Are you on their Automatic Recall list?


I don’t know about you, but I’m always looking for “rules” that help me understand how complex systems work.

So when I saw this recently I knew I had to share it:

Automatic Recall = Relevance x Repetition

In other words, the ability of a donor to immediately recall your organization is a product of the relevance of your messages and the number of times they’ve heard your messages.

That’s a great bon mot to explain why we’re always encouraging you to communicate with your donors more often.

Automatic Recall

To be on a donor’s “automatic recall” list means she can name your organization, without prompting, when she’s asked for the organizations she donates to.

It means that if she suddenly came into some extra funds – an inheritance, a bonus from work, etc. – your organization would be one of the first that come to mind to give a gift to.

It means that if she receives a letter or email from your organization, she’s more likely to open and read it.

Not every organization a donor donates to will make it on her automatic recall list. For example, when your nephew does a peer-to-peer fundraiser and you donate $25, that organization will most likely not be on your automatic recall list.

As fundraisers, one of our goals is to get on the automatic recall list of as many of our donors as possible.

So how do we get on that list?

Relevance of Your Messages

How “relevant” are your fundraising messages to your donors?

Because here are the things your donor cares about, in order of importance:

  1. Themselves — even the most generous among us tend to care more about ourselves, our families, our jobs, whether we’re living up to our ideals, etc.
  2. Your Beneficiaries or your Cause — something about your beneficiaries or cause piqued the interest or passion of your donors, and your donors were interested in your beneficiaries or cause before they ever heard of your organization.
  3. Your organization — your organization is a tool your donor uses to 1) live up to their ideals, and to 2) help the beneficiaries or the cause.

So to be the most relevant, your fundraising messages need to be about the donor reading or hearing it, then about the beneficiaries or the cause, and then about your organization.

If your fundraising is mostly about your organization – or if most things in your fundraising are shared in the context of your organization – you’re not scoring well on “relevance.”

Which means you’re not on your way to getting on many people’s “automatic recall” list.

But if you ARE crafting your fundraising messages to be mostly about your donors and the beneficiaries or cause, you’re halfway to breakthrough success…

Repetition of Your Message

Do your donors see your messages often enough to remember them?

The more times your donor sees a relevant message from you, the more she is likely to have a favorable impression of your organization.

That’s not going to happen with two or three appeals a year, plus a handful of emails.

And remember, you can always communicate with your donors more than you think you can.

Do You Want to Grow?

Most everybody already has a few donors that would put your organization on their automatic recall list.

In most cases, those folks have you on automatic recall because of proximity; they tend to be family members, or that group of initial donors who helped the organization get started, or friends of the founders or staff, or longtime community members.

But if you want to scale your organization or ministry, you need to increase the relevance and repetition of your fundraising communications.

Doing so will result in raising more money right away, and in the long run. It’s win-win.

‘That doesn’t sound like us’ and Insanity

When an organization reads a draft of their upcoming appeal and thinks, “that doesn’t sound like us,” they usually experience that as a negative.

However, I want your organization to experience “doesn’t sound like us” as a positive – as a sign of growth.

After all, if “sounding like you normally sound” were the key to raising money, wouldn’t you have raised a lot more money by now?

And if your goal is to raise more money than you’ve raised in the past, shouldn’t you be actively trying to sound different than you’ve sounded before?

You Know the Old Line…

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

You must sound different if you’d like to raise a different amount of money.

What Does “Sound Like Us” Mean, Anyway?

In my experience there are four principles that, for most organizations, make up what “sounds like us” means:

  1. We don’t ask too strongly or directly
  2. We don’t share stories of need
  3. We like to sound the same way that the experts in our field sound
  4. We ask the donor to support our organization and its good work

For most organizations, appeals that follow those principles will “sound like us.”

The problem is that those four principles don’t work very well.

Try These Instead

Instead of the principles above, try these four:

  • We clearly and directly ask the reader to send a gift today
  • We share a problem that needs to be solved, and show how the donor’s gift will help solve it
  • We sound however the audience needs us to sound so they best understand the message
  • We ask the donor to help a beneficiary or the cause, not to help our organization

If you create an appeal or e-appeal that follows those principles, your donors will still know it’s you. After all, your mission is the same. Your logo and colors are the same. The person who signs the letter is the same.

