Before & After

Once Upon a Time

Here’s another fundraising “before & after” for your reading pleasure.

It’s the first sentence of an appeal, and it feels like a great example of all the thinking that goes into successful first sentences – and into successful direct response fundraising in general.

Here’s how it arrived on my desk:

  • I send this urgent letter to you because our organization-supported orphanages are overwhelmed, and in desperate need of help.

This is very strong fundraising.  It’s clearly urgent.  The word “you” is used.  It’s clear that there’s a specific problem that the donor can help with. 

But I thought it could be stronger.  Here’s how it looked when I was done with it:

  • You’re receiving this urgent letter because there’s an orphanage that’s overwhelmed and in desperate need of help.

Let me break down the changes and tell you why I made them…

You > I

Notice how the first word of the letter changed from “I” to “You.”

“I send this urgent letter to you…” changed to “You’re receiving this urgent letter…”

“I sent…” puts the focus and the action on the letter writer.  “You’re receiving…” immediately puts the focus and action on the recipient. 

Plus, we humans are trained to be more likely to read and respond to the word “you” … so I moved “you” to be the very first word of the appeal.

Our organization-supported

I deleted the phrase “our organization-supported” from before “orphanages.”

Mentioning that the orphanages are supported by the organization doesn’t help make the case that the donor should send in a gift today.

In fact, it weakens the case because it spends valuable time focusing on who has funded things in the past instead of focusing on what the need is today.

And finally, always remember how fast donors are moving.  Go back and read the first sentence again.  But quickly, like a donor.  Doesn’t it say that the orphanages are supported by the organization?  Wouldn’t it be reasonable for the quickly-scanning reader to think, “If the orphanages are supported by the organization, why do they need my help?”

“Orphanage” Is Better Than “Orphanages”

Note that “orphanages” became “orphanage” (singular). 

Why?  At the beginning of any direct response fundraising, I want to present the donor with a problem that is solvable.  If I tell her that a bunch of orphanages are overwhelmed, I’ve likely presented the donor with a problem that is too big for her to solve.

In our experience, when you focus fundraising on problems that are too big for the donor to meaningfully help with a gift, you get fewer gifts.

So rather than saying “orphanages are overwhelmed” (potentially a very big problem), I changed the sentence to read, “an orphanage is overwhelmed” (a smaller problem where a donor is more likely to feel like she can make a meaningful difference).

Many nonprofits believe that sharing the large size of a problem makes donors more likely to give a gift.  In direct response fundraising, it’s generally the opposite; if you present your donors with a smaller problem where they feel they can make a meaningful difference with a gift today, they’re more likely to make a gift today.

Remove the Comma!

My general rule is to make first sentences as simple and easy-to-understand as possible.

So “…overwhelmed, and in desperate need of help” became “…overwhelmed and in desperate need of help.”

It’s a tiny little change.  But you want to think of the first sentence as the onramp to your whole appeal.  If your onramp is easy to understand and keeps your reader moving forward, your reader is more likely to continue reading your letter or email.

If your onramp is a perfect, well-formed, multi-clause sentence that your high school English teacher would reward you for, and the comma-induced pauses add richness and complexity… well, it’s statistically less likely that people will continue to read your letter or email.

All That From One Sentence?

Yup.  It’s a curse of the trade.  When every word matters, and lives or livelihoods or real life consequences are on the line, you tend to obsess about each word.

Even as I’m writing this blog post I’ve thought of a way to make it better.  And I’m annoyed at myself for not noticing it on my initial pass.

But here’s the thing for you: just practice.  You’ll get better and better.  With email fundraising, the positive feedback loop is almost instantaneous.  You can get very good at this stuff, very quickly, if you’re willing to practice. 

Don’t treat each piece of fundraising as precious.  Write e-appeals, do the best you can, and send them out.

After all, for most smaller organizations it’s easy to make the argument that the volume of fundraising you send out is more important that the quality.  Just practice.

Most likely, you’re not communicating to your donors enough.

Go practice!  What can you write and email out this week to learn from?

A Generous Ego


If your organization wants to do more fundraising (which we obviously believe in) we’d recommend that you do so with what we call a “generous ego.”

You need to have enough ego to know that what you’re doing is important, that it matters, that your organization is making a difference.  You need to believe those so strongly that you want to share them with other people.

But you also need to be generous.  When you do your fundraising, you need to make the generous act of crossing the gap to your donors’ level of understanding. You need to make the generous act of asking more often than you think you can, on behalf of your beneficiaries.

When asking for support, make the generous act of focusing on your donor’s role, telling her how her gift that makes a difference.  When reporting back on previous giving, make the generous act of giving the credit to the donor, and directly telling her how her gift made a difference.

