The Regular Kind, or ‘How to Break Through the Noise’

There’s a “regular” kind of fundraising.

You’ve seen it before:

  1. Letters and emails that begin with a thank you, then tell a story of something good that the organization has already done, then a request for support that’s not particularly strong.
  2. The details of what the donor’s gift will help accomplish are often hidden behind abstractions like “you’ll deliver hope” or “please help their dreams come true.”

This “regular” kind of fundraising works OK when there are a lot of people are interested in your cause. Think top-ten subjects like hospitals, cancer, feeding children, higher education, you get it.

But if fewer people are interested in or affected by your cause, “regular” fundraising just doesn’t work that well.

In that situation, if you want to break through, your fundraising must be better. Sharper. Bolder. Clearer.

You’re going to have to make fundraising that leads, fundraising that’s different from the “regular way.”

Here are two pieces of advice to help you create fundraising that breaks through the noise and makes people care more about what you do.

#1 – Figure Out What It Is About Your Cause That Makes People Emotional

Notice I said your cause, not the specifics of your work. What is it about the underlying need for the work you do that makes people emotional? Talk about that when you’re asking for support.

To illustrate, I know of a Men’s Choir that figured this out. They used to do their fundraising the “regular way.” They highlighted how good their singers were, how technical their arrangements were, how impressive they sounded.

They raised a regular amount of money.

But their fundraising took off when they started talking to their donors’ emotions about the music. Turned out that many donors got emotional about preserving and sharing old songs. Other donors got emotional because the music reminded them of their parents.

Can you feel the difference between “Your gift will make the choir’s impressive sound possible” and “Your gift will preserve your musical heritage, and you’ll hear music that will take you right back to listening to it with your parents”?

#2 – Talk About the Consequences of Your Work

What’s the change your work causes that makes people emotional?

When you’re Reporting back to donors on what their gift accomplished, talk about that change. Not about your organization itself, or about what your organization does to make the change.

Your donors care more about the change than they care about how you make it.

When you Report back to donors and share stories that illustrate the change they’ve helped make, your donors will be thrilled they gave and more likely to give again.


The “regular way” doesn’t work very well for small nonprofits.

If few people care about your cause or issue, does it make sense to spend your fundraising talking about the details of your programs? (Think about it – do you want to hear the details about a subject you’re not interested in?)

Instead, find out what makes your current donors emotional about your issue or cause. Get good at talking about that, and you’ll raise more money.

And you’ll have the added benefit of being more attractive to potential donors. Why? Because many of your potential donors have those same emotions that you’ll be talking about. This enables your conversations with potential donors to start on common ground. And that’s a much more inviting place for a donor than having to hear about the details of your programs.

It’s the difference between a potential donor receiving your fundraising and thinking, “I don’t really care about that” and them thinking, “huh, that’s more powerful than I realized.”

Three Lessons from Writing Fundraising with Chat GPT

Writing robot.

I recently had an experience with AI that opened my eyes to a couple things that I think you’ll benefit from knowing. Here’s the story…

At Better Fundraising we have a letter that asks donors to consider leaving an organization in their will. We create versions of this letter for our customers, and it’s quite successful.

But we want to make it easy for all our customers to create their own version of the letter.

So, I pasted the letter into ChatGPT and asked ChatGPT to “anonymize” it. My goal was to keep the letter the same, but take out the organization it was written for, resulting in something like a template.

ChatGPT successfully anonymized the letter… but without being asked added a mass of nonprofit-ese. It took short, simple sentences and made them longer & more complex. It took casual language and made it formal. It took personal writing and made it corporate. Ugh.

Lesson #1: Chat GPT does not naturally differentiate between the types of writing needed for different types of fundraising. AI lumps “grant applications” and “direct response e-appeals” and “brochure copy” all under “fundraising.” In a nutshell, the letter it wrote for me “had too much grant application in a direct response fundraising appeal.” The writing for those two types of fundraising should be significantly different – but AI doesn’t know that.

Lesson #2: The dataset that AIs are based on is full of fundraising writing that’s overly formal, lacks specificity, and is difficult to read. This is a “garbage in, garbage out” situation – if most of the writing that ChatGPT used to create its understanding of fundraising is poor, then the writing that ChatGPT creates is going to be poor.

