10 Great Questions to Help You Collect Better Stories


As I wrote in my last post, Make Your Story a Memorable One, 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!

Make Your Story a Memorable One

How often do you find yourself telling other people what you do for a living?

Be it at a dinner party, a random event, walking the dog, or even at the grocery store, I’ll share what I do for a living at least once a week. And because it happens so often, I’ve had to find a way to tell that story in an exciting way.

Ever asked someone, “Oh, and what work are you in?” – only to immediately regret it?

The last thing you want to hear is a jargon-filled, boring explanation. It’s for that reason that I learned that the best way to tell my story was to make people feel something.

For example, I could tell people that I’m a fundraiser. That may get an interested grunt or two, but more than likely it will kill the conversation. Instead, I might say that I write letters to thousands of people every week. If nothing else, this would make someone curious and get them asking some questions.

Try applying this same philosophy to your next fundraising appeal: focus less on what your organization does, and more on making the donor feel something. Because we know that when a donor is emotionally involved, they are more likely to give a gift.

Make sense?

A great way to get our donors feeling something is to tell stories. Stories have been with us from the beginning of time. They help us learn. They inspire us. They move us. And they help us remember.

And when we use stories to communicate with our donors, whether through appeal letters, newsletters, or reports, they immediately become emotionally involved. Because just as people who ask you what you do for a living aren’t looking for a boring job description, donors aren’t looking for a laundry list of what your non-profit does.

For example, if you’re an animal shelter sending an appeal to cat lovers, then focus on the story of a cat that needs help. In your letter, explain the problem that the cat is having and what will happen if it doesn’t get help. And when you use a story to highlight a problem that the donor can solve with her gift, you position her as the hero.

Appeals work best when your donors are emotionally involved. And stories are a powerful way to introduce a problem and invite the donor to solve it.

The Simple Outline for Appeals That Raise Money

letter outline

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!

Ideas to Make Your Outer Envelopes POP!


I open a lot of mail – a lot of fundraising direct mail.

Every day I’ll receive at least two appeals, along with the usual smattering of utility bills and pizza promotions.

I must have received thousands of letters over the years, but I only remember a handful. Yes, it takes something special to get my attention.

Your donor needs something special, too. From the moment she wakes up, she’s bombarded by messages, all competing for her attention. So don’t assume she’s going to open your next appeal letter.

But there are some things you can do to make your letter stand out in the mailbox. And it starts with the outer envelope.

Also called the “carrier,” the outer envelope serves two purposes – to deliver your letter, and then, to entice her to open it. But there are some simple guidelines it should follow:

  • The language on the outside, usually called the “teaser,” should be donor-focused – keep it about her, not your organization
  • Teaser language should focus on a benefit to your donor, the offer, the match, etc.
  • The teaser should steer away from being conceptual, cute, or clever, as it lowers response rates

The first impression your donor has – your outer envelope and your teaser – is the critical first step to getting a donation. But it can be a tightrope walk – go too far with a teaser or image, and your appeal will likely end up in the trash.

To avoid that result, here are some ideas I’ve used to help make outer envelopes pop:

  • Use a blank #10 outer envelope. Put your organization’s details, if you need to include them, on the reverse flap. But a blank envelope can really grab a donor’s attention.
  • Consider writing a handwritten note on your outer envelope (e.g. Your gift doubles, SEE INSIDE!)
  • Experiment with alternative envelope colors such as brown craft, canary yellow, light blue, pink, or even green
  • Try a different sized envelope such as a 6×9
  • Thicker envelope stock can help your appeal stand out in the mailbox, separating it from all the other communication she may receive
  • Use a reverse window (flipping the window and address block to the back of envelope and giving you more real-estate up front)
  • Use full-bleed, which is a wrap-around full-color envelope. But this can be expensive

A well-written and well-designed outer envelope has the power to draw a better response from your donor. And if the goal is to have your appeal stand out in a crowded and noisy mailbox, you should try some of these ideas!

How to Choose What to Underline and Why


I’m going to teach you to raise more money by showing you what to emphasize in your fundraising letters.

Because if you underline or bold the right things, you’ll raise more money.

NOTE: for brevity, I’m going to lump all forms of visual emphasis as “underlining.” You might use underlining, or bolding, or highlighting, doesn’t matter. All of those are different tactics. I’m talking about the strategy of visually emphasizing small portions of your letters and e-appeals.

First, let me tell you why your underlining is so important.

Underlining has two purposes in fundraising writing. Almost nobody knows the second – and more important – purpose.

