Awareness of the Problem > Awareness of the Work


The previous post showed how fundraisers can harness awareness and tension to raise more money.

There’s a key thing to note, and it’s worth taking a whole post to say it well…

You want awareness of the problem your organization exists to solve more than awareness of your organization’s work to solve the problem.

When a nonprofit’s fundraising creates awareness of the problem they are working on, recipients of the fundraising experience tension and are compelled to action.

Note: if causing your donors to experience tension doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, remember that tension is the source of almost all actions taken by humans:

  • If I’m having health problems because of what I eat, I experience tension with what I eat, and I take an action to eat healthier.
  • If I’m wanting a new TV, I experience tension with my current TV, and I take an action to buy a new TV.
  • If I see a family who is losing their apartment because they are caring for a daughter who is in the hospital for several months, I experience tension with that situation, and I send in a gift to help them keep their apartment.

It’s all the same thing.  This type of tension is your friend in fundraising.

So, when a nonprofit creates awareness of the problem that the organization works on, donors experience tension with that situation, and send in a gift to help solve the problem through the nonprofit.

But when a nonprofit creates awareness of the work the organization is already doing on the problem… where’s the tension?

Why would people feel tension?  It sounds like the organization has everything taken care of.  They are helping so many people!  That’s so great!

In your fundraising, make sure you’re raising the right kind of awareness.  If a nonprofit is always and only telling stories about people who have already been helped… you’re raising the less helpful kind of awareness, so you’re raising less money than you could be.

In our experience, the organizations that raise the most money and retain more of their donors have about a 2:1 ratio – they “raise awareness of the problem their organization is working on” about twice as often as they “raise awareness about the work their organization is doing.”

How to Change the World


In a post called “How to change the world,” Seth Godin recently said,

All successful cultural change (books, movies, public health), has a super-simple two-step loop:


It’s easy to focus on awareness. Get the word out. Hype. Promo.

I think that’s a mistake.

Because awareness without tension is useless.

The tension is like pulling back a rubber band.

WHY would someone who becomes aware take action?

Here’s how that works in nonprofit fundraising:

  • Awareness – the nonprofit creates this.  Nonprofits make donors aware of the problem that needs to be solved, of the need that needs to be met. 
  • Tension – the donor feels this.  They feel the tension between the way the world is today and how they wish the world would be. 

Seth asks, “WHY would someone who becomes aware take action?” 

Here’s our answer for fundraising: a donor will take action when the internal tension they feel is strong enough, and when the nonprofit makes it easy for the donor to see that their gift will make a meaningful difference.

This is the successful recipe for an appeal: show the donor what’s happening in the world, and show the donor what their gift will do to solve the problem.

The nonprofit provides the awareness of the problem.  The donor provides the tension.  The result is a gift.  And the partnership between the nonprofit and the donor changes the world.

There are other pieces of communication necessary, of course.  Nonprofits should Thank their donors, and Report back to them on what their gifts accomplished.

But – importantly – do any of your fundraising pieces create awareness of the need, let the donor experience tension, and then make it easy for the donor to see the change in the world that their gift will make?

Tips on Verb Tenses in Fundraising


There’s a little thing I do when writing fundraising that people have found helpful. 

It’s about which verb tenses to use, and when to use them.  I use it to avoid the “eternal now-ness” of fundraising speak where the donor’s support has always been happening, yet is also always needed, and of course always accomplishing great things – all at the same time. 

You can learn it in a free video that Chris Davenport and I made over at the Storytelling Conference website.

It’s less than three minutes.  And really it’s less than that because the last 20 seconds or so is me making a pitch for the Storytelling Conference because there’s a sale on right now.  

But it’s a simple little trick that, whenever I share this at a conference, people grab their pens and write it down. 


Fundraising “Disasters” Are Rarely Fatal

Crisis ahead.

Last Thursday’s post about mistakes got me to thinking…

Mistakes and disasters in fundraising are rarely fatal.