So, to be more specific and teach ChatGPT what I was looking for, I went ahead and wrote the anonymized letter/template myself. Then I pasted my version into Chat GPT and told it that my letter was they style I was looking for.

For fun, I asked it to analyze the letter and describe what was different about my version.

Here’s how ChatGPT replied…

Let’s analyze the differences between the two versions.

  1. Directness: Your version gets straight to the point, with a direct appeal right from the start. My initial version began by establishing context, potentially adding unnecessary fluff.
  2. Specificity: While my version aimed to generalize various aspects, your version maintained specificity in areas crucial to the appeal’s emotional resonance, like discussing the importance of the work done by the organization.
  3. Language: Your language is more personal and direct. For example, “You didn’t have to donate, but you did.” is a straightforward acknowledgment of the donor’s choice to give.
  4. Structure and Flow: Your version flows more like a conversation, emphasizing gratitude and then transitioning to the ask. It feels more personal and less formal.
  5. Reference to Beneficiaries: Your letter consistently references the beneficiaries of the work, focusing on the impact the donations have. My version was slightly more focused on the organizational aspect.
  6. Narrative: Your letter includes a personal story about revising wills, making the ask more relatable. While my version had this as well, the context and personal touch felt stronger in your version.
  7. Call to Action: Your version includes a clearer call to action, specifically about using the enclosed card for notifying about the bequest. It gives readers a tangible next step.

In summary, while both versions aimed to maintain the letter’s integrity and goal, your version manages to be personal, direct, and emotionally compelling.

Color me impressed with how well ChatGPT defined the differences between our approaches. And I couldn’t help feeling that the AI had given me a compliment, which was weirdly satisfying.

Those seven principles above are GREAT advice for writing effective direct response fundraising. When you are creating appeals, newsletters, e-appeals, etc., follow those tips and you’ll immediately be a more effective Fundraiser. I bet you could paste any piece of individual donor fundraising into ChatGPT or any other AI, then ask the AI to modify it by applying the 7 principles above, and the fundraising would be more effective.

Lesson #3: AI looks at all fundraising writing as equal – it doesn’t know how each piece performed, so it doesn’t know which approaches and types of stories raise more. At Better Fundraising know from experience & data that “personal, direct, and emotionally compelling” fundraising writing will tend to raise more money. But ChatGPT doesn’t know that because it doesn’t see results!

ChatGPT does not know that one appeal letter got a 2% response rate and another one got a 5% response rate. So when ChatGPT creates fundraising, it’s pulling from “everything it’s seen, regardless of how it worked.” When Better Fundraising creates fundraising, we’re pulling from “everything we’ve seen that we know worked great.” There’s a big difference.

ChatGPT is an incredible tool. But, at least for now, there’s no danger that it’s going to replace an experienced Fundraiser.

PS — If you’re interested in learning more about creating fundraising with AI, there’s a popular video of me using Chat GPT to write an appeal on the fly for an organization that I’d never spoken to before. People like it because you’ll quickly see all the strengths and negatives of using AI to write fundraising for individual donors. You’ll be able to decide whether it’s a good tool for your workflow or not. You can watch the video here.

The type of story that raises the most money [VIDEO]

Telling a story on how to raise money.

There’s a type of story that works incredibly well to raise money…

…an incomplete story with a current need.

Here’s a video I recorded last year with Chris Davenport from the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference that explains what I mean.

There are two reasons this video is helpful:

  1. We talk about why telling “incomplete” stories is so successful when Asking your donors for gifts
  2. I share how to tell an incomplete story, with a specific example. Chris posted the video just yesterday morning, and he’s already getting feedback on how helpful the example is.

Watch the video! It’s 11 minutes long, but it goes fast. And the ideas I share will jumpstart your fundraising this fall!

One final thing to mention: I’ll be speaking at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference this fall in San Diego (November 2-4). And you can save $400 if you take advantage of the Early Bird special until tomorrow, September 15th.

