How to Focus Your Ask on One Thing AND Raise Undesignated Funds

one thing

During these crazy last few months, nonprofits we serve have had a lot of success raising money using strong fundraising offers.  By that I mean highlighting a specific part of what the nonprofit does and then asking the donor to send in a gift today to fund that part. 

Not asking the donor to “partner with us” or to “support our mission” or to “provide hope.”  But asking the donor just to fund the part that the appeal focuses on.

There’s a good question that must be answered when using this approach:

“How can you raise undesignated funds in your appeal if it focuses only on one program – even just one part of one program?”

This free video answers that question.


The video makes it easy for you by showing you the things you need to say in your appeals, and the places you need to say them, to raise undesignated funds.

I also share how to think about this approach – which is new for most people.

It’s just 5 minutes long and is completely free.  But watch it so that you too can enjoy the benefits of raising more money that come from talking about specific programs or parts of your organization – while raising undesignated funding!

Please Don’t ‘Rest’ Your Donors


The spreadsheet below illustrates a powerful truth:

The more recently a donor has given to your organization, the more likely they are to give to you again.

So for heaven’s sake don’t “rest” your donors and miss out on your best chance for them to give you another gift – and all the revenue that comes with it.

Short Story, Then Data

Let me tell you what you’re looking at.

A nonprofit was working on their January appeal. We recommended that the appeal be sent to all donors who had given a gift in the last 18 months.

They said, “But we can’t include the people who gave at the end of the year. They’ll be annoyed to be asked again so soon.”

We told them that the people who gave recently are exactly who they want to mail to. We said that recent donors were more likely to respond to the January appeal than other donors.

They didn’t really believe us.

But they agreed to proceed because everything we’d been doing with them was working like crazy. And we promised to analyze the response to the appeal to see if what we’d been teaching them about recency was true. *

Data, Sorted by Number of Months Since Previous Gift

Here’s the data. Pay particular attention to the column in yellow. It shows you the response rate sorted by the number of months since the donor’s previous gift. The farther down the column you go, the more months it had been since the donor had given a gift.

last gift spreadsheet

Look at the top line! The people who had given a gift in the last 30 days were the people who responded best to the appeal!

The group of people who had given a gift in the last 2 months gave a little less than half the total income from this appeal.

As you go down the yellow “% Response” column you see that the more recently a donor had given a gift to this organization, the more likely they were to give again.

What Does This Tell You?

Do not “rest” your donors by pulling them out of appeals for several weeks or months.

Do not “take your donors out and not ask them again until next year.” (Last Friday on Free Review Fridays there was an organization that was doing that.)

By waiting to ask your donors again you’re reducing the chance they will give to you again, not increasing the chance. In other words, you’re raising less money, not more. **

The $$$$ Consequences of ‘Resting’

Let’s look at a couple scenarios for the big group of donors who had given a gift 1 month prior. There were 3,686 of them who received the appeal. 9% of them gave a gift, and they gave a total of $20,676.

First scenario. What would have happened if this organization had “rested” their donors for a couple of months? Those 3,686 donors would not have received this appeal. The organization would have lost out on $20,676 in gross revenue.

Twenty. Thousand. Bucks. Just. Poof. Because the organization was fearful of the mostly mythical “donor fatigue.” That’s a concrete example of how fears around “asking too much” cause organizations to raise significantly less money.

Second scenario. What would have happened if they’d “rested” those donors for 6 months? According to the data, we can estimate that only 5% of them would have responded instead of 9%. So the organization would have raised $11,481 from that group instead of $20,676 (presuming average gift size is the same).

They would have raised $9,195 less by “resting” their donors for 6 months.

Think about that the next time someone in your organization wants to rest your donors.

And the crazy part is that it gets even worse! In addition to raising $9,195 less from that group of donors, by holding that group out of appeals and newsletters for 6 months the organization would completely miss out on all the other gifts that group would have given over those months.

Don’t Worry About “Donor Fatigue”

I can already hear the question.

