Things an Old Fundraiser Knows

Things an Old Fundraiser Knows

This year I completed my 25th year-end fundraising campaign.

It made me think about the lessons I’ve learned over the years communicating to donors en masse. Not the ‘one major donor who likes this’ or ‘the foundation that likes that,’ but when nonprofits are communicating to everyone on their file.

So in hopes that this is helpful, here are a handful of big-picture things that this Fundraiser has come to realize are enduring truths…

It’s harder than ever to get and keep attention

Get great at getting your donor’s attention. And keeping it. This means more drama and less process. More National Enquirer and less National Geographic. This means louder, bolder, redder, and not that fricking shade of light blue that no older donor can see or read.

Mostly it means not assuming that your donor is going to read anything you send them, let alone the whole thing.

You have to earn their attention, my friend.

The way your organization does its work is rarely important

And I mean rarely.

Most organizations, most of the time, should be talking about the outcomes their work creates. They should not be talking about how the organization creates those outcomes.

So if you find yourself talking about your process, the names of your programs, the features of your programs … rethink what you’re talking to donors about.

The best-performing fundraising is usually about something the donor cares about, at the level at which they understand it, and about what their gift will do about it.

This is a hard truth. It saddens me to say that most small nonprofits never embrace this, and they stay small because of it.

Most small nonprofits have ‘untapped giving’ of 15% to 25% of their total revenue

This is based on applying best practices to a LOT of smaller nonprofits. They simply have a lot of donors who would like to give more money if they are Asked well and then cultivated correctly.

It’s a thrill to get to work with those organizations because the increase is real and immediate.

Most of the barriers to raising more money are self-imposed

The things that are holding back small- to medium-sized nonprofits are almost always fear-based barriers:

  • “We can’t talk to our donors more, we’ll wear them out”
  • “We have to share everything that we do, and that we are good at it”
  • “We can’t be so forward, we need to engage our donors/potential donors more before…”

If you’re willing to do things differently, an experienced fundraiser can help you start raising more money immediately.

Successful fundraising is a knowledge issue, not a talent issue

One of the biggest joys of my life is watching fundraisers become Fundraisers. And it almost always happens when they internalize an idea – like the ones I mention above – rather than learning a new tactic.

Donor generosity is amazing

Donors continue to surprise me, even after 25 years. Their generosity is astounding. They want to make the world a better place. They are looking for opportunities to do so.

And we get to tap into that. For a living.

Fundraisers have the best job in the world.

Branding Tips That Help You Raise More Now and Later


Your brand is what your donors consistently experience.

Your brand is also your logo and your colors and how you describe your work. Those things matter.

But in my experience, they don’t matter as much as what your donors experience during and after they give a gift to you.

A Brand is an Experience

There’s a big difference between a nonprofit brand and a product-based brand. When you purchase a product, you get to experience the product. You know if it’s well-made or not. You know if you feel good or look good with it.

But when your donor makes a gift to your organization, she doesn’t receive any product. The only thing your donor receives are your ongoing donor communications.

So it’s your donor’s experience of seeing, reading, and then feeling emotions caused by your communications that are your brand to her.

You might think it’s your logo and colors. But that’s a small part of the experience for her.

Three Branding Elements that Raise Money

Here are the three things that I see – the “brand elements” if you will – that make the most difference in small- to medium-sized nonprofit branding.

If your fundraising doesn’t have these elements, you can start raising more money immediately by adding them in the right places.

  1. Make your donor feel needed. Donors love to feel needed! Do you tell her directly that she’s needed? Do your communications reinforce that she and her gift are needed? Telling her you need “partners” or asking her to “continue our good work with your support today” do not do this. This happens best anytime you’re asking for money: appeals, e-appeals, events, etc.
  2. Make your donor feel great when she gives a gift. Does your receipt arrive fast? Does it acknowledge the intent of her gift (if you know it)? Is it followed with a phone call? A personal note? Any nonprofit can make a donor feel acknowledged – but does your Thanking process and content make a donor feel special?
  3. Regularly tell your donors what their giving accomplished. An annual report and standard-issue nonprofit e-news do not do this. You have to intentionally communicate to donors the impacts of their giving, in language they understand, and give them the credit for the change. Look at your donor communications and read the words carefully – do they tell your donor what your organization did, or do they tell your donor what she did?

