Why I’m Bullish About Year-End Fundraising This Year


My mentor once said to me,

“I wish I would have noticed earlier in my career how closely overall fundraising results tend to mirror the economy.”

It’s such a simple idea.  But knowing it helped me be a more effective Fundraiser.

There are four main lessons I took from his remark, and I hope they are helpful to you, too. 

Takeaway #1 – When the Economy Is Good, Be Bullish

This is applicable right now, today.  (As I write this, the S&P is up 19% since the beginning of October.)

“Being bullish” means adding another letter or email in your campaign, or even adding another campaign.  It means expecting slightly higher results.  It means asking Majors for a little more.

Because the economy seems to be rebounding, I am bullish on year-end fundraising this year.

Takeaway #2 – When the Economy Slows, Reset Your Expectations

When the economy slows, campaigns won’t perform quite as well.  Response rates drop a bit, as do average gift sizes.  Majors tend to give smaller gifts.

So when the economy slows, savvy organizations reset their expectations.  If the goal and plan for the year was 5% growth, they think about reducing that to 3%.  They let their Board know the revised expectations, and why.

Takeaway #3 – The World Affects Your Fundraising

If there’s a major natural disaster the week your appeal lands in homes, that appeal most likely isn’t going to do as well.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, we knew two major campaigns that we’d just launched were going to underperform.   A significant portion of Americans’ attention turned to New Orleans… which meant less mail was opened… which meant less money was raised by our campaigns.    

You obviously can’t plan for natural disasters.  But you can plan for times when you know in advance that the world is going to affect your fundraising.  For instance, this coming fall is the 2024 Presidential election in the U.S.  We recommend most organizations not launch an important campaign the week before or after the election.

Takeaway #4 – Always Keep Noticing

My Mentor was in his 70’s when he shared this observation with me.  I love that, even in retirement, he was still noticing things about fundraising.  It’s a good goal for all of us Fundraisers: keep noticing things about fundraising, keep trying to get a little bit better at this craft.  It makes us a little bit more effective helping our beneficiaries, the organizations we serve, and our donors.

The Power of a Belief


Here’s a quick story about how an organization’s beliefs about donors unknowingly drove their fundraising strategy…

We serve an organization that has a large number of monthly donors. 

I asked them if they had ever asked their monthly donors to give a little more each month.  “No,” came the answer, “we’ve never done that.”

I suggested we run a short campaign to their monthly donors asking them if they’d like to upgrade their giving.  It’s my belief that almost every organization has a lot of donors that are willing and able to give more.

But some folks around the table were nervous – they had a different belief.  They agreed that some small number of their monthly donors would and could give more.  But they believed that a greater number of their monthly donors would complain or completely cancel. 

In other words, they believed that their monthly donors (as a group) were giving as much as they were willing and/or able to give. 

I shared a couple of stories of campaigns like this I’d successfully run in the past.  And we decided to go ahead with the campaign.

The results were spectacular.  A thrilling number of monthly donors chose to give more each month.  Plus, those donors increased their monthly gift by even more than we thought they would.

As far as I know, there were zero cancellations.

And the impact?  The organization started raising an additional $60,000 every single month.

Lesson #1

An organization’s beliefs about donors drive its strategy, its annual plan, and even its copywriting. 

If you believe your donors are willing and able to give more, you do things like ask monthly donors if they would give a little more each month.  You send more appeals and e-appeals, and you ask major donors to give larger amounts. 

If you believe your donors are willing and able to give more, you write things like, “Will you please send in a gift today” instead of the equivocating, “Will you please consider sending in a gift today?”

Should you be smart about which donors you include when you do this?  Of course.  If you have a monthly donor who has told you that she’s on a fixed income and can’t give any more each month, don’t ask her to upgrade.  If you have major donor who has told you that they aren’t going to give any more this year, then don’t ask them.

Your organization has a set of beliefs about donors, and fundraising, and money.  Often those beliefs are unstated.  But they are driving your strategy, your annual plan, and even your copywriting.

Do you believe that your donors are willing and able to give more?

Lesson #2

There are real costs to believing your donors can’t or won’t give any more.

The organization above could have been raising that additional $60,000 every month the previous year.  And the year before that.  Think of the impact that was missed!

