Why You Should Send a Letter Now


Here’s why you should probably be sending out an emergency appeal letter to your donor file:

This chart shows the percentage of revenue that’s coming in from different generations.

Direct mail appeals work very well at reaching the group of folks in blue on the right.

You know, the ones who (statistically speaking) have the most compassion and money to give you right now.

And you know, the people who your email and social probably aren’t reaching in significant numbers.

To any organization who is considering using direct mail for their coronavirus fundraising,


I can’t say that everyone should do it. But chances are, you should.

Here’s how to think about it to make a good decision for your organization:

  • If the coronavirus or the current situation is harming your beneficiaries, your cause, or your organization, then you should be fundraising now.
  • If you’ve sent out an emergency e-appeal and it raised more than a “normal” e-appeal raises…
  • If you’re able to convert your e-appeal into a direct mail appeal and get it in the mail quickly…

Then you should absolutely send out an “emergency direct mail appeal.”

Get it written (your e-appeal is your first draft – and maybe your final draft!) and send it as fast as you can.

Speed matters. If your donors are going to give emergency gifts to five organizations, you don’t want to be the 7th organization who asks them.

And if you can’t get a letter out to everyone quickly, then figure out how to get a letter out to your top donors in the next couple days. One tactic we see working: print out your e-appeal, handwrite a note on the top and send it to your major donors along with a generic reply card and envelope.

The Big Idea here is to use the mail to reach your major donors and the LARGE group of compassionate folks who would like to help but aren’t email responsive. Good luck out there. And we’ll be posting helpful tips every day for the foreseeable future.

“What should we avoid in our fundraising?”


Remember the Founder I told you about last Thursday?

The one who said that his organization exists “so that donors can help these girls”?

He also asked a question that I wish more non-profits would ask themselves:

“What should we avoid in our fundraising?”

When was the last time you heard a non-profit ask that question?

There are LOTS of things to avoid in your fundraising, like the non-obvious mistakes that cost so much money, of course.

But mostly I liked that he asked it because it’s such a good question.

Two challenges for you:

  1. Quickly jot down a list of all the things your organization currently avoids in your appeals and newsletters. It’s likely to be an interesting list because most organizations have a set of unwritten rules for what they can and cannot talk about.

a. I can almost guarantee you that there are some things on that list that you should be including, not avoiding. For instance, if “Avoid telling stories where the person still needs help” is on your list, you should take it off.

b. Follow-up question: are there some things you should avoid for some segments of your audience, but not others? For instance, there are some things you should avoid doing in grant applications. But if you avoid them in your direct response appeal letters, you’re raising a lot less money than you could be.

  1. Sign up for Free Review Fridays. At 10:00 AM Pacific each Friday, I review appeals, e-appeals, and newsletters submitted by your fellow Fundraisers (and you can submit yours, too). Watch a few examples, and you’ll quickly see what to include – and what to avoid – with your appeals and newsletters!

“Our organization exists so that donors can help these girls”


I recently spent an hour talking to a founder of a nonprofit who totally gets it.

His organization provides schooling for girls in Africa.

We got to talking about fundraising (surprise, surprise) and I mentioned the principle of donor-centered fundraising.

He said the best thing any Founder has ever said to me:

“Our organization exists so that donors can help these girls.”

I just sat there and grinned widely.

Because how great is that? That one belief – that the organization exists so that donors can help – will be an incredible driver of fundraising success.

They will just skip right by all the pitfalls of talking too much about the organization itself. Of making the organization the hero.

Of relegating donors to mere “partners.”

I told him about the raw fundraising power of his belief, and how it was going to make his fundraising more effective.

He said, “Well, I knew I loved being able to provide schooling for the girls that I was able to help. I figured other people would love it too. So I’m creating a way to help more donors do that – which of course helps more girls.”

The Truth He Knew

This guy knew another powerful truth.

Most of your donors are more interested in your cause or beneficiaries – and what they can do to help – than they are interested in your organization.

In other words, he knows that his donors will enjoy sending a girl in Africa to school more than they would enjoy being a supporter of his organization.

So he’ll focus his communications on how the donor can send a girl to school in Africa instead of focusing it on his organization and how the donor can support them.

