Unhelpful questions

Bad questions

I get asked questions about appeals ALL THE TIME.

And I believe that all questions are good questions. But not all of the questions are helpful questions.

There are some questions that are signs that a fundraiser or organization is heading down the wrong path.

Think of it this way. Say someone asked you…

“When I’m making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, when do I add the roast beef?”

You’d know that there’s something they don’t quite understand. “There’s nothing wrong with roast beef,” you’d say, “but it’s not a good idea to put it on a PB&J.”

I call questions like that…

Wrong Path Questions

Here’s a small handful of questions where organizations are asking about “when to put the roast beef on their PB&J.”

My reason for doing this is not to poke fun at the silly things nonprofits do (though that’s fun and, let’s admit, there’s a lot of material). My hope is to help Fundraisers like you know how to answer the questions that will invariably come your way from people in your organization who aren’t trained in all this stuff.

“How can we convince people we are effective?”

In a nutshell, you don’t even want to try to convince people that you’re effective in a letter or email. In my experience, doing so will cause your letter or email to raise less money. Donors do care about whether you’re effective, but in your mass donor communications your effectiveness is NOT one of the top reasons they give or don’t give. And in a letter or email, you only have time to talk about the top reasons.

“How can I make this sound like my Executive Director (or ‘our voice’)?”

Making direct mail or email sound like a particular person or “voice” is almost always a mistake. A more helpful goal is to learn the best practices for direct mail and email, then make your materials sound like those best practices. That means short sentences and paragraphs, it means being direct and repetitive. Those approaches are tested and proven to work the best. If “sounding like your voice” means your letter doesn’t sound like effective direct response fundraising, then your voice is hurting your fundraising, not helping.

Marginally effective: direct mail written in your voice.
Effective: direct mail that follows best practices, featuring small elements of your voice

“How can I use emotion without being emotionally manipulative?”

The idea that any of us fundraisers can emotionally manipulate donors is ridiculous. Donors are adults. They can make their own decisions. What you’re trying to do in fundraising is tap into emotions the donor already has.

“We don’t like to share any bad news or Need; how can I Ask effectively?”

You can’t Ask effectively if you don’t share Need. If you don’t like to share bad news or a need, you’ve just removed one of (if not the) most effective tools you have to motivate donors to give. Most donors, most of the time, are motivated to help people (or a cause) in need. Or to avoid the loss of something. If you don’t want to share need, you’ve placed an artificial ceiling on the amount of money you can raise for your beneficiaries or cause.

“We aren’t simple like those big organizations. How can we describe everything we do?”

Those big organizations aren’t simple. They are more complex than you know. But they are incredibly disciplined with their fundraising. They only talk about the parts of their organization that raise the most money. Your job is to find out the parts of your work that donors respond most to, then be disciplined and only talk about those parts. You’ll raise more money that way.

“I don’t like the way fundraising letters look; what else can I use that’s effective?”

Professional fundraising letters look the way they look because that “look” has been proven to work best. They key here is to set aside personal preferences and trust the testing that’s been done over the last 70 years of sending mail to people and analyzing the results.

The Challenge

The challenge for smaller-shop fundraisers is to make sure the “wrong path” questions don’t take your fundraising further down the wrong path.

That’s hard work. Because at small shops there are often multiple people with no direct response fundraising training, and they’re asking questions based on their opinions, not on the science of fundraising.

I hope this helps you face your challenges – at least with these particular questions!

Good questions

Man with questions.

I get asked questions about appeals ALL THE TIME.

The questions tend to fall into three buckets:

  1. Tactical questions
  2. Right Path questions
  3. Wrong Path questions

The tactical questions are good ones. They’re a sign of people and organizations trying to figure out the best practices for fundraising in appeals and e-appeals.

These are things like, “How long should my letter be?” and “Who should sign it?” (I should mention that I answer a number of these every week during Free Review Fridays.)

