What A Cardboard Cut-Out Taught Me About Fundraising

My first job out of college had a weird feature. When you walked in the door, the first thing you saw was a life-sized cutout of a 70-year-old woman who looked like Barbara Bush.

Her name was Mrs. Johnson

Mrs. Johnson had white hair, a blue sweater set, and pearls.

The company was a fundraising agency that helped nonprofits all over the country raise money. And we were instructed to write every single fundraising appeal as if we were writing to Mrs. Johnson.

This was my first job out of college. I was 22. And writing fundraising letters to Mrs. Johnson seemed really weird. After all, she wasn’t going to change the world! She looked like a grandma. It was my young friends and I who were going to change the world!

A Lesson In Demographics

Mrs. Johnson was in our office because the founder of that fundraising agency knew a couple powerful things:

  1. First, he knew his demographics: the average donor in the United States was a 69-year-old female. (Which is still true today, by the way.) And a 69-year-old woman was far more likely to give gifts, and give for longer, than me and my 22-year-old friends.
  2. Second, he knew that us copywriters tended to make a couple common mistakes. We’d write fundraising letters as if we were writing to all the donors at once, and we’d talk about the things that we cared about, that we thought were most important.

So, our founder had us write every letter as if we were writing it to Mrs. Johnson. Having her life-sized figure in the office was a powerful way to get us to think about who we were writing to.

We also learned a powerful lesson: an organization can really like a fundraising letter – but if Mrs. Johnson doesn’t like the letter, the letter will be a failure.

I share this today because most nonprofits make the same mistakes that us yahoo copywriters made back then. Organizations often write letters and emails that they like. They write a certain way to impress themselves and please the staff or board. They use insider jargon and describe processes that only people in their niche care about.

All of which causes them to raise less money. Because, as a rule, Mrs. Johnson doesn’t care about any of that stuff.

First, Figure Out Your Mrs. Johnson

It might be a Ms. Rodriguez. It might be a Mr. Patterson. It might be Mrs. Johnson. The important thing is to figure out who she is for your organization, and then write to her about the things that matter to her. Talk about your organization, without jargon, in a way that she can understand.

And if you’re guessing who your Mrs. Johnson is, don’t guess. Find out. It costs so little to find out. Do donor surveys. Do donor interviews. Do whatever you need to do to figure out who your supporters are. Please. Don’t. Make. Assumptions.

For instance, your donors are almost certainly older than you are. Every client I’ve worked with that had an age overlay done on their donors was shocked to discover how old their donors were.

One organization swore up-and-down that their average donor would be in their 50’s. Their average donor was 73.

It’s possible your Mrs. Johnson is different. For organizations that have a ton of child sponsors as donor, Mrs. Johnson tends to be about 49 years old, not 69 years old.

For organizations that are super youth-oriented, Mrs. Johnson might even be 35 years old on average. And she might be a Mr. It doesn’t matter. The thing is to figure out who it is for your organization, how old they are, and then write to them about what they care about.

Communicate To Her, About What She Cares About

You’re getting a handle on who your Mrs. Johnson is. You know she almost certainly knows less about your organization and your cause than you do. And that she has different interests and values than you do.

Now we’re getting somewhere!

You see, too many nonprofits look at their fundraising as their chance to communicate what is so special about their organization. But smart nonprofits look at their fundraising as a chance to communicate something of interest to Mrs. Johnson and people like her.

Don’t write about your organization. Don’t write about what your organization cares about. Instead, look for points of alignment between what your organization cares about and what your Mrs. Johnson cares about, and write about those things.

For instance, I used to serve an organization that helped disadvantaged women get an education, graduate from college, and get a job. The organization thought of itself as ‘giving a hand up, not a hand out’ and often asked their donors to “send in a gift today to help a local woman with a hand up, not a hand out.” Jim and I thought that this organization’s donors — their Mrs. Johnsons — cared more about providing an education than they did providing ‘a hand up.’ So we convinced the organization to instead talk about college credits, and to ask their donors to ‘send in a gift today help help a woman get one college credit closer to a job.’ Worked like crazy.

That’s a good example of focusing your donor communications on how your donors think about an issue, not how the organization thinks about an issue.

So figure out what your Mrs. Johnson cares about. Figure out what words and phrases she uses to describe those things. Then talk to her about what her gift to you will do using those ideas, words and phrases!

Just A Reminder, She’s Probably Older

One thing that hasn’t changed since I was a young fundraiser: the average donor in the U.S. is about a 69-year-old female. And she’s the type of donor who will stay with you longest and give you the most over time.

She probably isn’t on social media. She probably checks email occasionally, but doesn’t trust it because it’s so hard to tell what spam is. She might be on Facebook. But she absolutely has a mailbox and reads her snail mail more than you and I do.

So that tells you the media channels that you want to use if you want to reach her effectively. . .

All That From A Cut-Out?

Amazing. All of this epic long post from a cardboard cut-out that I first met in 1993. But it’s a lesson that stuck with me as long as I’ve been a fundraiser, and I think it’s made me a more effective fundraiser.

My hope is that it does the same for you. Figure out who your Mrs. Johnson is. Grab some stock photography with a picture that looks like her. Print it out, and stick it to your computer monitor. Every time you’re writing your fundraising, make sure you’re writing to her. About what she cares about. Using words she would use. Do that and you’re on your way to have a LOT of Mrs. Johnsons devoted to your cause — and sending you lots of money!


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

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