Too many nonprofits have a hard time being generous in their fundraising.  They make their fundraising all about themselves.  About their process.  About their programs.  About their staff.  About their volunteers.  About how they think about their issue.  They ask the donor to support their organization instead of asking the donor to help people.

Of course, what your organization does is important.  What your organization does makes the world a better place.  

Your organization should have a healthy ego.  Your ego should cause you to want to do more fundraising, because you know more good would be done if you raised more money. 

But be generous about it in your fundraising.  Be generous about it in your branding.

Generously focus on how your donors’ gifts will meet beneficiaries’ needs.  Do that, instead of raising money for your organization, and you’ll raise more money for your organization. 

Don’t Hide Behind Polish

Hide Mask

Many smaller organizations have a very hard time increasing the number of communications they send to their donors. 

It’s a human resources question/issue.  There’s only so much time.

However, many of those organizations are… self-sabotaging.

It’s not their fault, either.  Somewhere in the nonprofit-o-sphere we were all taught that our donor communications need to reach a certain level of fit & finish or they’re not going to work at all.

That single belief has resulted in an astonishing amount of money NOT raised.

Today, hundreds of thousands of smaller organizations desire for their fundraising to look and sound as professional as organizations 100 times their size.  So it takes them far longer than it should to create and send their fundraising communications. 

And so they send fewer communications than they should.

But here’s the thing: their donors know that they’re small.  The donors’ expectations for small organizations’ fundraising are different. 

So my advice to smaller nonprofits is to embrace your smallness.  Don’t prioritize looking like one of those massive organizations with perfect email templates and a fancy website.

Instead, just write.  Just send it.  

Send one email a week that’s 250 words that shares a quick detail of some good thing that happened that week.  Give the donor the credit.  Doesn’t have to be anything close to perfect.  Typos are fine.  Do that every week for a year and you’ll have an expanding tribe of devoted followers and incredible donor retention.

When some acute need or surprise expense happens, dash off an email to your email list. Provide a couple links for them to click on that go directly through your donation form, tell them that their gift will help with that acute need or a special expense and support the work of your whole organization.  Now your funds are undesignated.  Do that 12 or 15 times a year and you’ll raise more money than you expect and have a higher donor retention rate.  And you’ll have a higher engagement rate.

For smaller organizations, getting good at communicating more often and direct response basics (things like effective landing pages and reply cards) is so much more important than perfectly written and designed donor communications.

Don’t try to be perfect.  Your goal should be to create breathless dispatches from the field, not fundraising emails and communications that look like they went through the standard nonprofit pastel-colored hope machine.

And always remember, you learn more about what works by doing more and paying attention to the results.  You learn less by trying to be perfect and doing less.

  • Your donor values knowing the problems in the world that you’re working on more than she values perfect, professional communications.
  • Your donor values reading a story about how her gift made a difference in the life of one person more than she cares about perfect, professional communications.
  • Your donor values having a one-to-one relationship with a human who is working like crazy to make the world a better place more than she values perfect, professional communications.

In your donor communications, do not hide behind a need to appear professional.  

There’s nothing in that hiding spot that helps you help more people.

“We are unique” is Halfway to a Good Idea

Halfway There

Only “halfway,” because it’s about your organization.

Talking about your organization’s uniqueness is self-centered, when the most effective fundraising is generous.

Additionally, the word “unique” is neither positive nor negative.  It just means you’re the only one.  It doesn’t mean your organization is a good place for your donor to give a gift.

So you just spent a few of your precious seconds telling your donors something neither good nor bad… when you could have been busy telling them something good.

But!  If you keep pushing on the idea of your uniqueness, if you can be generous in how you present it, it can be a strength.

You can tell your donor that her gift through your organization is the only place where she can have her gift do this.

You can tell her she’s part of a tribe, a special group of people who see things a little bit more clearly.  You can tell her she’s part of a generous, smart community of donors who are doing things more effectively than they’ve been done before.  Who are doing something the best that it can be done right now.

You can tell her that she’s unique in that she “gets it,” that she cares, and that she does something about it.

If you can push past talking about how your organization is unique, and get to where you’re talking about how your donor’s gift will help your beneficiaries or cause in uniquely powerful ways, then you’ve got something that will increase donations to your organization.

Because the fact that you’re the only organization doing something is not effective at motivating people to give gifts. 

But the fact that their gift will do something uniquely powerful and effective is very effective at motivating people to give gifts. 

Three Things All Direct Response Fundraisers Should Know

Direct response.

Recently 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 Erica Waasdorp, or Jeff Brooks, or Tom Ahern. 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”!

