The Simple Outline for Appeals That Raise Money

I noticed a pattern that I want to share with you.

We see a LOT of appeals around here and I read them all. And we spend a lot of time with the results because we want our coaching to be based on what works, not on what we like.

About a week ago I noticed the appeals that did not work well tended to follow the same general outline. It goes something like this:

  1. Thank you for helping in the past
  2. Let me tell you a story about someone we already helped
  3. Please help us continue this good work

I think this is fascinating because every step of that outline makes sense:

  • Of course you should thank your donors for their previous giving. That’s just being polite, and it reminds them that they’ve given before.
  • Of course you should tell them a story about a person (or thing) that’s already been helped. That shows the donor that their past gifts made a difference, that the donor can trust you, and that your organization is effective.
  • And of course you should ask them to help you continue the good work. You need their donations, and the work is good.

But here’s the thing; even though every step in that outline makes sense, appeal letters and e-appeals that follow this outline don’t raise as much money as they could. We know this from years of experimenting and testing. This is one of those places in fundraising where common sense isn’t the best sense. What you need is data.

So what’s the alternative? Here’s the outline that works best for our clients:

  1. There’s a problem right now
  2. You are needed to solve it
  3. Here’s how your gift will solve it

When our clients adopt this outline, their appeals and e-appeals immediately start to raise more money.

The next time you are appealing for funds, follow this model. You’ll raise more money. And your donors will love knowing that they helped solve a real, urgent problem.

I mean that. If you honor and respect your donors by sharing real problems that your beneficiaries and your organization are facing, Donors will love helping you. Be vulnerable with your donors, and they will reward you with their generosity!

If you want to go deeper on this issue, download our free eBook!

How To Write This Fall – Tips For Fundraising Success

An old typewriter sits on a wooden desk

Fundraising Season is beginning . . . and you’re going to write to your donors a LOT in the next few months. And I have an important tip for you.

Don’t assume your donors will read what you write.

Donors are moving fast (especially in their inbox). They are busy. They support multiple charities. And they don’t have to read your organization’s communications.

Right? Nothing bad happens to your donors if they don’t read your stuff. Their life just goes on. And as a matter of fact they’ve saved themselves some time.

So what is a nonprofit writer to do?

In almost all cases you have to earn their attention by being relevant and getting to the point quickly.

So pay special attention to your first sentence. Think of it this way: your first sentence has to earn your reader’s attention enough so that they want to read your second sentence.

I use two main strategies to get more people to read our clients’ fundraising materials:

#1 Very quickly state the point of your letter/email/brochure. Why are you writing the donor today? If you want the donor to do something, say it clearly right away.

We’ve improved the fundraising results for hundreds of organizations just by helping their fundraising materials get to the point faster. Because most nonprofits seem to assume that their donors will read the whole thing. So, they take a long time to get to the point, and then they only mention the point once.

My operating principle is that maybe 10% of donors will read it, but 50% of people will skim it IF you give them something interesting/urgent/valuable enough to skim.

Note those percentages don’t add up to 100%. That’s because no matter what you do, a significant percentage of donors are either going to miss or not read each message you send out. And that, my friend, is why nonprofits need to communicate more often than they think they do. Because most nonprofits assume every donor receives and reads every message. That’s a long way from what actually happens.

OK. The second way I get people to read is to use drama and tension.

#2 Write such a drama-filled first sentence that the reader really wants to know what the second sentence says.

Pick right up in the middle of the beneficiary story you’re telling. Or summarize the most drama-filled moment. But use emotion to get a reader curious about what happens next.

Here’s a great example, “When the police rang the doorbell, Gloria didn’t know what she was going to do.” This works for even the most boring subjects! “Our fiscal year end is approaching and I don’t think we’re going to make budget” is the opening line of one of the most successful letters I ever wrote.

So when you’re writing this fall, remember that your donors are busy and moving fast. Pay special attention to the very first sentences of anything you put out there. And I guarantee you that if you earn your donor’s attention, you’ll earn more of their donations!

3 Top Tips for Event Success

Fundraising events are one of the hardest things to do well in fundraising. They are hard to plan, there are a TON of variables, they require a lot of people, and often take a real toll on nonprofit staffs. My hat is off to anyone to plans and puts on an event.

