Focus on Just a Small Slice of What You Do

Focus on a small slice.

I keep a list of the ideas that are most helpful to the small nonprofits we coach and consult. Here’s one of the most important:

Be comfortable focusing a fundraising impact (letter, newsletter, event, etc.) on only a small slice of what your organization does.

Here’s why . . .

Don’t Accidentally Create a Barrier

Smaller organizations (and even some big ones) often accidentally put a barrier between donors and their gift. The barrier: they try to make the donor understand all of the things that the organization does (and even how the organization does them) before asking the donor for a gift.

You’ve seen this before. Really long appeal letters that describe everything the organization does. Or Events where the organization makes sure that all the organization’s programs get air time.

Fundraising like that is created when organizations have a mistaken impression that “if only donors understood all that we do, and how good we are at doing it, then they would give more gifts.”

I can’t begin to count how many meetings I’ve been in where I’ve heard some version of that sentence.

The problem is, most donors are usually just scanning for who (or what) needs help and how the donor can help. Those are the Two Main Questions donors are asking. So all the information about all of the programs, and how your organization does its thing, are not answering the question that the donor is asking.

The ‘accidental barrier’ I mention above happens when donors have to wade through all the information about the organization to get to what they want: a simple answer to ‘who needs help right now’ and ‘how can I help them?’

There’s one very nice bright spot in this scenario: as soon as I hear an organization talking about their whole organization I know that they can immediately raise more money. Because here’s one of the secrets of Better Fundraising’s success over the years; we work with organizations to identify powerful parts of what they do, then focus our fundraising on those parts, and begin to raise more money immediately.

Focus on Easy-to-Understand and Powerful

Instead of trying to communicate about your whole organization, what you want to do is focus on some small slice of what you do that is a) easy to understand, and b) powerful.

Let me give you some examples:

  • Parent-Teacher-Student Associations that focus on how they pay the salary of the ‘math and reading specialist’ – and what a big impact that specialist makes – when they could be talking about the 20+ other ways the PTSA supports the school’s students.
  • The overseas adoption agency that does an appeal letter focused on the travel and legal fees needed to adopt a child from a place like China. Donors in this sector know that fees and travel costs are an incredible barrier for some families. “Fees and travel costs” are a small slice of a complex program – but an easy to understand problem.
  • Rescue missions that focus on meals. They may have multiple other programs, but they focus on the meal (cost: $1.92) which is often the beginning of their impact on a person’s life.

Side note: this is one of the reasons having a fundraising offer is so important and works so well.

Your Organization’s Barrier to this approach is called “Organizational IQ”

A few years ago we invented the term “Organizational IQ” to help nonprofits realize that not every person knows the same amount about their organization.

The people who have a high Organizational IQ for your organization are: your E.D. or CEO, your ‘program’ staff, your Board, and some (but only some) major donors.

People with high organizational IQs have what’s called ‘the curse of expertise.’ They know so much about your organization that they can’t imagine that just a small part of your organization could be compelling to a donor. For your internal experts, the whole is much greater than the parts.

To be clear, having a high organizational IQ is a good thing – it’s just not helpful for most fundraising.

Why? Because most of your donors don’t understand (and usually aren’t interested in) your approach or how all of your programs work together. Most donors just want to help someone, in a powerful way, and they don’t want to have to think too much about it!

Think about your own charitable giving for a moment. For most of your own donations, how much time to you spend thinking about them? Maybe several seconds?

But most organizations try to educate their donors about their programs and their organization. They assume that if donors had a higher Organizational IQ (just like the people creating the fundraising) then donors would give more. Problem is, when you try to educate most donors as to how it all works … they begin to get bored, their attention wanders, they are more likely to recycle your letter, and your revenue goes down.

Again – you’ve received letters like this. You’ve recycled letters like this!

Because remember: learning about your organization is not what the donor is in it for. Donors are more interested in helping someone than they are interested in how your organization does the helping.

As always, there are exceptions. If you’re talking to a major donor who loves your organization and knows quite a bit about it, then by all means talk about the whole. If you’re talking to a foundation for a grant, then by all means share the whole.

