Why You Should Send a Letter Now


Here’s why you should probably be sending out an emergency appeal letter to your donor file:

This chart shows the percentage of revenue that’s coming in from different generations.

Direct mail appeals work very well at reaching the group of folks in blue on the right.

You know, the ones who (statistically speaking) have the most compassion and money to give you right now.

And you know, the people who your email and social probably aren’t reaching in significant numbers.

To any organization who is considering using direct mail for their coronavirus fundraising,


I can’t say that everyone should do it. But chances are, you should.

Here’s how to think about it to make a good decision for your organization:

  • If the coronavirus or the current situation is harming your beneficiaries, your cause, or your organization, then you should be fundraising now.
  • If you’ve sent out an emergency e-appeal and it raised more than a “normal” e-appeal raises…
  • If you’re able to convert your e-appeal into a direct mail appeal and get it in the mail quickly…

Then you should absolutely send out an “emergency direct mail appeal.”

Get it written (your e-appeal is your first draft – and maybe your final draft!) and send it as fast as you can.

Speed matters. If your donors are going to give emergency gifts to five organizations, you don’t want to be the 7th organization who asks them.

And if you can’t get a letter out to everyone quickly, then figure out how to get a letter out to your top donors in the next couple days. One tactic we see working: print out your e-appeal, handwrite a note on the top and send it to your major donors along with a generic reply card and envelope.

The Big Idea here is to use the mail to reach your major donors and the LARGE group of compassionate folks who would like to help but aren’t email responsive. Good luck out there. And we’ll be posting helpful tips every day for the foreseeable future.

12 Tips for Fundraising Right Now


Last Friday, I streamed a free two-hour session reviewing Coronavirus fundraising – (mostly emails) and answering specific questions about fundraising during this crazy time.

I’d like to publicly thank Marc Pitman for gathering all the advice dispensed during those two hours and putting it in a super-helpful blog post. Read it here.

And here’s what Marc summarized:

One of the phrases Steven keeps using is encouraging us to “lean into donor generosity.” I love his constant reminder that nonprofits are needed now more than ever. Donors get that. And are currently giving to it. That giving will slow but right now is a time to be asking.

Some other nuggets he says are:

    • Your donors are amazing, and they want to help.
    • Let them decide what is relevant and important to them.
    • Crisis giving spikes, and then slows. The slowing isn’t about donor fatigue. It’s about donor inattention and about the nonprofit’s fundraising irrelevance.
    • Now is not the time to fundraise for the future. Fundraise for the crisis now.
    • Your job is to clearly state how your beneficiaries, or your organization are being impacted by this situation. And how the donor can help.
    • If your most pressing issue is a shortfall in fundraising, tell the donor.
    • Send the emergency email. Resend it to people who didn’t open it. Send it again. Send it every other day.
    • Keep asking until the data tells you to stop. NOT until your feelings tell you. When the appeals stop working, that’s the data telling you to stop.
    • There are still LOTS of older people who haven’t given because they don’t give to emails. If you can get a letter out this week, do it.
    • $25 is a low ask in an email. Average online gifts for many nonprofits is $80, $90, or even $100.
    • Don’t let your unease with asking take away from a donor the chance to make an impact.
    • Now is NOT the time to send an “update on how we’re responding to Covid-19.” That is irrelevant to donors. Share a current need that they can act on.

And one of my favorites: in crisis moments like we’re in right now, “pretty good and fast” will raise more money than “perfect and a couple days later.” Reaching donors now is far better than waiting until things have calmed down. And even better than waiting until you get the wording 100% perfect.

I stand by every one of those.

And I’ll be doing another free review this Friday – you can sign up and submit your materials here.

If you want more guidance right now, here’s a post from last week with the four main ideas that will help you the most right now.

Good luck out there! And stay tuned, we’ll be posting helpful advice every day for the foreseeable future.

Free Review Fridays


Don’t miss this if you’re doing any fundraising over the next 4 weeks.

This Friday at 10:00 am Pacific Time I’ll be reviewing COVID-19/Coronavirus fundraising.

You can submit your material for review by going here to sign up (it’s free).

I’ll be using the reviews to teach you what to do – and what not to do – to raise money effectively during this crisis.