I’ve been part of a lot of mistakes and bad breaks over the years. (Which I think is true of anybody who has been in fundraising for any length of time.)

Just look at this partial list:

  • The Anthrax Scare of 2001 – When poisonous anthrax was mailed to random people that October, everyone in America was afraid to open their mail, and donations through the mail just… completely… stopped.
  • The Great Reply Card Swap – An appeal letter was sent out with a reply card for a completely different nonprofit. And that other nonprofit? Their donors received the reply card for the first nonprofit. Good times!
  • Awkward Typos – When tens of thousands of donors were supposed to be asked to help “fill the pantry” at the rescue mission, and instead were asked to “fill the panty.” And as mentioned last week, when donors were supposed to be asked to “sign the enclosed placemat and return it with your gift“ were instead asked to “sign the enclosed placenta and return it with your gift.”
  • The Host Who Eternally Lapsed – When the famous person you’ve hired for $50,000 to host the donor acquisition TV show… unfortunately passes away a couple months after filming. So you have to pull the shows off the air, reschedule the media buys, and reshoot all their portions of the program.
  • The Poorly Timed Acquisition Campaign – When you launch a national donor acquisition campaign with TV spots, direct mail buys and print magazine ads… right as the 2007 great recession/subprime mortgage started.

All of these left a mark… but none were the massive blow that the organization initially feared.

I think the lessons are to control what you can control. Know that mistakes are going to happen. Send out more fundraising (having fewer fundraising pieces is risky because you’re more reliant on the performance of any one piece).

Donors are generous – they want to give. And it’s inspiring to see how nonprofits are resilient on behalf of their beneficiaries or cause.

Mistakes in Fundraising that Work Out Well


Cross posted at

What do you think when you see this direct mail fundraising envelope?


A mistake? The handwriting goes across the window… that can’t be on purpose, can it?

Turns out, this was a mistake.  A miscommunication between the designer and the printer.

Big problem?

Nope.  It worked great.

It’s the kind of “mistake” that usually improves fundraising.  An odd, out-of-place, not-the-done-thing that grabs your eye and makes you cringe.

More often than not, this kind of mistake works for you, not against you.

I was once involved in a direct mail piece that included a bounce back paper placemat. Donors were asked to sign the placemat and return it with their donation.  The placemat would be put on the table at a meal the donation helped fund.  It’s a good (and proven) way to increase response to meal-focused offers.

But here’s the error: on the reply coupon, there was a quick reminder about the placemat.  Despite many layers of quality proofreading, the printed final that went to out donors said:

Please sign the enclosed placenta and return it with your donation.

Are you cringing?

Whether you are or not, the piece broke records for response. A few donors wrote to point out the bizarre error – mostly along with their donation.

Why did this mistake seemingly boost response?

Our theory: Errors grab attention. And someone who’s paying attention is likely to read for a few more seconds, and therefore a lot more likely to donate.

So when an error happens, it may not be a problem.  It might even be great!  So great you’d consider making a mistake on purpose.

Direct Mail Strategy at Events?!?


When Jim and I started Better Fundraising and the organizations we served started raising more money, they began to ask us to help with their gala fundraising events.

We had them apply four principles from direct response fundraising.  The results were a resounding success, and here they are in case they’re helpful to you:

  • Figure out the Ask first.  The first thing that most successful events do is to figure out exactly what the Ask is going to be.  Then they structure the event/run of show so that the entire event delivers the Ask with as much power as possible.  It’s the same in direct response: figure out the ask or the offer, then write and design the letter/email to deliver it as powerfully as possible. 
  • Don’t just Ask for support, use an Offer.  An event will raise more money if it asks donors to fund something specific, as opposed to just “supporting” the organization. 
  • Be comfortable sharing a need.  Most of the events we worked on used to share nothing but good news.  It sounded like everyone had been helped, and that things were going great.  We encouraged them to mention (but not dwell in) that people or the cause need help today, and to be specific about the help that’s needed.  Their donors – now that they had a fuller understanding of the situation – gave more.
  • Echo & Reinforce.  If the event features a reply card where the donor either fills in their info or grabs the QR code/giving URL, make sure the headline and ask on the reply card echoes and reinforces the wording of the Ask from stage.  A direct mail reply card that doesn’t match the letter will lower response, and an event reply card that doesn’t reinforce what’s said from stage will also lower response.