  1. Bolding or underlining signals that a sentence is important. This is true of almost any writing.
  2. But underlining also serves a second, more important purpose. The most effective fundraisers use underlining to choose for your donor which things they are most likely to read.

Because remember, most of your donors won’t read your letter from top to bottom. They will scan your letter – briefly running their eyes down the page. And as they scan, when they see a sentence that has been emphasized, they are likely to stop scanning and read.

It’s this second, more valuable purpose that most organizations don’t know about. So they underline the wrong things.

My Rule of Thumb

Here’s what I try to do. This doesn’t apply to every letter, but I try this approach first on every single letter I review or write:

  • The first thing underlined should be a statement of need, or a statement describing the problem that the organization is working on.
  • The second thing is a brief explanation of how the donor’s gift will help meet the need or solve the problem mentioned in the first underlined section.
  • The third thing is a bold call-to-action for the donor to give a gift to meet the need / solve the problem today.

If you do that, I can basically guarantee that your letter will do well. A MASSIVE number of fundraising letters don’t even have those elements, let alone emphasize them. If you have them, and you emphasize them, here’s what happens:

  • Donors know immediately what you’re writing to them about
  • Donors know immediately what they can do to help
  • Donors know immediately that they are needed!

Because of those things your donors are more likely to read more. And more likely to donate more.

There Are Some Sub-Rules

  1. No pronouns. Remember that it’s very likely that a person reading the underlined sentence has not read the prior sentences. So if you underline a sentence like “They need it now!” the donor does not know who “they” are and what “it” is. The sentence is basically meaningless to the donor. Their time has been wasted.
  2. Not too many. You’ve seen this before; there are four sentences that are bolded, five that are underlined, and the result is a visual mess that only a Board member would read. Be disciplined. I try to emphasize only three things per page, sometimes four.
  3. Emphasize what donors care about, not what your Org cares about. If you find yourself emphasizing a sentence like, “Our programs are the most effective in the county!” … de-emphasize it. Though it matters a lot to you, no donor is scanning your letter looking to hear how good your organization is at its job. But donors are scanning for things they are interested in. So emphasize things like, “Because of matching funds, the impact of your gift doubles!” or “I know you care about unicorns, and the local herd is in real danger.”
  4. Drama is interesting. If your organization is in a dramatic situation, or the story in the letter has real drama, underline it. Here are a couple of examples from letters we’ve worked on recently: “It was at the moment she saw the ultrasound that life in her belly stopped being a problem and became a baby” and “The enclosed Emergency Funding Program card outlines the emergency fundraising plan I’ve come up with.”

And now, I have to share that I got the idea for this post when I saw this clip from the TV show “Friends”. It turns out that Joey has never known what using ‘air quotes’ means – and he’s using them wrong (to hilarious effect). I saw it and thought, “That’s like a lot of nonprofits trying to use underlining effectively.”

If you’re offended by that, please forgive me. I see hundreds of appeal letters and e-appeals a year. I developed a sense of humor as a defense mechanism. 🙂

The good news is that learning how to use underlining is as easy as learning to use air quotes!

You can do this. Just remember that most of your donors are moving fast. Underline only what they need to know. That’s an incredible gift to a compassionate, generous, busy donor!

And if you’d like to know how Better Fundraising can create your appeals and newsletters (with very effective underlining!) take a look here.

It’s Time to Get Ugly and Improve Your Fundraising Results

As consumers, it’s fair to say that we’re attracted to good design.

Whether it’s on a billboard, in a magazine, or a sales brochure, marketers have figured out that an alluring graphic design can inspire emotions to increase the likelihood of us buying their product.

Believe it or not, the same is true of fundraising. Only it’s a little different.

Marketers, if they’re doing a good job, will design and write to a target audience – the people they want to buy something. Have you ever wondered why all the candy and sugary cereal is placed on the lower shelves at your grocery store? Because kids are the target audience.

For us fundraisers, our target audience is generally a little older and less into sugar. To be specific, you should be designing your donor communication for a female, around 69-years-old. Let’s call her Judy.

And for Judy, ugly works.

Yes, you read that correctly. What a younger audience sees as ugly, works for an audience of baby boomers and arguably, Generation Xers.

But before I go on, let me clarify what I mean by ugly. It’s basically the opposite of the kind of slick marketing we’re all used to. Jeff Brooks, best-selling author and fundraiser, says, “Ugly works. Tacky works. Corny, embarrassing, and messy all work. In print, or in digital.”


I’ve had long and at times robust discussions with graphic designers about what the outer envelope and letterhead of an appeal should look like. You may have experienced pushback yourself, perhaps from a board member, field staff, or someone influential in your organization.

