The Big Shift


When most organizations write an appeal letter, they believe that the letter needs to convince the donor to support the organization. 

That approach results in appeals that don’t raise as much as they could. 

There’s a simple shift in thinking that results in appeals, e-appeals and newsletters that raise more money…

The Big Shift

The “shift” is this: moving from “trying to get the reader to support our organization” to “trying to get the reader to do one powerful thing for one beneficiary.”

That’s the Big Shift.

And when you write a letter that asks your reader to do one powerful thing for one beneficiary, you end up with a letter that raises more money.

It raises more money for a host of reasons, but here’s the main one: you’ve asked your donor to do something easier.  And when you ask your donors to do something easier (as opposed to something harder) you get more gifts.

Because asking a donor to support your organization is a Big Ask.  It means supporting your vision, your strategy, your cause, your accounting, your staffing structure, your… everything.

That’s a Big Ask because it asks your donor to do a lot.  That’s fine when you’re talking to a Foundation, or submitting a long application for a grant.

But not when you’re doing direct response fundraising and you have your donor’s attention for a few seconds.

You want to make it easier for them to say “yes,” not harder.  You need to make the shift.

To make this happen, customize the “one meaningful thing” for your organization.  Maybe it’s moving a piece of legislation forward by one small step.  Maybe it’s giving one person the tools they need to advocate for your cause.  Maybe it’s making the experience of a cancer patient just a little bit easier. 

You get the idea.

When you ask for something smaller, you’ll get more yesses.  And you’ll get more second yesses and third yesses.  Then you’ll raise more money. 

What Happens Next

Here’s what happens when you internalize this shift…

Your appeal letters become easier to write.  Because rather than trying to convince them to support your whole organization, you’re just trying to convince them to do one thing for one beneficiary. 

And you raise more money.  It’s a proven approach.


As you make the Big Shift, you’ll notice something.

When you write appeals, you’ll find yourself (out of habit) inserting boilerplate copy about your organization – those phrases you’ve always used in the past.

And you immediately notice that those boilerplate phrases make your letter less interesting and less powerful. 

You’ll start to see how the way you used to communicate was boring to everyone but insiders and core donors. 

Additionally, when you circulate a draft of a letter that has made the shift, some well-meaning person will say “But we also have to mention our program that does X…”  And someone else will say, “We need to add a couple paragraphs about how effective we are…”

And you will see how neither of those things make your letter more likely to convince a donor to do one meaningful thing for one beneficiary. 

The Big Fear

The big fear that organizations tend to have around this approach is this: if I ask for something smaller, will my larger donors start giving smaller gifts?

In my experience (27 years and counting) this doesn’t happen.  In fact, what’s more likely to happen is that you’ll start getting second gifts from your major donors – gifts that are in addition to what they normally give!

The Leap

The “big shift” is one of the shifts in thinking that helps organizations make “the leap” to the next level of fundraising success. 

It helps them create fundraising that is attractive to more people than just insiders and core donors.  It helps them create fundraising that acquires more new donors.  It helps them grow.

The Time to Shift is Now

I hope you and your organization have made the Big Shift.  I believe in the extraordinary generosity of donors – we’ve seen it this year more than ever.  But I also believe this is going to be a competitive fundraising environment for at least the next several months.

Making it easier for your donors to say “yes” is a tool – a way of thinking – you should use to fund your mission.  So make the “big shift” and start raising more money!  

This post was originally published on October 27, 2020.

The Trend in Fundraising I’m Worried About


I saw a lot of fundraising at year-end.

Halfway through December I began to notice a trend:

Almost none of the year-end fundraising mentioned that any help was needed.

Specifically, I noticed two things:

  • The fundraising did not mention that the organization needed any help. It sounded like the organizations were helping everybody they came across and that everything was going great.
  • The fundraising did not mention that the beneficiaries or cause needed any help. It sounded like everyone was being helped and all the problems had been solved.

I don’t know if that’s a big trend. It’s just what I saw in the fundraising I received from organizations that my wife and I donate to that I’m not connected to.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing direct response fundraising for so long. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched so many organizations start raising more money immediately when they start saying that they need help. Maybe it’s because in all the testing I’ve done or been a part of, “sharing a need that the donor can help meet” is clearly one of the biggest keys to success.

But it just seems deeply weird that, during the biggest season of giving, all these nonprofits are communicating to their donors that everything is going great.

During the time of year when more people are going to read an organization’s fundraising than any other time, the donors are told that everything is going great. It’s implied that the donor’s help isn’t really needed today.

Talk about a missed opportunity!

So, if your organization’s year-end fundraising didn’t raise as much as you would have liked, review your appeals/emails/major donor asks. Check to see if:

  • Your fundraising told the donor that their help is needed?
  • Your fundraising told the donor that your beneficiaries or cause need help?

If neither of those two ideas are present in your year-end fundraising, add them in next year and you’ll raise more money.

And if you want to raise more money all year long, add them any time you’re Asking for support.

Not All “Awareness” Is Created Equal


Many nonprofits try to increase “awareness” in order to increase the number of new individual donors to their organization.

But not all “awareness” is created equal.