I know most nonprofits don’t think about their brand in this way. But in my experience, these three elements, far more than elements like “your organization’s competency” or a tagline, are the active ingredients of a nonprofit brand that engages donors and keeps them giving.

So focus on these three elements. They move the needle more.

Add them to your brand and you’ll start raising more money immediately. And you’ll raise more money in the long term because you’ll keep more of your donors.

5 reasons the Myth of “Donor Fatigue” Persists

Donor fatigue.

Just a super quick reminder that “donor fatigue” – that mythical beast that haunts the futures of Fundraisers everywhere – doesn’t exist.

I’m neck-deep in donor data and fundraising performance all the time. And “donor fatigue” simply doesn’t exist for 99.9% of nonprofits.

But this mythical creature still affects the behavior of too many fundraisers. And without question, the fear of “donor fatigue” causes organizations to raise less money and do less good.

This is such a brutal fact that I’m going to repeat it: the fear of something that doesn’t exist – “donor fatigue” – causes hundreds of thousands of nonprofits to raise less money and do less good.

For the vast majority of nonprofits, letting “donor fatigue” affect your behavior is like not going outside because you might get hit by lightning.

I’ve identified 5 reasons that “donor fatigue” continues to haunt our sector and lower revenue. If you know of others, please share them with us. Here are my five:

  1. The complaints of a donor or three, occasionally a Board member, that your organization is asking for money too often.
  2. The fear that comes from thinking those complainers might speak for all your donors.
  3. The awkwardness some people feel about asking for money in the first place.
  4. The lack of understanding that nonprofits can be communicating to their donors far more often than they think.
  5. “Donor fatigue” is sometimes used as a scapegoat for bad fundraising. If an appeal or newsletter or campaign doesn’t work well, that elusive “donor fatigue” is blamed. Then no one has to feel bad, take responsibility, or learn from the mistake.

The first four items above are all real things. They matter.

But complaints and fears should not matter as much as the hundreds and thousands of additional gifts that will come in when you communicate with your donors more often about things they care about.

Look, if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know we believe in Asking more – because all our data shows that it works like crazy, with almost zero negative consequences.

One of the reasons Better Fundraising has been so successful is that we show our clients how organizations their size are communicating to their donors more often and raising a lot more money doing it. (And of course there are other things an organization has to do well, but Asking more is a one of the biggest levers you can pull.)

So next time someone brings up “donor fatigue,” tell them that “donor fatigue” isn’t the problem. And don’t let “donor fatigue” be used as a reason or excuse in your organization.

Acknowledge the fear that caused “donor fatigue” to rear its hideous head, then move forward.

You owe it to your beneficiaries.

Your donors will thank you for it with increased engagement and giving.

You’ll love raising more money and getting to do more good

The Only Rule?


As far as I can tell, there’s only one thing that sets successful fundraisers apart from unsuccessful fundraisers. And that thing is…

The people who are successful don’t care whether they like the fundraising or not.

I’m serious. They just don’t care whether they like it. Or don’t like it.

They just care if it works.

They understand that they are doing direct response fundraising. And that some tactics and messages work better than others. And that the goal of fundraising is to send messages that donors respond to, not the messages the organization prefers to send.

Your Opportunity

If there are voices in your organization saying “I don’t like that” or “I wouldn’t give to that,” you should know that you could be raising more money.

Because basing fundraising decisions on what you like or don’t like stops your organization from discovering what donors like.

And it stops your organization from using best practices discovered by direct response fundraisers who have gone before us.