It will not “sound like you.” But it will raise more money than your normal appeals.

And remember, it needs to be different if you want to stop treading water and raise more money through the mail and email.

Take Heart

If you’re an organization that is being held back by “but this needs to sound more like us,” take heart. Breakthrough fundraising is available to you. But you don’t break through by doing the same thing you’ve done before.

Show this post to people in your organization. Try something that “doesn’t sound like you” in email where the stakes are lower. Or try to implement just two of the new principles above (instead of all four).

But do something meaningfully different.

If you’re struggling with this issue, I can guarantee that you have “pent up giving,” because your donors haven’t been asked in powerful ways yet. They are waiting out there, ready to give you gifts!

You just have to stop “sounding like you.” And that’s a good thing.

LYBNT Letter ≠ Magic

I miss you.

Our last two posts have been about winning back lapsed donors to your cause. (You can read them here and here).

I want to end this mini-series with a short but powerful thought for you…

If you have a LYBNT appeal and it’s working, that’s a sign that you don’t have enough appeals and you could be raising more money.

(In case you haven’t run into “LYBNT” before, it’s an acronym for “Last Year But Not This” year. Many organizations have a special “LYBUNT appeal” that goes out to donors who haven’t given in a year.)

For instance, if you have four appeals per year plus a LYBUNT appeal, your LYBNT appeal most likely works simply because it’s ANOTHER appeal. Why? Because four appeals are far short of maximizing your revenue and retaining as many of your donors as you could be retaining.

In other words, a LYBNT appeal doesn’t work because it’s a special “LYBNT appeal.”

A LYBNT letter works because it’s:

  • A clear Ask
  • It’s about the donor
  • It’s another chance for your donor to help

Which is the way all your appeals should be!

Here’s my understanding of the situation: if you have enough strong appeals, you don’t need a LYBNT appeal, because you’re sending strong appeals regularly enough to motivate your donors to give.

And here’s my advice: if you have a LYBNT appeal, I’d replace it with a strong appeal and send it to everybody (not just donors who haven’t given a gift this year). You’ll raise the same revenue as the LYBNT letter and you’ll raise even more revenue from current donors.

Worried about “donor fatigue”? Don’t!

Hope this helps, and good luck out there!

How to Win Back Lapsed Donors

We recently recommended that organizations with fewer than ~10,000 donors should not create a “lapsed donor version” of appeal letters.

If lapsed donor versions of your appeals was one of your tactics for reactivating lapsed donors – and you’re wondering what to do now – you’ll love “The right way to win back lapsed donors” from Jeff Brooks.

His post is the perfect follow-up. We shared a tactic not to use, and Jeff shares multiple tactics to use.

Jeff goes deeper on two powerful things you can do:

Here are two additional things you can do to improve your lapsed donor reactivation:

  1. Lower the ask amounts for these donors. You have a valuable piece of information on each of then – the amount they gave last. With current donors, we normally ask for amounts around their most recent donation and up. For lapsed donors, ask for their most recent donation and down. That improves response. Better to get them back at a lower level than to lose them!
  2. Be choosy about which donors you try to reactivate. Very low-amount donors who are lapsed may not be worth the cost to regain them. On the other hand, it can be worth it to keep trying longer for those high-dollar donors. You might mail donors who are several years lapsed if their last gift was $100+.

Having a lapsed donor strategy is an important part of most nonprofits’ overall strategy. For many organizations we work with, 25% of their “new” donors each year are actually lapsed donors who have reactivated

Plus, reactivated donors have higher lifetime values (on average).

It’s worth spending time to build a coherent lapsed donor strategy for your organization. If you think yours can be improved at all, read Jeff’s post!

Updated Recommendation re: ‘Lapsed Donor Versions’ of Appeal Letters

Please come back!