I’ve noticed that there are five distinct types of awareness – and that a couple of the types are far more effective at causing new people to donate.

Type #5 — Awareness your organization exists

This type of awareness comes when potential donors see an organization’s name and logo. It results in very little action and is the least effective form of awareness.

(My basic rule is to never, ever spend money for this type of awareness. For small organizations, even when it’s “free” it’s not worth the time it takes because there are so many more effective ways an organization could be spending its time.)

Type #4 — Awareness of the work your organization is doing

This type of awareness is a little better. Because potential donors see the type of work an organization is doing, the people who are passionate about that work or your beneficiaries are interested.

However, because the focus is on work the organization is already doing, it doesn’t sound like any help is needed. When it doesn’t sound like any help is needed now, fewer people give.

And notice: the person who is now aware has not been asked to give a gift. The organization is completely reliant on the person thinking of giving a gift, seeking out the organization, and then giving a gift. So the chances of them taking action are extremely low.

Type #3 — Awareness of the work that your organization is doing and the person is asked to make a gift to help now

Now things are getting interesting. The person who has just been made aware of what an organization is doing is asked to give a gift. Simply by asking people to give a gift, you’ll increase the number of people who will give.

However, this still won’t produce a lot of gifts, because the focus is on the work the organization is already doing.

Type #2 — Awareness of the problem that your organization works on

This type of awareness usually happens when the media share stories about the problem an organization works on. Think about a news story about the lack of books for local children to read, or a typhoon overseas, or a wetland that’s going to be turned into a shopping mall.

Suddenly, a LOT of people are aware of the problem. And anyone whose heart is touched by the “problem” is emotionally interested in giving a gift to help. Many of those folks will look for organizations that work on that problem and make a gift.

For example, say there’s a story on local news about how children in the area don’t have enough books to read. In that scenario, the local library will receive unsolicited donations from new donors.

Type #1 — Awareness of the problem that your organization works on and the person is asked to make a gift to help now

This is the most effective type of awareness. A potential donor is suddenly aware of a problem that they care about, and in the same moment is asked to give a gift to help.

This type of awareness is reliably the most effective at causing new donors to give donations.

The most successful donor acquisition campaigns are engineered to create this type of awareness:

  • The organization purchases (or earns) people’s attention by buying direct mail lists, Facebook ads, radiothons, half-hour TV shows, etc.
  • They use that attention to make readers / watchers / listeners aware that there’s a problem happening now
  • They then ask the reader / watcher / listener to give a gift to help now.

When you create that magic combination – that a person is aware of the problem and is asked to give a gift to help solve the problem – that’s when you have the biggest successes in acquiring new donors.

Awareness without an Ask is almost always a waste of time and resources.

If you’re a smaller organization, think about this list the next time your organization is asked to consider an idea to “increase awareness.” If you’re going to spend money and/or time, make sure it’s on the types of awareness that are effective at getting new donors.

Help Your Donor Imagine Herself Making A Gift


This year for the holidays I’m sharing the thinking and stories behind my fundraising posts that got the most reactions on social media.

Here’s #7, #6, #5 and #4.

As we get closer to Christmas, here’s #3…

In direct response, ask donors to do something that’s doable by 1 donor. “Will you provide 1 new library book” will work better than “will you provide new library books to local children.”

Big Idea: if your donor can imagine herself giving a gift, and imagine that her gift will do what you say it will do, she’s more likely to give you a gift.

Say you’re a local library and you’re raising money to buy new children’s books. You write a letter to your donor telling her that her gift of $20 will provide one new library book.

It is EASY for your donor to imagine herself doing that. She can afford $20, so it’s easy for her to imagine herself giving that much. And $20 seems like it’s about what a library book might cost. And the organization is a library, so of course they are going to buy the books.

In that scenario, it was easy for the donor to imagine herself giving a gift. And it was easy for her to imagine that her gift would do what the organization said it would: provide one new library book.

Great, no problem, a gift is on the way!

But now, say you’re a local library and you’re raising money to buy new children’s books. You write a letter to your donor telling her that her gift will provide new library books.

It’s harder for a donor to imagine herself doing that. She doesn’t know how much one book costs, so she doesn’t know how much to give. And she knows that she can’t give enough to provide books for all of the local children, so how much help will she really be providing, anyway?

In that scenario, it’s harder for the donor to imagine herself giving a gift. She doesn’t know how much to give, and doesn’t specifically know what it will accomplish.

When it’s harder for a donor to imagine herself giving you a gift, you receive fewer gifts.

Plus, there’s another reason that asking donors to do one small thing (like providing a library book) works so well: it gives the donor the chance to completely solve one problem.

When a donor is asked to give one book, she can give a gift and solve that problem. She did what she was asked to do. She feels great.

But what if a donor is asked to “provide library books for all the local children”? The donor knows that unless she gives a massive gift, she won’t solve that problem.

In general, most individual donors prefer to feel like they’ve “solved a problem” more than “being part of the solution.”

Will you raise money either way? Of course. Donors are generous, and we live in a fundraising-friendly world.

But you’ll tend to raise more money if you give your donor a smaller problem that she can easily, completely solve.

