The Gap and The Gift

The Gap

There’s a gap between your organization and your donors.

Savvy fundraising organizations know that donors don’t know as much about your beneficiaries or cause as your organization does.

That donors often don’t care quite as much as you care.

That donors often use different words and phrases than you would. 

Savvy fundraising organizations know that the people on the other side of the gap are not likely to close the gap themselves.  Donors are quite happy as they are, thank you very much.  They don’t have a felt need to be educated, learn new jargon, or grow to an expert’s level of understanding.

So savvy fundraisers make the generous act of crossing the gap and meeting donors where the donors are. 

That means writing to donors at donors’ level of understanding.  It means no jargon.  It means being specific, not conceptual.

It means figuring out what motivates donors to give and crafting your fundraising around those motivators – even if those motivators are not what motivates the organization’s staff. 

And when you’ve done the generous thing – crossed the gap to meet the donor where they are – then you can ask them to take a first step towards involvement and greater understanding. 

That first step?  It’s usually a financial gift.  A check in the mail or a donation online.

And that gift happens because you gave them a gift, first.  You crossed the gap.  You went to them.

This post was originally published on November 17, 2020.

The Six Types of Asks

Six types.

There are 6 main types of “asks” that I see in fundraising.  Let me tell you what they are, then make a couple of observations. 

As I go through these, look for the type that your organization tends to use…

More General Asks

The ask is Organizational

The donor is asked to support the organization.

  • “Will you please support our work?”
  • “Please join us as we…”
  • “Will you partner with us?”

The ask is Conceptual

The donor is asked to do or provide something that’s a concept.

  • “Will you please provide hope to a person”
  • “You’ll help provide refuge…”
  • “Will you walk alongside someone as they…”

The ask is About a Topic

The donor is asked to support one area or part of the organization’s work, but it’s still conceptual.

  • “Your gift today will provide education!”
  • “Will you help provide habitat restoration for wild birds?”
  • “For Moms experiencing homelessness, will you provide housing?”

More Concrete Asks

The ask is Specific

The donor is asked to do something more specific.

  • “Will you provide a year of school?”
  • “You can provide 1 square meter of sanctuary for wild birds.”
  • “Your gift will provide a night of housing for a Mom experiencing homelessness.”

Note: if you’re wondering how to highlight a specific part of your organization’s work while still raising undesignated funds, download our free whitepaper here.

The ask is Specific with a Price

The donor is asked to fund something specific, and given the price to fund it.

  • “You can provide a year of school for $78!”
  • “1 square meter of sanctuary for wild birds costs just $150.”
  • “Your gift of $48 will provide a night of housing for a Mom experiencing homelessness.”

The ask is Specific with a Price, and is Timely

The donor is asked to fund something specific, with a price point, and what they’re being asked to fund is needed/about to be needed.

  • “Your gift before August 26th will provide a year of school for $78!”
  • Before the migratory birds arrive next month, will you please give $150 to provide 1 square meter of sanctuary for wild birds?”
  • “Your gift of $48 will provide a night of housing for a Mom experiencing homelessness.  No one should have to sleep in a car during this heatwave.”

As I thought about the different types of Asks, I noticed something that I hope will be helpful to you: there are times and places for both “more general” asks and for “more concrete” asks.   

Here’s what I’ve observed:

  • “More general” asks tend to be successful with people who have a lot of context about your organization and what you do.

    • These people already know the importance of your work, and they already know some of the specifics.  Think “major donors that you’re in relationship with,” grant-making organizations, and at events when you have time to give people the whole picture.

  • “More specific” asks tend to be successful to people who do not have a lot of context about your organization and what you do.

    • Asks that are more specific tend to work better in direct response fundraising: email, the mail, on TV, etc.  In those mediums, most of the audience does not have much context about your organization and what you do.  They simply don’t know.  So being specific and concrete is really helpful for them.

The lesson, as always, is to know the audience for any given piece of fundraising, and meet that audience where they are.

Happy Fourth!


This Independence Day we’re reminded of the line, “toward a more perfect union.”

Not perfect, but trying to get better every year.

Just like fundraising.

Happy Fourth!

A Personal Note of Encouragement to YOU


Hey friend,

I’m reaching out to you today because I want to encourage you.

Being a fundraiser can be a difficult and lonely job.

It’s a job where it often feels like nothing is ever truly done. The hours can be long and – honestly – fundraisers rarely hear these important words:

Thank you – you are doing a GREAT job!

Because you ARE doing a great job.

Friend, you have chosen to do a job not many people can do.

You combine your passion for your cause with your ability to invite donors to do something meaningful.

You make a lot happen without a lot of resources.