“But what about donor fatigue?”

I have never seen “donor fatigue” in an organization that sends out fewer than 18 pieces of direct mail a year (plus emails). ***

As you mail and email your donors more often, you’ll hear complaints, sure. And the Board won’t like it. And a small percentage of major donors will ask to be taken out of your mass donor communications.

But in exchange for those “costs” you’ll raise more money, have higher donor retention rates, and do more good.

The organization that sent the appeal letter above used to send 8 appeals and 2 newsletters a year. With our help they currently send 13 appeals a year and 4 newsletters. Plus emails.

They raise a lot more money than they used to.

And their donor retention increased. They used to retain about 55 out of 100 donors every year. Now they retain about 63 out of 100 donors every year.

In other words, they communicated more with their donors and FAR more good things happened than bad things. Put more precisely, they gladly accepted a few complaints and treated a few major donors differently in exchange for more revenue, donors, and impact.

Of course you have to send out good fundraising. Donor-focused appeals with good offers. Newsletters that give donors the credit. Etcetera.

More is More

Don’t “rest” your donors.

Send out more appeals, e-appeals and newsletters.

The way to get better at those appeals, e-appeals and newsletters is to practice.

You’ll be better at it a year from now. But only if you start practicing today.

Seek and accept expertise, but don’t let that delay you from starting.

As soon as you can.

And include your most recent donors!

* Of course there are cases where recency should not be the primary segmentation variable. If you’re already using a segmentation model more sophisticated than RFM, thank your lucky stars you’ve had the chance to learn such things, and know that this post is not for you.

** This applies to major donors, too, though not quite as linearly. The maxim holds, but you may know things about individual donors that exempts those particular donors. For instance, perhaps they have a family foundation that gives gifts once a year. Or they’ve told you that they’re only going to give one gift this year. The path to increased revenue from major donors, in our experience, is to be comfortable asking them for gifts more than once a year (within a system of Asking, Thanking and Reporting). The mistake is to take one major donor’s preference and use it as a strategy for all major donors.

*** The key here is to measure the right things. You want to measure and prioritize donor retention levels by segment, and Net Revenue. You want to pay the appropriate amount of attention to complaints, unsubscribes, and contacts from Majors. Pay attention to the performance of the group, not the squeaky wheels. Segmentation is your friend.

Why You Shouldn’t Use the Word “Vulnerable” in Your Appeals


Though I’m a great believer in being vulnerable when you create your fundraising, I never use the word “vulnerable” when writing fundraising.

And when organizations that I work with use the word “vulnerable” or the phrase “the most vulnerable,” I delete it.

Here’s Why

When you’re Asking for support in your appeals and e-appeals, what usually works best is to present donors with a problem that is happening right now, one that the donor can solve with a gift today.

The problem with the word “vulnerable” is it accidently tells donors that there is not a problem today.

According to Webster’s, Vulnerable means:

  1. Capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.
  2. Open to attack or damage

Look at those definitions again. In both of those cases there is nothing wrong right now. A person is “capable” of being hurt. Or is “open to attack.”

Think about it this way. Say you received two simple e-appeals right next to each other in your inbox. One e-appeal asked you to give a gift to help a person who is in need today. The other e-appeal asked you to help a person who might be in need sometime soon. All things being equal, most donors will give to help the person who is in need today.

By describing your beneficiaries as “vulnerable,” you’re focusing donors’ attention on the fact that there’s nothing wrong yet. You’re telling donors that there might be a problem in the future. So there’s less of a reason for a donor to give a gift right now.

By using the word “vulnerable” you’ve caused fewer people to send in a gift today.

Here’s What I Replace “Vulnerable” With

Instead of focusing on what might happen, focus on what’s happening right now.

What this usually means is that instead of focusing your fundraising on all the people who might need help, you focus it on the people who need help right now.

