Don’t re-invent the wheel!

Year-end is fundraising prime time

Most nonprofits receive 1/3 of their annual donations just in the last few weeks of December!

No pressure … but that means there’s significant amount of funding riding on your year-end campaign!

Year-end fundraising is critical! But here’s some great news…

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How to 8x Your Appeal Results

A client of ours was thrilled with the first appeal we did for them; it raised 8 times more than the appeal letter they sent to their donors the previous month.

Both letters were sent to the same group of donors, during the summer, roughly a month apart. (And there weren’t any results-skewing shenanigans like ‘we added a matching grant’ or ‘the second appeal went only to Major Donors.’)

There was much rejoicing! But at first they thought it was some kind of fundraising magic. So we showed them that the appeal just followed a proven formula that works for all different kinds and sizes of nonprofits.

We’re not talking big numbers here; their previous appeal raised $2,157. Our appeal raised $18,095. I mention this because even the smallest organizations can use the storytelling and fundraising principles I’m about to show you to raise a lot more money!

Here’s a part of the appeal letter this nonprofit sent just before working with us:

“When Sara and her two children moved from Florida to Washington, the last thing she expected to be was homeless.

Sara was excited about a new job opportunity in Seattle, but the job fell through and suddenly she was living out of her car. Her children, 5-year-old Jasmin and 12-year-old Luke, were devastated. Sara, Luke, and Jasmin wondered about things like; where would their next meal come from, would they ever have a roof over their head again, and how could they excel in school? Sara discovered Acres of Diamonds and made the difficult call to ask for help. Acres welcomed her warmly, and now this family resides at Acres getting help to rebuild their lives. Sara’s children suffered emotionally while living in their car, especially Jasmin. When she arrived at Acres, she was withdrawn and sad. Now that she has a place to call home, Jasmin is a vibrant kindergartner who looks forward to school and can be seen with a smile on her face. Luke is getting the support he needs to be successful in 7th grade. Through prayer and effort, Sara now has a job to provide for her family. Over time, Acres of Diamonds will support Sara and her children through The Path to Graduation programs. They will transition to independent living because of the generous support from people like you.

Will you help us continue this important work with families like Jasmin’s? Simply return the enclosed card…”

There are a couple things I want you to notice:

  • The family in the letter has already been helped. To repeat: they don’t need help. The ‘problem’ is already solved.
  • In the overall story this organization is telling in this letter, the donor doesn’t have an interesting, powerful role to play. All the donor can do is “continue this important work”
  • If the donor were to give a gift, they don’t know what sized gift will make a real difference – something that is very important for donors to know.

That is not a compelling fundraising letter and the results prove it. This letter falls into one of the most common fundraising letter traps.

Now look at the next letter this nonprofit sent to their donors, with our help:

“I have some urgent news to share with you.

Just a few days ago my phone rang and I received word that another mom and her 3 kids were in desperate need of help. Julianne had just fled her abuser. She was able to escape with her 3 kids in tow. But she had no place to go.

Stories like this one are all too common here at Acres. The need for more stable housing and resources to help homeless moms and kids is at an all-time high.

Our resources are thin right now and I could sure use your help. Homelessness does not take a summer vacation!

Your $35 gift secures a night of safety for one child or one mom.

Can I count on you to provide 1 night, 3 nights, maybe 5 nights of safety? Every night matters and brings a mom and her kids one step closer to feeling safe.”

Compare that letter to the first letter. See how there is:

  1. A problem to be solved — people that need help today!
  2. A specific way the donor’s gift will help, and a specific amount to do it.
  3. A clear way the donor can be the hero by sending in a gift today.

For your next appeal, whether it’s a mailed appeal letter, an e-appeal or an event, I encourage you to try this approach. You can be confident that it’s going to work; this is a proven, market-tested way of asking donors for support that works again and again.

And if you’d like to find out more, download our free eBook, Storytelling for ACTION. You’ll learn the three things nobody told you about using stories to raise money — including the two best types of stories and when to tell them.

Over-Communicate and Don’t Be Late!

A white, analog alarm clock sits on a white table with a white background

A couple of years ago we were part of a fundraising disaster for one of our clients:

  • Their Thanksgiving appeal letter raised only $31,000. It had raised $47,000 the previous year.
  • Then their Christmas letter raised just $17,000. It had raised $41,000 the previous year.