We’re nearing ‘fall event season’ and the other day a client asked what our top three tips for a successful event are. So here they are, and I should also be clear that these tips are for organizations raising between $0 and about $5,000,000. (Organizations larger than $5m tend to have a different set of issues.)

Without further ado, here’s how we think about it . . .

1. Have a clear offer and price point:

Be clear and specific about what the donor’s gift will accomplish. In other words, be able to describe exactly what the donors’ gift will do. We’ve had incredible success helping organizations transition from asking donors to “please donate to help us help more people” or “donate to the annual fund” to things like “Provide one night of safety for a mom for $53.”

Please note: you can do this and still raise undesignated funds. What you want to do is to focus on one specific outcome that donors gifts create, but also be clear that their gifts will be used to help do all the things your ministry does.

2. The whole event should be designed to present the Ask:

You want to plan your event so that everything in it — from the program to who speaks to the main speaker — shows the need for your offer (and how powerful it is). For instance, say your offer for the night is “$53 provides one night of safety.” You might name your event “One Night Of Safety.” When your Executive Director speaks, she should talk about how powerful one night of safety is. If you have a beneficiary speak, have her talk about how incredible her first night of safety was.

This may sound repetitive, but it works like crazy. The key here is that if you highlight one powerful part of your organization to focus on you’ll do far better than if you ask donors to buy into the whole organization.

Doing this also helps you avoid the dreaded “OMG another speaker?!?” that happens when organizations have too many speakers. If you focus the entire event on delivering the offer and presenting the ask, you don’t have time for all those speakers!

3. Don’t share too much good news until after the Ask:

A lot of nonprofits shoot themselves in the foot on this one. They share success story after success story. This makes it seem like everything is going great and no one needs help. THEN they ask for a gift. That’s a surefire way to reduce donations.

What has increased event revenue for our clients every single time has been to tell a Story Of Need. This means talking about a person who needs help today. Or if it’s a beneficiary speaking, have them spend 80% of their time on what it was like to need help. What we’re trying to do is to make the people in the room emotionally feel the problem so that they are more likely to help.

This is counterintuitive for most organizations. At some level they believe that, “If we show a couple of success stories people will know we’re good at what we do, then they will be more likely to donate.”

But what we’ve proven true is that it’s more helpful to think, “If we show the people that someone really needs help today, and that we have a plan to help them, more people will donate.”

Then, after the Ask, celebrate wildly. Let people know the amazing thing their gifts are going to do.

Bonus Tip: Now you’re able to Report with power.

Because you asked people to help with a specific thing, you can now Report to those donors with a specific story about the specific thing they did. Other events aren’t able to tell donors what their donation accomplished. But if you follow this recipe for success your donors will LOVE hearing what their gift did. And they’ll be far more likely to become recurring donors to your organization!

I hope this list has been helpful. As you enter event season, good luck!

Why Your Donors Deserve Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat

You’re no doubt familiar with Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat, the fundraising rhythm we teach here at Better Fundraising.

There are two equally strong reasons you should follow this approach to fundraising.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that we arrived at it because it raised our clients the most money and retained their donors the longest. Both Jim and I come from competitive fundraising environments where we were pressured to raise money in the short term AND to set organizations up for long term success. And when we looked at what worked and what didn’t in fundraising — really getting deep in the data — it was clear that Asking, Thanking, and Reporting were the key elements for fundraising success.

And that Repeating the rhythm (and some of the messages) helped organizations grow over time.

So we developed Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat simply as a way to help organizations raise more money.

But there’s another line of thinking that leads you to the same place. We call it ‘treating your donor the way she deserves to be treated’ . . .

  • You honor your donor by sharing the problem your organization is working on, and asking your donor to help solve the problem.
  • You honor your donor by thanking her like crazy when she gives a gift to help.
  • And it’s really honoring her by showing her what happened because she gave a gift. To Report.

You could argue that it’s a moral imperative to Report. She gave you a gift in faith and received nothing in return but a hit of dopamine. How can you in good conscience ask her to give another gift without showing and telling her that her gift made a difference?