This post was originally published on February 4, 2020

Why You Shouldn’t Use the Word “Vulnerable” in Your Appeals


Though I’m a great believer in being vulnerable when you create your fundraising, I never use the word “vulnerable” when writing fundraising.

And when organizations that I work with use the word “vulnerable” or the phrase “the most vulnerable,” I delete it.

Here’s Why

When you’re Asking for support in your appeals and e-appeals, what usually works best is to present donors with a problem that is happening right now, one that the donor can solve with a gift today.

The problem with the word “vulnerable” is it accidently tells donors that there is not a problem today.

According to Webster’s, Vulnerable means:

  1. Capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.
  2. Open to attack or damage

Look at those definitions again. In both of those cases there is nothing wrong right now. A person is “capable” of being hurt. Or is “open to attack.”

Think about it this way. Say you received two simple e-appeals right next to each other in your inbox. One e-appeal asked you to give a gift to help a person who is in need today. The other e-appeal asked you to help a person who might be in need sometime soon. All things being equal, most donors will give to help the person who is in need today.

By describing your beneficiaries as “vulnerable,” you’re focusing donors’ attention on the fact that there’s nothing wrong yet. You’re telling donors that there might be a problem in the future. So there’s less of a reason for a donor to give a gift right now.

By using the word “vulnerable” you’ve caused fewer people to send in a gift today.

Here’s What I Replace “Vulnerable” With

Instead of focusing on what might happen, focus on what’s happening right now.

What this usually means is that instead of focusing your fundraising on all the people who might need help, you focus it on the people who need help right now.

Here are a couple of examples…

“Your gift to help vulnerable children in our schools learn to read will…” becomes, “Your gift to help a child who is a grade behind in reading level will…”

“Your gift to protect people who are vulnerable to this disease will…” becomes, “Your gift will help people who have this disease by… “

“Your gift will help the most vulnerable…” becomes, “Your gift will help the people who need it most right now…”

If your organization uses “vulnerable” or “the most vulnerable,” edit your future fundraising to talk about the people (or a person) who needs help now. You’ll start to raise more money.

The Big Picture

If you stop using “vulnerable,” will your next appeal raise twice as much money? No.

But if my experience is any indication, I think you’ll raise more money than you’re raising now.

Two reasons.

First, even though your use of “vulnerable” is a small thing, successful appeals and newsletters are made up of a hundred of small things. The better you get at noticing and improving the small things, the more money you raise.

Second, not using “vulnerable” is a very real step on the way towards a powerful principle to operate by. The principle is that you’ll raise more money with your direct response fundraising (appeals, e-appeals, radio, TV, etc.) if you share the most compelling problems your organization and/or beneficiaries are experiencing right now.

Sharing a current problem (not a potential future problem) with donors is one of the ways you can break through all the noise and increase the number of people who send you gifts.

And anything you can do to break through all the noise right now will help, don’t you think?

This post was originally published on June 18, 2020

Your Fundraising Should Be More Vulnerable

Today’s post is all about vulnerability – a quality your organization needs to have if you want to be more successful when raising money.

I’m going to illustrate vulnerability using four quotes from Brene Brown. Brene is a research professor who’s done deep research on courage and vulnerability. (She probably doesn’t know it, but much of her work applies directly to fundraising!)

If you apply the principles she discovered to your fundraising, you’ll be better at engaging and keeping your donors.

“Through my research, I found that vulnerability is the glue that holds relationships together. It’s the magic sauce.”

Donor relationships are a lot like human relationships. Donors like to feel needed, and they like to feel appreciated.

Weirdly, most nonprofits in my experience are lousy at doing this. And it starts with an inability to be vulnerable.

For instance, they might ask their donors to “partner” with them, or ask for “support.” But most nonprofits rarely ask for help as if they really need it.

Go look at your fundraising materials. Just scan them. Do you get the impression that your organization or your beneficiaries really need help?

I’d like to suggest that if your nonprofit was more vulnerable to your donors you would engage your donors more deeply, keep them for longer, and raise more money.

In my experience, organizations raise a lot more money when they are vulnerable.

“Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.”

I think one of the reasons there’s a massive donor retention problem in Fundraising is that most donors feel so little connection with the organizations they donate to. And I blame that mostly on poor donor communications. Most nonprofits are constantly talking about themselves and taking credit for everything they’ve done. You can look at the materials of many organizations (especially their websites!) and never know they even have donors.

Think about your relationships with other humans. Do you feel connected to, and valued by, the people who are always talking about themselves? Nope.