But most of the time, to most of your donors, you only want to be sharing the most attractive, understandable part.

Try It!

If you have an email list, you have the cheapest way ever to try something like this. Here’s what to do: go identify some small powerful slice or part of how you help people. Then write an email to your list, share about how there is a real need right now for that slice of your organization, and ask them to fund that one thing. If the cost of that ‘slice’ is less than $100 I predict you will be surprised by how many people write in with gifts!

My guess: you’ll raise more money than a normal e-appeal. And if it works, then try it in the mail. And try it again in email.

For small- to medium-sized nonprofits, the concept of focusing your fundraising on an easy-to-understand and powerful slice of what the organization does is the surest path to raising more money immediately.

And if you’d like help identifying the compelling parts of your organization, get in touch!

The One Fundraising Principle To Rule Them All

Donors focus on outcomes.

During the fall of 1993 I learned a fundraising principle that became the foundation for my fundraising career. Every other idea and tactic is built on top of this one idea.

Note: This post isn’t going to ‘get to the point’ as quickly as I normally do. That’s because I want to share the story of how I learned the idea that’s so foundational to my success as a fundraiser. The story itself contains a powerful lesson.

Here’s the big idea:

“Donors fund outcomes, not process.”

I was taught this principle while a draft of an appeal letter I’d written was being torn apart and then reassembled into effective fundraising.

My boss was one of the most accomplished fundraising thinkers and strategists of his (or probably any) generation. And when he would review letters and newsletters that copywriters like me had written for our clients, here’s how it would go:

  • We would print out the text and bring it to his office.
  • The first thing he would do – always – was to sharpen his pencil with an electric pencil sharpener. (This was intimidating.)
  • Then he’d read the whole thing. (The silence during this time was nerve-wracking.)
  • Then he’d go to work, in front of me, editing the crap out of the copy I’d worked so hard on.

His editing was a painful experience. There were a LOT of pencil marks on each page. But he always made it better. He always knew exactly what he was trying to accomplish, and he was incredibly disciplined. I learned a career’s worth of fundraising and writing in those sessions. Most of my success can be traced back to his edits and his explanations for why he made them.

Better Fundraising’s clients, to this day, raise more money because of the clear thinking and discipline he taught me.

One day, he had to do a lot of work on one of my letters. (He had to sharpen his pencil a couple of times because he made so many edits.) He finished and slid the paper back across his enormous desk to me. Then he said something I’ll always remember. “Look,” he said, “you have to stop writing about the organization itself because…”

“Donors fund outcomes, not process.”

He explained that most nonprofits tend to write about what they know: their organization, their programs, how they help people. Their “process,” he called it.

He explained that the “process” is the wrong thing to focus on, because the process is not what’s most important to the donor.

He said that the results from his entire career suggested that donors care more about what their gift will do (the outcomes) than they care about the organization itself (the process).

He told me that if I would write about the outcomes of a donor’s gift, why those outcomes were so needed and powerful, and do it in a jargon-free way that any donor could understand quickly, my letters would raise a lot more money.

He was right. I’ve seen it again and again. And here are a couple of examples to make the point:

“Our programs provide a holistic approach to helping people experiencing homelessness” is about process, while, “Your gift will help a person experiencing homelessness have a safe place to stay, and the counseling they need, to never be homeless again” is about the outcomes of the donor’s gift.

“Our school’s vision is an inclusive education for every child, so our teacher-student ratio is half the average of public schools” is about process, while, “Your generosity means a child who is developing differently will be in all the same classes with his typically-developing peers – and all the students will benefit” is about the outcome.

