The Three-Step Fundraising Technique

By Brad Bell

Getting a low response rate in mail fundraising is fairly typical for new donors.  Even with a really good list of possible donors, you still might not receive many donations.   People may know that they may be asked to donate in the future.   Thus, it not a simple, one-time decision.  People may need to be sure that they truly wish to make a donation.  Making a donation may indicate that they are dedicated to the cause and organization. Continuing to send letters to people may be good for a few reasons. People may lose the letters, or you may reach a person when it is not a good time for them.  However, this may not be the best fundraising strategy.   

There may be a better fundraising strategy or approach to gaining new donors.   I call this approach the three-step fundraising
. Getting people to agree to make a donation is a major change in attitude about an organization.   Consequently, few people may agree to make a donation when they received a fundraising request in the mail.   It may be easier to get a person to agree to a smaller request that reflects a smaller change in attitude about an organization.  Once they agree to a smaller request, they may be more willing to agree to a larger request.   Attitude change may be a gradual process.   Thus, the best approach to gaining new donors may be to start with a real small request and then gradually
make larger requests.  The three-step fundraising technique reflects this gradual process by making a small request, followed by a somewhat larger request, and finally making a request for a small donation. The three-step technique is based on another technique which is called the foot-in-the-door technique.  The foot-in-the-door technique involves making a small request before making a larger request.  For example, a person could be asked to sign a petition before being asked to make a donation.  

Experiments have been conducted addressing the effectiveness of the foot-in-the-door technique in face-to-face fundraising.  The findings from scientific studies are mixed with respect to the effectiveness of the foot-in-the-door technique (see Bell, 2003). Although some studies have found that the foot-in-the-door technique can increase donations, other studies found no statistically significant effect for the foot-in-the-door technique on donations.  Nonetheless, it may be good to use this technique.  The three-step fundraising technique may be even better because the person has agreed to two prior requests before being asked to
make a donation.

The three-step fundraising technique can involves three basic steps:

STEP 1 (small request):
Have volunteers telephone prospects and ask them to complete a brief survey that takes just a few minutes.

STEP 2 (intermediate request):
About a month after the first request (brief survey), ask the people who agreed to complete the survey to volunteer one hour of their time for the organization.

STEP 3 (donation request):
Ask the people who agreed to volunteer their time to make a (small)
donation.   It may be best to first ask for a relatively small donation. The next donation request could be increased.  The request to make a donation could be made a few weeks after they finished volunteering.


Nonprofit organizations could conduct an experiment in which they
randomly assigned prospects to be part of the three-step fundraising
technique or a condition in which they received a second fundraising
request in the mail.  If the use of the three-step fundraising technique leads to greater donations, it could be used with as many prospects as possible.


Bell, B. (2003).  The Social Psychology of Fundraising (4th ed.).
 Portland, Oregon:  Blue Fox Communications.