Here are a couple of examples…

“Your gift to help vulnerable children in our schools learn to read will…” becomes, “Your gift to help a child who is a grade behind in reading level will…”

“Your gift to protect people who are vulnerable to this disease will…” becomes, “Your gift will help people who have this disease by… “

“Your gift will help the most vulnerable…” becomes, “Your gift will help the people who need it most right now…”

If your organization uses “vulnerable” or “the most vulnerable,” edit your future fundraising to talk about the people (or a person) who needs help now. You’ll start to raise more money.

The Big Picture

If you stop using “vulnerable,” will your next appeal raise twice as much money? No.

But if my experience is any indication, I think you’ll raise more money than you’re raising now.

Two reasons.

First, even though your use of “vulnerable” is a small thing, successful appeals and newsletters are made up of a hundred of small things. The better you get at noticing and improving the small things, the more money you raise.

Second, not using “vulnerable” is a very real step on the way towards a powerful principle to operate by. The principle is that you’ll raise more money with your direct response fundraising (appeals, e-appeals, radio, TV, etc.) if you share the most compelling problems your organization and/or beneficiaries are experiencing right now.

Sharing a current problem (not a potential future problem) with donors is one of the ways you can break through all the noise and increase the number of people who send you gifts.

And anything you can do to break through all the noise right now will help, don’t you think?

How Wildly Successful Appeals Work

wildly successful

This is not a “quick tip.”

But if you’re the type of person who really thinks about your fundraising – what the purpose of each piece is, what makes some approaches work better than others – keep reading…

Because I have a helpful way for you to think about your appeals and e-appeals. And by “helpful” I mean “will help you raise more money with your next one.”

Our “Conceptual Model” for Appeals

Here it is…

  • The purpose of the Appeal is to deliver the Offer.

  • The purpose of the Offer is to illustrate what the donor’s gift will do to meet the Need

  • The purpose of the Need is to help your donor want to do something today

  • The purpose of the Story in your appeal is to illustrate the Need

If you follow that formula, you’ll give yourself your best chance of success.

If you need a refresher on what makes a successful Offer and how to create them for your organization, download our free eBook on Offers here.

Here’s a bit about each step…

The Purpose of the Appeal

The purpose of your appeal letter or e-appeal is to deliver your offer.

There’s a consequence of this approach that is both helpful and hard: you need to remove everything from your appeals that doesn’t help deliver the offer.

Should you mention your upcoming event? Nope. Should you include links to your social accounts? Nope. Should you “tell donors more about what we do”? Nope.

Just deliver your offer.

The Purpose of Your Offer

The purpose of the Offer is to illustrate what the donor’s gift will do to meet the Need.

An easy way to describe “offers” is that they are the promise an appeal makes for what will happen when the donor gives a gift.

“Please support our community theater” is an offer. So is, “Give a gift today to join us in the battle against cancer.” As well as, “$56 provides a night of safety for a family experiencing homelessness.”

When reading your appeals, donors are always asking themselves, “What will my gift do?”

Your offer is the answer.

The Purpose of the Need

The purpose of the Need is to help your donor want to do something today.

We see something again and again: when organizations share Needs with their donors in their appeals and e-appeals, they raise more money.

And conversely, when organizations do not share Needs in their appeals – usually sharing only successes and offering the donors the chance to “continue this amazing work” or “support our ongoing programs” – they raise less money.

In a nutshell, most donors don’t often think about the Needs your organization works on. They don’t remember that someone is hurting right now. They often need to be reminded.

And when they’re reminded, they give more often and give higher amounts.

The Purpose of the Story

The purpose of the Story in your appeal is to illustrate the Need.

We tell stories of individual people (when possible) in appeals because they illustrate the Need to donors far more effectively than dry statistics and large numbers.

But perhaps more importantly, stories are used because they’re more likely to touch a donor’s heart. Because when you’ve touched a donor’s heart, you’re already three quarters of the way to them making a gift. All you need then is a great offer to turn your donor’s intention into action.

Now What?

I realize this is conceptual.

But what I want you to realize is that this model is powerful and effective.