My goal in pointing this out is not to make all of us (myself included) feel bad for all the opportunities we’ve missed over the years.

My goal in pointing this out is for all of us to realize that our beliefs about donors and fundraising have real-world consequences. 

In my experience, believing that “many of our donors are willing and able to give more” will have positive real-world consequences.  Believing that “our donors are giving as much as they are willing and able” will have negative real-world consequences.

Try It On

So here’s what I want you to do.  I want you, just for a moment, to “try on” the belief that your donors are willing and able to give more.  Name one thing you would do differently.

Now, make a plan to do that thing.  Your organization (and the additional people you’ll help) will be thankful that you did.

Bittersweet Moments of Clarity

Clear thinking.

When you get better at something, there’s that bittersweet moment where you’re thinking two things almost simultaneously:

  • Oh man, I’ve been doing it wrong all along… and
  • Hey, I know how to do that better now!

In those moments, it’s as if you see the world a little more clearly than you did before. You understand how things work a little better than you did a moment before.

I had one of those “moments of clarity” recently, thanks to the impressive and irrepressible Jen Love.

We were on a panel at the Storytelling conference talking about direct response fundraising. I shared one of my writing tools: starting the first draft of every appeal and e-appeal with the sentence, “I’m writing to you today because….”

(I’ve written about why that’s an effective tool here and here.)

Jen then said something like, “Yeah, I love that. I’ve taken it a little further and what I use is, ‘You’re hearing from me today because…’.”

Cue my moment of increased clarity.

Her version is better than mine! It starts with the magical word, “you.” It places the donor in a more active role with more control. It leads to more writing about the donor and what they care about, and less about the organization.

I share this with you today because… You’re reading this today because you know that the more moments of clarity you can have, the more effective a fundraiser you’ll be.

But there are Fundraisers and organizations who don’t really want those moments of clarity. They like their way of doing things. Or they can’t believe that your moment of clarity could apply to them, their communications, or their donors. For those organizations, getting better at fundraising is a challenge.

But if you seek out those moments – if you’re eager to find out that what you’ve been doing is a little wrong, and that there’s a better way to do it – getting better at fundraising and raising more money is delightful.

In my experience, the most effective fundraisers are having “moments of clarity” all the time. Because of those moments, they see the world a little more clearly. And they create fundraising that’s more effective.

Hey, about your envelope…

star company envelope.

This blog post from Five Maples shares the results of a head-to-head test of the envelope on a direct mail appeal for a nonprofit.

Their donors were split into two equal groups. One group received a letter in an envelope that included the organization’s tagline. The other group received the exact same letter, but the envelope did not have the tagline on it.

The tagline on the envelope was the only difference.

The test showed that including the tagline on the envelope reduced the number of people who responded by 65%. Put another way, putting their tagline on the envelope reduced the number of people who sent in a gift by over half.

Let’s notice that this test isn’t about all taglines. It’s about that organization’s tagline, on that piece of direct mail.

But still, that is a massive impact.

You can take three lessons from this simple test that will make you a more effective fundraiser.

Lesson #1

If your organization is putting its tagline on your outer envelope, do you know if it’s helping or hurting?

If you don’t know, it’s time to ask questions instead of making assumptions.

(By the way, there is ZERO judgement here if you’ve been making assumptions. We all do it at the beginning of our fundraising journey.)

Lesson #2

A bigger lesson this data teaches is that what you put on your envelope matters. A lot.

There are very smart people who argue that what you put on the envelope matters more than what you put in the envelope. How’s that for a brain-breaker? Because if your recipient doesn’t open your envelope, what good does the incredible message inside do?

I don’t spend much time on that argument because I think it’s a chicken-or-egg situation – but it is fun to talk about with other Fundraising nerds over a drink.

Moving forward, you want your organization to be thoughtful about what’s on your envelopes and in your email subject lines (which are more-or-less equivalent). And if you want to know more about this right now, the blog post mentioned above is a great place to start.

Lesson #3

Data about fundraising will help you know what’s important and where to spend your time.

For instance, I spend a ton of time on outer envelopes, and on the description of what a donor’s gift will accomplish. I spend almost no time trying to make sure an appeal matches a nonprofit’s “voice.” I make those decisions because data shows how much envelopes and descriptions matter, and how using an organization’s voice in the mail usually causes them to raise less money, not more.

