The Fundraising IS the Relationship

Fundraising relationship.

When it comes down to it, fundraising is not that hard.

You treat donors and potential donors with kindness and respect. You try to build relationship with them.

We all “get” the relationship aspect.

But every organization has some donors that you are never going to be in relationship with. These are donors who don’t go to events. They are $25 donors and major donors who you’ve never met and won’t return your calls. They aren’t known by anybody on your staff or board.

But you still want a relationship with them. And believe it or not, it’s possible to have a GREAT relationship with them.

Here’s the secret…

Your Fundraising IS Your Relationship

You’re already in a relationship with them.

The way you communicate with them is you send them fundraising. The way they communicate with you is by giving a gift… or not.

So for your side of the relationship – the fundraising that you send them – the question becomes; “How are you going to show up?”

Take a look at a bunch of standard practices is mass donor fundraising, and think about all of these in the context of relationship:

  • Fundraising that talks mostly about the organization itself, and very little about the donor
  • Only sending out a couple pieces of fundraising a year, and going dark (ghosting) for weeks and months
  • Fundraising that, when sharing success stories made possible by the donor and the organization, focuses almost exclusively on the organization’s role
  • Fundraising that’s written to the organization’s level of expertise, instead of written to the donor’s level of expertise

You’d never put up with those behaviors from another human, would you?

It’s almost like we ignored the basic principles of relationship when we created mass donor fundraising plans and materials, don’t you think?

So is it any surprise those approaches don’t make for effective fundraising?

Your Side of the Relationship

Here’s how to hold up your side of the relationship, how to show up in your donor’s life and be the type of organization that she’d like to be in relationship with:

  • Fundraising that’s mostly about what she cares about (your beneficiaries and what she can do or has done to help), and less about your organization
  • Fundraising that regularly shows up in your donor’s life
  • Fundraising that focuses more on the donor’s role and less on the organization’s role
  • Fundraising that’s written to make it easy for a donor to understand

Follow those principles and you’ll build GREAT relationships with donors you’ve never talked to.

And over time, many of your donors will “upgrade” their relationship with you through attending an event, giving you a major gift, including you in their will, etc.

And it will have happened because you made the generous choice to show up in their lives.

You held up your end of the relationship in a way that made them want to get to know you better.

Top 5 Appeal Tips

Top 5 Appeal Tips.

I’ve reviewed a LOT of appeal letters.

Recently someone thought to ask, “What’s the advice you give most often?”

What a great question! I immediately wanted to know because it seemed like the top 5 pieces of feedback would make a great “checklist” to share with organizations who want their appeals to raise more money. So we did the research.

From hundreds of reviews, here are the Top 5 pieces of advice I give most often when reviewing an appeal or e-appeal…

#5 – Avoid using pronouns in underlined or bolded copy

The main reason to highlight specific sentences and sentence fragments in appeals is to pre-select what you want most people to read.

Here’s what I mean by “pre-select.” Most people will scan, not read, an appeal letter. As they scan, their eyes are most likely to stop on emphasized copy. So by bolding and underlining, you are in effect choosing for the scanner the parts of your appeal they are more likely to read.

And if you’re going to take the time to choose a sentence for a person to read, make sure they can understand that sentence without having read the rest of the letter. Which brings us to underlining pronouns and why not to do it.

If you underline a sentence that reads, “He needs it today” the person scanning your letter does not know who “he” is and doesn’t know what “it” is. The person’s limited attention has just been taken by something they can’t understand. Not good.

Whatever you highlight in your letter should be able to be easily understood without the context provided by the rest of the letter. It needs to make sense if it’s the only thing the person reads.

#4 – Ask donors to help one beneficiary, not to help all the beneficiaries

Appeals and e-appeals tend to work better when the donor is asked to help one person – one beneficiary – instead of asked to help all the beneficiaries.

To give you an example, a foundation that supports a hospital would likely write, “Your gift today will help cancer patients.” But the appeal or e-appeal would raise more money if the ask was, “Your gift today will help a cancer patient.”

Why? Because when a donor is asked to help just one beneficiary, it’s easier for her to say “yes” then when she’s asked to help an unknown, larger number of beneficiaries.

Additionally, it’s more believable. Say I’m a $1,000 donor to an organization that helps kids. Do I really believe them when they say, “Your gift will help all the children we serve”? I know the organization helps thousands of children, and I’m pretty sure my gift isn’t going to help all of them.

There’s a rule I have in mind as I create or review any piece of fundraising: I need to convince the donor to help one person before they will be interested in helping more than one person.

#3 – Include no more than 1 or 2 numbers in an appeal

Most numbers in appeals need context and thought before the donor recognizes why those numbers are important.

But because most donors don’t have the context, and are unlikely to put in the thought, the numbers become a part of the appeal that the donor doesn’t really understand.

Think about that for a second; the organization is using numbers to establish credibility and expertise… but is pushing donors away. The numbers have the opposite effect than the organization intends.

The numbers can be GREAT for Foundations, Partner organizations, Government grants, etc. But not for mass donor appeal letters and e-appeals.

And of course there are some numbers that are good to have in your appeals – you can read about those here.

#2 – Avoid “we” and “our” language

Your fundraising appeals and e-appeals should sound as if they were written by one person, for one person.

It should not sound as if an organization is writing a donor. It should sound as if a person is writing a donor.

Are there times with the editorial “we” makes sense? Sure. Some parts of annual reports come to mind. Your website. Blog posts, too.

But in your direct response fundraising, sounding 1-to1 is the way to go.