When things get tough, you dig in, find a solution, and make sure your organization has the funding needed to continue.

You are a gift to your organization and to your community.

Thank you for choosing to do a tough and necessary job as a fundraiser.

Today, why not help cultivate a culture of gratitude at your organization by taking a minute to thank a co-worker for what they do? This gesture doesn’t have to be limited to the people you interact with daily. You might like to thank a faithful volunteer for helping stuff envelopes, a colleague on your programs team, or the person who does your payroll (yes, definitely thank them!).

We work hard to thank our donors for their generous support, so why not thank each other too?

So whether it’s a high-five, a thoughtful email, or a plate of fresh-baked cookies, take some time today to thank your colleagues for making the world a better place.

Inconvenient and Inefficient


We all want more people to just show up at our nonprofit, love what we do, and become donors for life. 

Yet we all have “the donors who need to be convinced.”  The donor with a complaint who, after a real conversation, gives their biggest gift ever. The Foundation that just doesn’t get it… but once convinced, becomes your biggest fan.

And we know those donors make a huge difference to the bottom line.

It’s nicer when it’s easy.  It’s not convenient to stop what you’re doing to talk to someone with a complaint or questions.  It’s not efficient to email the foundation for the eighth time.

But both are worth it.  Because what we’re really here for are the long-term results of the “easy & fun” and the “inconvenient & inefficient.”  Both are part of the deal for organizations that want to maximize their impact.

Making Fundraising is Like Making Pancakes


You know how when you start making pancakes, the first couple of ‘em aren’t quite right?

Either the batter’s too thick, or the pan isn’t hot enough, or that little brown ring around the edge of the pancake that you like doesn’t happen.

The point is, you need to make a couple before you get everything dialed in, and then pancakes come out the way you want.

Your fundraising is the same way.

If you’re only sending a couple pieces of fundraising a year, there’s almost no chance they come out the way you want them to.  It’s been so long since you made the last one that you just don’t have everything dialed in. It’d be like making one pancake every week.

Contrast that to the rhythm of consistently making & sending fundraising.  Plus looking at the results to see what’s working best. And then getting that “sense” of what’s going to work and what isn’t.

Just like with making pancakes, it’s when you get in a rhythm that the magic happens.

One Test, Three Lessons

Three lessons.

A long time ago, at an Agency far, far away, I was part of a team that tested two phrases against each other to see which one worked better in an organization’s fundraising.

Here are the two phrases:

Your gift will provide clean water to a person

Your gift will provide clean, disease-free water to a person

The phrase that included “disease-free” was the clear winner – more people gave money and more clean water was provided. 

(Apologies to my fellow nerds out there, this was 20-something years ago and I don’t remember the exact results of the test.  But I do remember it was statistically significant and we used the “disease-free” variant of the phrase moving forward.)

I took three lessons from this little test; they’ve been helpful to me and to others, and I hope they will be helpful to you.

Words Matter

Just a couple words here and there can make a material difference in how much money a piece of fundraising raises.

The Words that Matter Most are the Words that Describe What the Donor’s Gift Will Do

In my experience, the words you use to describe what a donor’s gift will do are the most important words in any piece of fundraising. 

Put differently, changes to the words that describe what the donor’s gift will do are going to have the largest impact of any changes you make.  Focus on these words first.

‘Embed the problem in the solution’

Adding the words “disease-free” to the original phrase reminds donors of the original negative situation that their gift will help solve. 

When I saw this happen again and again, I created the phrase “embed the problem in the solution” as shorthand to remind myself to do this.  It’s not always possible, but it results in phrases like:

“You can provide no-strings-attached financial aid to a student”

“Your gift will provide a Bible in a person’s own language for just $4”

“You can provide healthy, non-fast food meals to a person living in a food desert”

I think you can feel how that phrasing is more powerful.  It’s more powerful because when donors are reminded of the current situation, they more clearly see and feel the whole impact of your programs and their giving.

To close, I encourage you to apply these lessons to your own fundraising.  And when you make your writing decisions based on evidence-based lessons from head-to-head testing at scale, you’ll start to get a reputation as a donor whisperer.

Eight Principles for Effective ‘Design’

8 Designing Principles.

While we’re talking about nonprofit Designers and design, let me share something that I found helpful.

Check out the following eight principles for effective design from product designer Taras Bakesevych. 

What’s exciting to me is that these principles apply to more than just the “graphical layout and style” of a piece of fundraising – they apply to how you “design” your entire fundraising program. 