Over my 25 years of fundraising, I’ve developed a few ‘rules’ I follow to keep the fundraising materials we create focused on outcomes, and not process:

  • Have an offer. There’s nothing like a good offer to keep a letter, e-appeal or newsletter focused on why the donor’s gift is needed and what it will accomplish. Having a strong offer is the antidote for having to ask a donor to “support the organization” or (even worse) “will you partner with us?”
  • Be comfortable talking about just a part of what your organization does (not all of what it does). When you talk about all of your organization’s programs, or its mission & vision, you’re talking process. Instead, go into your programs and find one activity that’s easily understandable by your donors. Focus your appeal on the need for that activity, and go deep on the transformation that activity makes. Ask your donor to fund that transformation by paying for that activity. Example: you know all those Rescue Missions who relentlessly fundraise around providing meals even though they have 19 unique programs? They do so because when they talk about “meals” they raise far more money than when they talk about all their programs.
  • Keep the mentions of your organization to an absolute minimum. Most of your donors care far more about the Need your organization meets, and what they can accomplish with their gift, than they care about your organization. (You know all those organizations that used to work in your sector but have closed down? Many of them learned this lesson the hard way.) Almost any time you’re talking about your organization you’re NOT talking about the things that your donor cares about most.

If you follow the ‘rules’ above, an amazing thing happens: your organization becomes beloved. It becomes a part of your donor’s life. That happens because they see how big a difference they can make by giving to you. That happens because your organization consistently talks about the things that are most important to them, instead of talking about your organization.

It’s just like human relationships. You become loved because you help people, not because you tell them how great you are at helping people.

“Donors fund outcomes, not process.” – The Exceptions

Final thought. I’ve only found 3 exceptions to this rule – and they are only partial exceptions:

  1. Some major donors don’t care that much about outcomes. They love your organization, they love your leadership, even some staff. These are the Board Members you’re on a first-name basis with. These are the major donors who drop by the office sometimes. The trick to remember is that these people are in the vast minority of your donors. (The problem is that they are the donors you are most likely to be in contact with, which unfortunately skews perceptions that most donors are like that – which couldn’t be farther from the truth.)
  2. Year-end fundraising. Especially in December, you can talk more about your organization (the “process”) and less about the outcomes. But you absolutely still need to talk about the outcomes.
  3. Fiscal Year-end fundraising. Same as with Calendar Year-end fundraising; talking about the deadline and your organization is more important than the outcomes. But again, the outcomes need to be present.

OK, that’s enough for today. My suggestion: take the phrase “Donors fund outcomes, not processes,” put it on a sticky note, and put it on your computer. Remember it the next time you’re writing to your donors. Write to them about why the outcomes of their gift are so needed and so powerful, and do it in a jargon-free way that any donor can quickly understand. You’ll raise a lot more money!

What Is a Fundraising “Offer”? [INFOGRAPHIC]

infographic icons

A fundraising “offer” is the least-understood, most-powerful tool in fundraising.

It’s the secret key to Asking effectively.

Here’s what an “offer” is: a super-simple description of what your donor’s gift will accomplish.

Many nonprofits don’t pay close attention to how they describe what a donor’s gift will do. I can’t say this strongly enough: you should pay very close attention to the words and ideas you use to describe what your donor’s gift will do today.

I recently spent some time with Brady Josephson talking about what makes a successful offer. The blog post he wrote after our chat, 4 Components of a Great Fundraising Offer, has a ton of helpful thoughts for you, including a podcast we recorded.

Today, I want to share my super-simple formula for creating a successful offer. Brady created the excellent infographic at the right (click to enlarge).

You can read more about each of the 4 elements in Brady’s post. For now, let me leave you with an idea that shows you how important I think offers are.

As I look back over the nonprofits I’ve worked with, the biggest jumps in revenue tend to come from two causes:

  1. A spike or long-term increase of media attention on the people, place or cause a nonprofit is working on. For instance, raising money to help refugees used to be an uphill slog in the mud. But because of the increased media attention on refugees in recent years (Syria, Iraq, Uganda, Myanmar) it’s become much easier. Response rates are up. Average gifts are up. But for the most part, a change like this is completely outside the control of your organization.
  2. What you can control is your offer. The best example of this is World Vision. They were a tiny organization until they developed the “child sponsorship” offer – now they raise over $1.5 billion a year. It’s not that donors care more about kids now than they did 50 years ago. It’s that World Vision got really good at describing what a donor’s gift does.