And he’ll raise more money.

How Different Would Your Communications Be?

If your nonprofit were to adopt this attitude – even if it’s just your fundraising that adopts the stance – how would your donor communications change?

Try writing your next appeal as if you were writing to donors, telling them about something they care deeply about – and offering them a chance to make a powerful change that they are going to love doing. You’ll love how well it works!

The Non-Obvious Mistakes that Cost You Money


This post is a list of what I call “non-obvious mistakes.”

No one in your organization will ever notice them.

But they cost you thousands of dollars every time you send out an appeal.

Because these mistakes are the difference between an appeal that raises $40,000 instead of the $68,000 it could have raised. These are the difference between an appeal that raises $2,500 instead of $8,000.

Regardless of how big or small your organization is, these non-obvious mistakes are expensive:

  • Lack of clarity about what the donor’s gift will do. Saying things like “Please send a gift today to provide hope” are not clear descriptions of what a donor’s gift will accomplish. As Brené Brown puts it, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” (Want to know how to be clear? Have a great offer.)
  • Not printing your donor’s name, address, and suggested gift amounts on their reply card. The tests are clear: customized reply cards with customized gift asks will increase the number of people who respond, and increase the size of gifts they give.
  • Mailing too many people. You’re sending your mailing to all your past donors, even the ones who haven’t given in several years.
  • Making your appeal hard to read. These are things like type that’s below 13pt, too many words per page, too-small margins, too much reverse-type, etc.
  • Not including clear reasons why the donor should give a gift right now, today. Most nonprofit appeals and e-appeals share what’s happening at the organization and ask for support. But they don’t include any reasons that the donor should give a gift right now – and then are weirdly surprised when very few donors give a gift today.
    How many of those mistakes is your organization making on a regular basis?

These get missed because – somewhat rightly – we’re usually focused on the obvious mistakes that everyone knows about:

  • Messing up donor data. Like addressing mail to me as “Dear Seven” instead of “Dear Steven” and doing it for years. (True story.)
  • Print shop foul-ups. Things like half of your donors getting a reply card for a different nonprofit. (Another true story. Super fun!)
  • Lousy Links. When the links and buttons in your email don’t lead donors to the right place.

Everybody who has done direct response fundraising for any length of time has a couple of these under their belt. Things happen. But you can build systems and processes to eliminate most of these obvious mistakes, most of the time.

But it’s the other kind of mistakes that kill you.

It’s the non-obvious mistakes that stop organizations from “making the leap” to the next level.

It’s the non-obvious mistakes that keep organizations from ever reaching the scale they need to make a big difference.

The best thing you can do is learn. Read this blog. Follow people who have done this stuff at scale. For instance, follow Lisa Sargent on Twitter – she’s rocking it lately with great advice. As much as possible, do what experienced people recommend, not what know-nothing opinion-havers in your organization say they like.

And for those of you who can’t do what experienced people recommend because people in your organization won’t let you – hold tight. I’m working on something I’m calling the Convince Your Boss Kit. Stay tuned. And for now, do as much as you can!

How to Land More Sponsors for Your Next Event


Want to be more successful at landing business sponsorships for your events?

Here’s an easy way to land more sponsors when you’re asking for sponsorships through the mail or email.

Our clients have applied the following lessons from successful direct mail and landed more (and higher value) sponsors:

  • Get to the point — that you’re asking for an event sponsorship — very quickly. Usually within the first couple sentences, and no later than the first sentence of the second paragraph.
  • Mention a “shared value” with the organization you’re asking. Something like, “I know you care about the elderly, and it’s clear [COMPANY NAME] does too…”
  • Write from one person to one person. Do not use the Organizational or Royal “we.” Make it a direct ask from one person to one person (even if you don’t know who the other person is, exactly).
  • Sell the benefits of the sponsorship, and “sell” the outcomes your organization creates in the same way you’ll sell them to a donor. For example, if your organization provides housing for elderly people, you could say something like, “In addition, your sponsorship will help a local senior in need have a safe, long-term place to stay.”
  • Provide the name of a person to call if the reader has a question, and a phone number (direct line if possible).
  • Be sure to repeat the Ask for a sponsorship in the last paragraph or two. Just like with your fundraising direct mail and email, very few people will read the whole thing.

