How to Describe the “Solution” Your Organization Provides

Puzzle piece.

Fourth in a Series on Offers

I’m “going deeper” than I ever have to help you understand how to create powerful fundraising offers.

Why? Because creating a great offer is the easiest way to start raising more money immediately. You don’t have to try a new media channel. You don’t have to segment your donors differently. You don’t have to acquire a bunch of new donors.

You just have to think a little differently about what you say to your donors.

This is the fourth in a series of posts; here’s the first if you’d like to start from the top.

And for a refresher, here’s my definition of an offer: the offer of a fundraising piece is the main thing that you say will happen when the person gives a gift.

The Four Elements of Successful Offers

Here are the four “elements” or “ingredients” that I always include when I create fundraising. And these are what I’m looking for when I review fundraising…

  1. A solvable problem that’s easy to understand
  2. A solution to that problem that’s easy to understand
  3. The cost of the solution seems like a good deal
  4. There’s urgency to solve the problem NOW

Today, we’re going to break down what’s in #2, “A solution to that problem that’s easy to understand.”

A solution to that problem that’s easy to understand

There are three main ideas here…

A Solution

The first element in an effective offer is a “problem.” We talked about that in the previous post.

The second element is a “solution.” And this is pretty simple:

Whatever problem you present,
you’ll raise more money if the solution you present
solves that problem.

If the problem you’ve presented is that a person is hungry, the solution needs to be food.

If the problem is that a future season of the opera is at-risk, the solution needs to be to save the season (and not something like, “support the arts”).

Are you with me?

To That Problem

There’s a little phrase here that’s really important. It’s “to that problem.”

This is trickier than you think it is. A lot of nonprofits unknowingly get this wrong.

Let me share with you what happens, then give you an example.

What happens is that a nonprofit will talk about someone or something in need, but the offer – what you promise to a donor will happen when they make a gift – doesn’t solve the main problem that’s presented.

For example, earlier today I reviewed a video for a client. Here’s a super-simple summary of the video:

  1. It talked about a refugee family from Syria
  2. It shared about how the family was living in a refugee camp
  3. It talked about how they were cold, wet, and hungry
  4. It asked the donor to “send hope”

This video will absolutely raise some money. But not nearly as much as it could.

Why? Because the main problem it sets up is not solved by the offer. The solution the donor is asked to provide – “send hope” – does not solve that problem.

If the offer were to “send warm coats, tarps to keep the rain off, and emergency food,” then the organization would raise a lot more money. Because then the solution they offer the donor would solve the problem!

Should the idea that the donor’s gift will provide hope be in the video somewhere? Yes. But it should not be the main thing that the video promises will happen if the donor gives a gift.

So when you’re creating offers, be sure the solution you present solves the problem you’ve presented! (And when you notice there’s a mismatch, you either need a different problem or a different solution!)

Easy to Understand

Finally, the solution needs to be easy for the donor to understand.

Just as the problem needs to be easy to understand, so does the solution.

This has nothing to do with the intelligence of your donors. It has everything to do with how much time they’re willing to pay attention to your fundraising. They usually give you just a few seconds.

So you don’t have time for complex, five-step holistic solutions. This is why offers that focus on things at the lower end of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – food, shelter, water – always tend to do well.

And what if you’re an Arts organization that doesn’t have those? You still need to apply the principle and make your solutions (and your problems) as easy to understand as possible.

In the “opera” example above, we simplified the problem to “future seasons are at risk.” And we simplified the solution to, “because of matching funds, your gift will help secure every note of the future season.”

The problem is easy to understand (and still meaningful). The solution is easy to understand. I predict they are going to raise a lot of money.

The Consequences of this Approach

Let’s talk about how this approach makes people (maybe even you?) uncomfortable.

You and experts like you know that the problem you’re working on is not simple. And the solution that your organization provides is not simple.

And the approach above oversimplifies what you do in a way that makes you / your board / your program people / stakeholders uncomfortable.

Here’s the problem: in your mass donor fundraising, you aren’t talking to people like you! You’re talking to non-experts. You’re talking to people who don’t understand nearly as deeply as you. And you’re talking to them using a method (the mail, email, social) where they’re only giving you a few seconds of time.

Given those conditions, you need to oversimplify. Even if it makes you uncomfortable.

The simplicity made people at the Opera company uncomfortable. It didn’t share the whole picture. If you really dug into the situation, there were all sorts of complexities.

But we know that you don’t have time in a letter for all sorts of complexities. So we showed them how that simplicity was true – even though it didn’t show the whole picture. And if any donor asked about it, we showed them how to say, “What you read in the letter is true, AND there are some additional complexities, and I’m thrilled to have a donor like you who pays attention to things like this.”

Next Up…

The next post will show you how to use the third element in successful fundraising offers: “The cost of the solution seems like a good deal.”

And as I’ve mentioned before, all of this probably seem like a lot of work.

If it were easy, you and everybody else would be raising piles of money.

This stuff takes real thought and real work.

But the payoff is huge – for your organization, for your beneficiaries, and for you!

The Ingredients in Successful Offers

We’re doing a series of posts that explain “fundraising offers” so that you can use this super-tool to raise more money.

The previous post talked about what an offer is. My definition is as follows:

The offer of a fundraising piece is the main thing that fundraising piece says will happen when the person gives a gift.

You can think of the offer as the very short summary of what you’re communicating to the donor about at this moment.

Over the last 70 years, smart fundraisers have noticed that successful offers tend to have a few things in common. Here’s my attempt to break down what you need to know – the ingredients that give you the best chance of succeeding…

The Four Elements of Successful Offers

Here are the four “elements” or “ingredients” that I always include when I create fundraising, and look for when I review fundraising…

  1. A solvable problem that’s easy to understand
  2. A solution to that problem that’s easy to understand
  3. The cost of the solution seems like a good deal
  4. There’s urgency to solve the problem NOW

My next posts are going to look at each of these elements in turn.

Today, we’re going to break down what’s in the first element, “a solvable problem that’s easy to understand.”

A solvable problem that’s easy to understand

There are three main ideas here.

A Problem

First, let’s talk about “a problem.” When you are talking to all of your donors (appeals, emails, events, newsletters, etc.) your fundraising will raise more money if it talks about a problem that needs to be solved.

This is the hardest hurdle for most nonprofits to jump. Most nonprofits don’t want to talk about problems. They don’t want to talk about the needs of their beneficiaries. Or about the negative consequences if the organization were not able to do its work.

This is not the place to dig into why that happens.

But I hope you’ll trust both my good intentions and 25 years of experience when I say this:

Sharing a need or a problem with your donors will help donors remember why they give to you in the first place, will help donors remember that there are people in need right now, will not take away from the “dignity” of your beneficiaries, and will help you raise more money.

To share some examples, here are some “problems” I’ve used in just the last week:

  • “Operas in future seasons are at risk of not being funded”
  • “A smart, underprivileged girl has qualified for college but can’t afford to go”
  • “Children are being sexually abused, and the people around them don’t know the signs or what to do about it”
  • “We have a budget shortfall”

Solvable

The problem you share needs to be “solvable.”

More donors respond when you present them with a problem that can be solved quickly or easily.

For instance, if the main problem your letter presents is “poverty in Africa” or “illiteracy in our country,” those problems are too big to be solved today. You won’t raise as much as you can.

Here’s my explanation for why. At some level, the donor knows that her gift will not “end illiteracy.” She knows that she can’t “end poverty in Africa.” So she believes your letter a little less. And she’s less likely to give a gift.

Instead, you want to share “solvable” problems like “one poor family in Africa” or “one junior high class that’s struggling to read.” The donor can easily see how those are solvable problems. Now she believes in your letter a little more, and is more likely to give a gift.

Easy to Understand

Finally, the problem needs to be easy for the donor to understand.

This is where it’s helpful to remind organizations that their donors do not know nearly as much about the problem you’re working on as the organization does.

Organizations tend to present complex problems to donors – problems that require a lot of context to fully understand and be moved by.

The problem with that strategy is twofold:

  1. The vast majority of donors don’t have all that context. So the fundraising isn’t meaningful to them.
  2. You’re communicating with those donors in the mail or email, where they are only giving you a few seconds of attention before deciding what to do. You don’t have time to give them all that context in just a few seconds! It’s like trying to give someone a PhD in a week. No matter how smart they are, it’s not going to work.

Let me share an example with you. We serve an organization whose mission is to “end generational homelessness.” It’s an awesome mission, and they’re an incredible organization. Their ED is one of the most inspiring leaders I know.

But when they make “generational homelessness” the problem in their fundraising, they raise less money.

That’s mostly because “generational homelessness” is a) not solvable with a gift today, and b) a really complex problem.

The fundraising offer we moved them to – the main thing they talk about at almost all times – is “Local moms and kids are homeless, and you can provide them with a safe place to stay for a night.”