Right Path Questions

There’s a set of questions that I think are signs that a Fundraiser or organization is “heading down the right path” toward creating successful appeals and e-appeals.

Another way to put this: they are questions that people are asking about the things that really matter in the success or failure of appeals.

Because working on the things that matter will help you be more successful, faster.

My hope is at least one of them sparks a conversation about your appeals that leads you to the next level.

So here are just a few questions that I love getting, because they’re a sign that an organization is moving their donor communications forward…

  • What am I actually trying to make happen with an appeal?
  • Do we want our donors to “like” our appeal?
  • What should not be in an appeal?
  • What’s my offer?
  • Does the headline on the reply device make perfect sense after reading the letter?
  • Is the letter repetitive enough?
  • How many times should I ask?
  • Should I use “I” or “we”?
  • How do I create custom gift ask amounts?
  • Who should I send this to?
  • What should and shouldn’t go on a reply card?
  • What types of teasers work best?
  • What information should be a “headline” and what should be a “copy point”?
  • What should I leave out of the letter?
  • Should I do a different version for major donors?
  • Is my first sentence super easy to read?
  • What’s the real purpose of underlining and/or bolding?
  • How long before a deadline should I mail a letter?
  • Should I send a follow-up mailing?
  • What kinds of offers work best?
  • How can I use email to increase response to my appeal letter?

Each of these questions – to me – is a good question. It shows that the organization is wrestling with an issue that will help them better connect with their donors and raise more money.

Next Post…

Then there’s a set of questions I call Wrong Path Questions. They are questions that are usually a sign of an organization that is already on its way down a path towards raising less money.

It’s like a flock of birds arguing whether they should fly East or West for the winter when, really, they should be flying South.

Stay tuned for those in my next post.

Answer Her Three Questions

Answer her questions.

Here’s a little checklist I use to create powerful receipt packages, autoreplies and thank you letters.

I make an assumption that after a donor makes a gift to a nonprofit, at some level she’s asking herself three questions:

  1. Did you receive my gift?
  2. Did you appreciate my gift?
  3. Are you going to do what you said you were going to do when you asked for my gift?

When writing and designing receipts and thank yous, I make sure the answers to those questions are the very first things communicated.

It’s a simple strategy, I admit. But it works for organizations that are trying to make the shift from organizational-centric communications to donor-centric communications, because it helps them avoid the common mistakes.

Notice What’s Not There

Notice something powerful…

Her questions are not about your organization. Her questions are not about your programs, your mission and vision, or your effectiveness.

Her first questions are about her and her gift.

Is there anything inherently wrong about talking about your programs, your vision and mission, or your effectiveness?

No. Of course not. But I would talk about those things after you’ve answered her primary questions.

“Did you receive my gift?”

This is more important than you think.

And if you think that most donors aren’t worried whether their gifts were received or not, I encourage you to go talk to lots of older donors who give through the mail. They often wonder this, especially when it takes more than a couple days for them to receive a receipt.

“Did you appreciate my gift?”

Donors want to feel appreciated. Valued. Meaningful. Very few nonprofits ever tell their donors that.

If you communicate to your donor that she’s appreciated, valued and meaningful – don’t you think there’s a much better chance that your donor will give you another gift down the road?

“Are you going to do what you said you were going to do when you asked for my gift?”

Most organizations make asks of their donors in specific situations: “please help us raise $400,000 at the event tonight” or “please give a gift to support the annual fund” or “your $25 gift today will introduce a local child to the opera.”

But then those organizations send boilerplate thank-yous that don’t acknowledge the specific ask. They ask you to “introduce a local child to the opera” and then send a thank you letter that says, “Your gift is supporting our 11 programs to support the arts in our county.”

To a donor, this causes disconnect. She wonders, “Hey, did the organization not know that I was giving to introduce a kid to the opera?”

You don’t want your donor wondering things like that!