The reason why they raised so much less was really simple: both letters mailed late. Really late.

Through an unholy combination of a new working relationship, a project management snafu and unanswered emails, the Thanksgiving letter mailed 6 days before Thanksgiving. The Christmas letter mailed just 4 days before Christmas.

The effect on fundraising was devastating. (The effect on our relationship with the organization was also devastating. But I’m happy to say that they are still a client today; everyone fails sooner or later, but it’s often how you respond after failure that builds or breaks relationships.)

Why am I telling you this? Because the whole incident reminded me of a core principle for successful fundraising during the last few weeks of the year:

— Over communicate and don’t be late —

Your donors are so busy. And they support so many worthy causes. They love giving to you, but your chances of getting a year-end gift plummet if you don’t communicate with them often enough during the last few weeks of the year.

All your work — all year long — comes to fruition during the last few weeks of the year. Make sure you have a plan that gets your year-end Ask in front of your donors in time (and often enough) — and a production schedule to make sure you aren’t late and miss important days during the most important time of the year!

P.S. – Year-end fundraising is the easiest time to raise more money than you expect. We’re about to launch a set of products expressly created to help you raise more money in November and December. Ever wanted samples of really successful year-end letters and online fundraising? Or a calendar that tells you exactly when to send your letters, your emails, and update your website at year-end? Watch this space in the next couple of weeks!

​Improve Your Fall Fundraising the charity: water Way

Had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Harrison, the founder of charity: water for the Fundraising Is Beautiful podcast.

There’s a TON of tips you can use to improve your fall fundraising results! You’ll hear Scott talk about:

  • How important immediacy is
  • How to take your donors on a journey with every piece of donor communications
  • How charity: water “productizes” what they do to make it easy for donors to understand and then do something meaningful with each gift
  • How he’s comfortable sharing bad news with donors, and why that ultimately helps his organization.

I really encourage you to go take a listen. (And even subscribe!) I’m a better fundraiser for having listened to Scott, and you will be too! Here’s the link.

The Simple Outline for Appeals That Raise Money

I noticed a pattern that I want to share with you.

We see a LOT of appeals around here and I read them all. And we spend a lot of time with the results because we want our coaching to be based on what works, not on what we like.

About a week ago I noticed the appeals that did not work well tended to follow the same general outline. It goes something like this:

  1. Thank you for helping in the past
  2. Let me tell you a story about someone we already helped
  3. Please help us continue this good work

I think this is fascinating because every step of that outline makes sense:

  • Of course you should thank your donors for their previous giving. That’s just being polite, and it reminds them that they’ve given before.
  • Of course you should tell them a story about a person (or thing) that’s already been helped. That shows the donor that their past gifts made a difference, that the donor can trust you, and that your organization is effective.
  • And of course you should ask them to help you continue the good work. You need their donations, and the work is good.

But here’s the thing; even though every step in that outline makes sense, appeal letters and e-appeals that follow this outline don’t raise as much money as they could. We know this from years of experimenting and testing. This is one of those places in fundraising where common sense isn’t the best sense. What you need is data.

So what’s the alternative? Here’s the outline that works best for our clients:

  1. There’s a problem right now
  2. You are needed to solve it
  3. Here’s how your gift will solve it

When our clients adopt this outline, their appeals and e-appeals immediately start to raise more money.

The next time you are appealing for funds, follow this model. You’ll raise more money. And your donors will love knowing that they helped solve a real, urgent problem.

I mean that. If you honor and respect your donors by sharing real problems that your beneficiaries and your organization are facing, Donors will love helping you. Be vulnerable with your donors, and they will reward you with their generosity!

If you want to go deeper on this issue, download our free eBook!

How To Write This Fall – Tips For Fundraising Success

An old typewriter sits on a wooden desk

Fundraising Season is beginning . . . and you’re going to write to your donors a LOT in the next few months. And I have an important tip for you.

Don’t assume your donors will read what you write.

Donors are moving fast (especially in their inbox). They are busy. They support multiple charities. And they don’t have to read your organization’s communications.

Right? Nothing bad happens to your donors if they don’t read your stuff. Their life just goes on. And as a matter of fact they’ve saved themselves some time.