There are of course some ways that event fundraising is different than direct response.  For instance, you have people’s attention for so much longer that you can go deeper into the issues and make a more thorough case.  You don’t have to get to the point so quickly.  You can tell longer stories.  You can even use a little jargon.

But in our experience, borrowing these four principles from direct mail fundraising will help your event raise more money.

Seen, Known and Loved


Brené Brown says,

“What differentiates humans as a social species is the need to be seen, known, and loved.”

This is true of nonprofits, too.  Each nonprofit wants to be seen, known, and loved.

And this, my friend, is part of why effective fundraising is so hard to create.

The nonprofit itself wants to be seen, known, and loved by donors, non-donors, staff, partner organizations, the community, etc. So the nonprofit creates fundraising that helps donors see the organization, and know how the organization does its work, and shares how compassionate and effective the organization is so that donors will love the organization.

But there’s a problem.  The humans (individual donors) who receive that fundraising also want to be seen, known and loved. 

In fact, those individual humans are more interested in being seen, known and loved themselves than they are interested in seeing, knowing and loving a nonprofit.

So, remember the fundraising that the nonprofit created to make itself seen, known and loved?  It’s not going to be relevant to most donors.  It’s not going to be as engaging to the donor, and it’s not going to raise as much money.

The big idea is for nonprofits to create fundraising that sees, knows and loves their individual donors.  (With boundaries, of course.)

Because here’s the magic… 

If a nonprofit makes the generous choice to create fundraising that makes its donors feel seen, known and loved, then more donors respond with more generosity. 

If an organization can first meet their donors’ needs, then the donors are more likely to meet the organization’s needs.    

Right Value, Wrong Place


Something happened to me in 2002 or 2003 and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It’s foundational to our approach to fundraising.

I was part of a team serving a large, national charity you’ve likely heard of. They focus on hunger here in the US.

This organization did not like to use the word “hungry” to describe their beneficiaries. They preferred the phrase, “food insecure.”

The team I was a part of were pretty sure that asking a donor to “help a child that is food insecure” would raise less money than asking a donor to “help a child that is hungry.”

The organization allowed us to do a head-to-head test. The results came back and what we suspected was true: when the organization asked donors to help a child who is hungry (or “suffering from hunger” or something similar) they raised more money. And when they asked donors to help a child who is food insecure (or “suffering from food insecurity” or something similar) they raised less money.

The results of the test were shared with the higher-ups at the organization. The ruling came back:

“We’re going to stick with using ‘food insecurity.’ It’s more accurate. Please continue to use ‘food insecurity’ moving forward.”

I was outraged at the time. This organization was making a choice that they knew would cause them to raise less money and help fewer people! (I was also pretty young and hadn’t yet experienced that things like this happen all the time.)

Looking back, my impression is that their decision seemed to be driven by two ideas:

  1. They valued sounding professional
  2. They valued being perfectly accurate

While I agree in principle with both of those values, I’ve come to see how much those values applied in the wrong places can cause an organization to raise less and do less than it could.

On Sounding Professional

The most successful fundraising organizations concern themselves with writing and talking in a way that their donors can quickly understand. They value being understood by the audience more than they value sounding professional.

And the most successful organizations differentiate between audiences. They sound professional when they are talking to other professionals, like partner organizations, foundations, etc. And when communicating to individual donors (who aren’t professionals!) organizations make the generous choice to speak in the donor’s language, not professional language.

