Once upon a time… a (fun!) direct mail fundraising fable


Once upon a time…

There was a small organization in a town near you.

The staff sat in a room one day and asked, “How can we show our donors that we know what we’re doing and that we should be taken seriously?  How can we make our fundraising more professional?”

So they hired a graphic designer, who made their next mailing look like a shiny brochure. They began to print out mailing labels instead of handwriting donor addresses on envelopes. And they stopped calling their donors because nobody uses the phone anymore.

The staff was excited because these improvements would also free up their time to get more done!

Meanwhile, in that same town… there was a large organization.

Their leadership team sat in their conference room and asked, “How can we let our donors know they matter and that we care about them? How can we be more personal with our donors?”

They decided to make their next mailing feel like a personal letter from the executive director to the donor. They decided to handwrite some of the addresses on the next mailing, and even put a real stamp on the envelope. And they started to call some of their donors three days a week.

They knew these efforts would add time to their work. But they also knew these personal touches would help their donors feel more connected to the organization.


Okay, I get it. This… little fable could only EVER be interesting to fundraisers.

But hear me on this. If you are a small organization you have a superpower that large organizations are trying their best to imitate. You are personal.

Please DON’T give up that superpower!

Your donors want to know there are living, breathing humans behind the letter they are reading.

So embrace the gift of being a small organization!

Be real. Be quirky. Be creative. Be… YOU!


PS — Click here for Steven Screen’s amazing tips for HOW to provide the human touch to your direct mail fundraising – whether you are a small organization or a large organization.

The Magic of an Evergreen Fundraising Offer


As organizations begin to fundraise more, we advise them to develop what we call an “evergreen offer.”

That’s an offer that is:

  • Easy for donors and non-donors to understand,
  • Closely aligned to your main mission, and importantly…
  • Can be “seasonalized” to work during different times of the year

Here’s an example of what this looks like for an organization we’ve served for almost a decade:

$33 provides a night of safety and care for a mom and her kids

What makes this offer so helpful for the organization is that it can be made to work during every season…

In the summer: “No Mom and her children should have to live and sleep outside during this dangerous heatwave. Your $33 provides a night of safety and care to help…”

In the winter: “It’s dangerous for a mother and her children to sleep outside or in their car during our freezing nights. Your $33 provides a night of safety and care to help…”

For Thanksgiving: “Mothers and their children should not have to be homeless at Thanksgiving! You can provide a night of safety and care – plus a Thanksgiving feast – for just $33…”

Evergreen Offers usually involve a program or service that your organization runs all year long. The trick is to break up seasons into “slices” and talk about the reason the program or service is needed during that season.

Then you’re always giving donors a reason to give now – which is one of the keys to raising money in email and the mail.

Evergreen offers also allow you to raise more money with less work. The “more money” part comes from growing more and more effective at delivering the offer. You quickly get better at knowing what to mention, and what not to mention.

The “less work” part comes from your spending less time inventing new things to talk about. And you spend less time creating each piece because you’ve already created something similar and successful in the past. You have a “model” to follow that makes all subsequent fundraising easier.

If you haven’t already, brainstorm ideas for your organization’s evergreen offer. Try them in email to see which one works the best. Then try it in the mail. You, and your donors, will love what happens!

Create things your donors can READ


The other night I went to a new pizza place with my parents.

As we walked up to the restaurant, I began to think the place might be a little too… hip… for us.

We got seated at a booth in a dark dining room and we each were handed our own tiny menu.

I looked at the menu and… I couldn’t read it! I moved it closer to my face, then further away. I squinted. Not much help.

9-point font, maybe even 8-point. Muted red text. Dark cream-colored paper.

Did I mention the room was dark?


As I looked around the room, I began to wonder. Do they not want us here?

Here’s the thing. This what happens to your donors all the time! At a pizza place. In the grocery store. And sometimes when they open your fundraising letter.

They can’t read it.

The thing is, I’m not THAT old. I’m about 25 years younger than your average US donor.

And I won’t go back to that pizza place again.

Do you want your donors to feel like that? I imagine not!

The most fundamental thing you can do to honor your donor and let them know they matter is to send them stuff they can read. WITHOUT squinting.

This is an EASY thing to do. But so many organizations ignore this easy thing due to brand guidelines or the blissful ignorance of being under 40 years old when you can still read everything with no problem!

Here’s where you can start to create communications your donor can actually READ:

  • Black text (not a hip shade of charcoal – black!)
  • White background (no graphics behind the text)
  • 14-point font (absolutely no smaller than 12-point!)


The stakes are high here.

If your donor can’t read your materials, she is less likely to send in a gift. And if she doesn’t send in a gift, that affects your ability to carry out your mission.

So take it seriously!

Your donors will thank you.


Three Magic Phrases to Gain Influence at Your Organization


Do you ever feel helpless at your organization?

Maybe you have trouble getting quality fundraising copy approved. Maybe your event ideas are pushed to the side. Maybe the answer always seems to be… “no.”

Today I’m going to share three powerful phrases that can help you stop feeling helpless.

These three phrases, over time, can give you more influence at your organization — whatever your actual role.