If you want to experience connection with your donors, be vulnerable. Tell them that their gift (or their volunteer hours, or their Board service) are needed. Tell them that you’re doing as much as you can, but you need their help. Tell them that you’re not reaching everyone who needs help, but that you could reach more people if they donated.

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

It’s hard to ask for money. For most of us, it’s unnatural. And I think that’s why organizations tend to pussy-foot around it.

It takes real courage to ask boldly for money! Much of my work is with leaders of organizations helping them overcome fears about Asking. They don’t like it. Or they think it will reflect poorly on themselves or the organization. They come up with all kinds of crazy rationalizations for why they shouldn’t ask.

This week I heard a doozy from an ED: “I need to be the positive leader, but staff can encourage donors to give…”

I submit to you that’s not good leadership. Nor is it courage. It certainly isn’t vulnerability.

Here’s what that ends up looking like in appeals and e-appeals (as always, these are actual sentences from actual appeals):

  • “Will you help us do more of this good work?”
  • “Will you partner with us to help those in need?”
  • “Thank you for your determination to support our staff.”

Do you see any real need or vulnerability there? Neither do it. Neither do their donors.

When looked at through this lens, is it any wonder that an appeal that ends with…

  • “There are people right now who need help, but we don’t have the budget to reach them. Will you please send a gift today to help them?’

…will raise more than an appeal that ends like this?

  • “Will you help us do more of this good work?”

Ask courageously! The things you fear won’t come to pass. Or if they do, it will be in such small measure compared to the incredible generosity you see from your donors.

“I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.”

As a nonprofit, here’s how to pay attention and practice gratitude: watch every gift come in with joy and amazement. Think of the incredible connections you just formed between your donors and your beneficiaries! Think of the incredible good you just did!

Because remember: your donors LOVE to give! They love to support you. They love to help your beneficiaries or cause.

I think there’s incredible joy to be had in courageously stating a need, asking for help, and then watching generosity pour in.

I know you get numb to it after a while. Unless you are careful, the amazing generosity of donors pretty quickly just gets thought of as “monthly revenue” – every single time a gift comes in to your organization.

If there’s a ‘spiritual practice’ that most nonprofits should be doing, it’s practicing gratitude.

Because if you practice gratitude regularly, you become more grateful. And when you’re truly grateful for your donors, you will be comfortable being vulnerable with them. Vulnerability is where connection and relationship happens. You do that, and you’ll build a tribe of donors and an organization that can change the world.

This post was originally published on March 20, 2018

Why a Good Fundraising Offer Works So Well

Reading Mail

Today I want to talk about Offers. What’s an Offer? The main thing a fundraising piece says will happen when the person gives a gift.

A Good Offer Serves Your Donors

A good offer serves donors (and potential donors) by helping them understand, quickly, the difference they can make with a gift.

Always remember: the donors who are reading your mail and email are busy. They are sorting the mail or sorting email. Shoot, it’s even possible they are driving their car.

Your donor is scanning (not reading) your fundraising letter, wondering if your letter is about something she’d like to do today.

She doesn’t have time (or interest) for an organization that doesn’t describe what her gift will accomplish. Or worse, it describes what her gift will do in conceptual terms like “deliver hope” when she doesn’t know exactly what that means.

You know what she likes? Organizations that present understandable problems to her, in ways that are easy to understand. So that in just a few seconds, she can understand what the problem is and know how she can make a meaningful difference with a gift.

Reasons a Good Offer Works So Well

There are four main reasons a good offer work so well…

  1. A good offer is easier to communicate quickly. A good offer can usually be summarized in a sentence or two. That clarity and brevity allows donors to know right away if they should keep reading or not. Donors love that.
  2. A good offer requires the donor to understand less about your organization. Most nonprofits work under the assumption that a donor “must know all about all the things we do, and that we are good at it” before the donor can be asked to give a gift. For your mass donor communications, this could not be further from the truth.
  3. A good offer is more emotionally powerful. Because your letter (or email or event or whatever) is not having to educate your donor about all the things you do, you can spend more time talking about the people or cause in need, the emotions of the beneficiaries, the emotion of the donor, etc.
  4. A good offer tends to be specific. Good offers tend to have exact dollar amounts, so that all donors can see what it costs to make a meaningful difference. And they tend to include specific benefits or services that are provided for that amount. So rather than having to understand all of your programs and mission, the donor just needs to understand one small thing that makes a difference. Donors love that (even though experts don’t.)

Notice how all of those things “lighten the load” on your donors? Notice how a good offer makes it easier for them to understand what their gift will do? And how you’ll be able to tap into their emotions – which are the drivers of all giving?

So Much More to Say…

There’s so much more to say about Offers that we’ve put together an entire e-Book on the subject. Click here to download it for free – and keep telling donors how they can change the world!

The Three Things to Become Great At

three things to get good at

I love getting into the tactics and details of fundraising. Things like “5 Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter” and “How to Choose What to Underline and Why.”

Those tips really help people. They make a meaningful difference in fundraising results.

But tactics and details are not the most important things small and medium nonprofits can do to raise more money.

Keep It Simple

I’m a big fan of keeping things simple. Here’s a quote that perfectly describes fundraising success:

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.” Dee Hock, Founder of VISA

So for the small nonprofits out there (and for new fundraisers), I propose three “simple, clear purposes” that create fundraising success…

#1 – Become great at Asking people to make donations

Your ability to know what your donors care about, and then Ask them in a way that makes them more likely to take action, is core to successful fundraising.

Super Simple Rules:

  • Ask with vulnerability, as if you actually need help today.
  • Be honest and clear about the bad thing that’s happening in the world today that your donor can help fix.
  • Show your donor how their gift will make a difference.
  • Even Harvard Business Review agrees: keep it simple.

#2 – Become great at Thanking a person who makes a donation

Making a donor feel your gratitude and appreciation is the key to Thanking – and keeping – your donors.

No donor has ever given a donation and thought, “Gosh, I hope this organization sends me an impersonal, boring letter to ‘acknowledge’ my gift and tell me more about the organization!”

But that’s what organizations do ALL THE TIME in their receipt letters and Thank You notes.

Here are my Super Simple Guidelines for Thanking:

  • Make sure the letter in your receipt or thank-you feels like it is about the donor who gave the gift, not about the organization.
  • No matter what vehicle you use to thank her (card, phone, in person, etc.)…
    • Make sure she knows that her gift was needed.
    • Make sure she knows that her gift was appreciated.
    • Tell her how her gift is going to help (not what your organization has already done).

People! A great Thank You is about what the person did, not about what your organization is doing and how you do it!

#3 – Become great at Reporting to your donors on the impact of their gifts

Each donor gives a gift to you in faith that you are going to use it to make the world a better place.

Are you going to show her that she helped make the world a better place? Doesn’t she deserve that? Or are you going to just keep Asking her for more gifts?

Take off your ‘fundraising hat’ for a second and put on your ‘donor hat.’ How would it feel to you if the organizations you support never took the time to show you what your gifts helped accomplish?

Listen, if you want to increase the chances your donor will give you another gift, you need to powerfully show her how her first gift made a difference. Make her feel it.

After all, if she never feels like her gift made a difference, what do you think her likelihood is of giving again?

My Super Simple Rules for Reporting:

  • Have a printed newsletter.
  • Do it at least four times per year.
  • Tell your donor what she did, not what your organization did
  • Show her impact by using stories of beneficiaries.
    (Keep statistics in your top desk drawer for when foundations and high Organizational-IQ major donors come to visit.)

Reporting is the least-understood part of effective long-term fundraising. And believe it or not, it can be done so well that your donors will send in money in response to your newsletters. The manual for this is Tom Ahern’s book. Or watch this free webinar.

Fundraising’s Virtuous Circle

If your organization does those three things well – Asking, Thanking and Reporting – all kinds of good things happen.

Revenue goes up. Donor retention goes up. You “close the loop” on fundraising’s Virtuous Circle.

Of Course There Are Other Things

Things like segmentation, your online fundraising strategy, donor surveys, donor engagement, etc.

But in my experience, doing your Asking, Thanking and Reporting well are the main things that make the biggest difference. So focus on becoming great at those things first.

For instance, if your organization doesn’t know how to Ask well, having a great online fundraising strategy is expensive and inefficient. If you can get 500 people in the ballroom for your event, great. But if you don’t know how to Ask well, you’ll raise far less than you could.

As an organization, make sure your organization is good at Asking, Thanking and Reporting, because you’ll raise more money and be able to help more people.

And as a Fundraiser, make sure you are good at Asking, Thanking and Reporting. Because if you can do those three things well you will rise in the nonprofit sector and make an even bigger difference than you’re making now.

Resources For You

We have a free eBook to help nonprofits get better at Asking. It’s free, go download it.

You’ll probably also want to check out another eBook, Storytelling For Action, which is also a free download. It has the helpful “Story Type Matrix” that shows the research-based guidelines for what types of stories you should tell, and when you should tell them.

My friend, becoming great at Asking, Thanking and Reporting is a knowledge issue, not a talent issue. You can learn this stuff, raise more money, be more confident that your fundraising is going to be successful, and help more people!

This post was originally published on October 11, 2018.