I’ll give you lessons from previous crises so that your organization doesn’t make the mistakes that others have already made and learned from.

Because it’s a great time to raise money. But most organizations don’t move quickly enough, or they send out messages that are mostly irrelevant to their donors.

You should tune in this Friday because it’s not too late to take advantage of the massive surge in giving that’s going on even as you read this email.

Donor generosity is blowing us away these past few days. They WANT to help!

So sign up for free and I’ll see you on Friday at 10:00 AM Pacific time!

COVID-19 fundraising principles


If you’re going to raise money for your beneficiaries and/or cause during the pandemic, follow these principles, and you’ll raise more money.

Note: Everything I’m about to say assumes one important thing – the current pandemic situation impacts your organization, cause, and/or beneficiaries. That could be the virus. It could be the economy. It could be travel restrictions. In other words, that there are “new or more needs” that you’re dealing with.

Here are the principles Better Fundraising is living by as we work with clients:

Speed matters. Sometime soon, several hundred thousand organizations are going to realize they’re in trouble and are going to send out e-appeals. You want to beat them to your donors’ inboxes. Don’t wait until the next vacancy in your communication schedule – cancel what’s coming next and replace it with something urgent.

Volume matters. Your donors’ attention is more fragmented than usual. That means your email open rates are going to drop by 20%. Your direct mail open rates will drop too. That means fewer people will see what you send out. And if fewer people see what you send out, you raise less money. So you need to send out more things.

Simplicity matters. You have less of your donors’ attention than you normally do. If your donor usually reads two paragraphs of your email before deciding whether to read the rest, for the next weeks, she’s only going to read one paragraph. So you have to get to the point quickly, and you have to keep it very simple.

Acute needs raise money. We’ve already seen this several times in the last five days. If your beneficiaries or organization is facing a critical need, share it with your donors. Donors LOVE acute needs.

So if your beneficiaries are short of rent money because their service industry jobs have been slashed, ask your donors to provide rent money. If you’re $1 million event was just canceled, ask donors to help erase your $1 million shortfall.

Make it clear – make it simple. Resist the urge to over-explain. Send it fast.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a video I made with an 8-point outline for a successful e-appeal.

Good luck out there!

SPECIAL POST: Follow This Formula to Raise Money Right Now [VIDEO AVAILABLE]


If the COVID-19/Coronavirus is hurting your beneficiaries or your organization, your donors would love to help by sending in a special gift.

Here’s a formula we created to help organizations during this time of need. Follow this formula to create a simple email that works extraordinarily well:

  1. Quickly acknowledge that things aren’t normal right now
  2. Describe how the situation (COVID-19 or the economy) is hurting your cause / beneficiaries / organization
  3. Ask for a special gift to help (link to your donation page)
  4. Very short story to illustrate the need
  5. Show how the donor’s gift perfectly meets the need
  6. Show how the need from the story is not the only need
  7. Share that the funds needed are not in the budget
  8. Ask the donor to send an emergency gift right now (link to your donation page)

We’re sending this out as quickly as possible because this formula is WORKING. Every email that’s been sent out using it has been a big success.

If you’d like to watch a video of me explaining the formula in more detail, along with an example of an email that follows the formula, click here.

Resist the urge to over-explain. Keep it simple and get it in front of your donors as quickly as you can!

Then get in touch and let us know how well the formula worked for you and your organization!

Newsletter Picture Captions that Help, not Hurt

Newsletter captions.

People read picture captions.

So make sure your picture captions do a great job delivering your newsletter’s main message.

Thankfully there’s an easy way to do this.

One Simple Rule

Here’s how we think about every newsletter picture caption.

The caption should not be about what’s happening in the photo.

The caption should be about the donor’s role in what’s happening in the photo.

That means that every single picture caption should mention the donor.

Example Time

Here are a bunch of examples from real, money-raising, donor-retaining newsletters:

Thanks to you, Linh and her baby are both getting the food, necessities, and long-term support they need!

Because of your generosity, doctors were about to repair Jun Jun’s cleft lip. Jun Jun will join his adoptive family soon!

Your generosity helped Maria re-discover the courage and strength she had lost while she was homeless.