It leaves the impression that a) the organization doesn’t have its act together, or b) it’s cavalier with donors’ gifts.


You don’t want to leave that impression. Especially if it’s the first thank you/receipt a donor receives.

The solution: customized thank you copy for each specific ask/event/offer you put in front of your donors.

My Suggestion

Answer her three questions first. Then the rest of what you put in there is up to you.

If your organization is exceptionally effective at using her gift, that’s of value to her. If you know she supports the same vision you do, that’s of value to her, too.

Just start by answering the questions she’s asking. That strategy will rarely lead you astray.

Your All-Important First Thank You/Receipt

New donor reading thank you letter.

My theory is that the Thank You/Receipt you send to a brand new donor is one of the most-opened, most-read messages you will ever send.

With your first touch point after a donor’s first gift, she begins to form her opinion of how important she is to your organization… or not.

Is she important and meaningful… or a small cog in a big machine?

Are you going to talk to her about her gift… or tell her more about yourself (your organization)?

Are you going to use boilerplate language that’s about your whole organization… or customized language that speaks to the specific event or offer she gave to?

Ask yourself: what kind of letter would YOU like to receive? Which kind of organization would YOU rather give to?

Your New Donor Gives to LOTS of Organizations

She’s constantly scanning for organizations that help her make the change she wants to make in the world.

And she gave your organization a gift. She picked you!

How will you respond?

You’ve already made a favorable impression on her – she gave a gift, after all.

But this is your chance to confirm her first impression.

This makes the first sentence of your Thank You/Receipt copy the most important sentence.

It’s your first sentence that tells your donor:

  1. Are you really grateful for her gift, or are you just writing to acknowledge it?
  2. Are you writing to thank her for her generosity and what she’s going to accomplish, or are you writing to tell her more about your organization?

Because your donor is trying to get a feel for your organization. She’s trying to decide whether her gift to you was a good idea… or not.

So go look at the language – and especially the first sentence – of the Thank You/Receipt package you send to first-time donors. Make sure it acknowledges that it’s her first-ever gift. Make sure you mention your donor twice as much as you mention your organization. Make sure your first sentence is short, easy to read, and makes a great first impression!

Beliefs that Cause Small Organizations to Raise Less Money, Ranked

Person with no beliefs

Here’s a quick list of the beliefs that – according to me – keep smaller nonprofits from raising more money.

Please note that I’m specifically focusing on when you’re talking to everybody – your “mass donor communications.” This is your direct mail, your email, your website, your social media, etc. I’m not talking about your grant application, or your major donor who is also a Board Member.

Here’s the list, and it’s ranked by things that do the most damage to fundraising effectiveness:

  1. Believing that you have to list or explain everything that your organization does
  2. Believing it’s wrong to share the needs of your beneficiaries
  3. Believing that your donors are unique
  4. Believing that your donors give because your organization is good at what it does
  5. Believing that what makes you feel good about your organization is what will make donors give

If your organization has any of those beliefs, you’ll see them in your mass donor communications. So go look for them. And if you find them, replace them with an approach that’s been proven to work better!

A System to Thank the Right Donors the Right Ways at the Right Times

Envelope with a thank you note.

I want to share some simple best practices for your Thanking system.

Think of these as our recommended “default settings” for a system that thanks the right donors the right way at the right time.

And I want to acknowledge right away that you don’t have to do exactly what I suggest below. But in my experience, you want to be close.

There’s no magic to any one of these things. But there is fundraising magic to doing all of them on a regular basis.