Offers are so helpful to donors because they help donors quickly identify something good they can do today. A good offer doesn’t require your donors to understand your cause, your organization, or your methods. Put another way: a good offer makes it easier for a donor to say “yes!”

And when you make it easier for donors to say “yes!” you “open the door” to your organization a little bit wider. More donors will walk through, and they will bring donations!

Your Fundraising Should Be More Vulnerable

Today’s post is all about vulnerability – a quality your organization needs to have if you want to be more successful when raising money.

I’m going to illustrate vulnerability using four quotes from Brene Brown. Brene is a research professor who’s done deep research on courage and vulnerability. (She probably doesn’t know it, but much of her work applies directly to fundraising!)

If you apply the principles she discovered to your fundraising, you’ll be better at engaging and keeping your donors.

“Through my research, I found that vulnerability is the glue that holds relationships together. It’s the magic sauce.”

Donor relationships are a lot like human relationships. Donors like to feel needed, and they like to feel appreciated.

Weirdly, most nonprofits in my experience are lousy at doing this. And it starts with an inability to be vulnerable.

For instance, they might ask their donors to “partner” with them, or ask for “support.” But most nonprofits rarely ask for help as if they really need it.

Go look at your fundraising materials. Just scan them. Do you get the impression that your organization or your beneficiaries really need help?

I’d like to suggest that if your nonprofit was more vulnerable to your donors you would engage your donors more deeply, keep them for longer, and raise more money.

In my experience, organizations raise a lot more money when they are vulnerable.

“Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.”

I think one of the reasons there’s a massive donor retention problem in Fundraising is that most donors feel so little connection with the organizations they donate to. And I blame that mostly on poor donor communications. Most nonprofits are constantly talking about themselves and taking credit for everything they’ve done. You can look at the materials of many organizations (especially their websites!) and never know they even have donors.

Think about your relationships with other humans. Do you feel connected to, and valued by, the people who are always talking about themselves? Nope.

If you want to experience connection with your donors, be vulnerable. Tell them that their gift (or their volunteer hours, or their Board service) are needed. Tell them that you’re doing as much as you can, but you need their help. Tell them that you’re not reaching everyone who needs help, but that you could reach more people if they donated.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

It’s hard to ask for money. For most of us, it’s unnatural. And I think that’s why organizations tend to pussy-foot around it.

It takes real courage to ask boldly for money! Much of my work is with leaders of organizations helping them overcome fears about Asking. They don’t like it. Or they think it will reflect poorly on themselves or the organization. They come up with all kinds of crazy rationalizations for why they shouldn’t ask.

This week I heard a doozy from an ED: “I need to be the positive leader, but staff can encourage donors to give…”

I submit to you that’s not good leadership. Nor is it courage. It certainly isn’t vulnerability.

Here’s what that ends up looking like in appeals and e-appeals (as always, these are actual sentences from actual appeals):

  • “Will you help us do more of this good work?”
  • “Will you partner with us to help those in need?”
  • “Thank you for your determination to support our staff.”

Do you see any real need or vulnerability there? Neither do it. Neither do their donors.

When looked at through this lens, is it any wonder that an appeal that ends with…

  • “There are people right now who need help, but we don’t have the budget to reach them. Will you please send a gift today to help them?’

…will raise more than an appeal that ends like this?

  • “Will you help us do more of this good work?”

Ask courageously! The things you fear won’t come to pass. Or if they do, it will be in such small measure compared to the incredible generosity you see from your donors.

“I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.”

As a nonprofit, here’s how to pay attention and practice gratitude: watch every gift come in with joy and amazement. Think of the incredible connections you just formed between your donors and your beneficiaries! Think of the incredible good you just did!

Because remember: your donors LOVE to give! They love to support you. They love to help your beneficiaries or cause.

I think there’s incredible joy to be had in courageously stating a need, asking for help, and then watching generosity pour in.

I know you get numb to it after a while. Unless you are careful, the amazing generosity of donors pretty quickly just gets thought of as “monthly revenue” – every single time a gift comes in to your organization.

If there’s a ‘spiritual practice’ that most nonprofits should be doing, it’s practicing gratitude.

