5 reasons the Myth of “Donor Fatigue” Persists

Donor fatigue.

Just a super quick reminder that “donor fatigue” – that mythical beast that haunts the futures of Fundraisers everywhere – doesn’t exist.

I’m neck-deep in donor data and fundraising performance all the time. And “donor fatigue” simply doesn’t exist for 99.9% of nonprofits.

But this mythical creature still affects the behavior of too many fundraisers. And without question, the fear of “donor fatigue” causes organizations to raise less money and do less good.

This is such a brutal fact that I’m going to repeat it: the fear of something that doesn’t exist – “donor fatigue” – causes hundreds of thousands of nonprofits to raise less money and do less good.

For the vast majority of nonprofits, letting “donor fatigue” affect your behavior is like not going outside because you might get hit by lightning.

I’ve identified 5 reasons that “donor fatigue” continues to haunt our sector and lower revenue. If you know of others, please share them with us. Here are my five:

  1. The complaints of a donor or three, occasionally a Board member, that your organization is asking for money too often.
  2. The fear that comes from thinking those complainers might speak for all your donors.
  3. The awkwardness some people feel about asking for money in the first place.
  4. The lack of understanding that nonprofits can be communicating to their donors far more often than they think.
  5. “Donor fatigue” is sometimes used as a scapegoat for bad fundraising. If an appeal or newsletter or campaign doesn’t work well, that elusive “donor fatigue” is blamed. Then no one has to feel bad, take responsibility, or learn from the mistake.

The first four items above are all real things. They matter.

But complaints and fears should not matter as much as the hundreds and thousands of additional gifts that will come in when you communicate with your donors more often about things they care about.

Look, if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know we believe in Asking more – because all our data shows that it works like crazy, with almost zero negative consequences.

One of the reasons Better Fundraising has been so successful is that we show our clients how organizations their size are communicating to their donors more often and raising a lot more money doing it. (And of course there are other things an organization has to do well, but Asking more is a one of the biggest levers you can pull.)

So next time someone brings up “donor fatigue,” tell them that “donor fatigue” isn’t the problem. And don’t let “donor fatigue” be used as a reason or excuse in your organization.

Acknowledge the fear that caused “donor fatigue” to rear its hideous head, then move forward.

You owe it to your beneficiaries.

Your donors will thank you for it with increased engagement and giving.

You’ll love raising more money and getting to do more good

May I Have Your Attention, Please?


Adding emphasis in your fundraising letters is very important.

No donor wants to read a giant block of text. Too much text too close together is far from compelling. It’s difficult for older eyes to look at.

All the great things you’re trying to tell them get lost.

A much better practice is to emphasize the text that you want them to read.

If you bold, underline, circle, or highlight the right words and phrases in your letters, and do it in the right places, you’ll raise more money.

Let’s think about why…

We know that when a donor receives your fundraising letter, they’re most likely to skim their eyes over the page. This is where it’s important to realize that you will read the letter differently than most donors will. You’ll read it word for word, from top to bottom. But donors will skip around as they read.

And you have to design your letter for the way donors read, not for the way you read.

First, remember that your donors are busy. So as they scan your letter, they’ll generally start at the top left (to make sure the letter is addressed to them), and then move down the page, stopping ever so briefly at certain points.

It’s these “certain points” that you need to emphasize by using techniques like bolding and underlining. Think of it as telling a story within a story. A great way to test this in your next fundraising letter is to ask yourself… if my donor reads nothing but the bold and underlined text:

Do they know what the problem is?
Do they know how they can solve it?
Do they know what they’re being asked to do?

Like most styles of writing, underlining text shows that it is important. We all did this when we were at school, right? My textbooks were always filled with highlighted words. It told me to stop and pay attention. The same is true for your donor.

For example, you should consider underlining the copy telling the donor what the problem is. What is the real need? Is it that a family is sleeping in their car tonight? Is an animal being abused or neglected?

Then go ahead and underline, or even bold the copy that shows the donor how their gift is going to solve the problem. This is generally the offer in your letter. Give a homeless family a night of shelter for $49. Rescue a frightened, abused animal for $19.

Lastly, you should also think about adding a bold or underline treatment to your call to action and deadline (the date you want the donor to respond).

Emphasizing the right text by using techniques like underlining and bold will pull your donors in. It will get their attention and get them reading. And if you can do that, then you’ll increase your chance of receiving a donation.

What Is Your Problem!?


Don’t worry, I’m not upset with you. 🙂

But the title of this blog asks a legitimate question of your nonprofit, right? And you should know the answer —

What is your problem, or opportunity?