Here’s the summary:

  • Empathy: Good design is rooted in an understanding of your audience.
  • Layout: Guide the eye effortlessly across the landscape.
  • Essentialism: Simplicity and purpose above everything else.
  • Guidance: Design should lead us somewhere.
  • Aesthetics: Communicate a feeling.
  • Novelty: “True art lies in balancing novelty with familiarity.”
  • Consistency: Don’t be confusing; build trust.
  • Engagement: Good design is like a good conversation.

Here are a few examples of applying these principles to how a nonprofit designs its fundraising program:

  • A fundraising program has empathy for donors by using language that donors understand, and design that resonates with donors.
  • A fundraising program focuses on the essentials by keeping it simple for donors, and doesn’t try to teach and tell donors everything about the organization and its approach.
  • A fundraising program is engaging by sending out surveys, and asking questions of major donors to discover their passions and interests.

You get the idea.

The whole post is interesting.  Taras gives examples for each principle.  It’s long, but I can guarantee you’ll quickly find something that could be applied to your fundraising program – whether graphically (#9 is “create a clear focal point”) or structurally (#17 is “craft engaging user onboarding”).

In my job, I get to “look under the hood” of a lot of different fundraising programs.  The fundraising programs that are reliably growing tend to be built on all eight of these principles.

How to Succeed as a Designer at a Nonprofit

Graphic designer.

Someone recently asked me what advice I’d give to Designers working at and for nonprofits. 

I gave some “big picture” advice – which I’m told was helpful – so I’m sharing it here with you…

Know that different design contexts have different design requirements

One of the things that happens at nonprofits is that they come up with a design approach and they apply that approach regardless of context

For instance, say one of the colors in your logo/brand is a beautiful light green.  In an Annual Report, you can use that green as the color for a headline or a small block of text to make the page more visually interesting.  But in direct mail you should never use a light color for text because it’s so hard to read for older donors, and in direct response fundraising readability is directly correlated with fundraising results

As a Designer, you’ll be more helpful to your organization (and your beneficiaries or cause) if your design is effective for each particular context than if your design is perfectly consistent across all the contexts you have to design for.  

You keep your organization’s design accessible for your donors

The person who wants you to fit a 550-word letter on one page does not know that the resulting “wall of text” won’t be read by anyone but their Mom.  The young person who wants the reply card form to be super-tiny does not know that a 75-year-old donor with a touch of arthritis will never be able to write their credit card number in a space that small. 

It is the Designer’s job to think about these things on behalf of your donors to make it easier for them to understand and support your organization.

And if you keep your organization’s work more accessible, your organization will raise more money.

Be a partner to the writer

The best design in the world cannot compensate for lousy copy.  So if the letter you’re asked to design doesn’t have a good offer, or takes too long to get to the point, or sounds like a Ph.D. dissertation, say something

Speaking as a copywriter, I’ve had hundreds of ideas that sounded great in my head but just didn’t work on the page.  The most helpful Designers told me so, and helped me see why.

Note to anyone working with a Designer: if you don’t treat the Designer as a partner, and give their feedback real consideration, you won’t get to work with that Designer for long.

Design for donors, not yourself

The most effective Designers always keep in mind that the primary audience for their design work has different preferences and needs than the Designer does.

This is hard to do. 

For instance, most Designers at nonprofits are at least 20 years younger than the core audience for their work: the average age of a donor in the U.S. is their late 60’s, and I’d guess that most Designers at nonprofits are younger than 40. 

For a Designer, this means that your donors are more likely to emotionally resonate with a different design approach than you are.  Real life example: most donors at most organizations are more likely to respond to a letter that looks like a telegram than they are to a letter that looks like the cool titles on a hot new Netflix show.

Design for your audience.

Be your own advocate & Ask questions

OK, this is two pieces of advice, but they are related.

The tough thing about working in the nonprofit world, especially at smaller nonprofits, is that there’s little training for Designers.  So in most cases, you are responsible for your own growth.

The best thing you can do to help your mission and your career is to learn about the nuts and bolts of fundraising.  You will have to ask for time and budget to buy books, to take classes, to go to a conference. 

And you can ask questions that your organization likely hasn’t asked before, like “what kind of design will resonate best with our donors?” and “How should our look and copy vary from context to context?”

Ask an experienced nonprofit Designer or Creative Director to be a mentor, whether it’s just for one coffee or it’s monthly for years.  This profession is full of generous people.  Sitting here writing this, I can think of nine people who helped me over the years, and I don’t ever remember being turned down.

If you advocate for yourself, and you’re curious, you’ll cause your organization to raise more money.  Designers who do this are worth their weight in gold. 

What’s your job?

I’ll end with a picture from the cover of my favorite book on design, Type & Layout

The designers who are communicating are gifts to their organization and beneficiaries, and will always have their plates full of interesting work.