So what is a nonprofit writer to do?

In almost all cases you have to earn their attention by being relevant and getting to the point quickly.

So pay special attention to your first sentence. Think of it this way: your first sentence has to earn your reader’s attention enough so that they want to read your second sentence.

I use two main strategies to get more people to read our clients’ fundraising materials:

#1 Very quickly state the point of your letter/email/brochure. Why are you writing the donor today? If you want the donor to do something, say it clearly right away.

We’ve improved the fundraising results for hundreds of organizations just by helping their fundraising materials get to the point faster. Because most nonprofits seem to assume that their donors will read the whole thing. So, they take a long time to get to the point, and then they only mention the point once.

My operating principle is that maybe 10% of donors will read it, but 50% of people will skim it IF you give them something interesting/urgent/valuable enough to skim.

Note those percentages don’t add up to 100%. That’s because no matter what you do, a significant percentage of donors are either going to miss or not read each message you send out. And that, my friend, is why nonprofits need to communicate more often than they think they do. Because most nonprofits assume every donor receives and reads every message. That’s a long way from what actually happens.

OK. The second way I get people to read is to use drama and tension.

#2 Write such a drama-filled first sentence that the reader really wants to know what the second sentence says.

Pick right up in the middle of the beneficiary story you’re telling. Or summarize the most drama-filled moment. But use emotion to get a reader curious about what happens next.

Here’s a great example, “When the police rang the doorbell, Gloria didn’t know what she was going to do.” This works for even the most boring subjects! “Our fiscal year end is approaching and I don’t think we’re going to make budget” is the opening line of one of the most successful letters I ever wrote.

So when you’re writing this fall, remember that your donors are busy and moving fast. Pay special attention to the very first sentences of anything you put out there. And I guarantee you that if you earn your donor’s attention, you’ll earn more of their donations!

3 Top Tips for Event Success

Fundraising events are one of the hardest things to do well in fundraising. They are hard to plan, there are a TON of variables, they require a lot of people, and often take a real toll on nonprofit staffs. My hat is off to anyone to plans and puts on an event.

We’re nearing ‘fall event season’ and the other day a client asked what our top three tips for a successful event are. So here they are, and I should also be clear that these tips are for organizations raising between $0 and about $5,000,000. (Organizations larger than $5m tend to have a different set of issues.)

Without further ado, here’s how we think about it . . .

1. Have a clear offer and price point:

Be clear and specific about what the donor’s gift will accomplish. In other words, be able to describe exactly what the donors’ gift will do. We’ve had incredible success helping organizations transition from asking donors to “please donate to help us help more people” or “donate to the annual fund” to things like “Provide one night of safety for a mom for $53.”

Please note: you can do this and still raise undesignated funds. What you want to do is to focus on one specific outcome that donors gifts create, but also be clear that their gifts will be used to help do all the things your ministry does.

2. The whole event should be designed to present the Ask:

You want to plan your event so that everything in it — from the program to who speaks to the main speaker — shows the need for your offer (and how powerful it is). For instance, say your offer for the night is “$53 provides one night of safety.” You might name your event “One Night Of Safety.” When your Executive Director speaks, she should talk about how powerful one night of safety is. If you have a beneficiary speak, have her talk about how incredible her first night of safety was.

This may sound repetitive, but it works like crazy. The key here is that if you highlight one powerful part of your organization to focus on you’ll do far better than if you ask donors to buy into the whole organization.

Doing this also helps you avoid the dreaded “OMG another speaker?!?” that happens when organizations have too many speakers. If you focus the entire event on delivering the offer and presenting the ask, you don’t have time for all those speakers!

3. Don’t share too much good news until after the Ask:

A lot of nonprofits shoot themselves in the foot on this one. They share success story after success story. This makes it seem like everything is going great and no one needs help. THEN they ask for a gift. That’s a surefire way to reduce donations.

What has increased event revenue for our clients every single time has been to tell a Story Of Need. This means talking about a person who needs help today. Or if it’s a beneficiary speaking, have them spend 80% of their time on what it was like to need help. What we’re trying to do is to make the people in the room emotionally feel the problem so that they are more likely to help.

This is counterintuitive for most organizations. At some level they believe that, “If we show a couple of success stories people will know we’re good at what we do, then they will be more likely to donate.”