Because if you practice gratitude regularly, you become more grateful. And when you’re truly grateful for your donors, you will be comfortable being vulnerable with them. Vulnerability is where connection and relationship happens. You do that, and you’ll build a tribe of donors and an organization that can change the world.

How to Choose What to Underline and Why

I’m going to teach you to raise more money by showing you what to emphasize in your fundraising letters.

Because if you underline or bold the right things, you’ll raise more money.

NOTE: for brevity, I’m going to lump all forms of visual emphasis as “underlining.” You might use underlining, or bolding, or highlighting, doesn’t matter. All of those are different tactics. I’m talking about the strategy of visually emphasizing small portions of your letters and e-appeals.

First, let me tell you why your underlining is so important.

Underlining has two purposes in fundraising writing. Almost nobody knows the second – and more important – purpose.

  1. Bolding or underlining signals that a sentence is important. This is true of almost any writing.
  2. But underlining also serves a second, more important purpose. The most effective fundraisers use underlining to choose for your donor which things they are most likely to read.

Because remember, most of your donors won’t read your letter from top to bottom. They will scan your letter – briefly running their eyes down the page. And as they scan, when they see a sentence that has been emphasized, they are likely to stop scanning and read.

It’s this second, more valuable purpose that most organizations don’t know about. So they underline the wrong things.

My Rule of Thumb

Here’s what I try to do. This doesn’t apply to every letter, but I try this approach first on every single letter I review or write:

  • The first thing underlined should be a statement of need, or a statement describing the problem that the organization is working on.
  • The second thing is a brief explanation of how the donor’s gift will help meet the need or solve the problem mentioned in the first underlined section.
  • The third thing is a bold call-to-action for the donor to give a gift to meet the need / solve the problem today.

If you do that, I can basically guarantee that your letter will do well. A MASSIVE number of fundraising letters don’t even have those elements, let alone emphasize them. If you have them, and you emphasize them, here’s what happens:

  • Donors know immediately what you’re writing to them about
  • Donors know immediately what they can do to help
  • Donors know immediately that they are needed!

Because of those things your donors are more likely to read more. And more likely to donate more.

There Are Some Sub-Rules

  1. No pronouns. Remember that it’s very likely that a person reading the underlined sentence has not read the prior sentences. So if you underline a sentence like “They need it now!” the donor does not know who “they” are and what “it” is. The sentence is basically meaningless to the donor. Their time has been wasted.
  2. Not too many. You’ve seen this before; there are four sentences that are bolded, five that are underlined, and the result is a visual mess that only a Board member would read. Be disciplined. I try to emphasize only three things per page, sometimes four.
  3. Emphasize what donors care about, not what your Org cares about. If you find yourself emphasizing a sentence like, “Our programs are the most effective in the county!” … de-emphasize it. Though it matters a lot to you, no donor is scanning your letter looking to hear how good your organization is at its job. But donors are scanning for things they are interested in. So emphasize things like, “Because of matching funds, the impact of your gift doubles!” or “I know you care about unicorns, and the local herd is in real danger.”
  4. Drama is interesting. If your organization is in a dramatic situation, or the story in the letter has real drama, underline it. Here are a couple of examples from letters we’ve worked on recently: “It was at the moment she saw the ultrasound that life in her belly stopped being a problem and became a baby” and “The enclosed Emergency Funding Program card outlines the emergency fundraising plan I’ve come up with.”

And now, I have to share that I got the idea for this post when I saw this clip from the TV show “Friends”. It turns out that Joey has never known what using ‘air quotes’ means – and he’s using them wrong (to hilarious effect). I saw it and thought, “That’s like a lot of nonprofits trying to use underlining effectively.”

If you’re offended by that, please forgive me. I see hundreds of appeal letters and e-appeals a year. I developed a sense of humor as a defense mechanism. 🙂

The good news is that learning how to use underlining is as easy as learning to use air quotes!

You can do this. Just remember that most of your donors are moving fast. Underline only what they need to know. That’s an incredible gift to a compassionate, generous, busy donor!