Before you read on, know that this is NOT for the faint of heart.

Because when have more influence over decisions, strategy, projects — anything, really — you take on the risk that things might go wrong. There’s really no way around that.

Here are the phrases:

Phrase 1

What do you think of this?

– vs –

**Here’s what I recommend**

Phrase 2

What do you think we should do?

– vs –

**Here’s what we need to do**

Phrase 3

Do you think we should try this?

– vs –

**Here’s what I’d like to try**

Magic, right?

Well… maybe.

As much as I’d like to think I came up with magic phrases, they really aren’t magic. But they are powerful. The bolded phrases shift the responsibility for the outcome to… you. Good or bad.

That’s not easy.

But if you’re feeling stuck, one or more of these phrases can help you move from Point A, People Aren’t Listening to Me (or taking my ideas seriously or… all the things) to Point B, People ARE Listening to Me!

And when you start taking on that level of responsibility, people at your organization will start to notice. Next time you’re feeling ignored, overlooked, or even just ready for more, give one of these phrases a try and see what happens.

Fundraising when the world turns upside down…


Shortly after my organization started following new, more effective fundraising methods, the pandemic hit.

To my surprise, the fundraising writing tactics I had learned still worked, even in this new upside-down world.

Maybe you remember how many unknowns there were.

The stock market tanked. People were sent home from their jobs – many people lost their jobs. In some areas of the US, people couldn’t leave their homes except for a few reasons like going to the grocery store.

For a few months, it felt like the world was on pause.

But the need to deliver on our mission didn’t go away, for my organization or other organizations. Funds were still needed, but would donors still give?

At my organization, there was some question of whether it was appropriate to ask donors to give in this climate full of unknowns.

But all the advice I was seeing, hearing, reading from professional fundraising strategists (including Steven Screen!)…

…if there is a need, ask your donors to give. Full stop.

DON’T stop fundraising.

If donors CHOOSE not to give, that is their decision. But if you don’t even ask them to give, you are deciding they won’t give without even asking them. And you are letting your mission or your beneficiaries down.

So, I advocated for more appeal letters, more emails, more personal touches, more sharing in the uncertainty and asking donors for help.

I was pushier than normal, and this felt very uncomfortable. This was when I realized a big shift had happened. I was a fundraiser.

I had developed new instincts, and they were fundraising instincts.

I began to trust myself and my organization was, once again, willing to try something that felt uncomfortable.

And AGAIN, donors responded in a big way.

Donors wanted to help.

Many of these donors were sitting at home, feeling helpless, and giving was something they could do to help.

Key lesson here. When there is a need, ask donors to help. Even when times are tough. Especially when times are tough.

When you ask, you are empowering donors to do something – to help right a wrong, to provide something that is needed, to make a situation better. And that is noble work.

Whether you are new to the direct response fundraising world or you’re a seasoned pro, maybe you see yourself somewhere in this series.

It can be scary to let go of what you are used to and try something new. It can be humbling to admit the rules you’ve been following are the wrong rules for the job in front of you. It can be uncomfortable to push for something that others at your organization question.

In these moments, keep your mission in front of you – your organization’s mission AND your mission as a fundraiser.

It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Whatever the fundraising job in front of you, be bold and clear with your donors, and then trust them to do the rest.

Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

Read the series

The Magic Words in Fundraising: “Let’s Try It”


In my last post, I shared what it felt like to realize that marketing rules and fundraising rules were different. Click here to see how well I handle being wrong.

Being willing to learn the rules for fundraising writing changed everything for my organization, and for me.

I walked away from my learning and writing adventure with an appeal letter that was like nothing my organization had ever tried before.

  • The letter was direct and clear.
  • The writing was simple, around a 5th grade reading level.
  • We told donors in a clear way what the problem was and how they could give to help solve that problem.
  • We included a story that illustrated the problem.
  • We asked donors to give multiple times throughout the letter.
  • The letter was FOUR PAGES LONG, plus there was a full-sized reply sheet.
  • The font was large and readable (15 pt!).
  • And the design was simple… a lot like plain old letterhead with a few design elements.

I printed out the letter and walked into my boss’s office. I watched his facial expressions as he read it.


And then he said,

“Sarah, I don’t know if this will work. I’m somewhat skeptical. But let’s try it.”

“But let’s try it” – these turned out to be the magic words.

That letter where I followed FUNDRAISING rules raised five times what the previous year-end appeal raised.

And it changed the way we did direct mail and email fundraising.

Even though the new way of doing things was a lot more effective, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

But it turned out the things I learned served me well, even when the world changed completely.

Next time… fundraising when the world turns upside down.

Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

Read the series

But I’m Not a Fundraiser… Going from Marketer to Fundraiser

Confused marketer

In September of 2019, I began the journey from marketing professional to fundraising professional.

Some parts of that journey were startling, others were more subtle.

I’m writing this three-post blog series to share what changed. Maybe you will recognize some of these feelings on your journey.

One day in early September my new boss and I were chatting. He was worried about the year-end fundraising appeal. We had no development director, so I (as the not-very-interested in fundraising) Director of Marketing, agreed that I would take a crack at learning what I needed to know to write a letter that would raise money.