It works again and again and again. It’s the “default setting” for every appeal we consult on, write, and review.

And it makes creating appeals a LOT easier. You don’t have to come up with a new approach each time. You have a model that works, and you simply “paint by numbers” for each appeal.

My advice to you: try it. And if you’ve already tried it, try it again but work to do it even better. Make sure the Story perfectly illustrates the Need, and that the Need is perfectly met by the Offer.

You (and your organization) can learn to create appeals like this. You’ll love how much money comes in and how much more engaged your donors are!

Three EASY Copy Changes

three things

I edit a lot of fundraising copy.

And then because I’m a glutton for punishment (OK actually I love it), I do it for free, live, most Friday mornings right here.

I noticed the other day that there are three changes that I make to almost every piece I see.

These edits are EASY to make. And all of them will help you raise more money in your appeals, e-appeals and newsletters.

Take Your Organization Out

Any time you see “we” or “our,” immediately look for a way to take it out and replace it with a mention of the donor.

When you’re Asking in appeal letters and e-appeals, change things like, “We can help a local child get online so they can catch up in school” to “Your generosity will get a local child online so they can…”

Notice how this makes the donor the hero, rather than your organization.

When you’re Reporting in your newsletter, change things like, “Our Internet Hotspot program allowed Gregory to get online and get caught up to his class” to “You helped provide Gregory with a hotspot, and now he’s online and caught up with his class!”

Notice how this makes the donor the hero, not your organization or your program.

And notice how making your donor the hero is a theme around here. 🙂

Lead with What the Donor Values Most

Always try to put the most important thing first.

This is usually the outcome of your work, and not the program or process by which your organization made the outcome possible.

When Asking, change things like,

Your generosity will support our Internet Hotspot program, which will help get a local child online so they can get caught up in school”


Your generosity will help get a child caught up in school by getting them online….”

When Reporting, change copy that says,

You supported our Internet Hotspot program that gets children online. Thank you for providing a local child with a hotspot so they could get caught up in class”


You helped Gregory catch up in class by providing him with a hotspot.”

Make It Singular

When I’m Asking a donor to make a gift, I’m always looking to make it as easy as possible for her to say “yes.”

So I always ask donors to do a small thing instead of asking them to do a big thing.

So when you’re Asking, change, “Will you please help all the students in Bloom County to have internet access” to “Will you please help one student in Bloom County get internet access?”

I think of these as an “easy yes” versus a “harder yes.” I (and you!) always want to ask for an easier “yes.”

It works in Reporting back to donors, too. Change “Thank you for helping 1,437 students in Bloom County…” to “Thank you for helping Gregory and other students in Bloom County…”

And there’s another reason to make this edit: your donor knows she can’t help all the students. That’s a huge problem. So ask her to do something she knows she can do; help one person, solve one problem, do one thing, etc.

It’s Not Magic

When an experienced copywriter edits or writes fundraising, it can seem like magic.

But it’s not. It’s just a handful of principles like these, played out sentence by sentence.

And you can learn it.

Start with these three principles. Keep working on them until they happen by reflex – where you don’t even have to think about it.

Pretty soon everything you write will begin to seem like magic to the people you work with. And you’ll love how much money comes in!

What would you rather?


I want you to remove your fundraiser hat for a moment, and put on your donor hat.

Okay. Now, I want to ask you a question. Would you rather:

  • Give to help an organization continue its work?

  • OR

  • Give to solve a compelling, immediate problem?

This question sits at the heart of why some organizations raise more money than others.

You see, organizations that regularly see poor fundraising results tend to make the same mistakes when speaking to their donors. They tell fundraising stories of people who have already been helped, and/or ask they donors to help the organization do more good work.

This kind of messaging in your appeals will consistently raise you less money because your donor isn’t solving an immediate problem – and the donor isn’t the hero of the story.

Conversely, organizations that consistently tell fundraising stories of acute, current needs will raise more money.

If you ask a donor to meet an urgent need, she is more likely to stop what she’s doing and make a gift.