After looking at some fundraising results, Better Fundraising recently changed one of our longstanding recommendations:

For smaller organizations, we no longer recommend creating a “lapsed donor version” of appeal letters.

If this is something your organization does, keep reading and I’ll get into the details.

To set context, a “lapsed donor version” of an appeal is a standard tactic used by many (usually larger) organizations. Here’s what it looks like…

  • When an appeal is sent out, a “version” of the appeal is created.
  • Without changing anything else in the appeal, a sentence or two is added at the beginning of the letter that says something like, “You’ve shown through your generosity that you care about the unicorns, but I haven’t heard from you in a while. I’m sending you this letter because I think what’s happening right now will touch your heart.” Then the letter continues with the same copy as the regular letter.
  • That “version” of the appeal is sent to donors who have recently lapsed. Usually that’s donors who are 13-18 months since their last gift; occasionally it’s 13-24 months since their last gift.

That tactic is used by many organizations because, done well, it slightly increases the response rate for lapsed donors. The cost (in time and money) to create the additional version of the letter is a good investment because of the increased number of lapsed donors who are reactivated.

But Wait…

What gave me pause was looking at the performance of these “lapsed donor versions” of appeals for a couple of clients.

The response rate for lapsed donors was exactly the same, regardless of whether we sent them a special “lapsed donor version” or sent them the unmodified appeal to lapsed donors.

That meant we were spending time and money to create the lapsed donor versions and getting the same performance we’d gotten before.

We were wasting time and money. Ugh.

Now, if I saw this once, I’d wonder if the data were correct. Or perhaps the added copy wasn’t particularly good.

But I saw the same thing for three organizations over the course of a year. So we’ve changed our recommendation.

New Recommendation

Our updated recommendation goes something like this:

  • If you have less than about 10,000 active donors, it probably does not make sense to do “lapsed donor versions” of your appeals. Just send the regular version of your appeals to lapsed donors.
  • If it’s easy for you to create a lapsed donor version, it’s a good thing to test. But be sure to benchmark the results of your “regular” appeals to lapsed donors and compare those results to the new results when you send lapsed donor versions.
  • Do continue sending most appeals to donors who are 13-24 months since their previous gift. Just don’t spend the time and money to make a special version of the appeal unless you have information that indicates otherwise.

I want to acknowledge right away that this is a complex issue. For instance, the gift ask amounts for lapsed donors is another variable that can be tested – perhaps that could have played a role. The total number of communications also plays a role, as does an organization’s strategy towards lapsed, deeply lapsed and lapsed major donors.

For the purpose of this post, I’m setting all of that aside.

If we just focus on whether a smaller organization should create “lapsed donor versions” of their appeals, our default setting is that you don’t need to. Save yourself the time and money!

Reminding vs. Informing

The most effective fundraising spends more time reminding donors of what they already know than it does sharing new information. 

Let’s say you’re fundraising in the education space, and you’re creating a fundraising message.

You’ll be tempted to say things like:

  • “Over half of our students received some form of financial assistance last semester”
  • “Our nursing program is one of the most effective in the country at producing graduates who are ready to work the day after graduation”
  • “The need for well-trained construction workers is higher right now than any time in the last 70 years”

Notice that all of those are new information to the reader.

There’s nothing wrong with any of them.  Any one of them could be part of a successful fundraising message.

But don’t give your reader too much new information – that increases the amount of work she has to do to understand your fundraising message.  And the more work she has to do, the less likely she is to finish reading your message. 

So savvy fundraisers decrease the reader’s cognitive load by filling their fundraising with statements that the donor already knows and believes, like:

  • “You know how important a child’s education is for their future success.”
  • “Some members of our community need help to attend, and you can give a student who needs financial help the same wonderful experience that you had.”
  • “You’ve seen all the construction around here – you know the Trades are having trouble finding trained workers.”

Notice how the donor already knows and believes all of those things?

Reminding a donor what she already knows is a surer path to success than giving your donor new information to convince her to make a gift.  It lowers the cognitive load for her to process your fundraising message.  It emphasizes that your organization “gets” her.

