The Three Practical Empathies


The work of a Fundraiser involves empathy for others.

Empathy for your beneficiaries or cause so you can tell their story.

Empathy for your organization and its programs so you can share about them.

Most nonprofits are full of empathy… but they often miss empathy in three key places…

Empathy for Donors

Practical empathy in fundraising allows you to give a gift to donors by ‘crossing the gap’ to their level of understanding.

To understand what it’s like to be in a donor’s chair.  To know what she knows.  To know what she doesn’t know.  And speak to her in language she understands, at a level of knowledge that makes sense to her. 

That’s empathy for donors.  (Which is helpful, because fundraising is for donors, not for internal stakeholders.)

But the problem with fundraising that’s empathetic to donors is that internal stakeholders don’t prefer it.

Empathy for Internal Stakeholders from Fundraisers

Another necessary practical empathy is from Fundraisers towards internal stakeholders who don’t understand as much about fundraising as Fundraisers do.

Because when you create fundraising that’s empathetic to donors, it’s often not liked by internal audiences.

For instance, program staff, board members and executive leadership often don’t understand that:

  1. While internal conversations are (and should be) full of industry jargon, fundraising communications should avoid jargon because most of your donors don’t know what it means.  But internal stakeholders prefer jargon because its accuracy is helpful to them.
  2. Direct response fundraising is different than interpersonal communication.  While a 1-to-1 conversation might wander around to establish relationship and common ground, a direct response e-appeal needs to get to the point immediately.  But internal stakeholders aren’t usually familiar with direct response best-practices and – reasonably – would never use them themselves.
  3. While a grant application might detail the finer points of your organization’s programs and approach, the average reader of an appeal letter isn’t interested in those details.  But internal stakeholders know those details make your organization effective!  To not include them in an appeal feels wrong.

But internal stakeholders weren’t trained in direct response or any other types of fundraising.  Empathy is needed to understand the concerns of internal stakeholders, to speak directly to their concerns, to help them understand what you’re doing with a generous spirit and solid explanation.  Share your knowledge.

Empathy From Internal Stakeholders Towards Donors

The final necessary practical empathy is from internal stakeholders towards donors.

In my experience, the best approach is for Fundraisers to help Board and Staff through the same transformation you went through when you learned to cross the gap

Share with Board and Staff that the same empathy they use to understand your beneficiaries can (and should) be used to understand your donors.  For example, your organization is effective because it understands the problem you’re working on, meets it where it is today, and creates small, practical steps to make things better.

Great fundraising uses the same approach: understanding the donors, meeting them where they are today, and creating small, practical next steps donors can take to make things better. 

Embracing the three empathies is often what unlocks an organization’s fundraising potential. 

Which helps an organization help its beneficiaries even more.

The Gap and The Gift

The Gap

There’s a gap between your organization and your donors.

Savvy fundraising organizations know that donors don’t know as much about your beneficiaries or cause as your organization does.

That donors often don’t care quite as much as you care.

That donors often use different words and phrases than you would. 

Savvy fundraising organizations know that the people on the other side of the gap are not likely to close the gap themselves.  Donors are quite happy as they are, thank you very much.  They don’t have a felt need to be educated, learn new jargon, or grow to an expert’s level of understanding.

So savvy fundraisers make the generous act of crossing the gap and meeting donors where the donors are. 

That means writing to donors at donors’ level of understanding.  It means no jargon.  It means being specific, not conceptual.

It means figuring out what motivates donors to give and crafting your fundraising around those motivators – even if those motivators are not what motivates the organization’s staff. 

And when you’ve done the generous thing – crossed the gap to meet the donor where they are – then you can ask them to take a first step towards involvement and greater understanding. 

That first step?  It’s usually a financial gift.  A check in the mail or a donation online.

And that gift happens because you gave them a gift, first.  You crossed the gap.  You went to them.

A Plea for Help


At its simplest, an appeal letter or e-appeal is a plea for help.

And to be most successful, an appeal needs two things:

  1. A problem.  This is the reason for the plea.
  2. A solution to that problem that the donor can provide with their gift.

Do your appeals get this right?

For instance, many organizations send appeals that primarily ask donors to “‘support our organization.”