Here are some examples of things that people don’t like but are proven to work well:

  • Including a reply card with your receipt letter
  • Writing at a lower grade level
  • Using emotion liberally
  • Being repetitive
  • Sharing real needs with donors

Hot Off the Press

We have a client that’s facing this very issue as I write this.

They are doing their first ever Fiscal Year End campaign. They are a little behind budget for the fiscal year, and their letter asks donors to help erase the shortfall with a special gift.

They were a little nervous about doing it. But I convinced them by sharing results from other organizations that had run similar campaigns.

The campaign is working great. It’s one of their most successful appeals of the year. We’re already above goal and the campaign isn’t over yet.

But a couple of board members and major donors have been upset by the campaign. From my experience, I suspect they were upset because they fear that the “shortfall” messaging puts the organization in a bad light, and it will cause donors to give less or stop giving altogether.

My counsel to this organization is based on all sorts of case studies on this exact subject:

  1. Appeals like this resonate with donors (as evidenced by the incredible response to this appeal).
  2. Appeals like this make some internal stakeholders (including some close-in major donors) nervous. They are nervous for the reasons I mentioned above. However, there is no data-based evidence of their fears coming true. And I’ve done this lots of times. (And – true story – those close-in major donors who were nervous end up making an extra gift to the campaign more often than not.)

In other words, the organization might not like this messaging. And there are occasional issues and personal reactions to discuss. But this messaging works great.

And to bring things full circle, the most successful fundraisers don’t care whether they like the fundraising or not.

They only care whether it works.

Maybe, just maybe…

Just maybe.

Every time you send a piece of fundraising to your donors, you’ll have more success if you envision your donor going through these steps…

Maybe, just maybe, your donor will open the letter.

And maybe, just maybe, your donor will start to scan your letter.

And maybe, just maybe, your donor will read a little of your letter.

And maybe, just maybe, your letter’s design will make sure your donor reads the most important part of your letter (why the donor is needed, and what you want them to do today).

And maybe, just maybe, your donor will think about taking action and look at your reply device.

And finally, maybe, just maybe, your reply device will reinforce what your donor read in the letter – and your donor will send you a gift.

Every. Step. Matters.

The reason most professionally-produced direct response fundraising (appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, TV shows, etc.) looks and sounds the way it does is because the pros making it are aware of each step and work to maximize the number of people who take each step.

They think like crazy about what should be on the outer envelope. Why? To make as many people as possible open the letter.

They think like crazy about the first words or images a donor’s eye will be drawn to when they look at the letter. Why? To make sure as many people as possible scan the letter.

They think like crazy about what content will be big, bolded, or underlined. Why? To convert as many of the “scanners” into “readers” as possible.

Or You Could…

Contrast the ‘every step matters’ approach with how most nonprofits think about their fundraising.

In my experience, most nonprofits make the following assumptions:

  • They think, more or less, that every piece of fundraising they send out gets opened.
  • They think that most people read the whole thing.
  • They think that most people read from the start to the end

Those three assumptions could not be farther from the truth.

Maybe, Just Maybe…

To make successful direct response Fundraising, you need to embrace the truth that there are a ton of “maybe, just maybe’s” between your sending out a piece of fundraising and getting a gift in return.

Every step matters.

And there’s one more “maybe, just maybe”…

Maybe, just maybe, you and your organization’s approach to fundraising are being changed by this post and our blog. That’s our fervent hope and the reason we write!

What to Take Out of Your Appeal


My last post talked about how when you’re sending appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, etc. you’re doing direct response fundraising.

As you create your direct response fundraising, here’s one rule that has helped me a lot over the years…

Take out everything that doesn’t help sell the offer

Quick reminder: the “offer” is the promise an appeal makes for what will happen when a donor gives a gift today. (You can learn more about offers here in our free eBook.)