This is one of the reasons, by the way, that fundraisers don’t like their jobs. They have to ask and ask and ask. They know in their hearts that donors get tired of being asked! But the fundraisers who work in environments where their donors are honored with regular reports? Those fundraisers enjoy their jobs much more. And their donors enjoy the fundraising much more.

This is the heart of donor centricity. It’s acknowledging that the donor is central to the process of philanthropy, charity and your organization. It’s acknowledging that her role is not just “supporter” or “partner” but as central as your organization’s.

So ask yourself, “Have we Reported to our donors lately? Do we deserve to ask them for another gift?”

When you’re great at reporting you’ll notice three things: you’ll raise more money; you’ll keep your donors for longer; and you LOVE knowing that you’re treating your donors the way they deserve to be treated!

Get Storytelling for Action eBook Now!

If you’ve read our blog over the last few years, you’ve heard us talk a lot about storytelling. We’ve written about it, we’ve spoken at conferences, and we share tips about storytelling with our clients.

This summer, we decided it was time to pull everything we’ve learned over the years into one place, so fundraisers like you can benefit.

That’s what we did with our new eBook: Storytelling for ACTION

Three Big Ideas That Nobody Told You

It’s easy to say that storytelling is important. It’s more difficult to use stories to raise more money. That’s why we’ve shared three big ideas in this new eBook:

  1. Your donor should have a role — and see herself — in every single story you tell.
  2. How you tell a story is less important than what story you tell and when you tell it.
  3. You have a Big Story you need to constantly tell your donor.

Sound interesting? We promise it’s more than that. It’s also actionable and proven. Download your copy of the free eBook now.

Practical Advice You Can Use

One of the things that we focused on in Storytelling for ACTION is actionable advice. We didn’t want to just share concepts — we want you to equip you with the tools to start telling better stories for your organization right away. That’s why we’ve included the following tools in Storytelling for ACTION:

  • A matrix to help you to decide what story to tell at what time
  • Easy-to-use checklists
  • Real-life samples
  • Our 3 Big Ideas Cheat Sheet

Market-Tested And Proven

The ideas in this eBook are market-tested and proven to increase how much money you raise. They will help you get more new donors and keep your current donors around for longer. And they will even— if you let them—help you love your job qand fundraising more than you thought possible.

These ideas are not fancy. They are not just for the “big” organizations and “seasoned” fundraisers. They are for you.

Download your free eBook now.

​MUST-LISTEN interview with the founder of Charity:Water

Logo for Charity:Water

We always wanted to have Scott Harrison, the founder of Charity:Water, on the podcast. And then he called us and asked to be on the podcast!

You should absolutely listen to this interview. Scott is one of the most intuitive, accomplished fundraisers working today. The way he thinks about fundraising is so effective – you’ll be a better fundraiser just by listening.

Here’s just a taste of what you’ll learn:

  • How Charity:Water takes its donors on a journey every time they give
  • How they manage and market their promise that 100% of a donor’s gift goes to the field
  • The power of “productizing” (Scott’s term) what you do — and how you can do it too

I learned a lot from Scott and you will too. Take a listen!

How to Tell Unfinished Stories

unfinished house under construction

I’m going to tell you something that is counter to what most nonprofits think.

But it’s tested and proven. Hundreds of times for hundreds of organizations, large and small. Here it is:

If you want to raise the most money, tell a story that is not finished and ask the donor to finish it with a gift today.

Thats a bit conceptual so here’s an example. Most fundraising appeals tell stories that go something like this:

“Lisa was homeless and in dire straits. But thanks to our 4-step program, Lisa is doing great today. Will you please give a gift to help us continue this good work?”

Notice how Lisa’s story is finished? She’s already been helped. The only role for the donor to play is to ‘help the organization continue the work.’

We talk about this in detail in our free ebook on storytelling that we’re launching soon, but that type of story works OK at best. Your best donors might give to it. But most of your donors won’t.

If you want to raise more money — and catch the attention of more people — tell an unfinished story of need like this:

“Lisa is homeless and in dire straits. Will you please give a gift today to help her stay in our shelter?”

Do you see the difference? Lisa still needs help! The donor feels that, and sees exactly how a gift today will help Lisa.