The Exceptions that Prove the Rule

There are some exceptions.  I’d absolutely give donors new information that:

  • The organization has a shortfall
  • There’s been a disaster of some kind
  • There’s a particularly tough or interesting story

Notice how these three examples are things the donor cares about.

She cares that there’s been a disaster, or that the organization has a shortfall because those things affect what she already knows and cares about.

Contrast that type of new information to something like, “our program has experienced 140% growth over the last four years.”

Any time you find yourself writing a sentence has new information for a donor, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Are most donors going to care about this piece of information?
  2. Instead of including this sentence, would it be more powerful to remind the donor of something I know she cares about?

The result of asking yourself those two questions will be fundraising that resonates more with your donors and brings in more gifts.

What Numbers Should Be In Your Appeal?

I often help organizations raise more money by helping them see that they have too many numbers in their appeals and e-appeals.

Take a look at this example where I’ve emphasized the numbers in red…

  • The Membership For Everyone program provides low-income families with a health club membership at a substantially reduced rate of $25. This program supports income-qualified families in vulnerable situations to come exercise, play and learn just as anybody else would with the same benefits as any other membership we offer, like the one you had.
  • Our goal is to serve 3,000 families through the Membership For Everyone program. We are currently over 1,500 with a 140% growth over the last four years.
  • This Program is supported by individuals and organizations in our community to help offset the costs of the membership(s). Donations toward this program range from $1,000 to $5,000.

That’s eight numbers in three paragraphs. 

Making it even more complex is that they are different types of numbers all mixed together.  We’ve got dollar amounts, we’ve got percentages.  We’ve got numerals, we’ve got words.  We’ve got a goal, we’ve got actuals.  We’ve got membership rates, we’ve got gift ranges. 

And let’s not miss something: the organization wrote this believing that by including those numbers, the donor would understand the situation more fully and be more likely to give a gift.  The organization’s heart was in the right place.

But here’s the thing: it’s a lot of work for a donor to read each number, put it in the correct context, and remember it in case they need to know it later in the letter.

The more work you require a reader to do, the less likely they are to finish reading the letter.  The less likely they are to finish reading the letter, they less likely you are to get a gift.

Which is why successful direct response appeals and e-appeals generally have very few numbers. 

My general rule of thumb is to have no more than one number. 

But There Are Helpful Numbers

There are absolutely GOOD numbers to have in appeals.  For instance:

  • The cost to help one person
  • The number of people a donor can help
  • Gift ask amounts
  • Multipliers (like a matching grant)

Notice something?  All of those numbers are about the donor.  Take a look at that list again with a bit of editorial added:

  • The cost to help one person (“How much will it cost me to help?”)
  • The number of people a donor can help (“How many people will I help with my gift?”)
  • Gift ask amounts (“How much should I give today?”)
  • Multipliers (“How big an impact will I have?”)

That’s why bulleted lists like this one – even though it has so many numbers – are seen all the time in successful appeals:

  • Your gift of $25 will be doubled to $50 to help 10 people
  • Your gift of $50 will be doubled to $100 to help 20 people
  • Your gift of $100 will be doubled to $200 to help 40 people

What (or Who) Are Your Numbers About?

Hopefully it’s obvious that I do not want you to leave this post thinking, “numbers in appeals are bad.” 

But do pay attention to what or who the numbers are about.  If they directly apply to your reader/donor, they are probably helpful numbers.

If they are statistics, percentages or large numbers… think twice.   They’re probably about the situation you are describing, and should be drastically reduced or replaced with a story about one example.

The One Exception

I can only think of one exception to this truth: Disaster Emergency Appeals. 

In emergency appeals about disasters, the numbers seem to function as “validation” that it’s a big disaster and that the donor’s help is needed.

So when I see something like this in an emergency appeal about the earthquake in Haiti last week…

  • Three days ago a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti.  More than 1,400 dead and, at this point, at least 7,100 people have been injured.   
  • We are also hearing that more than 700 buildings have collapsed.  Homes, hospitals, schools and churches have been damaged.   

…I think it’s probably going to work great.  But I wouldn’t use that approach in any other type of appeal.

Next For You

If you have a moment, go scan your recent appeals and e-appeals for numbers. 

If you’ve been using too many numbers, or the wrong types of numbers, remember that when you write your next appeal.  If you’re successful, I predict you’ll start raising more money with the next appeal or e-appeal you send out!

Windows Are More Important Than Frames


There’s a counterintuitive truth in mass donor fundraising:

  • If you talk less about your organization in your fundraising, over time donors come to value your organization more.

We know this because when we help organizations create fundraising that talks less about their organizations, the following things happen:

  • Short term revenue goes up
  • Donor retention goes up
  • The number of major donors increases
  • Long term revenue goes up

The best analogy I’ve come up with to explain why this happens is about windows and window frames.

Here’s what I mean…

Think of your donor communications as a window.  And for a window to function, you need to have both a frame and the glass. 

The content in your fundraising that’s about the people you help, or the cause you work on, is the “glass” in the window.

The content about your organization is the “frame.”

The more content about your organization in your fundraising, the wider your frame is.  And the wider your frame is, the smaller the glass needs to be in order to fit inside the frame.

The smaller the glass, the tinier the window for your donors to “see through” to the people you help or the cause you work on.

Why is this important?

Because the people your organizations helps, or the cause your organization is working on, is more compelling than your organization itself.

In other words, donors are more interested in looking through the window than they are looking at the window frame.

The Counterintuitive Consequence…

When you use a “thin frame” and show donors more of what they came for, an amazing thing happens over time.

Donors come to value your organization more highly than they value other organizations.  Why? 

Because every time donors look at a piece of communication from you, the donor sees the thing they care about most. 

Put another way, by talking less about your organization in your fundraising, donors come to value your organization more.

Your Frame is Important

Your frame can add value.  It’s important.  You can even use the frame to shape the conversation. 

And it’s one of the ways a donor comes to know your organization and what you stand for.

But as you construct your fundraising – as you decide what to talk about and how much to talk about it – always remember that donors are usually far more interested in looking at what they can see through the window than looking at the frame. 

Context is Everything


Context is everything in fundraising. 

A conversation with a long-time major donor whose child was impacted by your organization’s work is different than a conversation with a potential major donor you’re meeting for the first time.

We all intuitively get this.  And we modify our writing / behavior / messaging accordingly.

But when creating mass donor fundraising, nonprofits raise a lot less money because they forget this lesson in all sorts of little ways.

Take a look at these two examples.

  • Some organizations call the people they help “our clients.”  That’s defining the helped people based on the organization’s relationship with them. 
  • Saying “Will you support our work?” make sense (and feels powerful) from an organization’s point of view.  But it’s defining the work based on the organization’s relationship to it.

The first rule of persuasion is, “You cannot take a person where you want them to go until you first meet them where they are.”

So you want to start with the donor’s context – you want to meet the donor where the donor is.

So instead of saying, “our clients,” you might say, “people suffering from PTSD who need counselling.”  By naming what it is you’re helping with – rather than using the internal shorthand of “our clients” – you’ve “met the donor where they are.”

Instead of asking donors to support your work, ask them to “help a person suffering from PTSD.”  Asking donors to “right wrongs” or “fight injustices” will always be more effective than asking them to support your organization.

Here’s another example from a piece of fundraising I saw the other day.  The organization said this:

  • Please help stop human trafficking, your gift will support our organization’s work.

But don’t you think they would raise more money (and stop more trafficking) if they said this?

  • Please help stop human trafficking, your gift will help keep a young girl safe.

To a donor, it’s more important to “keep a girl safe” than it is to “support an organization.”

The Key Realization

It’s powerful to realize that most donors care more about the issue you’re working on than they care about your organization.

Why?  It helps you remember that even though your donors serve your organization through their giving, you’re also serving donors by giving them an opportunity to do something about a cause they care about.

And when you remember that you’re serving donors, you’re more likely to go to their context – to “meet them where they’re at.”

When you use a context that makes more sense to donors, you serve donors more effectively and, as a result, you raise more money.