But asking donors to “support our organization” doesn’t raise as much money as asking donor to “solve a problem with your gift.”


Because when an organization asks for “support,” they end up trying to prove that they are worthy of that support.  So those appeals spend a meaningful part of their letter or email telling the donor that the organization is effective, and sharing a story of a person who has already been helped.

But that approach reduces engagement and money raised. 

Think of it this way: in the Emergency Room, when someone’s life is on the line and help is needed “STAT,” do the nurses first share about people they’ve helped in the past?  No.  They yell for exactly what they need.

When a ship at sea is sinking and they sent out an SOS message, do they also include stories of all the successful voyages they’ve made before?  No.  They send their location and they plead for help.

A plea for “support” simply isn’t as strong – and doesn’t get as good results – as a plea for help.

The Big Shift


When most organizations write an appeal letter, they believe that the letter needs to convince the donor to support the organization. 

That approach results in appeals that don’t raise as much as they could. 

There’s a simple shift in thinking that results in appeals, e-appeals and newsletters that raise more money…

The Big Shift

The “shift” is this: moving from “trying to get the reader to support our organization” to “trying to get the reader to do one powerful thing for one beneficiary.”

That’s the Big Shift.

And when you write a letter that asks your reader to do one powerful thing for one beneficiary, you end up with a letter that raises more money.

It raises more money for a host of reasons, but here’s the main one: you’ve asked your donor to do something easier.  And when you ask your donors to do something easier (as opposed to something harder) you get more gifts.

Because asking a donor to support your organization is a Big Ask.  It means supporting your vision, your strategy, your cause, your accounting, your staffing structure, your… everything.

That’s a Big Ask because it asks your donor to do a lot.  That’s fine when you’re talking to a Foundation, or submitting a long application for a grant.

But not when you’re doing direct response fundraising and you have your donor’s attention for a few seconds.

You want to make it easier for them to say “yes,” not harder.  You need to make the shift.

To make this happen, customize the “one meaningful thing” for your organization.  Maybe it’s moving a piece of legislation forward by one small step.  Maybe it’s giving one person the tools they need to advocate for your cause.  Maybe it’s making the experience of a cancer patient just a little bit easier. 

You get the idea.

When you ask for something smaller, you’ll get more yesses.  And you’ll get more second yesses and third yesses.  Then you’ll raise more money. 

What Happens Next

Here’s what happens when you internalize this shift…

Your appeal letters become easier to write.  Because rather than trying to convince them to support your whole organization, you’re just trying to convince them to do one thing for one beneficiary. 

And you raise more money.  It’s a proven approach.


As you make the Big Shift, you’ll notice something.

When you write appeals, you’ll find yourself (out of habit) inserting boilerplate copy about your organization – those phrases you’ve always used in the past.

And you immediately notice that those boilerplate phrases make your letter less interesting and less powerful. 

You’ll start to see how the way you used to communicate was boring to everyone but insiders and core donors. 

Additionally, when you circulate a draft of a letter that has made the shift, some well-meaning person will say “But we also have to mention our program that does X…”  And someone else will say, “We need to add a couple paragraphs about how effective we are…”

And you will see how neither of those things make your letter more likely to convince a donor to do one meaningful thing for one beneficiary. 

The Big Fear

The big fear that organizations tend to have around this approach is this: if I ask for something smaller, will my larger donors start giving smaller gifts?

In my experience (27 years and counting) this doesn’t happen.  In fact, what’s more likely to happen is that you’ll start getting second gifts from your major donors – gifts that are in addition to what they normally give!

The Leap

The “big shift” is one of the shifts in thinking that helps organizations make “the leap” to the next level of fundraising success. 

It helps them create fundraising that is attractive to more people than just insiders and core donors.  It helps them create fundraising that acquires more new donors.  It helps them grow.

The Big Shift at Year-End

If you want to make the Big Shift in your year-end letter, check out our new training

It’s just $40 and when you’re done with the training, you’ll be done with your year-end letter.

It shows you exactly how to write a powerful letter – that asks your readers to do something easy instead of something hard – that will raise you more money at year-end this year.   