Devi was able to begin her freshman year, making her dreams come true with everything she needed for her dorm room at Georgia Tech – thanks to you.

Your gift helped women in Uganda receive the physical and emotional healing they desperately needed.

This year’s graduating class celebrates – thanks in part to your generous giving!

Your generosity has trained more than 500 police officers and first responders to stop and prevent child abuse.

Answer the Question Your Donor is Asking

One of the questions running through a donor’s mind as she looks at your newsletter is this: “Did my gift make a difference?”

Photo captions that follow this model show and tell her, again and again, how her gift made a difference.

They answer her main question.

And remember, when your donor knows that her gift made a difference, she trusts your organization more.

When she trusts your organization more, she’s more likely to respond to the next appeal you send her.

So because newsletter photo captions are one of the most widely read parts of your newsletter, they are wildly important for you to use correctly to let your donor know that she and her gift made a difference.

Follow the simple rule above, and you’ll be on your way to raising more money and retaining more of your donors!

Read the series:

Newsletter Headlines That Work

My recent post gave you a simple outline for how to easily write newsletter stories.

Today is about newsletter headlines: a massively important part of your newsletter’s success, but a part that most organizations spend very little time on.

Remember our belief that about 80% of the people who open your newsletter will read only your headlines and picture captions?

Doesn’t that make your headlines important? Maybe even more important than the story the headline is for?

We think so. So here’s how to write successful headlines…

Headlines Have One of Two Jobs

We try to do one of two things with newsletter headlines.

  • Be so dramatic and interesting that the reader wants to read the article. Think of it this this way: the headline is the ad for the story.
  • Share the outcome of the story and involve the donor. Think of it this way: your reader should know, just from reading the headline, that their gift did something powerful.

Example Time

Here are a handful of examples of ineffective headlines – taken from real newsletters in our files. They don’t accomplish either of the objectives above:

  • IFI Training Day Expands
  • Elizabeth’s experience encourages others to get their annual mammogram
  • Committed to change lives
  • Together We Rise
  • 5th Annual Zip 5k + Fun Run Breaks Record for Participation
  • Board of Directors Highlights/News
  • What is Extreme Poverty?
  • Upcoming Fundraisers
  • Camp and Retreat Centers as Holy Ground
  • Staff Updates
  • Pathways Supported Employment program fills in the missing pieces for people recovering from homelessness

And here are examples of effective headlines:

  • You’re helping find “Desperately needed” new treatments
  • “I wanted to Die”
  • The power of One Meal
  • “There is no more disease!”
  • Blind from a Chemical explosion, today he can see!
  • You did this!
  • You’re a hero!
  • Food delivered!
  • He used to eat garbage, you gave him dumplings!
  • “We never expected this to happen”
  • Cancer Patient Living on French Fries and Soda Pop
  • From Abuse to Prison to Redemption
  • “Your baby has cancer”
  • 100 Happy Children
  • You helped save Darryl’s life
  • The Joy of Clean Water – Thanks to You!

Take a look at those effective headlines again.

Don’t you want to read the stories for those, more than you want to read the stories after the boring headlines?

And don’t you know – just from scanning the good headlines – that your gift made a meaningful difference?

In other words, you didn’t even have to read the story and you knew your gift made a difference. Which made you trust the organization a little bit more. Which made you more likely to give them a gift the next time they asked you. Which made the organization raise more money and retain more of its donors.

All that from a good headline.

You are in a BATTLE for your donor’s attention

Always remember – nobody has to read your fundraising.

You’re competing with people’s phones, with the internet, with making dinner, and with all of the other mailings from nonprofits that your donor received that very same day.

Strong dramatic and/or donor-focused headlines are one of the most powerful tools you have to convey your main message and get donors to read your stories! They are an integral part of whether your newsletter is going to raise money… or not.

So go look at your headlines – for both your printed newsletter and your e-newsletter. If they aren’t doing either of the two jobs above, it’s time to fire them and get some headlines that will do their jobs. There’s too much at stake to have your headlines causing fewer people to read your newsletter!

Read the series:

Outline for newsletter stories


Here’s the outline we follow for newsletter stories.