Here’s the list…

  • Mail out a printed receipt letter, within 24 to 48 hours, for all individual gifts.
    • You don’t need to do this for monthly donors.
    • Include a reply card and a reply envelope. Here’s why.
  • For gifts received via your website, your system should send out an immediate autoreply.
    • For smaller organizations, I recommend sending a printed receipt even if you send an e-receipt. For those smaller organizations who struggle to find new donors and keep their existing donors, being “extra thankful” to a donor is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.
  • Make sure the receipt letter (printed or electronic) directly reflects the donor’s intent when they made the gift.
    • This means you want to have custom receipts for each piece of fundraising you send out. For instance, if your appeal asks donors to “give to help during the summer slump,” the first paragraph of your letter should say something like, “Thank you for giving a gift to help during the summer slump” and then reuse words and phrases used in your appeal. Why do this? Because when your donor gives to the summer slump (or to your event, or whatever) and you send her Thank You that talks about your 14 programs and how effective your organization is, she thinks you did not do with her gift what you said you were going to do. You want to avoid that!
  • The text/letter portion of your receipt should be more about the donor and less about your organization.
  • All gifts over a certain amount should receive a call and a hand-written note from your Executive Director/CEO within 48 hours. You get to decide what that amount is, based on how much time your ED/CEO will allot to make those calls and write those notes. In other words, if your ED is willing to call five donors a week for this program, lower the gift threshold so that she gets to make about five calls a week.

Thanking Systems can get super complex. This one should get you started. Tweak it as necessary per your organization.

But remember: build your system to Thank and retain the donors who are giving the highest amounts!

How to Thank Your Donor So She Actually Feels Thanked

Thank You.

The goal of your Thank You and/or Receipt package is not just to acknowledge your donor’s donation.

Any organization can do that.

Any autoreply or receipt letter can do that.

Your goal should be to make your donor feel thanked, appreciated and important.


I shared this last Friday, but it’s worth sharing again…

thank a donor graphic email.

When you thank her for helping your organization do its work, you’ve make it about you, about your organization.

What you want to do is make it about her. So, thank her for her generosity. Tell her what her gift is going to do (instead of saying what your organization is going to do). Tell her how important she is to your organization.

When you do that, you’ll find that most of your Thank You/Receipt copy is about her. And less of it is about your organization.

Less about You, More about Her

Donors are inundated with requests for support. In the United States, there’s one nonprofit for every 200 people. And almost all of those organizations talk about themselves. Endlessly.

But a very few of them have learned the secret: your donors are more interested in themselves – their lives, their values, their impact – than they are in your organization.

So if you talk to donors about their lives, their values and their impact, they will finally feel like a nonprofit “gets” them. They’ll feel that there’s a nonprofit that’s working on their behalf – trying to help them do what they want to do – instead of just another nonprofit trying to sound great to get their next donation.

Do you feel the fundamental difference? The posture of gratitude for what the donor did, not for what she helped your organization do?

If you can embrace that fundamental difference, and start communicating to your donors that way, you’ll begin to build a tribe of loyal donors who will give you more gifts, larger gifts, and will give to you for longer.

Summarizing and Closing This Chapter on Fundraising Offers


Why write eleven blog posts on fundraising offers? More posts on one subject than we’ve ever done before?

Because your offer is that important.

In every piece of fundraising you send out, what you say will happen when a donor gives a gift matters a LOT. (Our clients’ success is directly related to our focus on helping them develop and deliver great offers.)

Here are the five most important ideas from this series:

  1. An “offer” is the main thing a fundraising piece says will happen when the donor gives a gift.
  2. Some offers work better than others. Your job is to figure out which one(s) works best for your organization.
  3. You’ll raise more if you ask your donor to help someone/something that needs help now. Another way to say the same thing: an offer will work best when there is a current need for the thing that your offer promises. This is radically different from the standard approach of, “Here’s a story about someone we’ve already helped, please support our work.”
  4. You’ll tend to raise more if you help donors understand what size gift is needed to make a meaningful difference.
  5. One of the reasons offers work well is because they cause your fundraising to be less about your organization, and more about your cause or beneficiaries.

“Offers” are complex. But when you understand what they are – and understand how to make good ones – you’ll start raising more money immediately.

A good offer serves donors (and potential donors) by helping them understand, quickly, the powerful difference they can make with a gift. That’s far more important than most organizations realize – and can be the key to your success.