If that’s the case, then my suggestion is to stick with what works. Remember, we’re not marketers trying to reach an audience of 20- or 30-somethings, or trying to win a design award. We’re fundraisers, trying to get Judy to open our mail and (hopefully) write a check.

Take your upcoming Christmas appeal, for example — red and green holly, nativity scenes, twinkling stars, angels with big white wings, candles, Christmas trees, and gaudy decorations — for Judy, this screams Christmas.

This kind of design will motivate her to respond, rather than gold-leaf lettering or a sheet of vellum in your packages. Of course, our advice would be to test this theory rigorously at your nonprofit – but in our experience, this approach consistently rings true.

And don’t be afraid to mirror this kind of thinking across all of your donor communications. If your donor file is large enough, splitting your list down the middle and testing content or design can be a great way to learn more about what your donors respond to.

Here are a few more ugly design ideas for you to consider …

Instead of sending out a crisp, professionally designed thank you card to a new donor – something glossy that looks mass produced and impersonal – consider a handwritten note from your Executive Director. To you, this may look ugly. But to your target donor, this is beautiful.

Or instead of an expensive full-color, overprint outer envelope, try sending your donors a plain, white #10 – no teaser, no image. To you, this is super ugly. But it will work.

My advice is that it doesn’t matter if your colleagues, board members, or field staff like your fundraising design. It only matters if Judy does.

3 Fundraising Writing Tips from our New Creative Director

When I first started to write fundraising appeal letters, it was really hard. I’d never written anything like it before, and I struggled to see how anyone would find the letters interesting to read, let alone respond to.

To help you become a better fundraising writer I want to share a few ideas that I learned early on. My hope is that they’ll help you become a better communicator, too.

Now, let me preface these ideas by saying that while there are oodles of tips out there for you to follow, these are the tactics that have worked for me. You need to find what works for you. But these methods helped me avoid writer’s block (yep, that’s a thing), helped me to think about the donor, and above all, removed my ego from the process.

So here are three different techniques that I’ve used to help me stay on-track and write more compelling, donor-focused appeal letters:

1. Write to Judy

I have a photo of Judy on my desk. She’s smiling at me as I write you this blog post.

Judy’s my mom. She’s religious, makes great soup, and gives to a bunch of different charities. And when I write a fundraising letter, I write to her.

Why? Because Judy is the target demographic for fundraisers. She’s older, has a higher level of disposable income, is passionate about helping others, keeps an address book in her purse, and sends grammatically perfect text messages.

I also write to Judy because it helps me to keep the letter personal. If I don’t look at Judy during the writing process, it’s easy for me to drift into writing copy that I’d want to read. Judy won’t read that.

2. Write Everything in One Sitting

One of the biggest mistakes a copywriter can make is writing the various elements of their fundraising packages at different times.

Now, there are exceptions. But it’s a good habit to write your outer envelope, reply device, receipt copy, and insert (if you have one) at the same time you write your appeal letter.

The reason I try to do this is rather simple: I get distracted. And if your nonprofit is anything like the ones I’ve worked for, then you’ll know that distractions happen all the time. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been focused on writing an appeal letter only to be told there were donuts in the kitchen.

You may not notice it, but if you separate your packages and write the components at different times, your donor will notice. I receive a lot of direct mail, and it’s a tragedy to see a compelling appeal letter hidden inside an uninspiring outer envelope.

3. Keep it simple

I often struggle to keep my own ego in check when writing.

As someone who loves to write, it’s tempting to introduce a beneficiary in an appeal letter with the same detail a novelist would use to introduce a character. But it’s an ego-filled waste of time! To avoid that trap I always write to Judy – because I need to remember my audience!

And to that end, I write my fundraising letters, emails, and every other piece of donor communication as simply as I can. I’m not submitting a college essay; instead, I’m writing a deeply personal letter from one person to another.

Someone once told me to write copy at a middle-school level. That doesn’t mean adding the word “like” before every sentence, but you should avoid using words that aren’t used in normal, everyday conversations. And please, please, please – don’t use jargon.

Instead, keep it simple and personal.

Take this example from an organization providing food for the hungry:

In our city, a lack of nutrient-rich food is causing children to become malnourished, and leaving them highly susceptible to the spread of preventable disease.

It might be true, but your donor doesn’t speak like that. Instead, be personal, and use short sentences and simple words…

Little Mary is very hungry. Her tummy is sore because she hasn’t eaten a proper meal in days. And her body is so weak she’s in danger of getting sick.