The reason that you should know this is because your fundraising should be asking your donor to solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity.

And the better you know what your organization’s problems and opportunities are, the easier it will be to ask her to help.

Now, I understand that the problems or issues that your non-profit is trying to address are likely very complex. There are many problems in our communities, and many opportunities to help those we serve. But how do you cut through all that clutter and identify the one thing that will compel your donors to give?

We help organizations with this every day. It can take some time to land on that one problem or opportunity that works best for your donors. But don’t be overwhelmed.

Let me share what I do to help me stay on track when talking about the problem.

When I start to write a fundraising appeal, I find it helpful to begin by putting myself in the donors’ shoes. So as I write, I ask myself these two questions:

“Why are you writing to me today?”

“What are you asking me to do?”

It’s your job as a fundraiser to take all the “stuff” that you do and present the problem as clearly as possible. Yes, your nonprofit is working to make the world a better place in a variety of ways, but be careful not to overwhelm your donor by sharing all of them.

Instead, pick a single problem your organization is working on that is specific and solvable.

For example:

Q:       Can she provide a night of shelter for hundreds of homeless families?

A:       Probably not. But she can provide a night of shelter for one person in need.

Q:       Can she give clean water to the 790 million people who don’t have any?

A:       Definitely not. But you can ask her to help bring water to one village.

Can you see the difference? Your problems may be BIG, but putting yourself in the donor’s shoes can help to simplify what you’re asking them to do. It makes your big problem specific and more importantly, solvable.

Put another way, don’t ask your donor to solve a big problem she knows she can’t solve. Instead, ask her to solve a smaller, single problem. Talk about how solving that problem is what’s needed right now, and she will make a big difference.

Because when you give donors opportunities to solve small problems, your revenue gets bigger!

The Only Rule?


As far as I can tell, there’s only one thing that sets successful fundraisers apart from unsuccessful fundraisers. And that thing is…

The people who are successful don’t care whether they like the fundraising or not.

I’m serious. They just don’t care whether they like it. Or don’t like it.

They just care if it works.

They understand that they are doing direct response fundraising. And that some tactics and messages work better than others. And that the goal of fundraising is to send messages that donors respond to, not the messages the organization prefers to send.

Your Opportunity

If there are voices in your organization saying “I don’t like that” or “I wouldn’t give to that,” you should know that you could be raising more money.

Because basing fundraising decisions on what you like or don’t like stops your organization from discovering what donors like.

And it stops your organization from using best practices discovered by direct response fundraisers who have gone before us.


Here are some examples of things that people don’t like but are proven to work well:

  • Including a reply card with your receipt letter
  • Writing at a lower grade level
  • Using emotion liberally
  • Being repetitive
  • Sharing real needs with donors

Hot Off the Press

We have a client that’s facing this very issue as I write this.

They are doing their first ever Fiscal Year End campaign. They are a little behind budget for the fiscal year, and their letter asks donors to help erase the shortfall with a special gift.

They were a little nervous about doing it. But I convinced them by sharing results from other organizations that had run similar campaigns.

The campaign is working great. It’s one of their most successful appeals of the year. We’re already above goal and the campaign isn’t over yet.

But a couple of board members and major donors have been upset by the campaign. From my experience, I suspect they were upset because they fear that the “shortfall” messaging puts the organization in a bad light, and it will cause donors to give less or stop giving altogether.

My counsel to this organization is based on all sorts of case studies on this exact subject:

  1. Appeals like this resonate with donors (as evidenced by the incredible response to this appeal).
  2. Appeals like this make some internal stakeholders (including some close-in major donors) nervous. They are nervous for the reasons I mentioned above. However, there is no data-based evidence of their fears coming true. And I’ve done this lots of times. (And – true story – those close-in major donors who were nervous end up making an extra gift to the campaign more often than not.)

In other words, the organization might not like this messaging. And there are occasional issues and personal reactions to discuss. But this messaging works great.

And to bring things full circle, the most successful fundraisers don’t care whether they like the fundraising or not.

They only care whether it works.

Maybe, just maybe…

Just maybe.

Every time you send a piece of fundraising to your donors, you’ll have more success if you envision your donor going through these steps…

Maybe, just maybe, your donor will open the letter.

And maybe, just maybe, your donor will start to scan your letter.

And maybe, just maybe, your donor will read a little of your letter.

And maybe, just maybe, your letter’s design will make sure your donor reads the most important part of your letter (why the donor is needed, and what you want them to do today).

And maybe, just maybe, your donor will think about taking action and look at your reply device.

And finally, maybe, just maybe, your reply device will reinforce what your donor read in the letter – and your donor will send you a gift.

Every. Step. Matters.

The reason most professionally-produced direct response fundraising (appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, TV shows, etc.) looks and sounds the way it does is because the pros making it are aware of each step and work to maximize the number of people who take each step.

They think like crazy about what should be on the outer envelope. Why? To make as many people as possible open the letter.

They think like crazy about the first words or images a donor’s eye will be drawn to when they look at the letter. Why? To make sure as many people as possible scan the letter.

They think like crazy about what content will be big, bolded, or underlined. Why? To convert as many of the “scanners” into “readers” as possible.

Or You Could…

Contrast the ‘every step matters’ approach with how most nonprofits think about their fundraising.

In my experience, most nonprofits make the following assumptions:

  • They think, more or less, that every piece of fundraising they send out gets opened.
  • They think that most people read the whole thing.
  • They think that most people read from the start to the end

Those three assumptions could not be farther from the truth.

Maybe, Just Maybe…

To make successful direct response Fundraising, you need to embrace the truth that there are a ton of “maybe, just maybe’s” between your sending out a piece of fundraising and getting a gift in return.

Every step matters.

And there’s one more “maybe, just maybe”…

Maybe, just maybe, you and your organization’s approach to fundraising are being changed by this post and our blog. That’s our fervent hope and the reason we write!

What to Take Out of Your Appeal


My last post talked about how when you’re sending appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, etc. you’re doing direct response fundraising.

As you create your direct response fundraising, here’s one rule that has helped me a lot over the years…

Take out everything that doesn’t help sell the offer

Quick reminder: the “offer” is the promise an appeal makes for what will happen when a donor gives a gift today. (You can learn more about offers here in our free eBook.)

Here’s what this means…

Say your letter is asking donors to fund one particular program. Don’t mention your other programs. You’ve just distracted them from why this particular program should be supported today.

Say your e-appeal is asking donors to give to provide aid to a beneficiary group you help. Don’t talk about how your organization is already helping that beneficiary group. You’ve just told your donor that you’re currently helping those people. This means they don’t really need help today (because you’re already doing it!). And that means your donor doesn’t really need to send in a gift today.

Say your appeal letter is asking donors to give a gift to help people in need. Take out any photos that don’t show people in need. By showing images of happy, healthy people you’ve just contradicted your letter that says they need help.

Say your letter is trying to get donors to give a gift today. Don’t spend part of your letter talking about your monthly giving program. You’ve just distracted them from your purpose of getting a single gift.

Finally, a more complex thing to take out. Say you’re telling a story to illustrate why the donor’s gift is needed today. Only tell the part of the story that relates to the offer. You’ll get what I’m talking about from an example that happens all the time in fundraising for refugees. The organization will share a story about a man who lost his wife in a bombing, had to flee the country, endured tons of hardships, became really sick… and then ask the donor to provide “food and aid with a gift today.” The “food and aid” do not solve the problem that the story sets up.

The organization would be better served by telling the part of the story that the offer can help with. They’d raise more money if they shared something like, “He’s a refugee who has endured tremendous hardship. Now he’s in a refugee camp and he doesn’t have enough food for himself or his children. The children are losing weight and having trouble concentrating. He’s getting thinner by the week. Please send food and aid with a gift today.”

Much of that part of the story is a problem that can be perfectly solved by the offer. When you use stories, only tell the part of the story that relates to the offer.

Stay on Target

Keep your letter (or e-appeal, or event script, etc.) about your offer.

Make sure every single bit of content in your letter is there to make your donor see the need for and power of your offer.

Not your organization, your offer.

Take out anything that doesn’t directly lead your donor to say “yes” to your offer.

You’ll start raising more money in your very next piece of fundraising!

Direct Response Fundraising

Direct response.

This is for all the smaller nonprofits out there.

When you’re sending letters and emails to your donors, you’re doing something called “direct response” fundraising.

It is fundraising, but it’s a very specific type of fundraising.

It’s not 1-to-1 major donor fundraising.

It’s not grant writing.

And to be effective with your appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, radiothons, etc. – it’s actually more important to understand “direct response” than it is to understand fundraising.

Direct Response

Direct Response is a discipline where the inputs and outputs are rigorously measured. It became a discipline in marketing long before nonprofits started using it to raise money.

The reason I mention this is because I’m convinced that most nonprofits would immediately start getting more effective at fundraising as soon as they realize they’re doing direct response marketing. And that direct response marketing has a bunch of proven rules and best practices.