Apply these easy ideas the next time you send a letter or email to potential event sponsors, and you’ll land more sponsorships!

Three Things All Direct Response Fundraisers Should Know

Direct response.

Last month I received a brilliant email from a friend.

It perfectly sums up why direct response fundraising is so hard:

“I’ve started telling people there are only three things they need to know about development.

    1. It’s the most counterintuitive thing you’ve ever done. (What people like isn’t motivational. What’s motivational, you won’t like.)
    2. The only way to know what works is A / B testing.
    3. You can spend years, and lots of $’s doing your own testing, or you can hire those who have done it and see immediate results.”

Everything you need to know to succeed in direct response fundraising is all right there.

“It’s the most counterintuitive thing you’ve ever done.”

The things most people think will work in direct response fundraising don’t work very well.

For instance, there’s the assumption that “to get a first gift from someone, that person needs to know that our organization is good at what we do.” Nope. Not true. Your organization’s effectiveness is not even in the Top 5 reasons why most new donors give a gift.

There’s another assumption that says, “we need to always tell stories of success.” Nope. Not true. You only want to do this some of the time, and less often than you think.

“The only way to know what works is A / B testing.”

The reason I can state so strongly that “your organization’s effectiveness is not in the Top 5 reasons why your new donors give” is because we’ve tested it.

We know, from direct head-to-head testing, that including content about how effective your organization is in a donor acquisition piece will reduce the number of people who respond.

You can certainly acquire donors while accentuating how effective your organization is. But you can acquire more donors if you focus your message on the things that matter more.

I was taught this as a young fundraiser in the early ‘90’s. And it’s just one of the many nuggets of wisdom available from our industry’s roughly 70 years’ worth of A / B testing. Each one of those nuggets can help you and me know how to raise the most money in a given situation.

“You can spend years, and lots of $’s doing your own testing, or you can hire those who have done it and see immediate results.”

Smart organizations are constantly looking for ways they can work less while raising more money. So they’re always looking for successes from The Fundraisers Who Have Gone Before, successes that they can apply to their organization.

Sometimes that means going to AFP seminars or spelunking on SOFII. Or purchasing the latest book from Tom Ahern, or Jeff Brooks, or Erica Waasdorp. Or hiring experts like the team at Better Fundraising.

Regardless of how you tap into all that knowledge, be sure you’re seeking out the learnings of “those who have done it” so that you can “see immediate results”!

The Choreography of Donor Attention

Donor Attention.

Superfast, three-part tip to help you raise more money with your appeal letters.

Part 1 – Here’s How Your Donors “Read”

This is what’s called a “heat map” – it shows where donors’ eyes go as they look at your direct mail letters.Heatmap.Your donors will scan your letter to decide IF they will read your letter.

And not everyone will decide to read your letter.

But you still want everyone to receive the message you’re sending, right?

Part 2 – So, You Need To…

Knowing where your donors are likely to look, you need to “choreograph” your letter to put the most important information in the places where a donor is most likely to see it.

Part 3 – And You’ll Raise More If…

So you might ask, “What’s the most important information I can share with my donor?”

Here’s what our experience says. The most important information to share quickly with a donor in an appeal is:

  • Why their gift is needed today
  • What their gift will accomplish

Note: this is just one of the reasons why having a great fundraising offer, and knowing how to Ask powerfully, are vital to success. Great offers communicate very quickly why a donor’s gift is needed, and what it will accomplish.

Once you know all this, you’ll make different choices about what you say in your letters, and where you say it. You move away from the demonstrably poor-performing “share a story of success and ask for support” approach, and toward a direct mail approach that raises lots of money.

Please Don’t Wait Too Long to Ask


A word of advice to small- and medium-sized nonprofits: don’t “rest” your donors for too long after year-end.

I was taught – via stories and data – that the single biggest predictor of whether a donor would give a gift is how recently the donor had given a gift.

Put slightly differently – the more recently a donor has given a gift, the more likely that donor is to give you another gift. This is the “Recency” in classic RFM “Recency Frequency Motivation” modeling.