Here’s what this means…

Say your letter is asking donors to fund one particular program. Don’t mention your other programs. You’ve just distracted them from why this particular program should be supported today.

Say your e-appeal is asking donors to give to provide aid to a beneficiary group you help. Don’t talk about how your organization is already helping that beneficiary group. You’ve just told your donor that you’re currently helping those people. This means they don’t really need help today (because you’re already doing it!). And that means your donor doesn’t really need to send in a gift today.

Say your appeal letter is asking donors to give a gift to help people in need. Take out any photos that don’t show people in need. By showing images of happy, healthy people you’ve just contradicted your letter that says they need help.

Say your letter is trying to get donors to give a gift today. Don’t spend part of your letter talking about your monthly giving program. You’ve just distracted them from your purpose of getting a single gift.

Finally, a more complex thing to take out. Say you’re telling a story to illustrate why the donor’s gift is needed today. Only tell the part of the story that relates to the offer. You’ll get what I’m talking about from an example that happens all the time in fundraising for refugees. The organization will share a story about a man who lost his wife in a bombing, had to flee the country, endured tons of hardships, became really sick… and then ask the donor to provide “food and aid with a gift today.” The “food and aid” do not solve the problem that the story sets up.

The organization would be better served by telling the part of the story that the offer can help with. They’d raise more money if they shared something like, “He’s a refugee who has endured tremendous hardship. Now he’s in a refugee camp and he doesn’t have enough food for himself or his children. The children are losing weight and having trouble concentrating. He’s getting thinner by the week. Please send food and aid with a gift today.”

Much of that part of the story is a problem that can be perfectly solved by the offer. When you use stories, only tell the part of the story that relates to the offer.

Stay on Target

Keep your letter (or e-appeal, or event script, etc.) about your offer.

Make sure every single bit of content in your letter is there to make your donor see the need for and power of your offer.

Not your organization, your offer.

Take out anything that doesn’t directly lead your donor to say “yes” to your offer.

You’ll start raising more money in your very next piece of fundraising!

Direct Response Fundraising

Direct response.

This is for all the smaller nonprofits out there.

When you’re sending letters and emails to your donors, you’re doing something called “direct response” fundraising.

It is fundraising, but it’s a very specific type of fundraising.

It’s not 1-to-1 major donor fundraising.

It’s not grant writing.

And to be effective with your appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, radiothons, etc. – it’s actually more important to understand “direct response” than it is to understand fundraising.

Direct Response

Direct Response is a discipline where the inputs and outputs are rigorously measured. It became a discipline in marketing long before nonprofits started using it to raise money.

The reason I mention this is because I’m convinced that most nonprofits would immediately start getting more effective at fundraising as soon as they realize they’re doing direct response marketing. And that direct response marketing has a bunch of proven rules and best practices.

How to Raise More

Two relatively easy ways to raise more money:

  1. Make sure your organization knows that – in your appeals, e-appeals, and newsletters – you’re doing direct response fundraising. This means that when creating and evaluating your mass donor fundraising, your organization needs to be asking “What will work best in direct response” instead of asking “What do I like?” or “What do I think will work?”

    You know how at too many organizations, Fundraisers are stymied by Bosses who won’t approve good fundraising? I imagine a day where a Fundraiser can say to her boss, “Remember how we talked about how our appeals are direct response fundraising pieces? The changes you want to make to this piece go against the best practices of direct response.” And the boss says, “You’re right. I don’t like it. But if this is what works best, we need to do it.”
  2. Learn more about direct response by reading about it. I’m reading Overdeliver by Brian Kurtz. His stories and advice about direct response have already made me a more effective fundraiser. The book isn’t technically about fundraising. But it’s about direct response marketing – and getting good at direct response marketing will immediately make you a more effective mass donor fundraiser.

Nobody talks about this at smaller nonprofits. But once your organization knows it’s doing direct response fundraising, you have a much better chance at being successful at it!