How to Raise More

Two relatively easy ways to raise more money:

  1. Make sure your organization knows that – in your appeals, e-appeals, and newsletters – you’re doing direct response fundraising. This means that when creating and evaluating your mass donor fundraising, your organization needs to be asking “What will work best in direct response” instead of asking “What do I like?” or “What do I think will work?”

    You know how at too many organizations, Fundraisers are stymied by Bosses who won’t approve good fundraising? I imagine a day where a Fundraiser can say to her boss, “Remember how we talked about how our appeals are direct response fundraising pieces? The changes you want to make to this piece go against the best practices of direct response.” And the boss says, “You’re right. I don’t like it. But if this is what works best, we need to do it.”
  2. Learn more about direct response by reading about it. I’m reading Overdeliver by Brian Kurtz. His stories and advice about direct response have already made me a more effective fundraiser. The book isn’t technically about fundraising. But it’s about direct response marketing – and getting good at direct response marketing will immediately make you a more effective mass donor fundraiser.

Nobody talks about this at smaller nonprofits. But once your organization knows it’s doing direct response fundraising, you have a much better chance at being successful at it!

Is Your Spotlight on Your Stars?


No one at a Broadway play complains when the spotlight shines only on the stars of the play.

The stars are who the audience came to see.

Similarly, no mass donor ever complains that they only hear about some of your programs. You never hear a mass donor say, “I wish I knew everything that organization did.”

Because some of your programs are interesting to mass donors – and some are not.

The Lesson for Fundraisers

The people who put on plays have learned this lesson: they shine the spotlight on the stars. In the marketing. On the stage. In the interviews afterwards.

Many nonprofits could raise more money if they learned this same lesson – figure out which of your programs donors are most interested in, then talk exclusively about those programs.

Unfortunately, there’s a value at many nonprofits that “we need to talk about all of our programs roughly equally.”

That “value” is based in fairness, which is a good thing.

But it turns out that donors aren’t interested in all your programs getting equal time in the spotlight. Appeals that give equal time to all the programs (or even just list all the things an organization does) tend to raise less money.

Donors are simply more interested in some programs than in others.

As fundraisers, our job is to raise money, more than it is to be “fair” to internal stakeholders. Maybe better put, it’s a higher value to raise more money and help more people, than it is to be fair to internal stakeholders. After all, your organization was founded to do as much good as possible – not to ensure everybody at the organization receives equal airtime.

Focus your fundraising – your spotlight – on the programs that most people are interested in. Because that will raise you the most money.

Please Don’t Make These Two Assumptions

Don't make assumptions.

There are two assumptions that many fundraisers make about their mass donor fundraising. The assumptions reduce how much money they raise and hurt their organizations.

If you stop making these assumptions – you’ll start raising more money right away.

Bad Assumption #1: I’m going to love our fundraising.

When most people start working for a nonprofit, they assume that they’re going to love the fundraising done by that organization. They assume their fundraising is going to make them feel good.

Is that true for you?

Because here’s the thing: some of it should make you feel good. But not all of it.

For instance, your appeal letters and e-appeals should not make you feel good. They should be about the problem that your organization was started to solve. And nobody feels good about that problem. Nobody likes talking about it.

But talking about it – sharing that problem with donors – is what helps your donors remember that the problem is happening and gives you the opportunity to show them how their gift makes a difference.

Newsletters, on the other hand, should make you feel great! Any sort of Reporting – where you’re sharing with donors the powerful changes their gifts helped make – should make you and your organization feel great.

But not your appeals. The only thing that makes most savvy fundraisers feel great about their appeals is that they like sharing with donors a way that the donor’s gift today can make a real difference.

So check your assumption. If you’re creating or judging your fundraising based on an assumption that you’re supposed to like your fundraising, you probably have some re-thinking to do.

Bad Assumption #2: We’ll get to share good news all the time!

This is the second assumption, in my experience, that most people in nonprofits make.

They assume that their fundraising will be full of good news all the time.

They know they have to ask for money – which can feel icky – but they expect to do so by sharing stories of success. So it won’t feel that bad.

This assumption is mostly played out in appeals, e-appeals, and events. It’s assumed that the nonprofit will share stories of success.

But in our testing – and we’re not the only people who have tested this, by a long shot – when stories of success are shared in appeals, e-appeals, and events – less money is raised.

By assuming that good news will always be shared, and that stories of success will be the only type of story that a nonprofit tells – a LOT less money is raised.

Are You Making These Assumptions?

If you are, realizing that you’re making assumptions is a great place to start.

Then, I’d recommend our eBooks on Storytelling and on Asking.

Because if you can take assumptions out of your fundraising – and instead make your content and storytelling decisions based on performance data – you’ll start raising more money right away!