We had a client who didn’t believe this was possible. So we tested it.

We sent out an appeal in late January. (I should mention that they didn’t want to do this because they thought it would “bombard” their donors who had just been asked a lot at year-end. But everything we’d been doing for them was working great. So they trusted us enough to try it.)

The appeal did GREAT. Response rate and net revenue were huge wins.

Then we analyzed who gave to the appeal. Specifically, we looked at how recently each donor had given a gift.

  • The single largest group of people who gave were the people who had given the previous month (December).
  • The second largest group of people who gave were the people who had given two months prior (November).
  • The third largest group of people who gave were the people who had given three months prior (October).
  • The fourth-largest group of people who gave were the people who had given four months prior (September).
  • The fifth-largest group of people who gave were the people who had given five months prior (August).


The test showed the organization that what I’d been saying was true.

Now, should you ask a Major Donor to give another gift the month after she gave a substantial gift? Nope. How about a Foundation who just gave you a grant? Also nope. And of course, there are additional and more sophisticated segmentation analyses.

But here’s what should happen for donor communications that you send to everyone…

Your Takeaways

What should you and your organization do with this information? I suggest three important takeaways:

  1. Realize (and share internally) what a big role recency plays in who gives to your fundraising. You’ll become a smarter organization immediately. Because will you mail all your appeals to donors who haven’t given a gift in 36 months? Nope. That means money saved.
  2. Don’t wait too long to ask your donors after they’ve given a gift. Every month you wait reduces the chance they will give.
  3. Ask more often. I love this part – when a woman at the organization reviewed the results of the test, she said something brilliant. She looked at me and said, “We should be giving our donors more chances to help, shouldn’t we? Because every time we’ve been ‘resting’ our donors, we’ve accidentally been lowering how much money we raise, right?” Exactly right. It was a joy to watch “the light go on” for her, and then to watch that organization raise more money that year as they started communicating with their donors more.

As I write this, It’s early January. And it’s important to Thank your donors in a meaningful way in January. But don’t wait too long to Ask your donors for support again. We Fundraisers should constantly be learning from the past by letting tests like the one above show you how to raise more money!

Should You Mention Your Goal Amount?

Goal Amount.

Here’s a great question from a smart Fundraiser (and Free Review Friday watcher) named Jeff:

“I had a quick question: Is there an advantage to mentioning the overall goal in an Appeal? Yes, our offer may be $25 a week to help a kid in need, but what about telling our donors our overall appeal goal is $50,000? Have you found an advantage in telling this larger goal, or can it actually decrease giving from some donors?”

And here’s my answer:

Yes, I think it’s a good idea to mention the goal in the appeal.

However, what’s more important is to include multiple other reasons for the donor to give a gift today.

For instance, if you have five kids who are coming into your program next week, I’d mention that before I’d mention the goal.

Here’s why…

Your goal has far more meaning to internal audiences than it does to external audiences.

Insiders and stakeholders love mentioning goals because they know exactly what the goal means. They know the context, they know the scale of the amount, and they know how important it is.

But I’d wager that more than 95% of your donors don’t know if a particular amount is a lot or a little for your organization.

Note: there are times where a massive goal can get your donors’ attention and help motivate them to give. But those situations are outliers, in my experience.

Most of the time, your goal – by itself – is just not much of a motivator for your donors.

Give Your Goal Meaning

When mentioning a goal, I try to give it a meaning that a donor would value.

Here’s an example I gave Jeff: “We need to raise $50,000” is a LOT less impactful than “I need to raise $50,000 so that every child who comes to us can be welcomed, witnessed to, and see the love of Christ in action.”

In that example, I’ve turned a number with little meaning into a number that has a lot of meaning for Jeff’s donors.

The Context is More Important than the Amount

Here’s a data-driven finding that brings this whole idea home…

When an organization has a shortfall, the fact that they have a shortfall is more effective at getting donors to respond than the size of the shortfall.

That tells you something important: the context around an amount is more important than the amount itself.

So next time you have a goal, mention it!

  • A goal can be helpful, but you sure don’t need one (or need to mention one) to be successful.
  • What’s more important is to include multiple reasons to give today that have meaning to your donors.