It’s remarkably simple, and it does two powerful things:

  1. It makes your newsletter easier and faster to write, because you have a model to follow
  2. It makes sure each story helps you achieve the purpose of your newsletter

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Simple Newsletter Outline


  • Summarize the situation the beneficiary was in
  • Tell the donor the situation changed because of them
  • Summarize the positive situation the beneficiary is in today


  • Tell the beneficiary’s “story” as above, but go into more depth


  • Thank the donor for making the transformation (from “before” to “after”) possible
  • Thank the donor for caring about the beneficiary enough to take action to help

Note: most newsletter stories are between 150 and 250 words. So the number of paragraphs will vary depending on the length of the story.

The Power of This Approach

When you use this approach, your donor doesn’t have to read more than the first paragraph to get your newsletter’s main messagethat the donor’s gift made a meaningful difference in the life of one person or for your cause.

At Better Fundraising, we assume that 80% of the people who open your newsletter will only read the headlines, picture captions, and a paragraph or two. For those people (4 out of 5!), you want to do everything you can to ensure they still get your main message.

Other nonprofits will make their donors wade through tons of words to find out whether the donors’ gifts made a difference. Sometimes the donor will never find out. I’ve seen newsletters where the donor is never even mentioned.

But by following this model, you and your organization will communicate your main message to almost every person who opens your newsletter. That’s a huge win!

Repeat This Formula in Every Story

When a donor opens your newsletter, you don’t know which story (or stories) they’re going to read. So you want to use this formula for every story so – whatever they read – they get the message that their gift made a difference.

This approach will feel repetitive to you – since you see every story. But most of your donors won’t read every story.

It will feel repetitive to your staff and core stakeholders (like your board) because they’re far more likely than most donors to open every newsletter and read every story.

But Remember

Your newsletter is not for you, your staff, or your core stakeholders. It’s a communication vehicle to show the remaining 95% of your donors that their gift made a meaningful difference.

Why is showing donors that they made a meaningful difference so important?

So that they can trust that giving a gift to your organization makes a real difference

So that they’re more likely to give you a gift the next time you ask

So that they’re more likely to keep giving to you year after year

So that they’re more likely to become a major donor

So that they’re more likely to leave you a gift in their will

So no pressure… but make sure your newsletter shows each donor that their gift made a meaningful difference. And one of the most powerful ways to do that is to write the stories following this outline.

Read the series:

What your next newsletter should be like


It’s time to get tactical.

We gave you a couple of big ideas for how to think about your newsletter. (If you want to delight your donors and raise more money, that is.)

Now as we move into the details, here’s a summary for the elements of your newsletter:

  • Send it in a #10 or larger envelope (not a self-mailer)
    • Teaser should be “Your newsletter enclosed”
  • 4 pages long (1 tabloid-sized sheet, folded in half to make 4 pages)
    • The first three pages should be Stories of Success – between 2 and 4 stories, each about an individual beneficiary, each sharing the “before” and the “after” for that beneficiary, and each giving credit to the donor for making the transformation happen
    • The back page should be a Story of Need with an offer – this is a story that describes a current need being faced by beneficiaries and a description of how the donor’s gift of a certain size will perfectly meet the need for one person
  • A separate reply card, with bonus points for pre-printing the donor’s info and customizing the gift ask amounts based on the donor’s previous gift
  • A separate reply envelope that the donor can use to send back their gift

Of course, there are other newsletter formats that work.

But if you’re looking to improve your newsletter, this particular way has been battle-tested by thousands of nonprofits.

It’s worked so many times for so many types of organizations that it’s our “default setting.” In other words, if a nonprofit asks Better Fundraising to create a newsletter – and we’re going to be retained or fired based on the results – this is the model we follow. It’s the model we recommend to all our clients, the model we speak about at conferences, etc.

Why So Specific?

My goal is to show you exactly what to do to raise money and delight your donors, and to take the mystery out of successful nonprofit newsletters.

We want to make it as easy as possible for you. I heard from a client earlier today who said, “The reduction in anxiety from having a proven model to follow is priceless.” That’s what we’re offering here. And next, we’ll tackle how to write your stories, how to design your newsletter, who to send it to, even the best way to write headlines and picture captions. Stay tuned!

Read the series: