A Little Visual Punch


Last week I wrote about how adding ”handmade” touches to the design of your appeal letter can increase the chances it will connect with a donor.

Here’s another tool you can use: add elements that catch their eye and add impact to your message.

Look at the following table included in a recent successful appeal letter:

This table does a GREAT job communicating the main point of the letter; that the cost of living has dramatically increased for the beneficiaries of this organization.

We created the table and put it in the letter because the paragraphs we’d written about the increased costs just didn’t seem to be making an impact. The letter lacked punch. Something more visual and powerful was needed.

As you think about doing something like this in your fundraising, here are four qualities I’m aiming for as I help create something like this…

Visual Surprise

It’s a visual surprise to see a table like this in the middle of the letter copy. It sticks out, and readers’ eyes are drawn to it. Visual interest at key areas leads to more readers, and more readers leads to more givers.

Easy to Understand

Even though there are a lot of numbers, the chart is easy to understand.

The items in the left column are something every donor understands. The “% INCREASE” header of the right-hand column is bold and makes it easy to know what the table is about. And the percentages in the right column are also easy to understand.

Easy to Understand FAST

Most readers will read the upper left corner (“RICE IN HAITI”) and then blip right over to “% INCREASE” and “40.07%.” I suspect most people then immediately a) understood the point the table was communicating, b) immediately knew that the rest of the table just gave them more examples, and then c) moved on to the rest of the letter without reading anything else in the table.

For something like this to be successful, the reader should not have to read the whole thing.

Higher Impact

The size and type in the table communicate importance. The table made the point more strongly than a sentence like, “prices are rising dramatically, as much as 40% in Haiti for rice and 140% of potatoes in India.”

As you create your fundraising, always be on the lookout for ways you can spice up your letter by communicating information in ways other than words. Get good at it and your fundraising will have higher impact, higher engagement, and higher revenue.

Connect With What Your Donors ALREADY Feel


When organizations create their fundraising for individual donors, they usually have a goal that goes something like this:

Get donors emotionally connected to our work.

That’s a good goal – but it’s almost impossible to achieve in a letter or an email.

So I’d like to suggest a different goal for your mail and email:

Connect with the emotions that donors already feel.

Here’s why…

It’s easy to tap into a donor’s existing emotions. On the other hand, it’s hard work to teach donors about your work and then convince them to emotionally connect with it.

That’s too much to ask of a letter or email that most people will only spend a few seconds with.

So, construct your next letter or email to tap into the emotions about your beneficiaries or cause that you know your donors already have. You might know that they are angry about the injustice. Or that they are compassionate about the pain. Or that they get joy out of making the world a better place.

Whatever the emotions of your donors, name them for yourself and your team. Then build your fundraising to tap into them.

The result will be more engagement and more giving.

It’s the engagement and giving that will, over the years, result in your donors emotionally connecting with your work.



Your donors (and people in general) are looking for connection.

They tend to be more interested in hearing from a human, and less interested in hearing from an organization.

So make your fundraising look like it was made by a human, not an organization.

You can add hand-written copy at the top of your letter, like this…

Put hand-drawn brackets at the edges of an important paragraph, like so…

Or even something slightly silly – but thematically on target – like this…

You can jot a note next to the P.S., like this…

These human design touches can cause discomfort for people who prioritize “looking professional.”

But your mass donors are not deciding whether to give a gift based on how professional a letter looks. If our experience is any indication, the donors on your mailing list are deciding based on whether they connect with the letter. And little human, hand-drawn touches like these make your letter feel like it was made by a human. They increase your chances of connecting.

Maybe the Donor Said “No” Because…

Maybe the donor said no because it’s finally a nice day, so they went outside instead.

Maybe the donor said no because their spouse had already recycled the mail that day.

Maybe the donor said no because their taxes were a little higher than expected last month.

Maybe the donor said no because their passions are elsewhere right now.

Maybe the donor said no because they also received an unexpected bill that day.

Maybe the donor said no because they are on vacation and haven’t looked at email in a week.


You already know I’m a big believer in taking extreme responsibility for the success or failure of any piece of fundraising. But I also believe there’s a LOT that’s out of the Fundraiser’s control.

So… pay close attention… but don’t take the “no’s” personally.