For what it’s worth, in my career I’ve tried to develop what I think of as an “evidence-based worldview” for how to be successful in fundraising. That worldview is made up of as many test results (like this one!) and facts that I can get my hands on.

If you can build a worldview like that, you’ll have a good idea of what path/tactic/approach will have the best chance of success, regardless of the situation.

And if you’re just beginning to build your worldview, this little test about a tagline on an envelope is a great place to start!

Response Rate Goals

Reply envelope.

At last week’s Storytelling Conference, I was asked a really good question:

“My organization is new to direct mail. What kind of response rates should I be getting?”

In case it’s helpful to you, here’s my answer:

For printed appeals my goal is a 4% response rate

For printed newsletters my goal is a 3% response rate

Those are helpful benchmarks, and I hope they help you judge how your mail is performing.

But I have to mention, things start to get interesting right away. Take a look at these variables:

  • The more donors you have, the lower your response rates tend to be. For an organization with 40,000 donors, achieving 3% for an appeal and 2% or 2.2% for a newsletter might be success.
  • The fewer donors you have, the higher your response rates tend to be. If you have 500 donors, you might be getting a 6% response rate on appeals, and a 4% response rate on newsletters.
  • Finally, who you include on the mailing list is another big variable. If you include your monthly donors, your response rates tend to go up. If you include lapsed donors who haven’t made a gift in 36 months, your response rate will go down.

I hope this helps you or your team have benchmarks and goals to aim for. And that there are variables that need to be taken into account. What “success” looks like varies quite a bit from organization to organization – even from mailing to mailing.

The important thing is to measure your results so you know what works best for your organization, and then do more of that!

Trust Your Donors

High trust.

If you’re at an organization that has a hard time approving new ideas in fundraising, keep reading.

(And maybe you’ve just arrived home from last week’s Nonprofit Storytelling Conference with your head full of new ideas you’d like to try!)

To many people working in nonprofits, new fundraising messaging and tactics can feel deeply risky. And so, some of your team will push back against your new ideas.

To those people, when they push back, here’s what I want you to say…

“I want you to trust our donors. I want you to trust that they could be giving more, and that they are adults.”

“I want you to trust that their support is deeper than a new message, new tactic, or new appeal could shake.”

“Let’s trust that our fundraising right now is not the best it can ever be. And let’s trust that, like larger organizations, we can regularly try new things and improve over time.”

Will each donor say “yes” every time we try something new? Of course not.

Will every “something new” work better than the thing it replaces? Of course not.

But until you trust your donors enough to regularly try new things, to ask for support more often, and try new messages, you’ll never tap into all the giving available to you.

Don’t let internal worries and fears put boundaries around your donors’ generosity. It’s your donors’ job to set their boundaries, not yours.

Trust your donors. Their generosity will astound you.

‘Pre-Existing Condition’


Your donors have what’s called a “pre-existing condition”…

They cared about your beneficiaries or cause before your organization came into their life.

Three examples:

  • Say your organization is a library.  Your donors cared about books, literacy and your community before they had even heard of your library.
  • Say your organization helps a tiny village in Ethiopia.  Your donors cared about kids, and people having enough food & an education before they had even heard of your organization or the village.
  • Say your organization provides access to activities for people with disabilities in the Tri-state area.  Your donors cared about people with disabilities, and about everyone being able to participate, before they heard about your organization.

Knowing this, what should your fundraising to individual donors primarily be about?

Should it primarily be about your organization?  Should it focus on your programs?  Should it be about what the organization has accomplished in the past? 

No!  Your fundraising should focus on the values and interests that caused your individual donors to pay attention to your organization in the first place.  (Note that I’m not talking about your comms to Foundations and other donors for whom your programs and your effectiveness are core necessities for them to donate.)

If you look at your appeals and e-appeals and find that they talk primarily about your organization… for instance, if you’re sharing the names of your programs and how they work… you could be raising more money from individual donors.

When we help organizations see their donors’ pre-existing conditions – and then change the organization’s fundraising to talk about what the donors cared about before they met the organization – the organization raises more money.

When you create your fundraising, don’t think, “We need to inspire our donors to give to our organization.”

