Editors’ note:
This article, first published in print during May/June 2011, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

MATCHES HAVE LONG BEEN A STAPLE of fundraising. From direct mail to online fundraising and public radio membership drive campaigns, matching gifts inspire supporters to give and give generously. Matches work so often that it’s simply a given in the world of fundraising: if you want to do something that will result in more money and more gifts, use a match.

Using matches to bolster the performance of fundraising campaigns was a best practice long before a 2006 study by economics professors Dean Karlan and John List published in the American Economic Review found that the mere existence of a match increased the likelihood that an individual would donate by 22 per-cent. A match not only boosted the response rate—the number of people who gave—but it brought in more cash overall for the direct mail appeal they tested. While the test was conducted in a direct mail context, the principle remains the same in the online world: matches make your donors more likely to give.

Find a Donor

So what’s stopping you from running a match campaign? The few barriers organizations perceive that prevent them from using this tactic can seem significant. Perhaps you don’t have a donor who will make a matching gift. Maybe you’re afraid of what will happen if you can’t meet the match—will you have to offer refunds to everyone who contributes toward it? Maybe you don’t know what size match works best.

The biggest of these barriers is the lack of easy access to a do-nor who will commit to making the matching gift. If you don’t already have a match lined up, you might wonder how you’ll come up with an additional $10,000, $50,000, or $100,000 gift with which to challenge your other donors.

But don’t let that stop you—if you’re not able to get a commitment for an additional gift, ask a donor who has already donated a substantial gift to your organization if you can use that gift to create a match campaign. This can be a little unnerving if you intend to proceed with a truly conditional match—the type of match that is contributed only if you meet your stated goal.

But there are a couple of ways around this. First, consider using a match that isn’t conditional—that is, your organization will receive the gift even if you don’t hit your stated goal. Many organizations have used unconditional matches to great effect.

Here’s how you might speak to your constituents differently about a conditional and unconditional match:

Conditional: An anonymous donor has committed to making a gift of $100,000—but only if we can meet her match before midnight tonight. Make your tax-deductible gift now.

Unconditional: Make your tax-deductible gift before midnight tonight and your gift will be matched by an anonymous donor, dollar for dollar, up to $100,000.

A second option is to proceed with a conditional match, but stick with an amount that you’re certain you can meet. The amount of the match is less important than the presence of the match—in the Karlan and List study, there was no significant response difference between segments of the file that received letters with match amounts of $25,000, $50,000, or $100,000.

That said, you’ll want to choose an amount that you consistently hit in all your online fundraising efforts. For example, if your last three online fundraising campaigns have brought in

$25,000, $18,000, and $15,000, you’ll likely be in the clear if you go with a $10,000 goal for your match. Just make sure you use a benchmark other than your year-end fundraising campaign to set your goal—year-end campaigns almost always blow other campaigns out of the water. Finally, be mindful of the spacing of your fundraising campaigns. If you just launched a series of online fundraising appeals last month, launching a new campaign again this month could be risky unless you regularly launch appeal campaigns in back-to-back months—and you’ve factored in their performance in deciding how much your match should be.

Set a Deadline

One way to help ensure you meet your goal is to run a deadline-driven campaign. In these campaigns, you communicate a deadline to potential donors for participating in the match campaign. For year-end campaigns, there’s a natural deadline of midnight on December 31 for tax-deductible giving (matched or not). But incorporating a deadline into other campaigns that use matches is worth considering, since appeals that incorporate the urgency of a deadline tend to perform better than those that do not.

There can be a little bit of a trade-off in this approach—it removes the flexibility to run the campaign for longer than initially planned if you don’t meet your match within the planned duration of the campaign, but you will likely see stronger results (in terms of number and/or size of gifts) than if you don’t impose a deadline.

Making the Case for Giving

With a donor, a campaign type, and a deadline established, decide what your campaign will be about. It can focus primarily on the match, in which case your initial messaging should introduce the match, and subsequent messages may include updates about your progress toward your goal.

Keep in mind that the match, while compelling in itself, should nonetheless be accompanied by a strong case for giving. Why, aside from the presence of the match, should your supporters give to you at this time? What will their gift help you accomplish? Here are a couple of edited examples plucked from two different fundraising organizations’ messages:

“Will you help us meet this match to provide much-needed funds to build an even stronger movement of people saying yes to justice, self-determination, and full equality for Palestinians and Israelis?”

“Give today and help provide food to more than 35,000 families in need this Thanksgiving and beyond.”

Although the match can be the focal point of your campaign, it’s a tactic that is often employed in campaigns that have some other theme as their focus, like a year-end or holiday fundraising campaign, or a spring membership drive. In that case, you have the additional flexibility of postponing the introduction of the match until the second or third message in your series

(depending on the total number of messages you have planned).

The thinking behind this delay is that, with the introduction of a match, you may entice people to give who were on the fence, or who simply put off their response when they received the earlier message(s). This approach allows you to build up to the match by first introducing your focus and case for giving and then reiterating those messages and sparking new (or renewed) interest with the introduction of the match.

Running the Campaign

Aside from the possible distinctions noted above, a match campaign really is like any other online fundraising campaign. Although all campaigns aren’t exactly the same, you’ll likely want to plan for a series of email messages (typically three or four) as well as accompanying social media content to drive potential donors to give.

Before making a mad dash to use a match in all of your fundraising campaigns, keep in mind that you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to match campaigns. “Too much” may vary from organization to organization, but at least one group experienced disappointing performance after launching their second match campaign within the same year as their first. This may hold true for you—or, like another organization we work with, you may find that you can launch two or three match campaigns in the same year and still meet your goals.

If you listen to public radio you might find yourself thinking, “But they use matches all the time!” Although this is true, they likely have more leeway than most nonprofits, as they’re constantly fundraising—probably more times per year than most organizations. In that case, the threshold for repeated match appeals may simply be higher because the frequency of asks is probably higher overall, and radio stations have what appears to be the benefit of a large, diverse audience. Even when you’ve turned the dial because you can’t take hearing one more ask about helping them keep the lights on, it’s likely only a matter of days (or minutes) before you turn the dial back. And if their current appeal doesn’t motivate you to give, it’s likely that a segment of the station’s listenership will give to the current offer.

In the grassroots nonprofit world, though certainly there are segments of your list who will tune out your online fundraising appeals, they will likely remain engaged once the topic of your messaging changes back to something that interests them.

Make it Your Own

Although your own experiences in obtaining and using matches may differ, these facts and anecdotes suggest that you should choose wisely when deciding when to deploy your match and that you may need to be judicious in your use of them. That said, as with any industry or best practice recommendation, you should always look at ways you might be able to chart a course that is unique to your organization. Industry recommendations are often great starting points—but use your own organization’s results as your compass to ensure your match campaign efforts are helping you move in the right direction. n

Nzinga Koné-Miller is an account director at Watershed, a consulting and services firm designed expressly to help organizations build, grow, and sustain relationships with constituents online, watershedcompany.com.