The problem “local moms and kids are homeless” requires a lot less time and understanding from a donor – and it’s helped this organization grow their fundraising by an average of 20% per year for the five years we’ve been working with them.

Next Up…

The next post will show you how to use the second element in successful fundraising offers: “A solution to that problem that’s easy to understand.”

And listen, all of this probably seems like a lot of work.

It is.

But it works like crazy.

Our industry has 70 years of knowledge about how to create powerful offers. It can’t be downloaded to your brain, Matrix-style, in 10 minutes.

But I’m taking apart “offers” bit by bit, and explaining them, so that you can make powerful offers for your organization.

Because a powerful fundraising offer will help you raise a lot more money.

Why a Good Fundraising Offer Works So Well

Man thinking.

This is the second post in a series on Fundraising Offers.

The first post talked about what an offer is: 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?

Next Up…

The next post will focus on the four elements that successful offers tend to have in common.

And I do hope you’ll stick with this whole series. “Offers” are complex. But when you understand what they are – and understand how to make good ones – you’ll start raising more money immediately.

How to Create a Great Fundraising Offer: What’s an Offer?

Serve Up.

I’m starting a series on Fundraising Offers – the least understood, most powerful way nonprofits (especially smaller nonprofits) can start raising more money immediately.

A strong offer helps your organization:

Raise more money with each piece of fundraising
Be more memorable to your donors
Build stronger relationships with your donors

This post will lay out some foundational ideas, then later posts will show you how to do it.

So first, let’s define what an offer is.

What’s an “Offer?”

A fundraising offer is the main thing a fundraising piece says will happen when the person gives a gift.

Here are some examples of offers taken from my files. Some are good, some are poor – later we’ll talk about what makes an offer effective or not. For now, we’re just working on identifying offers and understanding what they are.

I’ve underlined the “main thing that will happen” that each letter / email / newsletter emphasized:

  • “Will you join us as we fight poverty”
  • “Will you help these overcoming women in their journey”
  • $1.92 will provide a Thanksgiving meal
  • “Please partner with us as we end generational homelessness”
  • “For every $250 you donate, one child will attend camp this summer
  • “Your gifts support the Harmony Experience for all”
  • “Your gift supports the arts in our community”

Every piece of fundraising communication has an offer.

Some offers are more powerful than others.

Some offers work for almost all organizations (e.g., year-end). Some offers only work for some organizations at very specific times of the year (e.g., opening night at the opera). Some offers are so powerful they can create billion-dollar organizations (e.g., “child sponsorship”).

Your job as a fundraiser is to find the most effective offers for your organization.

Can Changing Your Offer – Changing the Focus of an Organization’s Communications – Make that Big a Difference?

A good offer immediately improves an organization’s fundraising.

Just in the last couple months I helped:
  • An organization raise over $75,000 with an appeal letter when they’d never raised more than $3,000 with an appeal.
  • An organization raise $49,000 with an appeal when they’d never raised over $1,500.
  • An organization raise $5,500 with an email when they’d never raised more than $700.

The massive increases were created by changing their offers, by changing “the main thing the fundraising pieces said would happen when the person gives a gift.”

The organizations that went from $3,000 to $75,000 made a simple change. They changed their offer from:

“Together, we can change a young woman’s life”

…to…

“You can help one local woman go to college”

Doesn’t seem like such a small change could have such a big difference, does it? But by having a strong offer, and making it the main focus of a piece of donor communication, you can absolutely see remarkable increases.

Think of it this way: focusing your donor communications on the right thing immediately improves your organization’s fundraising.

What’s Next?

My next post will focus on why a good offer is so effective. I want organizations to understand why it works so well before I explain how to do it well.

Why? Because developing a strong offer is much more a “way of thinking” than it is a series of steps to follow, or a list of ingredients.

When I’ve given nonprofits or audiences the list of ingredients, they haven’t reliably been able to create strong offers.

To use a cooking analogy, I suspect I’ve been giving people a list of ingredients without providing the cooking instructions.

My fault. So with this series I’m going to “start at the start.” I’m defining what an offer is. Then I’ll describe why offers work so well. Then I’ll give you the ingredients. Then I’ll show you how to use them.

And then you’ll be on your way to creating stronger offers for your organization – and will start to raise more money immediately!

How to defend donor-centric fundraising to your boss

Videostill.

Today’s blog post is a 4-minute video.

It’s taken from a recent free webinar I did where I was doing live reviews of appeals and newsletters. (There’s another one this Friday – you can sign up for free here.)