The training is video-based and step-by-easy-step.  One option has you finished with your letter in 30 minutes.  The other option has you done with an even better letter in about 90 minutes.

The Time to Shift is Now

I hope you and your organization have made the Big Shift.  I believe in the extraordinary generosity of donors – we’ve seen it this year more than ever.  But I also believe this is going to be a competitive fundraising environment for at least the next several months.

Making it easier for your donors to say “yes” is a tool – a way of thinking – you should use to fund your mission.  So make the “big shift” and start raising more money!  

New Kind of Training for Year-End

something new

This blog post is a little different.

You may have heard me talking over the past few months about the big project / new thing we were working on.

We kept it a secret, but now it’s time to “lift the curtain” and share it with you!

For this year-end, we’ve created a new kind of fundraising training.  It’s built on a simple idea…

When you’re done with the training, you’re DONE with your year-end letter.

Done in 30 Minutes

For instance, you can take the 30-minute version of the new training and have a very effective year-end appeal letter completely written in half an hour.

No more ‘finish the training/webinar’ and then stare at a blank document trying to figure out how to turn all the advice you just received into a letter for your organization.

How can you do it that quickly?  I’ve already written your first draft for you.

So, say it takes 3 minutes to click over and join.  That means you can have a GREAT year-end appeal written 33 minutes from now.

Want to Raise Even More?

You can take the “Gold” version of the training.  This version takes between 1.5 and 2 hours.  I will teach you my process for writing effective year-end appeals and help you write yours. 

I will take you through, step by easy step.

When you’re done with either the 30-minute version or the Gold version, you’ll have an effective year-end appeal letter written. You’ll also be more effective at writing any appeal.

Both versions are included in the training.

Free Reply Card Template

After your letter is written, keep going in the training and you’ll learn how to make your envelope do its job (get opened!).  

Then you’ll be given a proven template for a Reply Card that works great.

Then you’ll learn the easy way to design your letter.

And you’ll see exactly who to send your letter to, so that you raise the most at the lowest cost.

The “Get Your Boss to Approve It” Videos

Lots of people don’t like effective direct response fundraising.  They think “it doesn’t sound like us” or “it’s too aggressive.”

The training includes five friendly “direct response fundraising fundamentals” videos for the express purpose of helping people understand and approve the fundraising you create.

There’s no lecturing.  Just a short introduction to the ideas that make direct response fundraising work best, how it’s different than other types of fundraising, and what will give you the best chance at success.

Some early customers purchased the training just because of these videos!

Coming Shortly…

In the next weeks we’ll be adding another training module for your year-end fundraising emails.

Then a module for creating an annual plan for 2021.

And a “My First Gift” campaign to acquire new donors from your email list.

All of them are built on the same idea: when you’re done with the training, you’re done with the task.  I’ll walk you through, step by step, and you’ll be ready to go!

Every one of those modules will be included in the . . .

Low, Low Price

$40 per month.

Why monthly?  Because $40 for an effective year-end letter is ridiculous.

And then you’ll get your year-end emails done.  And you’ll get your 2021 fundraising plan done.  And you’ll get your “My First Gift” campaign done (and acquire a bunch of new donors). 

But if you don’t want those, no problem.  Seriously.  You can just join for a month, write a record-breaking letter, and cancel. 

We’re trying to help as many organizations as possible during this year’s extra-competitive year-end fundraising season. 

You can choose to pay monthly, or get two months free when you sign up for the year

Remember, when you’re done with this training, you’re done.  Sign up today and be done writing your year-end appeal 30 minutes from right now!

Why “Does this sound like us?” is not a good question.


A quick note to anyone who has said or heard the following when reviewing a fundraising appeal or e-appeal:

“But this doesn’t sound like us!”

The next time you hear that – or say it – I want you to ask a different question:

“Will sounding like this raise more money than we normally do?”

That’s what I’d call a better question.  And better questions lead you to raising more money.

“Does This Sound Like Us?” is Not a Good Question

“Does this sound like us?” is one of the first questions people ask when reviewing direct response fundraising (appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, radiothon scripts, etc.).

They believe that “sounding like us” is one of the main keys to fundraising success.