#1 – The only good news in an appeal should be that the donor’s gift today will help

Here’s something we see again and again – it’s like clockwork.

We’ll start working with an organization. Their previous approach to appeals was to “share a story of something they’ve already done, then ask the donor to do more of that thing.”

We change their approach to appeals that “share what’s needed today and how the donor can help.”

Their appeals begin to raise more money immediately.

Note: you should absolutely share past successes. That’s how your donors see that their gift to your organization was a good decision. But share the successes in separate publications; your newsletters, your blog posts, stories on your website, in e-stories, and your annual report.

Focus your appeals on something the donor cares about but that needs help, and the fantastic news that she can make a difference with her gift today.

This is hard because it’s counter-intuitive. But it works like crazy.

Four Times You Can ‘Break the Rules Like an Artist’

Break the rules.

There are best practices for direct response fundraising for a reason.

Smart Fundraisers and organizations, looking at patterns over the last 70 years, have noticed that some tactics in appeals and e-appeals work better than others.

But there are absolutely times you can “break the rules” and succeed. Sometimes succeed wildly.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
— Pablo Picasso

Here are four instances when you can break the rules…

The Story, or Storyteller, is Incredible

My general rule of thumb is to ask the donor to give a gift, and tell her what her gift will accomplish, no later than the third or fourth paragraph.

But if the story in the letter is so dramatic and powerful that it’s a good bet the reader will keep reading, you can absolutely work the ask in later.

Also, some nonprofit leaders are so good at storytelling that their letters just draw people in. In that case it’s also OK to delay the ask. But that happens in perhaps 5 out of 100 organizations, in my experience.

Fiscal Year-End

I’m always banging on about how it always works better to ask donors to “help beneficiaries” than it does to ask donors to “support the organization.”

That said, a “Fiscal Year-End Appeal” is as close to a sure thing as you can get.

Each year I’m a little doubtful because asking donors to “help us end our fiscal year strong with a gift today” feels like it violates my core understanding of how fundraising works… and each year it works great.

As an aside, a “shortfall letter” that asks donors to “erase the shortfall” will also always work well. And you can do them more often than you think.

Writing to major donors

As a rule, a major donor is more likely to read more of what you send them than a mass donor is.

So you can take longer to get to the point. You can be more relational. Your letter or email can be more personal.

Don’t ignore the foundational truth that a significant percentage of people will scan, not read, whatever you send them. But major donors are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and read more.

The Situation is Extraordinary

The pandemic is a good example of this. The situation was so extra-ordinary that organizations simply could explain how their beneficiaries were being negatively affected, ask donors to help, and money poured in.

The asks didn’t need to be specific. Exactly what the donor’s gift would do sometimes didn’t even get explained.

But any time donors know that a situation is extraordinary and harmful, you don’t need to “follow the rules” as closely to get them to respond. This goes for most natural disasters, whether they are news globally or local in scale.

The Rest of the Time

In the meantime – when you’re not in one of the above situations – develop a practice. Learn as much as you can. Don’t treat any one piece of fundraising as precious.

Learn the “rules” like a pro, and you’ll know when to break them like a fundraising artist.

Creating Tension or Revealing Tension?


I was speaking with a founder of a nonprofit recently, and she said something that was so good I knew I had to share it with you…

We were talking about sharing the needs of beneficiaries in appeals and e-appeals. I shared that we believed in sharing those needs, even though sometimes doing so made donors uncomfortable. Her reply was fantastic:

She knew those stories sometime caused tension in donors, she said.

Then she continued…

“When we nonprofits tell a story that shares the needs of a beneficiary, we don’t create the tension that the donor feels. The story just reveals the internal tension the donor holds between how the world is and how they believe the world should be.”

I love that! It jives with how I’ve always felt: great-performing appeals remind a donor that “something’s not right in the world, but it could be if you help.”

And it hints at why sharing the need is so effective in appeals and e-appeals: it taps into something the donor already knows and feels.

No education is needed. No programs or processes need to be discussed.

It’s like a shortcut to the donor’s heart. To what she cares about most.

Your donors want to make the world a better place. So share “stories of need” in your appeals and newsletters. (Save your “stories of triumph” for your newsletters and other Reporting tactics.)

Use a story to remind your busy donors that the problem your organization is addressing is affecting people right now, today. And that their gift will make a meaningful difference.

When you do, more donors will exercise their values by giving a gift through your organization.

And later – in separate communications – be sure to remind your donors of the good that their gift and your organization has done. Because if you’re going to reveal the tension, you should also reveal the triumph.

Organizations that only do one or the other aren’t raising as much money and doing as much good as they could be.

You Change the World

Change the world.

A bit of encouragement for you today…

Do you want to change the world?

A direct response Fundraiser can change the world just by sending out an email.

By doing something almost everybody does – sending an email, of all things – a Fundraiser can change the world by raising money.

A donor’s money that was going to do something is now doing your thing. Your organization is now going to do more. And your donor loved giving the gift.

Email sent. World changed.

Food for thought: how many people do you think have the skill to send emails – to people they’ve never even met – and have some of those people reply with large amounts of money?

Not very many.

Develop your skills to raise money, in email or direct mail or telemarketing or radio, and you can have a meaningful job for the rest of your life.

People and organizations will value your ability to change the world. They will value your ability to take all the things your nonprofit does and create fundraising that makes your donor want to take action now.

Because while a lot of fundraising just makes a point, you’ll create fundraising that makes a difference.

That sounds like changing the world to me.

‘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!