This is called writing donor-focused copy; when you do it well, it’s magic.

I’d encourage you to find what works for you… and practice it. It will make you a better writer, and your donors will love you for it.

Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter

Appeal Letter.

The first sentence of your next appeal letter is really important.

Most readers will use it to decide whether to keep reading… or start thinking about whether to recycle or delete your message.

So yeah, it’s important. We’ve written hundreds of appeals and e-appeals over the years, and studied the results. Here are five tips to make your first sentence GREAT:

1. Short and Sweet

Your first sentence should be short and easy to understand. If your first sentence is long, complex, has lots of commas and clauses, and maybe a statistic or two, would you want to keep wading through? Remember, your reader is using it to decide whether to keep reading… or not.

2. Drama, Drama, Drama

Fill it with drama or make it interesting to your donor. Drama and tension are two of the best tools you have for engaging their interest. Or make it something that would be interesting to your donor – which is likely something different than would be interesting to you!

The worst example of this I ever saw was a first sentence that said, “Recently we hosted a staff leadership seminar.” Ouch.

3. What’s The Point?

One of the best first sentences is, “I’m writing to you today because…” That sentence forces you to get right to the point – which donors really appreciate. You want to know why so few donors actually read fundraising letters? It’s because they know how long it takes most nonprofits to get to the point! So if you and your organization get to the point quickly, your donor will be far more likely to read more.

4. Who Cares?

Another great tactic is to make the first sentence about the donor. Think “I know you care about Koala bears” or “You are one of our most generous donors, so I think you’ll want to know…” Listen, most of the other organizations she donates to wax poetic about totally unrelated things or about how great they are. When you write her and talk about her, she’ll love it!

5. Less is More

After you’ve written the first draft of your appeal, you can often delete your first couple of sentences or paragraphs. This happens to me all the time in my own writing, and in appeal letters that I edit for clients. In the first draft, the first couple sentences or paragraphs are often just warmup. They can be deleted and your letter will be stronger because now it gets right to the point.

So next time you’re writing, pay special attention to your first sentence. Keep it short and easy to read. Fill it with drama if you can. And when more people read your writing, more people will donate!

Why Church Fundraising Dropped

Church tithe.

Most churches are raising less than they used to.

Below, I’ll talk about why that is.

The solution is not easy. (If it were easy to raise money, we’d all be raising a lot more.) But there IS a solution.

Quick Backstory

In my experience, the vast majority of churches didn’t need to be good at fundraising.

Churches didn’t need to get great at fundraising because the tithe – members giving 10% of their income to the church – meant that the church raised a lot of money despite not doing much/good fundraising.

So churches didn’t need to get good at Asking. Churches didn’t need to get good at Reporting on what donors’ / members’ gifts accomplished.

In other words, most churches didn’t need to learn the skills and approaches that nonprofits have developed over the years to help them raise more money.

(Additionally, the generational shift from Builders to Boomers has hurt church fundraising, too. Builders tended to give because they were supposed to give. Boomers tend to be more skeptical; they want to know more about why their gift is needed and what it will accomplish. Personally I think this skepticism is warranted, even though it makes fundraising harder.)

Quick Story

Recently my pastor preached a fantastic sermon about why tithing was a practice that didn’t make sense in today’s world. Everything he said made a ton of sense.

And giving at the church dropped overnight.


Because many people no longer felt like they had to give. They’d been taught to tithe; tithing was a duty. The tithe was one of the main reasons people gave as much as they did.

They gave less because their main reason for giving had been removed.

And that reason was not replaced with any other reasons.

(The lesson, as always: if you remove a reason to give today, you raise less money.)

What Should Churches Do?

To solve this problem, let’s admit that the pastor and leadership team usually aren’t aware of the fundraising skills needed to thrive in today’s church fundraising environment.

But here are the two things they need to do:

  1. Give their congregations new, powerful reasons to give today
  2. Get great at the Skills and Strategies that nonprofits use to engage donors and raise money

Skills and Strategies like:

  • Give people multiple reasons to give today
  • Get good at describing the outcomes of people’s gifts
  • Develop and use great offers
  • Report back to donors on the outcomes of their giving
  • Give donors the credit for those outcomes
  • Segment donors, and treat major donors differently than mass donors
  • In addition to talking about giving from the point of view of God and the church, talk about what’s in it for the donor

The good news (ha!) for churches is that all of these are learnable skills. Because fundraising is a knowledge issue, not a talent issue.

Get in touch if you’d like to speak with us or connect us with your church!