“You” is the magic word for newsletters


Here’s an easy-to-follow tip to increase the amount of people who read your next newsletter:

Use the word “you” as the first word of the main headline on your cover.

That tells your donor right away that the newsletter is to her, and for her. And don’t you think she’ll be more likely to read if you signal to her that the newsletter is about her in some way? Versus what most organizations do, which is talk about themselves?

Want another tip? Use the word “you” again – in either the subhead or the first sentence of the main story.

Now you’re signaling to the donor that this really is about her. That the “you” in the headline was not just “donor-centered window dressing,” but was a signal that your organization really does care about her.

And now your donor is thinking, “Hey, this organization might be different from the other organizations I give to. They might appreciate me.”

And one final tip: use the word “you” in every single picture caption.

My rule is that picture captions should not be about what’s happening in the photo. Picture captions should be about the donor’s role in what’s happening in the photo. So instead of “Lisa and Laure enjoyed a week of summer camp at our facility” it should be, “Thanks to you, Lisa and Laura enjoyed an incredible week of summer camp!”

Now you’ve really done it. Your donor knows that you sent her a newsletter that’s about her and about what her gift accomplished.

That’s a Big Deal! Because very few (if any) of the other nonprofits she’s giving to have taken the time and money to show her what her gift did.

Some of them have sent her chest-thumping newsletters about what the organization did. But none of them have gotten in touch with her to tell her what she did.

Big difference.

And when you use the word “you,” she’s more likely to read more. And to know more about your organization. And to give more the next time you send her an appeal.

All from using the word “you” more often.

Think about it this way. As a donor, which type of newsletter would you like to receive: a newsletter that’s to everybody and all about the organization, or a newsletter that’s to you and all about what your gift did?

You know which one your donors would prefer. So follow these tips and make them one!

Simple Teaser Tips


The teaser on your outer envelope is far more important than most nonprofits realize.

To help you write better teasers – which will help you raise more money – here are three simple tips for you.

Most successful teasers fall into three categories:

  1. Dramatic. These are teasers that use drama to pique the reader’s interest in order to get her to open the envelope. Some examples: “The Arts are shutting down” and “He used to run a company, now he’s on the streets” and “desperate.”
  2. Mysterious. These are teasers that use mystery to make the reader wonder what’s inside, in order to get her to open the envelope. Some examples: “The light came on” and “Enclosed: note from a child.” Note that not having a teaser – using a blank outer envelope – falls into this category.
  3. Multiplier. These are teasers that appeal to the donor’s sense of value and thriftiness in order to get her to open the envelope. Some examples: “Your gift DOUBLES” and “$1 = $5!”

The best teasers often have elements of more than one category. You see this at work in a teaser like “3x” – which has both mystery and a multiplier.

The Big Idea

Notice something in all of those descriptions above: all the teasers exist to get the donor to open the envelope.

That’s it. That’s the purpose of a teaser: to give the donor a compelling reason to open the envelope.

The whole purpose of any ink used on the envelope should be to increase the chances that a donor will open the envelope.

That’s why, for instance, I always counsel organizations to remove their URL and social info from their outer envelope. You just paid money to write, design, print and send a letter to a person – and so you put your website address on the envelope so that the person has a smaller chance of reading the letter?!? It doesn’t make sense.

The envelope exists to 1) carry the letter and 2) to get people to open it.

Watch Out For…

Watch out for teasers that basically say, “You’re going to be asked for money; inside!”

Those usually reduce response unless they are accompanied by one of the three ideas above.

Quick Story

I was reminded of these when reading a book on direct response marketing. It told a brief story.

An organization had a successful direct mail pack as their control. They ran a test where everything about the pack was exactly the same, except the teaser.

The new teaser was: “Deeply and irrevocably personal.”

A little weird, right?

That teaser increased response to the package by 20%!

That shows the power of a good teaser.

So spend a bit more time on yours – you can see immediate increases in your fundraising!