And if you’d like to know how Better Fundraising can create your appeals and newsletters (with very effective underlining!) take a look here.

The Secrets of Successful Amateur Fundraising Writers

Over the past few months, we trained two people on staff at Better Fundraising to write appeals and e-appeals.

“Fundraising writing” is not what either of these capable people was hired for. But we have a core belief that fundraising writing is a knowledge issue, not a talent issue.

And today, less than a year later, these two people are creating VERY successful appeals! The appeal letters and e-appeals they are writing for our clients are raising thousands of dollars more than the clients were able to raise themselves.

It’s such a joy to see these whippersnappers have such success, and help our clients raise more money to do more good!

So I asked them to share what they are thinking about when they write. They wrote down the tips and tricks that made them so successful, so quickly. I agree with every single one of them. Follow these tips and fundraising success will be yours!

  1. Write the letter (or email) as if it is from one person to one person.
    • You want your appeals to sound conversational, as if it is a letter from one person to another. Avoid use of the word “we” and avoid language that sounds like marketing.
  2. Start your letter with the sentence, “I’m writing to you today because…”
    • You may edit it out later, but that one sentence causes you to focus on and say why you’re writing them right away.
  3. Use the word “you” a lot.
  4. Mention “the offer” early and often.
    • The offer is the very short summary of why the donor’s gift is needed today, and what the gift will do.
  5. Tell a Story of Need that shows why the donor’s gift is needed today.
    • If you share a story of a beneficiary, don’t talk about the beneficiary’s situation after they were helped. Most nonprofits tell stories in their appeal letters of people they have already been helped. You want to leave donors with the feeling that they need help now. Steven calls this ‘telling an unfinished story.’
  6. Talk about how the donor’s gift will solve the problem / meet the need, not about how your organization will solve the problem / meet the need.
  7. Ask the donor very clearly to send in a gift today.
    • Donors appreciate the directness. And then you don’t sound like one of those nonprofits that are constantly “kind of” asking you for money, but they never just say it clearly.
  8. Write at a 6th or 7th grade reading level.
    • This has nothing to do with the intelligence of your donors, and everything to do with their ability to understand your writing quickly. Use hemingwayapp.com — we use it all the time.
  9. Include a P.S. that restates why the donor’s gift is needed, and what the donor’s gift will do.
  10. If you have a deadline, mention it often.
  11. The organization needs to get out of the way from between the donor and the beneficiaries.
    • We’ve been spending very little time talking about the organization that the letter is from. Instead, we talk about the people who need help or the problem that needs to be solved, and how the donor can help them and/or solve the problem.

It really is a joy to teach people how to raise more money!

If you’d like to go deeper than the list above, download our free e-book. Or if you’d like to work with us – we can coach you & your team how to fundraise more effectively, or even have us create your fundraising for you – take a look here.

For right now, be encouraged! You can be a better fundraising writer – and raise more money with your next letter or e-appeal – by following their advice above.

Appeal Letter Writing Tips

20% can produce 80% of results

What follows is a short list of quick tips for writing your next appeal letter or e-appeal.

It’s a short list because exhaustive lists can to be … exhausting.

But what happens if you’re just trying to get a little better? What if you don’t want to reinvent your fundraising, but just to do this appeal better than the last appeal?

Then this list is for you.

Think of these as the 20% of tips that get 80% of results. The next time you write, do as many of these as you can. More of your donors will get your main message – and you’ll raise more money!

