"What's the ideal ask string?"

It's a common question.

But the most common response – "Test, to see what works for you." – doesn't provide much actionable direction. Particularly if your organization hasn't done prior testing/tracking of ask amounts.

One way to begin is to ask your donors what your ask should be.

Literally. Look at recent donor history to validate trends in your own file.

We recently wrote an appeal for a private university that had a "standard" ask of $50, $500 or $5,000.

There's a certain alliterative logic, perhaps. But, beyond "That's just the way we've done it," there didn't appear to be a firm rationale.

We asked if we could look at giving patterns of current donors (people who had given in the past five years).

Initially we focused on the most recent gift and average giving (and with a little more time and data, would have broken out first gift amounts, too). By either standard, more than 90% of gifts were $250 or less; 80% were $100 or less; and fewer than .5% (one half of one percent!) were $5,000 or more.

Which makes alliterative logic seem slightly less sound, doesn't it?

We also looked at variance, i.e., was the donor's last contribution higher or lower than the average giving amount?

This was encouraging. About 20% of the gifts were $25 or more higher than the average (about 10% were up $100 or more). Conversely, only about 10% were down $25 or more (only 4% fell by $100 or more).

In other words, more donors tended to give more on subsequent gifts … but not thousands more.

Based on these quick calculations, we suggested a couple of options to test against the current ask string.

For people who had made a past donation, we recommended a series of graduated asks (simpler to implement than individually calculated series). Each had three levels, with the lowest level just slightly above the donor's last gift. Only one of the series went as high as $5,000 … and it would be sent to less than 5% of the base.

For people with no prior giving history, we also suggested a three-level ask, but one slightly more conservative than the previous standard. The highest level, in fact, was just over $1,000 and, coincidentally, was also the entry amount for one of the school's key giving groups.

Before you ask ...

Unfortunately, we can't tell you which string won because the test was never actually implemented. The client opted to roll-out the test ask strings instead.

But that's another blog post entirely!