Instead, think, “Let’s talk about what our donors already care about, and the difference their gift will make.”

5 Tips For Your Most Successful Digital Year-End Campaign

5 Tips For Your Most Successful Digital Year-End Campaign

Are you ready?

According to Network for Good, most nonprofits raise about 1/3 of their revenue in December. And 11% of their annual total during the last three days of the year.

Year-end is the easiest time to raise more money online! Think about it this way:

Your donors are more likely to give during the last weeks of the year than any other time of the entire year.

And because year-end is such an important time for digital fundraising, we want to give you 5 tips that will ensure a successful year-end for your fundraising.

# 1: Use the same message in every channel

Some of your donors are online, some aren’t. Pick your strongest message, then repeat it through direct mail, email, your website, and social media. It’s more powerful for your donors to see the same message in different media channels than it is for them to see two different messages.  Repetition is your friend!

# 2: Ask early and often

You’ve been talking to your donors all year about what your organization does, you’ve told them how they can help. So this time of year, don’t Thank them. Or Report to them. It might feel counterintuitive, but our testing showed that Thanking and Reporting this time of year will cause you to raise less money than you could. Follow the advice below and just Ask well!

# 3: Emphasize the deadline

A deadline communicates urgency. December 31 is a natural deadline — for the tax year and for your organization. Tell donors your deadline and repeat it multiple times in your messages.

# 4: Set a goal

How much do you want or need to raise? What would it take for you to meet your budget? Feed everyone you want to feed by year-end? Shelter abandoned pets through the end of the year? Overcome a financial shortfall? Tell your donors the goal.

We need to raise $XX,XXX by midnight, December 31.

# 5: Communicate consequences

What will happen if you don’t meet the goal? Connect the donor right to the heart of your work.

We need to raise $XX,XXX by midnight, December 31 or we will have to cut back on the number of pets in our shelter in the coming year.


We need to raise $XX,XXX by midnight, December 31 or we will not be able to advocate for the arts as effectively next year.

Whatever your organization does, if having less money means you would be able to do less next year, say so!

Most important tip? Start now!

10 Great Questions to Help You Collect Better Stories


As you know from our involvement with the upcoming Storytelling Conference, we believe storytelling in your fundraising can be very effective. A good story will help to support your fundraising offer and connect your donor to what your nonprofit does.

There’s good reason for this, too. Telling stories is what humans do best. Ever since we were drawing pictures onto the side of rocks, storytelling has been our go-to form of communication. With a good story, we’re able to share our passions, our hardships, and our joys. It’s often the best way to explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we persuade others.

For us fundraisers, a good story is vital to engaging our donors. A moving story, if told simply and well, will invoke emotion and motivate her to give. But putting a story together is not always easy. Especially when you’re dealing with beneficiaries who may be embarrassed, shy, or reluctant to share about the difficulties they’ve faced.

So how can you collect the information you need to tell a compelling story in your fundraising communications?

To collect a good fundraising story (including emotional quotes that you can use to help the donor feel something) you need to first see several sides of the beneficiary. And one great way to do that is to interview a beneficiary in person, over the phone, or via email.

But it’s not just a matter of asking them to “tell their story.” You need to ask specific questions that are worded and framed correctly. Do this, and you will get the responses you need.

To help you get started, here are 10 interview questions I’ve used to get great responses from beneficiaries. If you end up using any of these questions, make sure that you adjust the wording to suit your cause and your nonprofit.

  • Tell me your first memory of (what your nonprofit prevents or supports)?
  • What did you find most challenging about (the cause)?
  • What was the best/worst thing to happen?
  • What would someone be surprised to know about you?
  • Tell me how you first got involved with (your nonprofit)
  • What did you think when you first met (your nonprofit)?
  • Tell me how (your nonprofit) helped you
  • If you hadn’t met (your nonprofit) what do you think your life would be like?
  • What does your future look like now?
  • If you had the chance to say something to those who have helped you, what would it be?

You can also pepper any answers with follow up questions like, “What makes you say that? Can you give me an example? How did that make you feel?”

Stories inspire us to act. So whatever it is that your organization does for others – providing food, clothing, safe housing, safety, or spiritual support – capturing and then telling a beneficiary story can support your offer and help you raise more money.

Happy Fundraising!