The video helps explain why donor-centric fundraising is more effective than organization-centric fundraising.

It’s this simple truth – that most donors are more interested in themselves and the things they care about – that explains why classic organization-centric fundraising doesn’t work as well.

So if you want to try donor-centric fundraising, share this reasoning with your boss. It seems counterintuitive at first. But it makes sense when you think about it – and we have 70 years of direct response fundraising testing to prove it!

11 donor-centric sentences you can use…

Lightbulb.

Here’s a question I get asked at least once a week:

“I see why it makes sense to write ‘to the donor about their gift’ instead of writing about my organization…

But how do I do that?”

My encouragement is that you can learn the same way I learned: you can take good copy from another organization and customize it for your non-profit.

So here are some sample sentences you can steal like an artist and customize for your organization. All of these sentences are from appeals that performed at or above expectations.

All are from appeal letters. Some of them are opening lines. Some are from the middle, some from near the end.

  • I’m writing you today with an important request. You are one of our most faithful donors, and I’m going to be very direct.
  • I’m so thankful to be able to write you about this.
  • You can really make a difference in the lives of suffering people.
  • When you give, it’s as if you’re right there beside us, caring for people in the field.
  • You’ll love how your gift is multiplied by volunteers and donated goods.
  • I couldn’t wait to write you this letter.
  • Look at how much good you can do; you can…
  • Here’s why your gift is so important.
  • [NAME], you’ve already been so generous, but I want you to know about the incredible need right now – and the opportunity for you to help.
  • I know you care for each [CATEGORY OF PERSON/CREATURE YOU WORK WITH].
  • Thank you for taking a moment out of your day to respond to this letter now.

There you go. Modify these for your organization – or just copy them!

Your donors will feel like you’re talking to them about the things they care about. And that’s the surest path to fundraising success.

5 Quick Thoughts to Help You Raise More

Counting on Hand.

Here’s a quick list of 5 things that should help you raise more money:

1. Letters that look like letters tend to do better.

A “letter” is a proven way to effectively raise money. But if you break the “form” too much – too many photos, too many graphics, a big color banner across the top – it begins to feel more like a brochure than a letter. And brochures do not work.

2. You do not have to be a great writer to be great at raising money through mail and email.

The things that make mail and email fundraising effective are rarely what most people think of as “good writing.” Really, you just need to know a handful of ideas – all of which I’ll be teaching in a free webinar Friday, March 22.

3. When someone at a nonprofit says they are going to “innovate,” really what they should say is that they are “attempting to innovate.”

Not all innovation works. If we explicitly name that going in, we’ll all be smarter about whether attempting to innovate is a good use of time and budget.

4. If you really want to get better at direct mail and email fundraising – as in actually study good teaching, not just read tips – study Siegfried Voegele.

Start with this article by Chris Keating.

5. “Fundraising Offers” are the most powerful, least-understood tactic in fundraising.

The teaching in our industry on Offers, even my own, isn’t cutting it. So I’m working on a better way to teach the organization-upgrading skill of creating a good offer. Watch this space.

Create & Relieve Tension

Rope Knot.

The most effective fundraising communications create and relieve tension throughout the year.

“Creating and relieving tension” is a way smart fundraisers can tap into how humans are wired, to increase your donors’ engagement with your organization.

You’ve seen this at work in movies, TV shows and plays. There’s a classic “three-act structure” where there’s an “inciting incident” that creates tension, then there’s drama, then resolution to relieve the tension.

This approach has been used for centuries because it works. But there’s a specific way to do it in fundraising…

What Works Best

If you look at the best-performing fundraising programs – in terms of net revenue and donor retention rates – you’ll notice the following approach. I’m sure you’ve seen it yourself:

  1. They create tension with powerful appeals
  2. The relieve tension with powerful newsletters

There are a few outliers. But when we started Better Fundraising and really dug into the data, we saw that some organizations drastically outperformed their peers.

The high-performing organizations tended to have a mix of appeals and printed donor-centric newsletters.

The Simple Explanation

Great appeals create tension by presenting unsolved problems to donors.

They remind donors that all is not right with something the donor cares about. They leave the donor hanging. The donor does not know what’s going to happen.

That’s why great newsletters relieve the tension by sharing stories of how the problem has been solved.

They “close the loop” for the donor. They show the donor, usually through a story of a beneficiary, that the problem was indeed solved.

This leaves the donor feeling satisfied. Pleased that her gift made a difference. Trusting the organization more.