But what we’ve proven true is that it’s more helpful to think, “If we show the people that someone really needs help today, and that we have a plan to help them, more people will donate.”

Then, after the Ask, celebrate wildly. Let people know the amazing thing their gifts are going to do.

Bonus Tip: Now you’re able to Report with power.

Because you asked people to help with a specific thing, you can now Report to those donors with a specific story about the specific thing they did. Other events aren’t able to tell donors what their donation accomplished. But if you follow this recipe for success your donors will LOVE hearing what their gift did. And they’ll be far more likely to become recurring donors to your organization!

I hope this list has been helpful. As you enter event season, good luck!

Why Your Donors Deserve Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat

You’re no doubt familiar with Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat, the fundraising rhythm we teach here at Better Fundraising.

There are two equally strong reasons you should follow this approach to fundraising.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that we arrived at it because it raised our clients the most money and retained their donors the longest. Both Jim and I come from competitive fundraising environments where we were pressured to raise money in the short term AND to set organizations up for long term success. And when we looked at what worked and what didn’t in fundraising — really getting deep in the data — it was clear that Asking, Thanking, and Reporting were the key elements for fundraising success.

And that Repeating the rhythm (and some of the messages) helped organizations grow over time.

So we developed Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat simply as a way to help organizations raise more money.

But there’s another line of thinking that leads you to the same place. We call it ‘treating your donor the way she deserves to be treated’ . . .

  • You honor your donor by sharing the problem your organization is working on, and asking your donor to help solve the problem.
  • You honor your donor by thanking her like crazy when she gives a gift to help.
  • And it’s really honoring her by showing her what happened because she gave a gift. To Report.

You could argue that it’s a moral imperative to Report. She gave you a gift in faith and received nothing in return but a hit of dopamine. How can you in good conscience ask her to give another gift without showing and telling her that her gift made a difference?

This is one of the reasons, by the way, that fundraisers don’t like their jobs. They have to ask and ask and ask. They know in their hearts that donors get tired of being asked! But the fundraisers who work in environments where their donors are honored with regular reports? Those fundraisers enjoy their jobs much more. And their donors enjoy the fundraising much more.

This is the heart of donor centricity. It’s acknowledging that the donor is central to the process of philanthropy, charity and your organization. It’s acknowledging that her role is not just “supporter” or “partner” but as central as your organization’s.

So ask yourself, “Have we Reported to our donors lately? Do we deserve to ask them for another gift?”

When you’re great at reporting you’ll notice three things: you’ll raise more money; you’ll keep your donors for longer; and you LOVE knowing that you’re treating your donors the way they deserve to be treated!

Get Storytelling for Action eBook Now!

If you’ve read our blog over the last few years, you’ve heard us talk a lot about storytelling. We’ve written about it, we’ve spoken at conferences, and we share tips about storytelling with our clients.

This summer, we decided it was time to pull everything we’ve learned over the years into one place, so fundraisers like you can benefit.

That’s what we did with our new eBook: Storytelling for ACTION

Three Big Ideas That Nobody Told You

It’s easy to say that storytelling is important. It’s more difficult to use stories to raise more money. That’s why we’ve shared three big ideas in this new eBook:

  1. Your donor should have a role — and see herself — in every single story you tell.
  2. How you tell a story is less important than what story you tell and when you tell it.
  3. You have a Big Story you need to constantly tell your donor.

Sound interesting? We promise it’s more than that. It’s also actionable and proven. Download your copy of the free eBook now.

Practical Advice You Can Use

One of the things that we focused on in Storytelling for ACTION is actionable advice. We didn’t want to just share concepts — we want you to equip you with the tools to start telling better stories for your organization right away. That’s why we’ve included the following tools in Storytelling for ACTION:

  • A matrix to help you to decide what story to tell at what time
  • Easy-to-use checklists
  • Real-life samples
  • Our 3 Big Ideas Cheat Sheet

Market-Tested And Proven

The ideas in this eBook are market-tested and proven to increase how much money you raise. They will help you get more new donors and keep your current donors around for longer. And they will even— if you let them—help you love your job qand fundraising more than you thought possible.

These ideas are not fancy. They are not just for the “big” organizations and “seasoned” fundraisers. They are for you.

Download your free eBook now.