Read the entire series:

  1. How to Create a Great Fundraising Offer: What’s an Offer?
  2. Why a Good Fundraising Offer Works So Well
  3. The Ingredients in Successful Offers
  4. How to Describe the “Solution” Your Organization Provides
  5. How to Raise More Money by Asking for the Right Amount
  6. How and Why to Give Your Donors a Reason to Give Today
  7. What About Internal Experts Who Don’t Like Fundraising Offers?
  8. How to Make Sure a Low-Priced Offer Does NOT Produce Small Gifts
  9. Half As Important
  10. Offers for Major Donors

Offers for Major Donors

Two people discussing.

Today’s topic is a complex subject. But I’ve done the work to be able to talk about it in a succinct manner.

The topic? Using offers to increase major donor giving.

Three main ideas for you…

Offers for Major Donors: Under-Utilized, but Very Effective

Presenting a major donor with a specific thing that their gift will do for a specific amount of money is a very powerful tactic.

But in my experience, too many nonprofits stop using specific offers when their donors move up and into major donor status. All of the asks move into the generic “support our mission” approach.

Do not remove specific offers from the toolbox you use to cultivate and upgrade your current major donors.

One of the main reasons our major donor consulting practice is thriving is because we help organizations develop specific offers for their majors. Those offers usually result in higher giving and higher retention rates.

There are Two Main Ways to Create Offers for Majors

The first way: use the same offer you use for your mass donor, but in greater quantities.

Instead of “$50 provides supplemental math training to a student for a week,” say “$1,500 provides supplemental math training for an entire classroom for one week” or “$4,500 provides supplemental math training for all the 3rd grade classes at a school for one week.”

All you’re doing here is using large multiples of a smaller offer. But (and this is important) you are grouping those multiples into the right-sized groupings for major donors.

The second way: create custom offers for major donors.

This is often done by reviewing program budgets to find line items at an amount a specific donor might give. For instance, say you’re a community Arts organization and your rent for the year is $20,000. You could say the following to a donor:

“Your gift of $20,000 will provide a headquarters for our organization for an entire year. You’ll make it possible for the entire team to have a place to work together, to meet, and to work to preserve the local Arts and artists that you care about so much.”

Note: this raises an issue of designated vs. un-designated giving, which is not the subject of this post. In my experience, organizations that are set up to raise both kinds of giving tend to have the most success.

A “Donor-Shaped Hole”

I’ve shared the concept of how all of your fundraising pieces should have a “donor-shaped hole” in them: an obvious role for your donor to play in an appeal, at an event, in your organization.

The trick with major donors is to create the right-sized hole for each donor, while not ignoring the fact that some of your majors would like to accomplish specific things with their gift.

That’s the reason offers work for major donors, too. An offer shares a specific need that allows a major donor to support your organization, your beneficiaries or cause, AND feel like they’ve accomplished something specific. For some donors, that’s a powerful combination.

Too many organizations’ major donor fundraising comes down to communicating, “You can give a lot of money, please support us.”

That’s just not as powerful an offer as, “Here’s something powerful and specific that needs to be done to help, will you do this?”

It usually takes more work to create and refine offers for major donors. But it’s worth it.

Read the entire series:

  1. How to Create a Great Fundraising Offer: What’s an Offer?
  2. Why a Good Fundraising Offer Works So Well
  3. The Ingredients in Successful Offers
  4. How to Describe the “Solution” Your Organization Provides
  5. How to Raise More Money by Asking for the Right Amount
  6. How and Why to Give Your Donors a Reason to Give Today
  7. What About Internal Experts Who Don’t Like Fundraising Offers?
  8. How to Make Sure a Low-Priced Offer Does NOT Produce Small Gifts
  9. Half As Important
  10. Offers for Major Donors
  11. Summarizing and Closing This Chapter on Fundraising Offers