  1. Be able to summarize the problem that you’re writing about, and what the donor’s gift will do to fight that problem, in no more than two jargon-free sentences.
    • Your letter could be about the problem your organization is facing right now (e.g., ‘School is out, low-income kids won’t get enough to eat this summer…’) or the bigger/long-term problem your organization was created to help solve (e.g., ‘Our Jewish culture is dying out in our city…’)
  2. Say why you’re writing in the first two or three paragraphs.
    • The phrase “I’m writing to you today because…” is magic. Use it!
  3. Directly ask your donor to send in a gift somewhere in the first three paragraphs, and somewhere in the last three paragraphs.
  4. This often works perfectly with the “I’m writing to you today because…” phrase. High-performing letters often have couplets like this at the beginning of the letter:
    • “I’m writing to you today because many low-income kids are about to spend summer at home without enough to eat. Will you please send in a gift today to provide supplemental food for at least one child?”
  5. Remember that most donors aren’t reading your letter; they are scanning it. Two of the places they are most likely to actually read are the beginning and end of your letter. So put your main message in both places to increase the chance your main message will be seen.
  6. Avoid the dreaded Wall of Text – the long paragraphs and long sentences that make up a page full of words that run together. Instead, write in short sentences and short paragraphs.
  7. Use the word “you” a lot. I mean a LOT. Your donor should feel like the letter is to her, about something she cares about, and about what she can do about it. There should be at least twice as many uses of “you” as there are mentions of the letter writer and the organization.

Now, go get ‘em! Make your next appeal a little better than the one before. If you do that a few times in a row, you’ll be amazed by how much money you raise and how many more donors you retain!

There Needs to Be a Need

If your organization has ever written the following sentences, this post is for you. These are all real sentences from real appeals and e-appeals.

  • “Will you please consider sending in a gift today?”
  • “Will you help us do more of this good work?”
  • “Please partner with us by…”
  • “Become a supporter and…”

Most nonprofits don’t realize they Ask this way

When I work with nonprofits who ask for donations using phrases like the ones above, I ask them about it. Specifically, I ask, “Why did you phrase it this way? Why did you not ask for a donation, but instead you asked for something else?”

They usually respond and say, “What do you mean? We asked for money!”

Then I walk them through their fundraising materials and say something like, “The words you used did not ask for money.” Using the four real-life examples above, the organizations asked their donors for:

  • Consideration
  • To help the organization
  • To partner with the organization
  • To support the organization

It’s astonishing how many appeal letters I review that don’t clearly ask the donor to send in a gift. (That’s doubly-astonishing when the one job of an appeal letter is to appeal for funds!)

Most Nonprofits write this way because they are scared about asking for money

Fundraisers – and often the Executive Director – are afraid that boldly asking for a gift will “turn people off” or “make us look desperate” or “make us look like we don’t manage money well.”

Let me be blunt: those fears are unfounded. When organizations make bold Asks to send in a gift today they raise more money and keep their donors for longer.

There’s a reason pro fundraisers write appeals that say things like, “Please, while you’re holding this letter, take out your checkbook and send in a gift today. You’ll love helping a person…” It’s because it works so much better.

More on this below, but most donors are moving fast. They aren’t taking the time to think about whether your organization is desperate, or whether you manage money well or not.

Most of your donors are just wondering if someone or some thing they care about is in danger, and if their help is needed. And if the donor’s help is needed, they assume you’ll ask them directly.

Because if you say things like “please support our mission…” or “will you please partner with us today…” – does that sound like there’s an urgent need and that the donor’s gift will address it? No. It doesn’t. Sounds like things are probably going just fine. And when things sound like they are going fine, fewer donors give.

Donors Love Directness

Remember, most of your donors are looking at your fundraising appeals while they are doing other things; getting ready for dinner, processing their mail, etc. They are moving FAST, and they usually only give your letter or email a few seconds of attention.

Note: this can absolutely be different when you are talking to your Board, or some major donors who have deep relationships with your organization. But usually those people make up less than 5% of the people who will be reading (whoops, I mean scanning) your fundraising materials. This is why you should either be a) writing to the 95% instead of to the 5%, or b) segmenting your mailings.

Ask any pro fundraiser who has a lot of experience with fundraising to thousands and millions of people at a time: your ability to make it easy for your reader to know exactly what you want them to do, and know what their gift will do, is incredibly important.

You tend to get more of what you ask for. If you ask for ‘consideration,’ you’ll get more of it. If you ask for ‘support,’ you’ll get more of it (but who knows what their support will look like). And if you ask for a gift today, you’ll get more gifts today.

Don’t Accidentally Hide The Need

By not asking boldly and directly, many nonprofits accidentally hide the need from their donors.