As I began my deep dive into learning how to do fundraising appeals that worked, I explored paid learning opportunities, free resources, and read many, many books.

The more I learned, the more irritated I became.

But I was also deeply fascinated.

I had been involved in putting out fundraising appeals for nearly a decade. Mostly editing and design. And they never worked that well. They raised some money… but not much.

It finally broke through to me that there were certain things that worked in direct mail and email fundraising, and certain things that did NOT work.

This wasn’t some big cosmic mystery! These things had been tested, re-tested, and tested some more on other organizations.

And my instincts as a marketing director seemed to be all wrong.

Instincts like…

  • Make it look professional.
  • Use correct grammar.
  • Don’t (for the love of PETE) make it longer than one side of one page.
  • Don’t be too direct or pushy.
  • Don’t worry about reply cards — they don’t really make a difference.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and… wrong again.

Now, I’m a competitive person. I don’t like to be wrong.

And there was a moment where my defenses started to kick in… I was tempted to dismiss what I was learning because it SEEMED wrong.

But what was actually wrong was… I was following a different set of rules. Marketing rules instead of fundraising rules.

I realized I could learn these new and different rules. Rules that made me terribly uncomfortable because they were so different from what my instincts told me.

I wrote a year-end fundraising letter following the “new” guidelines.

And that’s when the magic started.

Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

Read the series:

Why your direct response fundraising should be like a Hallmark Christmas movie…


Something strange happens to me at the end of October.

I’m a smart, logical, educated person who appreciates arts and culture.

But at the end of October when Hallmark Christmas movies start playing 24/7, I turn into… someone else. Someone who will watch movie after movie with essentially the same characters and the same plot. Someone who tears up at the end of the movie when the lovers FINALLY kiss and then a gentle snow begins to fall.

Sigh. It’s so sappy.

But I’m a direct response fundraiser, so I notice something else.

A Hallmark Christmas movie reminds me of effective direct response fundraising. It’s formulaic. You know what’s coming next. The plot is easy to follow. And you may tear up because, gosh dang it, it’s emotional!

And it works.

Every year, they make more of these movies because people – like me – are watching them!

Sometimes we try to make our direct mail fundraising appeals into something more like a Cannes Film Festival entry. Complex. Ironic. Edgy. Different.

But that just doesn’t work as well.

If you want to appeal to the highest number of donors, your direct mail fundraising should be more like a Hallmark Christmas movie.

Here’s the basic formula:

  • Tell them why you’re writing to them
  • Share the problem that needs to be solved
  • Tell how the problem could be solved
  • Ask the donor to give a gift to solve the problem
  • Go into more detail about the problem and solution
  • Include a story that illustrates the problem (optional)
  • Ask them to give again
  • Signature and title
  • P.S. Ask them to give again and include the deadline.

Listen. I get it. Near the end of every single Hallmark Christmas movie, I grumble and complain and wonder why I watch these silly movies.

Then the snow starts to fall and there’s a magical kiss and I’m a puddle on the floor.

There’s something about that feeling…

The direct response formula isn’t a secret. Simple. Easy to follow. Emotional. Maybe a little bit of magic… These things help donors get to the point where they will write a check to make something good happen.

Follow the formula with your next direct response fundraising appeal or email and let me know how it goes!

Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

Let’s Break Some Rules!


If I’m in an empty parking lot with nobody around as far as the eye can see, I will still follow the arrows and not cut through other parking spots to get where I need to go.

I’m a rule follower.

But today I’m going to ask you to break some rules.

Grammar rules.

Because when you break some of the grammar rules you’ve been following most of your life, something interesting happens. Your writing comes alive, and you start to sound like a real person.

The purpose of direct response fundraising writing is to build a relationship with your donor. What’s the best way to do that? By sounding like a human!

Are you feeling uncomfortable?

I get it.

At first, breaking grammar rules bugged me. Now… I delight in it! Because I’ve seen how much more donors connect with a letter or email that sounds like it’s coming from a real person.

So let me suggest a shift in thinking.

Instead of thinking, “I’m breaking the basic rules of grammar,” shift to “I’m writing with a more personal style that better connects with donors.”

This is the art of direct response fundraising writing.

You see, the most effective writing in direct response fundraising includes imitating how people talk in real life conversations. This means you do things like…

  • Start sentences with And or But.
  • Vary your paragraph length. Use a short one-liner, then a three-liner, then maybe a two-liner. No long hamburger paragraphs from grade school!
  • Sprinkle in em dashes — and ellipses … (I call these … drama dots) for dramatic effect or a break in the rhythm.
  • End a sentence with a preposition sometimes (GASP!).
  • Use a sentence fragment to make a point (DOUBLE GASP!!!).

Remember, you are not writing a grant application. Grant applications have their (very important) place. But… have you ever willingly read a grant application?

If you are getting pushback internally, please read this post.

You must do better than grant application writing to keep your donors reading.

The more your direct response writing reflects a living, breathing, emotional, messy, interesting human being… the more likely your donors will keep reading and keep engaging with your mission.

And that’s what this is all about, right?

Break free from grammar rules and let me know how it goes! Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.