone then tear up the floor
Show what’s great on the floor
Share their work on the floor
Don’t stop keep it moving
Put your slides up
Pick your idea up and drop it on the floor
Let your idea change the world on the floor”

It’s a new generation of SOFII people. So get on the floor!

Get in touch with Ian Lovett at Open Fundraising to find out how to enter. Auditions take place on 14th July. The closing date for entries is 7th July 2014.

Oh, and if you find you need music to inspire you when you work, here’s J-Lo. You gon’ be it on the floor, y’all.

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The Dying Man and the Loch: a salute to Stephen Sutton

Imagine that a dying man comes to a Scottish loch, determined to create one last thing of beauty before he passes from this world. He carefully chooses a stone from the loch side, measures his strength, sets his sight on the opposite side, and throws. But he does not just throw this stone. He lofts it – with such grace, that the ensuing chain of ripples spreads out, not only across the entirety of the loch, but far out into the sea beyond.

It would seem that Stephen Sutton is about to leave us. His family have posted on his Facebook page to say that his condition has now seriously deteriorated. We do not know how long he may have left.

But in the last year, Stephen has accomplished something truly astonishing. He becomes the apotheosis of a series of people over the last few years – Claire Squires and Christian Smith, to name just two other examples – who in the manner of their dying have inspired hundreds of thousands of people to acts of kindness, and raised millions for charity.

They have shown that fundraising and charity is not just a matter of life and death, but penetrates to the matter of it.

All of us who fundraise are engaged in some way in the meaning of what it is to be alive, whether we work to help prevent untimely or painful death, or whether we work to provide and support all the things that will enhance life and make it more beautiful and precious, for the short and unpredictable time that is given to us all.

Claire and Christian could not see what their deaths have accomplished, but I am so very happy that in return for his efforts, Stephen has been given the gift of seeing the effect of his courage, kindness, and nobility in the face of pain and suffering, on hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise would never have known of him. His pride in his fundraising, his desire to encourage others to follow him, and the grace of everything he has written, have been an amazing inspiration to me, and I have worked in fundraising for nearly 17 years. He makes me very proud to be a fundraiser.

So today I salute your grace Stephen Sutton. I salute your astonishing and beautiful throw. May you go gentle into that good night.

I wrote this at 8am this morning but Stephen’s mother has just posted on his Facebook and Twitter feeds to tell us that he died peacefully in the early hours of this morning. May he rest in peace.


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Should you scrap the Millennium Falcon?

Docking Bay 94, Mos Eisley Spaceport. Millennium Falcon is parked.
Luke: What a heap of junk!
Han: She’ll make point five past light-speed. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself.

A doozie of a Twitter debate last night!
About political email fundraising. Yes, I know, steer clear of politics, right? But this was more about fundraising techniques, and the fraught question of whether, even if a technique works better than anything else, you should use it or not.

Chris Tuttle (@christuttle) posted this tweet about a Democratic Party Congressional Committee fundraising email he’d received:

And yes, horrible design isn’t it? As one tweeter put it, it’s so back to the ’90s that throwing in a couple of flying toasters might improve it! So you might reasonably assume that someone with no knowledge at all about how to design HTML had put together this fundraising email to Chris.

But that would be where you’re wrong. Read this Businessweek article, tweeted and retweeted many times since with high praise for the Obama 2012 campaign’s email fundraising achievements. Pay particular attention to paragraphs 4 and 5 (italics mine):

“We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing,” says Showalter.  “Every time something really ugly won, it would shock me: giant-size fonts for links, plain-text links vs. pretty ‘Donate’ buttons. Eventually we got to thinking, ‘How could we make things even less attractive?’ That’s how we arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections we wanted to draw people’s eye to.”

So this email that looks really awful – as Chris basically described it, a spammy-looking piece of junk – is actually the result of one of the most sophisticated digital fundraising campaigns ever run.
This is what we’ve all been praising when we have lauded the Obama campaign’s success.

In fact, going by the passage I’ve quoted above, it’s probably the epitome of the process – the Democrats’ ‘banker’, or ‘control’ email. The one all the other emails have been tested against, and failed.

It’s a classic example of the dilemma many charities face with their ‘banker’ mail acquisition packs. They’re embarrassing. They’re corny. Many of them are ugly (although I have to say this is as dramatic a case of the ‘ugly banker’ that I’ve ever seen). But they work. And Jeff Brooks sums this up perfectly in his post here.

Banker packs are like the Millennium Falcon. They may not look like much, but they’ve got it where it counts.

And there are more uncomfortable truths from the Obama campaign as well. See this blog post from Alchemyworx which explains how the Obama team ramped up their send volume as the campaign went on.

Chris’ email was one of 8 he had received in 4 days, and you can see why the Democrats would be using this proven tactic.

They don’t work for Chris. And I’m sure they don’t work for many others. We debated long about the rights and wrongs. As I’m sure many of us do within the charities we work for. Surely we can’t send out something looking like that? Surely we can’t send another email/mailing?

But fundraising from large numbers of people, although we should definitely do our best to speak to each one of them individually, is also definitely a numbers game. By and large, the more we communicate, and the less obviously designed that communication looks, the more successful we are.

So when faced with something so ugly, so flagrantly in breach of our brand guidelines that we couldn’t possibly send it – maybe, just maybe, we should think again. And test.

Because we could be scrapping the Millennium Falcon. Or being like the Imperial soldiers in Mos Eisley Spaceport, shouting, “Stop that ship!”


Filed under Direct mail fundraising, Email fundraising, Fundraising, Online fundraising

Say it again!

Good stuff here – beware of your own boredom with things that work 🙂

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