I Don’t Know Why, but the Data is Clear…

You raise less money when you create and relieve tension in the same piece of fundraising.

The standard theory: when you relieve your donor’s tension, you remove some of her emotional momentum and reason to give.

But when you leave your donor with a little tension, she is more likely to take action. Because by taking action, she resolves the tension.

She can say to herself, “I know that I helped. I know that I did my part.”

Side note: note that in this scenario, the donor is giving to help someone and to “scratch her own itch” – to relieve the tension she feels. She is not giving to scratch the organization’s itch. My personal theory: if more organizations knew that donors gave mostly to scratch their own itches, organizations would make more donor-centric fundraising, and a LOT more money would be raised.

How Does This Help You?

Great question. This whole line of thinking is a bit conceptual. So here are your takeaways:

  1. During your year, you should have a mix of printed appeals and printed newsletters
  2. Your appeals should present current problems to donors – not share a story of someone you’ve already helped, or work you’ve already done (free tips here)
  3. Your newsletters should be full of stories of people you’ve helped and work you’ve already done (just be sure to give credit for those things to your donor)
  4. Don’t try to do both things (share a need and a “story of success”) in the same piece of fundraising. When you do that, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

And Up Next…

Many organizations don’t like to share current problems, or unsolved problems with their donors.

I get it. It’s uncomfortable.

But it sure works better. And I think that the arguments that there’s something wrong with that approach fall apart when examined.

I believe Asking in this way is a form of donor love. Or #DonorLove.

I call it #DonorToughLove, and I’ll write about it next…

You Must Earn Your Donors’ Attention (they don’t read the whole thing)

Attention Span

Most nonprofits, without realizing it, make a big assumption when they write their fundraising.

They assume their donors will read the whole thing. The whole email. The whole letter.

That’s a really unhelpful assumption.

Here’s a heatmap of a 1-page direct mail letter. It shows what a donor’s eyes tend to look at, and in what order it happens:

Click image to see a larger version.

We could spend a lot of time talking about what this means for your fundraising writing and design. But there’s one main lesson I want you to take away…

You Have to Earn and Keep a Donor’s Attention

You cannot assume your donor will read the whole thing.

Well, you can. But you’ll raise a lot less money.

So first you have to earn your donor’s attention. That’s having a great teaser on your envelope. Or a catchy subject line for your email. You need to get good at those things.

For your mass donor fundraising to excel, you need to be better at earning attention than you need to be at describing your organization or your programs.

That might feel like a “sad truth.” But it’s a really helpful truth if you want to raise more money and do more good.

How to Earn Donor Attention

There are three main ways to earn donor attention. You need to make your fundraising:

  1. Interesting to donors. This almost always means talking about your beneficiaries and your cause more than your organization and your programs. Remember: your donor first got involved because of your beneficiaries or cause, not because of your programs.
  2. Emotional. Emotions are what keep us reading. You want to constantly be using the emotional triggers: Anger, Exclusivity, Fear, Flattery, Greed, Guilt, Salvation.
  3. Dramatic. You want your fundraising to be full of drama and conflict.

Here’s an example. You already know that your first sentence of any fundraising appeal is super important. Take a look at these two:

“[NAME] Theatre is dedicated to producing high-quality, daring productions that take on challenging topics.”

vs.

“I’m writing you today about something you care about – and it’s in danger.”

I can basically guarantee you that more people are going to keep reading the second example. It’s written directly to the donor, it’s about something she cares about; it’s emotional, and it’s dramatic.

The first example – from a real letter from my files – is a classic example of telling the donor something the donor probably already knows and doesn’t really care about.

Note: Arts organizations often say that their fundraising can’t be emotional or dramatic because they don’t have babies or puppies to raise money for. I think the first example above shows that Arts organizations can absolutely be dramatic and emotional in their fundraising – they just need to think about it differently. After all, if a Theatre can’t get dramatic, it’s probably not that great a Theatre!

The Big Lesson

Your donors are moving fast. They don’t read the whole thing, watch the whole thing, or listen to the whole thing.

You need to get great at getting and keeping their attention. Study it. Know what your donors care about and then borrow tactics from advertising and social media to get your donor’s attention. And remember; we have 70 years of best-practices for earning and keeping donor attention. Smart fundraisers have learned a LOT over the years. Tap into it!

Because if you can earn your donors’ attention, they are more likely to keep reading.

And if you can keep your donors’ attention, they are more likely to give you a gift.