10 Fundraising Tactics You Should Use This Fall

Want to amp up your fall fundraising? We recommend these ten tactics to all our clients because they’ve been proven to work again and again and again:

  1. Report to your donors this fall — show them what their previous gift accomplished! Your donors are less likely to give you to at year-end if they haven’t heard lately what their gifts accomplish. We often produce an October Newsletter for our clients and work hard to highlight amazing stories made possible by the donor’s gift.
  2. Reporting is especially important for Major Donors. Make absolutely certain each major donor reads or hears a story of impact each fall.
  3. Focus on your donors more than on your organization. In all your communications, emphasize the donor’s role (“You helped make this happen!”) more than your organization’s role (“We helped 347 people this year…”)
  4. Make your communications to Major Donors stand out. When sending them an appeal letter, use a nicer envelope and hand write the address. When sending them a newsletter, put it in a 9×12 envelope and don’t fold the newsletter. Trust us; it’s worth spending the extra time and money to ensure your major donors pay attention to your communications!
  5. Communicate more than you think. If you only mail your donors a couple times, mail them at least one more time. For smaller organizations who mostly use email for fundraising, please mail your donors at least twice. We recommend most organizations mail their donors at least 4 times from September through December.
  6. During December, review your list of major donors. For all majors who have not yet given a gift this year, ask them!
  7. Have a campaign for Giving Tuesday, not just one email. Email your list on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Pro Tip: having a match for giving Tuesday really increases results. So many nonprofits are asking for gifts that day — having gift-doubling matching funds really helps your organization stand out.
  8. After giving Tuesday, change the first/main image on your website to a simple call-to-action to give a gift before the end of the year. Keep that as the main message on your homepage until January 1.
  9. During year-end, mail another appeal letter. Most organizations only mail one letter, but they should mail two. Mail the first letter the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and mail the second letter around December 11th. The second letter will raise about 1/3 the amount your first letter raises, and it won’t reduce the effectiveness of your first letter.
  10. Send 3 emails the last 4 days of the year. Everyone’s inbox is crowded – make sure they see an email from you when they are so likely to give a gift!

Got Shame?


Many Fundraisers and organizations feel shame about fundraising.

If you’re afraid to send out fundraising, or afraid to do too much fundraising, or afraid to ask too boldly, you might have shame around fundraising.

If that’s you or somebody in your organization, there are two ideas I want you to lean into…

1 – Fundraising Helps Donors

Remember that your organization’s fundraising gives people a chance to do something good about something they care about.

Donors already care about your beneficiaries or cause. (If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be on your mailing list.) But donors don’t have any programs or expertise!

Each time you ask donors to help, you’re giving them a chance to do something good that they would like to do but can’t do by themselves.

Are they going to say yes every time? Of course not. But are they going to say yes more than you think, if you give them more opportunities? Yes.

2 – Don’t Ask Donors to Help Your Organization, Ask Donors to Help Beneficiaries

Many organizations ask donors to support the organization. You see evidence of this approach any time you see phrases like “please support us” or “support our good work” or “partner with us” or “please give us a gift so that we can…”

In a nutshell, there’s an “us” or “our” any time the organization asks for a gift because the organization is asking for money for itself.

This exposes organizations and Fundraisers to shame, because when they receive a “no” it feels like the organization or the Fundraiser is being rejected.

Instead, ask donors to help your beneficiaries. You see evidence of this approach any time you see phrases like “please help a [beneficiary] with a gift today” or “you’ll provide X for a [beneficiary].” There’s no “us” and no “our.”

In that scenario, a “no” means the donor is saying “no” to helping a beneficiary today, not saying “no” to your organization. For the emotional well-being of the organization and Fundraiser, that’s a big difference.


Shame about fundraising holds Fundraisers and Organizations back from creating more powerful fundraising, from raising more money, and from achieving more of their mission.

Embrace these two ideas. Not only will you enjoy your fundraising life more, you’ll raise more money and do more good.

Save the Education for Someone Who Needs It

Save the education.

Your individual donors, and the non-donors who have signed up for your email list, already care about your beneficiaries or cause.

They cared enough to give a gift, or to sign up.

So you don’t need to “educate them into giving a gift.” They already care. They don’t need to know more!