Their donors continue to get letters and emails that never directly ask for money. After a while, the donors think that the organization must not need the money that much!

True story: after Better Fundraising starts working with organizations, many of them receive the following comment with the first big influx of gifts: “I had no idea you needed more money and that more people needed help. I’m happy to help!!” Their note is usually accompanied by a larger than normal gift.

That’s because there’s some other nonprofit that’s currently asking your donors for gifts. It’s happening in the mailbox of your donors today. So I urge you to Ask with boldness and directness for your donors to send you gifts! You’ll raise more money, you’ll present a truer picture of the need your organization exists to meet, and your donors will love your clarity and directness!

How (And When) To Tell A Finished Story

First of all, what the heck is a “finished” story?

A finished story is a story where your beneficiary has already been helped. For example, say your organization helps homeless moms. For you, a finished story is where the mom has already been through your program, has moved out, and has a job that pays the bills, etc. If you’re a school or in the education space, a finished story is about the person who is already going to school or has graduated.

Are you with me? A finished story is where your organization has already done it’s work.

The Mistake Most Nonprofits Make

The mistake most nonprofits make is that every story they tell is a finished story.

That’s a guaranteed way to raise less money than you could be raising. Why? Because only telling finished stories has an unfortunate consequence: it diminishes the need in the mind of the donor. All donors hear about are people who have been helped, so they never emotionally feel the need your organization exists to serve, so they become less likely to give.

You can read more about this problem (and how to solve it) in our previous posts, “How to 8x Your Appeal Results” and “The Simple Outline For Appeals That Raise Money.”

So let’s talk about what you can do to raise more money and retain your donors longer . . .

When To Tell A Finished Story

This is the easy part. There are four main places and times to tell a finished” story:

  1. Your newsletter
  2. Your e-news update
  3. Your Annual Report
  4. During 1-to-1 Reports to major donors

There are, of course, other times. But those are the main times you should be sharing finished or “completed” stories with your donors.

How To Tell A Finished Story

In a nutshell, share the finished story and give the credit to your donor.

In our experience, most organizations don’t Report back to their donors often enough. And when they do, they barely mention the donor and they take all the credit. They say things like, “Last year we helped over 766 people …” or “We worked hard to save the Arts in Springfield over the summer and . . .”

We call that, “Ask, Thank, Brag” instead of the much more effective, “Ask, Thank, Report” formula.

Here’s the perspective you want: Report to your donors about what their gift accomplished. Not about what your organization did, but about what their gift did. You want to choose to look through the lens of the donor.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Mention the donor early. Make sure she knows she’s part of the story! Have the first sentence of your newsletter be something like, “Thanks in part to your generosity, the Arts in Springfield were saved!”
  • Give the credit to your donor. This is just an exercise in being other-centered. Look for places where you would say “Our [program name] served …” or “We provided $6 million worth of care …” Replace the mentions of your organization with a mention of the donor. You could say, “Thanks to your generosity, [program name] served …” and “You are part of providing $6 million worth of care.”
  • Include the “before” and the “after.” Make sure your donor knows what the situation was like before your organization got involved. That will help your donor see just how big the transformation was — and how powerful her support is.
  • Directly tell the donor that their gift helped provide the solution and caused the transformation, and highlight that sentence. Remember, your donors have busy lives and usually only look at fundraising pieces for a few seconds. Make sure it’s easy for her to see a headline or sentence that directly tells her she made a difference! Don’t hide that information — arguably the most powerful, important information the donor is hoping to hear — at the end of a long story in the last paragraph.

If you do these things you’re going to notice two incredibly powerful things happening . . .

First, your donor retention rate will increase (your donors will stick with you longer). That’s because donors will see how their gifts to your organization make a real difference. And when they see that their gifts make a difference, they are more likely to give you another gift.

Second, you’re going to start raising more money from your appeal letters. That’s because you’re going to have more donors to send them to (because you won’t be losing as many) and because donors trust you more! They see and feel that their gifts have made a difference, so they are more likely to give to you again!

So, go tell some finished stories in the right way at the right times. Then watch your organization raise more money!