Here are two quick examples. With your donor hat still on, would you rather give to this:

  • “Emma was hungry and alone when she arrived at our homeless shelter. We gave her a warm meal, and a bed, and she is now feeling better and getting back on her feet. Will you help us support more people like Emma?”

See how Emma’s problem is already solved? See how the donor doesn’t have a role to play other than helping the organization do more work?

Or, would you rather give to this:

  • “I have an urgent need to share with you. Emma just arrived at our homeless shelter. She is hungry, and she’s been sleeping on the streets. Please send a gift of $35 and give a woman like Emma a warm meal and a safe place to stay.”

See how there is a clear need to be met? And how there’s a specific way the donor’s gift will help?

In your appeals and e-appeals, make sure to give your donors an important, impactful role to play. When a donor gives, she’ll feel like a hero.

And when you make her feel like a hero, she’s more likely to give to you again in the future.

Now you’ve got the Holy Grail of fundraising: donors who love giving to you now (so you raise more money now) and donors who are more likely to continue giving to you in the future (so you raise even more money over time)!

Unsubscribes are a Sign of Success


A couple of years ago, I talked to a very large national organization on the East Coast about their email fundraising.

They had a solid program, sending out a whopping 70 emails per year.

About half of those were your traditional e-appeal, 5 were report-focused emails like an e-newsletter, 20 were advocacy-related, and around 15 I would classify as “other” – meaning they didn’t really fall into any these categories.

I suggested a number of tactics they could use to improve their results, but when I look back at that conversation, one thing stood out.

You Can Be Sending More Emails

Yes, your organization can almost certainly be sending out more emails.

More cultivation emails. More asking appeals. More engagement emails. More reporting emails. More.

Let’s use this East Coast organization as an example. Why did they send out so many emails? Because they knew that the more emails they sent, the more engaged followers they would reach. And when they had more engaged followers, they received more donations.

This organization understood that the true reason for an email file is to gather people who are interested, and then sort those people into donors and nondonors.

Specifically, every unsubscribe was considered a success, because the unsubscribe helped to sort contacts into donors and non-donors.

Unsubscribes Are Success

I repeat: unsubscribes are success. Don’t be afraid of them. And please don’t think they are a negative.

If you’re viewing your email fundraising as a way to not only raise money, but to build your file, then unsubscribes are simply part of the process towards acquiring more donors.

Beware… the Curse of KNOWLEDGE!

Beware… the Curse of KNOWLEDGE!

“Talking to donors about what they care about, in language that they quickly understand, absolutely leads to raising more money and doing more good.”

Steven learned this truth early on in his career and I think it’s a great reminder for anyone fundraising through the pandemic. 

Bottom line is that your donors are not experts on your organization, or your programs. If you want to see results, be sure to keep your message simple, specific, and solution-focused. Your donors want to support outcomes, not processes. 

That said, there’s a cost to fundraising this way because the experts in your organization won’t like it. But the benefits to your mission are clear. 

— Jonathan

Think of this post as a brief introduction to the idea that being an expert about your field, or about your organization, can cause your fundraising to raise less money.

I’m going to cover three things very quickly:

  1. Define “The Curse of Knowledge”
  2. Show how knowledge or expertise often hurts fundraising
  3. Talk about how to get past it to raise more money

The Curse of Knowledge

Wikipedia says, “The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.”

You know the feeling, right? You’re listening to an expert talk about something and you’re thinking, “That sounds really smart, but I’m not totally sure what everything meant.”

Let me submit to you that donors have that reaction All The Time when they read fundraising.

How Knowledge Hurts Fundraising

This is very simple:

  • Experts use jargon. They say that a child is “food insecure” instead of “often goes to bed hungry.”
  • They use conceptual language. They say “Will you stand behind the victims…” instead of “Will you give a victim exactly what she needs to recover…”
  • The write at a high grade level that takes more cognitive effort to understand.
  • Experts don’t like to talk about the Need. So they talk almost exclusively about the successes – which unfortunately hides the Need from donors.
  • They think about groups of people instead of one person who needs help. They’ll say, “Will you support vulnerable children…” instead of “Will you help a child who needs help now…”

All of these things make the fundraising sound smart and technically accurate – to experts.