But “sounding like us” is rarely one of the keys to fundraising success in direct response. 

In my experience, “sounding like us” usually causes organizations to raise less money, retain fewer donors, and do less good.

At this point in my career, I’ve probably written a hundred appeals that did not “sound like” the organization yet still raised more than any appeal the organization had ever sent before.

A Better Question

The better question for someone reviewing fundraising to ask is, “Does this sound like successful direct response fundraising?”

It’s hard to get organizations to ask themselves that question.  Many smaller organizations don’t realize that the specialty of direct response fundraising even exists.

Fewer still know or have access to the best practices.

But getting organizations – and anyone who reviews fundraising – to ask “Does this sound like successful direct response fundraising” is the best place to start.

How you can use the 80/20 rule to raise more money

80/20 rule

At Better Fundraising we see a LOT of examples of the 80/20 principle in fundraising. 

Shoot, they even use an example from fundraising as the graphic on the Wikipedia page!  (A great summary of the 80/20 principle is to say that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.)

A couple of common examples:

  • 80% of a company’s sales usually come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of a country’s land is often owned by 20% of its people

What follows are three examples of this principle in fundraising, along with how you can use them to raise more money for your organization.

The 80/20 Rule in Major Donor Fundraising

About 80% of your individual donor revenue will come from 20% of those donors.  (And in recent years it’s been closer to 90% of revenue coming from 10% of donors).

The organizations that make the most of this reality (especially this year) are the ones who intentionally prioritize those donors with how they spend their fundraising time and budget. 

The 80/20 Rule in Direct Mail

If you look at eye-tracking studies, you’ll notice donors only read about 20% of appeals or newsletters. 

To be great at raising money through the mail, you need to know what portions of your letters or newsletters are most likely to be read.  Then you put the content that’s most likely to drive action in those locations.

The 80/20 Rule for Small Shops

For organizations that only send out a couple of fundraising pieces a year, 20% of their communications typically raise 80% of their individual donations.

In our experience, those organizations can always raise more money immediately.  All they must do is isolate the types of communications that raise the most money, send out more of those, and send out fewer of the type that raise less money.

That’s such a radically simple idea that most small shops believe it can’t be true.  But it IS true.  We’ve done it so many times I can give three examples off the top of my head:

  • Annual reports
  • Most e-news
  • Appeals that are general calls for support

We cancelled those by the bushel and never – not once – saw a drop in revenue. 

The Double Benefit

Here’s the great thing about applying the 80/20 rule: you get a double benefit.  You save the time and money from not doing an inefficient activity.  And you get that time and money to do more of an efficient activity.

The Questions for You

Look at your organization’s fundraising activities.  What activities don’t produce measurable results, and you should cancel them?

What activities drive the most revenue, so you should do more of those with your freed-up time and budget?

In your mailed communications, are you putting the most important content in the 20% of your letter your donors are likely to read?  

Savvy organizations are constantly measuring their fundraising results, so they know what should be jettisoned and what should be done more often.  Because there’s always a way to raise more by doing less.


fundraising is beautiful

Today’s post is a bit of an outlier.  It’s kind of personal, kind of bad news, but kind of good news.

The news is that after 112 episodes, Jeff Brooks and I have officially ceased our podcast, Fundraising Is Beautiful. 

I’m sad just typing that sentence.  The podcast is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.  (More on that below.)

The good news is that the episodes are currently available to you to listen to.  Right here, right now, for your listening pleasure. *

I’m confident that listening to any of them will make you a more effective fundraiser. 

But we’ve got a lot of episodes!  You might wonder where to start.  So here are three episodes that a lot of people found entertaining and/or helpful:

Final Thoughts on FIB

If you’d like to read more about why we decided to call it a day, read Jeff’s great post about it.

And here’s my favorite tweet about its demise . . .

  • There’s @jeffbrooks and @stevenscreen being innovative.  The only people in the world *not* starting a podcast.