Lisa’s story is unfinished, so your donor has a role to play. And your donor sees how her gift will do something simple and powerful — providing a night of shelter — which donors love.

Here’s another way to think about it:

  • Most nonprofits ask donors to help them do more of what the nonprofit has already done.
  • What works better in fundraising is to ask donors to help people who have not yet been helped or are currently being helped.

The is one of the fundamental principals we teach in our training on how to Ask powerfully. Use it in your next appeal and watch your results soar!


10 Fundraising Tactics You Should Use This Fall

Want to amp up your fall fundraising? We recommend these ten tactics to all our clients because they’ve been proven to work again and again and again:

  1. Report to your donors this fall — show them what their previous gift accomplished! Your donors are less likely to give you to at year-end if they haven’t heard lately what their gifts accomplish. We often produce an October Newsletter for our clients and work hard to highlight amazing stories made possible by the donor’s gift.
  2. Reporting is especially important for Major Donors. Make absolutely certain each major donor reads or hears a story of impact each fall.
  3. Focus on your donors more than on your organization. In all your communications, emphasize the donor’s role (“You helped make this happen!”) more than your organization’s role (“We helped 347 people this year…”)
  4. Make your communications to Major Donors stand out. When sending them an appeal letter, use a nicer envelope and hand write the address. When sending them a newsletter, put it in a 9×12 envelope and don’t fold the newsletter. Trust us; it’s worth spending the extra time and money to ensure your major donors pay attention to your communications!
  5. Communicate more than you think. If you only mail your donors a couple times, mail them at least one more time. For smaller organizations who mostly use email for fundraising, please mail your donors at least twice. We recommend most organizations mail their donors at least 4 times from September through December.
  6. During December, review your list of major donors. For all majors who have not yet given a gift this year, ask them!
  7. Have a campaign for Giving Tuesday, not just one email. Email your list on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Pro Tip: having a match for giving Tuesday really increases results. So many nonprofits are asking for gifts that day — having gift-doubling matching funds really helps your organization stand out.
  8. After giving Tuesday, change the first/main image on your website to a simple call-to-action to give a gift before the end of the year. Keep that as the main message on your homepage until January 1.
  9. During year-end, mail another appeal letter. Most organizations only mail one letter, but they should mail two. Mail the first letter the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and mail the second letter around December 11th. The second letter will raise about 1/3 the amount your first letter raises, and it won’t reduce the effectiveness of your first letter.
  10. Send 3 emails the last 4 days of the year. Everyone’s inbox is crowded – make sure they see an email from you when they are so likely to give a gift!

Jeff Brooks’ Summer Recommendations — An Interview

Jeff and I have been friends for a long time — both personally and professionally. We often bend each other’s ear about fundraising and he’s one of the people in my circle who I reach out to for advice and new perspectives. And Jeff’s a straight shooter. So, I thought I’d ask him for his candid recommendations to nonprofits on what to work on this summer. Here’s what he said:

SS: What do smart nonprofits do during the summer to get ready for fall?

JB: Use the lull in activity to get ahead for the final months of the year. It’s gonna get crazy — and the crazier the better! So know exactly what fundraising activities you are going to be doing. Dates and descriptions. And get started on it now.

SS: Of those things, what’s the most important and why?

JB: Most important is having your plan in place. If you don’t know what to do and when to do it, you’ll be distracted by the craziness and not working on the things that matter most.

SS: What’s an example of a successful summer fundraising campaign that you’ve seen?

JB: When the topic has something to do with the season. Like raising money for hungry children who are not getting the subsidized school lunches and breakfasts they get during the year. Or offers having to do with the challenges posed by hot weather. It may surprise you that appeals about the “Summer Slump” in giving often do well. Just be honest with donors and tell them how giving drops in the summer but the need for services stays high.

SS: If there was one thing you could have nonprofits focus on this fall, what would it be?

JB: Make sure you have the systems in place to treat donors well even when things get crazy. You MUST be able to acknowledge gifts promptly no matter how busy you get. Systems things like that really matter!

So, there you have it, folks! Make a plan, work ahead this summer, and build donor-focused systems. If you’re already doing these, well done! If not, this is a great “short list” of things to work on thus summer.