But these traits make fundraising harder to read and understand by a donor who isn’t an expert. And – this is important – who is only looking at your letter or email for a few short seconds.

How to Avoid the Curse

Always remember who you are talking to: non-experts. So instead of saying, “Our holistic approach,” say, “Your gift helps them every single way they need help.” Instead of saying, “Your support will provide employment resources to disadvantaged people,” say, “You’ll give a job-seeker everything she needs to get a job.” This approach will sound overly simple to you, and will sound just right to your donors.

Always remember how you are talking to them – in a medium (usually in a letter or email) where most donors only give you a few short seconds of attention. You don’t have time to make complex arguments. This is not a conference or a meeting with a Foundation where you have lots of time, and people want to see the data. For mass donor fundraising you need to make it easy for your reader to know exactly what you’re talking about, and do it quickly.

The Cost and the Incredible Benefit

There’s a cost to doing fundraising this way: the experts in your organization won’t like your fundraising. This is a personal, subjective reaction because your fundraising won’t be written to their level of understanding and expertise.

That’s a real cost. Some organizations never pay it.

But the benefit is clear: talking to donors about what they care about, in language that they quickly understand, absolutely leads to raising more money and doing more good.

If you’re an expert, is that benefit worth the cost?

Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter


Right now, I’m noticing that many organizations are saying similar things about coronavirus, and the impact it’s having on their mission. So how do you rise above the chatter and capture your donor’s attention?

You make a great first impression. 

Steven coaches that when writing your appeals and e-appeals, an eye-popping first sentence will pique your donors interest much more than something like: “Recently we held a staff leadership seminar.”  

Be relevant. Be vulnerable. And if your coronavirus message is sounding repetitive, try applying Steven’s 5 tips to help make the start of your next appeal stand out from the crowd.

– Jonathan

The first sentence of your next appeal letter is really important.

Most readers will use it to decide whether to keep reading… or start thinking about whether to recycle or delete your message.

So yeah, it’s important. We’ve written hundreds of appeals and e-appeals over the years, and studied the results. Here are five tips to make your first sentence GREAT:

1. Short and Sweet

Your first sentence should be short and easy to understand. If your first sentence is long, complex, has lots of commas and clauses, and maybe a statistic or two, would you want to keep wading through? Remember, your reader is using it to decide whether to keep reading… or not.

2. Drama, Drama, Drama

Fill it with drama or make it interesting to your donor. Drama and tension are two of the best tools you have for engaging their interest. Or make it something that would be interesting to your donor – which is likely something different than would be interesting to you!

The worst example of this I ever saw was a first sentence that said, “Recently we hosted a staff leadership seminar.” Ouch.

3. What’s The Point?

One of the best first sentences is, “I’m writing to you today because…” That sentence forces you to get right to the point – which donors really appreciate. You want to know why so few donors actually read fundraising letters? It’s because they know how long it takes most nonprofits to get to the point! So if you and your organization get to the point quickly, your donor will be far more likely to read more.

4. Who Cares?

Another great tactic is to make the first sentence about the donor. Think “I know you care about Koala bears” or “You are one of our most generous donors, so I think you’ll want to know…” Listen, most of the other organizations she donates to wax poetic about totally unrelated things or about how great they are. When you write her and talk about her, she’ll love it!

5. Less is More

After you’ve written the first draft of your appeal, you can often delete your first couple of sentences or paragraphs. This happens to me all the time in my own writing, and in appeal letters that I edit for clients. In the first draft, the first couple sentences or paragraphs are often just warmup. They can be deleted and your letter will be stronger because now it gets right to the point.

So next time you’re writing, pay special attention to your first sentence. Keep it short and easy to read. Fill it with drama if you can. And when more people read your writing, more people will donate!