If you’re still reading, let me share a couple things I learned while doing the podcast:

  • I’m a better writer, public speaker, and teacher for having done the podcast.  Those things are learned behaviors, and you’ll get better with practice.
  • Having to explain and teach what you know will make you better at what you do.  I’m a better Fundraiser for having done it.
  • Jeff rubs his fingers together while talking and it makes a scritchy noise.
  • There’s a whole set of topics that are of great interest to consultants… but aren’t of interest to Fundraisers trying to help their organization raise more money next month.  And the universe of consultants is quite small compared to the universe of people trying to help their organization get better.
  • Helpful podcasts with titles that sound like clickbait will get more listens.  People are interested in specific topics and actionable tips on how to get better.
  • The sound quality of some of the very first episodes is… dodgy.  As in we were apparently recording with lousy mics.  Near squirrels.  In some kind of tube.  I’m more than a little embarrassed about that but came to realize that it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we started.  We fought the resistance.  And beat it 112 times.

To anyone starting a podcast or a blog, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Not because it will raise your profile or anything like that.  But because of what you’ll learn, what you’ll realize you know, and because it will make you better.

Thank You, Jeff

Grateful and humble thanks to Jeff for making Fundraising Is Beautiful with me for 10 years.  I’m honored to have done it with you and learned from you.  Thanks for all the laughs, the rants, and your friendship.

Fundraising IS beautiful.

* Lots of great episodes are available right now, but our team is still adding some of the older ones – so keep checking back!

The Primary Purpose of the Story in Your Appeal

everyone has a story

Last week I blogged on a type of story about the “toxic parent.”  It’s a specific story type from fundraising for children that reduces how much money an appeal or e-appeal will raise.

But the “toxic parent” is an example of a larger lesson to be learned in storytelling in fundraising…

What To Watch Out For

Watch out for anything in your fundraising that takes the reader’s focus off of what’s happening today and what the reader can do about it.

What To Do

In the story you tell, here are the most important elements, in order of importance:

  1. The problem your beneficiary faces
  2. What will happen if the problem is not solved
  3. What will happen if the problem IS solved

Notice that HOW the beneficiary came to be in the situation – how they came to have the problem – is not even on that list!

I realize this is super conceptual, so here are some examples…

Example Time

You see a story like the following all the time in fundraising for refugees.

  • “There was an amazing couple in Syria.  They were both doctors.  But because of the geopolitical situation, the bombings started.  One parent was killed, the other escaped with the children and an uncle. 

  • Their town was turned into dust and rubble, the color of sandstone at sunset.

  • Their months-long journey to the refugee camp was arduous.  They had to leave with only what they could carry.  Though one of the things they carried was the key to their house – because they dream of returning home someday.

  • They are living in a refugee camp.  Will you please send them aid like medicines and clean water?”

It’s an incredible story… but it’s not the right story to tell when asking the donor to send them medicine and clean water. 

90% of that story is about how the beneficiary came to be in the situation.  Precisely 0% of it is about how the beneficiary needs the donor’s help today

The Primary Purpose of Your Appeal Story

  • The primary purpose of the story in your appeal is to establish the need for whatever the donor can do today.

Of course, telling a story has other purposes, too.  Getting the reader emotionally involved, for instance.  But if your story gets the reader emotionally involved but doesn’t establish the need, you’re losing money and donors.

The story above is a good example of that.  It doesn’t establish the need for medicines and clean water.  It focuses on the part of the story that the donor can do nothing about.  That means it’s the wrong story.

Or more precisely, it’s the wrong part of the refugee family’s story.

Here’s what would raise more money: focus the story on the family’s need for medicine and water now.  For instance, talk about the Uncle’s heart condition and how he can’t get his regular meds – but the donor can help provide them.

Or focus the story on how the kids keep getting sick from the contaminated water in the refugee camp – but the donor can provide clean water. 

What To Do, Part II

Go scan your fundraising.  Look at the stories you tell.  Do the stories you tell focus on the need that a beneficiary is facing today?

Or are they focused on how the beneficiary arrived in their current situation?  Or are they focused on something that the donor can do nothing about?

If any of those are true for you, focus the story in your next appeal on the need being faced right now

This might feel like you’re telling the wrong story.  Or that you’re only telling part of the story.

But you’ll be focusing on the part of the story that the donor can help.  You’ll be illustrating what needs to be done today and how the donor can do it.  And you’ll be thrilled by how much more money comes in!