The Magic of an Evergreen Fundraising Offer


As organizations begin to fundraise more, we advise them to develop what we call an “evergreen offer.”

That’s an offer that is:

  • Easy for donors and non-donors to understand,
  • Closely aligned to your main mission, and importantly…
  • Can be “seasonalized” to work during different times of the year

Here’s an example of what this looks like for an organization we’ve served for almost a decade:

$33 provides a night of safety and care for a mom and her kids

What makes this offer so helpful for the organization is that it can be made to work during every season…

In the summer: “No Mom and her children should have to live and sleep outside during this dangerous heatwave. Your $33 provides a night of safety and care to help…”

In the winter: “It’s dangerous for a mother and her children to sleep outside or in their car during our freezing nights. Your $33 provides a night of safety and care to help…”

For Thanksgiving: “Mothers and their children should not have to be homeless at Thanksgiving! You can provide a night of safety and care – plus a Thanksgiving feast – for just $33…”

Evergreen Offers usually involve a program or service that your organization runs all year long. The trick is to break up seasons into “slices” and talk about the reason the program or service is needed during that season.

Then you’re always giving donors a reason to give now – which is one of the keys to raising money in email and the mail.

Evergreen offers also allow you to raise more money with less work. The “more money” part comes from growing more and more effective at delivering the offer. You quickly get better at knowing what to mention, and what not to mention.

The “less work” part comes from your spending less time inventing new things to talk about. And you spend less time creating each piece because you’ve already created something similar and successful in the past. You have a “model” to follow that makes all subsequent fundraising easier.

If you haven’t already, brainstorm ideas for your organization’s evergreen offer. Try them in email to see which one works the best. Then try it in the mail. You, and your donors, will love what happens!

Writing Tip: Put the Most Important Information First


There’s a writing principle you should live by:

Put the most important information first

Here’s what I mean.  Here’s a sentence from an e-appeal I edited recently:

Industrial, resource-heavy growth threatens Maryland’s fragile wetlands.

This sentence does what we were taught to do in school: explain and provide context, then make the point. 

Let’s look at it again, this time with a simple sentence diagram (apologies if you get flashbacks to middle school):

Industrial, resource-heavy growth
<           explains the context            > 

threatens Maryland’s fragile wetlands.
  <  idea that matters most to the donor  >

The problem is that in the mail and email, the end of a long sentence is less likely to be read than the beginning of a sentence.  (Look at a heat map and you’ll see how little most people read when they first look at your fundraising.)

So you want to put the most important information first, and then explain.

So how should you write the sentence above if you assume that many readers are only going to read the beginning of a sentence?  You’d write something like this:

Maryland’s fragile wetlands are threatened
  <  idea that matters most to the donor  >

by industrial, resource-heavy growth.
<           explains the context            > 

Writing in this way is one of the reasons that effective fundraising in email and the mail feels different from what your English teacher taught you. 

Additionally, this approach occasionally results in using the passive voice. This bothers people sometimes because the rule they live by is to ’never use the passive voice.’ The rule *I* live by is that, on behalf of beneficiaries, I’ll break any grammar rule I need to in order to create more effective communication.

Because beginning with the idea that matters most to the donor will make a few more people “get the message” your fundraising is sending.  That causes a few more people to give, which causes your organization to do more good.

It’s a great, free way to get a little more out of each appeal and e-appeal!

The Need Never Ends


There’s an idea I recommend removing from your fundraising (if you use it):

Telling people that “the need never ends.

I’m sharing this because last week I saw a text-driven billboard from an organization I support. The billboard said:


I have no testing data on this particular idea or phrase. But even though the idea is 100% true, I suggest that it’s not a good idea to highlight to donors.

A core motivator for individual donors is to make a change happen. By saying that the need never ends, this organization is also guiding people’s attention on the fact that their contributions will never solve the problem – that the situation will never change.

Not exactly motivating, eh? Anyone want to make T-shirts with “Donors are Sysiphus”?!?

By focusing their donors’ attention on something that donors cannot change, the organization removes a core motivation to give.

Some gifts will come in, of course. All it takes for some people to donate is to be made aware of what’s happening. But more gifts tend to come in when fundraising gives donors reasons to give today – and “the need never ends” is not a reason to give today.

