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!  

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.

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! 

Poor Name, Great Lesson


My mentors always warned me to avoid a particular type of story.

Here’s why…

They noticed that some appeals for children’s charities would raise a lot more money than other appeals. 

Yet all of the appeals had a story about a child in need – and the appeals all featured the same offer.  What was the difference?

They dug into the appeals and noticed one big difference:

  • In the appeals that raised the most, the stories were focused on the situation the child was in today.  They barely mentioned the parents of the child, or what caused the child to be in the situation they were in. 
  • In the appeals that raised less, the stories spent significant time and energy talking about the parents and their role in the child’s situation.  The stories spent less time talking about the situation the child was in today. 

These Fundraisers came up with a theory to explain why this happens:

  • When the focus of the story is on the child and their current situation of need, readers would therefore focus on the child and want to help the child.  This would cause the appeal to raise a lot of money.
  • When too much of the story is focused on the parent and/or the parent’s actions, some readers would focus on the parent.  This means that fewer readers would focus on the child, and fewer people would give.  So these appeals raised less money.

To describe stories where the parent or the actions of the parent overshadowed the situation the child was in, my mentors used the term “toxic mom.” 

I’ve taken the liberty to rename this the “toxic parent” problem.  This was taught to me in a more chauvinistic time.  Pinning this problem only on mothers is ridiculous.

Example Time

I’m sure you’ve seen this yourself.

The well-meaning nonprofit tells a story like this…

  • “Patrick has been in and out of rehab several times.  Because when he drinks, he occasionally gets violent.  His two young daughters need a safe place to stay, and your gift today will help them.”

Opening that story by talking about Patrick is a great way to raise less money.  Why?  Because some readers will think the story is about Patrick.  And other readers will think Patrick caused these problems for himself, that he’s an addict, and addicts are weak-willed people who can’t keep their act together. 

I’m not saying any of those reactions are correct.  But they are all reactions that take the focus off helping the girls, which is the reason the letter exists and was sent to the reader.  And they all happened because of the way the story was told.

The story would have been more effective if it had been told like this…

  • “Katy and Emma are two young girls in a tough situation.  One of their parents is occasionally violent after drinking.  The girls are too young to be on their own.  They need a safe place to stay, and your gift today will help them.”

All of my experience indicates that the second approach to telling the story would result in more money raised.

Poor Name, But Great Lesson

I was warned to edit the stories so that the “toxic parent” never overshadowed the child in need.  That was a good lesson. 

But the Big Lesson is to keep your reader’s attention in the place that is most likely to cause them to give a gift.

And that place is the problem that your beneficiary is facing today.

The “toxic parent” is not necessarily “toxic” because he or she is evil.  The parent is “toxic” because any time spent in a letter/email/story on the person who caused the problem means time your reader is not focused on the person in need, the problem they are facing, and how the donor can help today.   

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

“You’ve got some PR in your fundraising”

public relations

Most people do not expect Public Relations strategies to raise money today.

That’s why I’m always surprised when organizations put PR in their appeals and then are surprised that their appeal raises less money than it could.

Short & Sweet

Keep PR out of your direct response fundraising.  That’s your appeals, e-appeals, and newsletters (if you’d like your newsletter to raise money).

Why?  Because PR is meant to increase goodwill between the reader and the organization.  Merriam-Webster defines it this way: “the business of inducing the public to have understanding for and goodwill toward a person, firm, or institution.”

But the appeals that raise the most money are relentlessly focused on motivating the reader to take action now.  That’s a completely different goal and – when pursued – results in a completely different appeal.

Two Places PR Sneaks In

In my experience, here are the two ways PR shows up most often in appeals:

  1. A story of a person who has already been helped
  2. A description of the organization, or its programs, meant to make the reader believe that the organization is good at what it does

In my experience, including either of those things in an appeal causes the appeal to raise less money, not more. 

  • A note on the #2 item above.  I often hear nonprofits say things like, “But we have to tell them how effective we are!”  Here’s the truth as I’ve experienced it: how effective your organization is (and similar sentiments) is something like the seventh-most important thing at motivating a person to make a gift to an appeal. 

    If you’ve done a great job communicating and repeating the six things that are more likely to motivate a person to give a gift – things like a great offer, strong urgency, clear negative consequences to inaction, etc. – then by all means mention how effective your organization is. But make sure you cover the more important stuff first.

The Place For PR

There is absolutely a place for PR in your nonprofit communications toolkit. 

I’ve seen PR succeed at getting nonprofits in front of new, large groups of potential donors.  I’ve seen PR lay the groundwork for successful fundraising campaigns.  I’ve seen PR get nonprofits out of communication jams.

But good PR is always focused on helping an organization raise more money in the future. 

And an appeal or e-appeal is focused on helping an organization raise more money today.

Mind Blown In 3, 2, 1…

Here’s a mind-bender for you:

A successful, hard-hitting appeal is excellent PR.

How?  If successful PR “increases goodwill between the person and the organization,” then a successful appeal is excellent PR because it motivates a lot of people to give a gift – and every one of those donors feels great about giving

If that’s not goodwill, I don’t know what is.

It’s just that the “goodwill” was developed through the act of giving.

This is the secret I wish more small- to medium-sized organizations knew: the best way to increase goodwill among their donors is to get their donors to give more often, not by telling donors how great the organization is. 

So the next time you look at one of your appeals or e-appeals and think, “We’ve got some PR in our fundraising,” take it out.  Focus your appeal instead on your offer and a strong ask.  You’ll increase goodwill and raise more money at the same time!