On Being Perfectly Accurate

The most successful fundraising organizations tell stories and use language that is representative, not perfect. They know that being perfectly accurate is for experts and professionals – and they know that individual donors are not experts or professionals.

It’s true that “food insecurity” is a more accurate description of a host of scenarios that describe the families this organization helps. It’s also true that “hungry” is an accurate description of one of the most common scenarios that describes the families that this organization helps.

“Hungry” is perfectly legitimate. It’s just not as complete as the organization’s experts would like to be.

Their insistence on accuracy over understandability cost them revenue and impact.

Interesting sidenote to writers: the “hungry vs. food insecurity” conflict is an example of the weird instances when being more accurate can make a piece of communication less clear.

Inclusive, Not Exclusive

At Better Fundraising we help organizations see how positive organizational values like “sounding professional” and “accuracy” can accidentally cause them to create fundraising that’s exclusive.

And we work with them to make their fundraising more inclusive.

When an organization makes its fundraising more inclusive it’s often an uncomfortable process. You have to say things differently than you’re used to. You have to say different things altogether. You even format your communications differently!

But when organizations keep their beneficiaries in mind, it’s not a particularly hard process. And it’s incredibly rewarding when more money starts coming in, from a more inclusive group of donors, and more good gets done.

From Higher Ground to Common Ground


Most nonprofits have a “higher ground” understanding of their work and their cause. 

And they should!  They are experts.  They understand the cause they are working on, and they understand the complexities of what needs to be done.  They’ve built programs that are effective.  Their expertise makes them good at what they do. 

But when organizations create fundraising that invites individual donors to join the organization on its higher ground – instead of creating fundraising that meets donors on shared common ground – they put barriers between their donors and giving.

They make their fundraising exclusive.

The hallmarks of higher ground fundraising are things like:

  • Spending more time explaining the process the organization uses (your programs, or a particular approach) instead of the change in the world that the process makes possible…
  • Focusing more on the organization itself, and less on the cause or beneficiaries…
  • Sharing statistics to illustrate the size of the need or the scope of the organization’s work…
  • Educating the donor about everything that the organization does, rather than focusing on what donors tend to be most interested in…
  • All while using the organization or sector’s jargon to sound professional.

It’s like higher ground fundraising requires the donor to know about the organization in order for them to help the beneficiaries.

Two Problems

Higher Ground fundraising causes two problems.

First, it raises less money.  Every one of the bullets above, in our experience, causes individual donors to give less.  Individual donors tend to be more interested in what’s happening with the cause or beneficiaries today, and the change that the donor’s gift will make (or has made).  Individual donors tend to be less interested in the organization itself.

The bulleted points above are highly relevant to staff, organizational partners, grant-funding organizations, etc.  But they aren’t as relevant to individual donors.  Hence the old phrase, “Individual donors give through organizations, not to organizations.”

Second, the “higher ground” approach results in exclusive fundraising.  It creates a filter where the people likely to donate are the people who are willing to put in the time, the people who are willing to learn about the organization’s approach, and the people who are willing to speak the way the organization speaks.

Each of these is a barrier that some people will not cross.

From Higher Ground to Common Ground

Do the hard work to make your fundraising simple and inclusive.  Have a good offer.  Create fundraising for individual donors that any person who cares about your beneficiaries, at any level of understanding, at any reading level, will find relevant.

This means consciously deciding to leave the high ground.  It means you’ll have to defend your fundraising from internal audiences who love the high ground and want everyone to join them there.

Here’s why: there are a LOT of people out there who care about your beneficiaries and would like to give a gift to help.  There are far fewer people out there who are willing to wade through an education in your work before they can give a gift.

So if your communication and fundraising are always on the higher ground – and inviting donors to join you there – you will remain smaller than you could be.  You will remain doing less than you could be.

If your communication and fundraising are aimed at the common ground you share with donors, you will raise more money and have a larger impact.

In fundraising, the high ground is lonely.