It’s important to note that there are people who are motivated by the need never ending. For instance, “subject matter experts” who think at the level of the cause yet also know that something still needs to be done today. Executive Directors and Directors of Development who know that they need to raise money every single year.

But 99% of the people driving by the billboard (or on your mailing list) don’t think like that.

So Instead…

For individual donors, use your fundraising to focus their attention onto something they can help change.

Share a need that’s happening right now, or 4 weeks from now.

This usually means narrowing the focus of the fundraising from the Cause or the Big Picture to the personal and relatable. Share a story of a person or thing that needs a little help right now. Or talk about the help that is needed over the next month.

The next time you find your fundraising talking about how big a problem is, I advise you to narrow the focus.

Donors don’t give because a problem is big; they give because a problem is solvable.

Real Connection Goes Both Ways


When you’re at a nonprofit, there’s a joyous connection that happens when you feel like donors really “get” your organization and what you’re doing.

You feel seen.  You feel affirmed.

And here’s the thing: there’s also a joyous connection for a donor when they feel like an organization really “gets” them.

Does your organization’s fundraising make your donors feel like you really “get” them?


When you’re in a personal relationship with a donor, it’s not that hard to make a donor feel like you really “get” them.  You can ask them questions about their story and about why they donate.  You can create a fundraising ask or offer just for them that shows them you understand what they care about and why they give.

It’s harder to do in a piece of direct mail that goes to all donors who have given a gift in the last 18 months.  It’s harder still in an email that goes to everyone.

But it’s possible. 

Here’s How

In prominent locations in your fundraising, include sentences that attribute to the reader what you know about people who are likely to donate. 

Here are some examples:

  • In an appeal – “I know you care about classical music.”
  • In an automated Thank You email – “You just saw a situation that touched your heart and you did something about it.  Thank you!”
  • In a newsletter – “You know that someone in Gary’s situation is in real danger, and that’s why I’m so excited to tell you what your generosity helped make possible for him.”

You get the idea.

And you also see that this isn’t just the “window dressing” of including the word “you” a lot.  It’s actively thinking about what donors care about.  It’s thinking through a donor’s personal experience with your cause and/or beneficiaries.  It’s thinking through the emotions a donor experiences as they give a gift.  And then, on behalf of your beneficiaries, mirroring those thoughts and experiences back to donors.

It’s not a magic bullet.  And there are tons of other things you have to do well to succeed. 

But when your fundraising consistently includes these little hints that you understand your reader, you create a two-way connection.

That’s more powerful than the one-way connection donors are used to.  It’s similar to moving from “like” to “love.”

So put yourself in the following situation: it’s right before dinner.  Your donor is quickly processing their mail.  They have two envelopes in front of them, but only have time to open one.  Your donor must make a quick, subconscious decision.

Which letter do you think the donor is more likely to open?  The one from “one of those organizations that I like” … or the letter from “that one organization that gets me”?

How to Change the World


In a post called “How to change the world,” Seth Godin recently said,

All successful cultural change (books, movies, public health), has a super-simple two-step loop:


It’s easy to focus on awareness. Get the word out. Hype. Promo.

I think that’s a mistake.

Because awareness without tension is useless.

The tension is like pulling back a rubber band.

WHY would someone who becomes aware take action?

Here’s how that works in nonprofit fundraising:

  • Awareness – the nonprofit creates this.  Nonprofits make donors aware of the problem that needs to be solved, of the need that needs to be met. 
  • Tension – the donor feels this.  They feel the tension between the way the world is today and how they wish the world would be. 

Seth asks, “WHY would someone who becomes aware take action?” 

Here’s our answer for fundraising: a donor will take action when the internal tension they feel is strong enough, and when the nonprofit makes it easy for the donor to see that their gift will make a meaningful difference.

This is the successful recipe for an appeal: show the donor what’s happening in the world, and show the donor what their gift will do to solve the problem.

The nonprofit provides the awareness of the problem.  The donor provides the tension.  The result is a gift.  And the partnership between the nonprofit and the donor changes the world.

There are other pieces of communication necessary, of course.  Nonprofits should Thank their donors, and Report back to them on what their gifts accomplished.

But – importantly – do any of your fundraising pieces create awareness of the need, let the donor experience tension, and then make it easy for the donor to see the change in the world that their gift will make?