This is why donors respond better to “news about what’s going on” than they respond to “data about what’s going on.”

Here’s an example. There’s an organization called Ronald McDonald House that provides a place for families to stay when they’ve traveled to a hospital so that their child can get the care they need. They could begin a letter with the intent to educate donors into understanding how large the problem is, thinking that would result in more gifts…

“I’m writing you today to let you know that 1 in 5 families who have to travel long distances to take their child to a hospital are unable to afford a place to stay for more than two or three days.”

That’s education. Those are data about what is going on.

But what works better is a story like this…

“I’m writing you today because there’s a family in town from out of state so that their child can be cared for at Children’s Hospital. But the family can’t afford a hotel, so they are crashing in their car and couch-surfing with friends when they can.”

That’s news about what’s going on. Because it’s more emotionally engaging, more donors will continue to read. And when more donors continue to read, more donors will give gifts.

So save the education for someone who needs it before they will give, like a foundation, or a local government agency you’re making a case to, or a major donor who is an expert in your category.

Your individual donors are more interested in news about what’s going on and what their gift will do about it.

Good News and Bad News, Part II

Yin Yang.

Part I was about our belief that nonprofits are called to share the whole situation – the good news caused by their work and the bad news that causes their work to be needed.

But that’s a complex story. And do you think that today’s individual donors – who have shorter attention spans and are bombarded by more messages and information than any time in human history – are going to read and think about your complex story?

No. At least not many.

So here’s the fundraising maxim we live by:

When you only have a few moments of a person’s attention, focus your message on either the good news or the bad news.

Here’s how this works in practice:

  • You put the “bad news” in your appeals and e-appeals. These are your Asks.
  • You put the good news in your Thanks. These are your Thank You/Receipt letters and email receipts.
  • You put more good news in your Reports. These are your Newsletters.

This provides a series of messages that are easy to understand by individual donors who are moving fast. This communicates both the good news and the bad news about what’s going on, rather than hiding the news in communication pieces that attempt to tell the whole story every time.

It will also raise you more money, if the results of our customers are any indication.

And when you have more time with a donor – say at an event, or a coffee with a donor, or a grant application – then you can tell the whole complex story, sharing both the good news and the need for your work.

But in the meantime, focus each message to individual donors on either good news or bad news. By narrowing the focus, more of your message will make it through to donors, and to the world.

Good News and Bad News, Part I

Yin Yang.

If a nonprofit isn’t sharing the good news caused by their work, the nonprofit is hiding something and isn’t doing all of its job.

And equally true, if a nonprofit isn’t sharing the bad news that causes their work to be needed, the nonprofit is hiding something and isn’t doing all of its job.

You can see both types of nonprofits today. Look around and you’ll see organizations that only use the doom-and-gloom sky-is-always-falling approach that diminishes the progress being made. And you can see organizations that focus completely on success and diminish the situation that causes their work to be needed.

It’s our belief that nonprofits are called to share the whole situation. If only one kind of news is shared, a nonprofit is not giving donors a true picture. Their fundraising becomes just as polarized as a news media outlet that only shares one side of the story.

This is why our fundraising system is built on Ask, Thank, Report. When you Ask donors for support, you share the bad news that causes the work of the nonprofit to be needed. When you Thank, you share the good news that will happen because of their gift and your work. And when you Report back to donors, you share the triumphs and amazing changes that happened.

It’s yin and yang. It’s the good and the bad. It’s the full picture. It has to be a mix of good news and bad news in order to be true.

Aiming at Different Targets


Every piece of fundraising has a purpose. Think of it as a target the organization is trying to hit.

For instance, one organization aims their appeals at “convincing donors that the organization really knows what it’s doing.”

Another organization aims their appeals at “inspiring donors.”

While another aims at “sharing what’s happening and what the donor’s gift will do about it.”

Each target results in a completely different letter.

Has your organization chosen which target your appeals shoot at, or was your target inherited or assumed? Oftentimes organizations have a target – or “internal rules” around what their appeals will and won’t talk about – without ever having realized it.

If your organization is aware that there are other targets, have you tried any of them?

Sometimes the most impressive increases in fundraising come from simply switching which target you’re aiming for.