The Next Question Everyone Asks

The next question everyone asks is whether all the donors (even the majors) will only give enough to “pay for one book.”

The short answer is no. Donors tend to give at the levels they are already giving at. And if the gift asks on your reply card are customized based on each donor’s giving history, then they will likely give the same or more than they gave last time.

What To Do

So in your fundraising for 2023, pay special attention to how you describe what your donor’s gift will accomplish. If you give her problems that are easy to solve and easy to say “yes” to, you’ll raise more money.

Think of it this way: don’t ask your donor to fund your organization’s mission. Instead, break up your mission into small “units” and ask your donor to fund one unit.

You’ll lower the barrier of entry for your donors. You’ll make it easier for them to imagine giving you a gift. You’ll raise more money. By breaking your mission down into smaller units, you’ll fund more of it!

There’s a Scientific Case for Two Spaces After Sentences


This year for the holidays I’m sharing the thinking and stories behind my fundraising posts that got the most reactions on social media.

Here’s #7, #6 and #5.

For today, here’s #4…

Using two spaces between sentences is a small, donor-centered bet; it’s quantifiably easier for people to read & more familiar to older donors. Regardless of personal preference, if using two spaces helps more people read your fundraising, isn’t that a bet worth making?

I don’t share this thought because I’m pedantic about punctuation. (I’m agnostic on this issue.)

The latest study I’m aware of showed a mild 3% increase in reading speed when there were two spaces after sentences opposed to one space. It wasn’t a big study. And it used a mono-spaced font (which slightly muddies the water, in my view).

My point is to call attention to the way we Fundraisers make decisions about the fundraising we produce.

The most effective direct response fundraising tends to be made for our donors, not for internal audiences. It needs to attract their attention, not ours. It works best if it’s in their language, and doesn’t use our professional phrasing and jargon. It needs to focus on the “mission match” between the donor and the organization, not on the organization itself.

So. If most donors are old (the average age of a donor in the U.S. is about 65)… and most donors grew up on text that had two spaces between sentences… and there’s data that says that having two spaces between sentences will help a donor read a little faster… and reading more of your fundraising results in more people giving… doesn’t it seem like a good little bet to put two spaces between sentences in our fundraising letters?

Will it make a massive difference? Almost certainly not.

And 20 years from now, when today’s younger donors enter their prime giving years, I bet it will be a good little bet to have one space between sentences.

The Big Idea is that Fundraisers make a hundred little decisions each time they create a piece of fundraising.

And if you get in the habit of making each of those little decisions with donors in mind, you create fundraising that’s more relevant to donors and you absolutely raise more money.

If ‘Sounding Like You’ Were the Key to Success, Wouldn’t You Already Be Raising More?


For the holidays this year I’m sharing my fundraising posts that got the most reactions on social media, and the story behind each idea.

Here’s #6…

When people critique fundraising by saying, “this doesn’t sound like me/us,” I always think, “Well, if ‘sounding like you’ were the key, wouldn’t you be raising more money than you currently are?”

I’m intentionally poking at a sacred cow here.

There’s a lot to unpack from just one sentence, but here goes:

  • There’s a tendency in nonprofits to believe that they can’t make changes to their voice.
  • There’s also a tendency to believe that an it’s an organization’s voice that is mostly responsible for their fundraising success.
  • And there’s a tendency to apply their voice legalistically so that the organization says the same thing, in the same way, regardless of who they are talking to or how they are talking to them.

That’s in direct contrast to the organizations that, in my experience, create the most effective fundraising:

  1. They are constantly evolving and improving their voice in order to raise more money.
  2. They know that their fundraising success is driven more by what they say to donors, as opposed to the “voice” they use to say it.
  3. Their voice – and the people applying it – are flexible enough to change based on who is being communicated to, and on how the communication is occurring. (e.g., A fundraising email sent to non-experts will intentionally sound different than an E.D.’s remarks at an event, because in an email you have people’s attention for a few seconds, and at an event you have their attention for an hour.)

The most successful organizational voices are flexible enough so that they can communicate differently to different audiences, and be used differently in different communication channels, yet still sound like the same organization.

If you find that your organization’s “voice” won’t allow you to communicate effectively in some types of fundraising to some audiences, you probably need to apply your voice less legalistically.

The good news is that as soon as you do, you’ll start communicating more effectively and raising more money.

Top Ideas of 2022: Number 7


For the holidays this year, I’m going to share my fundraising ideas that got the most reactions on social media, and the story behind each idea.   

Starting with #7…

Effective direct response fundraising is so hard to create because it’s other-centered: it’s more about the donor and her values, and about the beneficiaries/cause, than it is about the organization sending it.

It is SO HARD for humans to realize that other people are different than us, and that they know and care about different things than we do.

Take a look at the worksheet below.  It attempts to show the differences between the people who make & approve fundraising, and the mass donors who receive the fundraising.

Click here to view a larger version of this chart.

Just look at that last line, the part of the “story” that a person is interested in. There’s a huge difference between what Insiders tend to be interested in, and what mass donors tend to be interested in.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard for Insiders to create effective direct response fundraising – they care about different things than their donors care about.

Let’s quickly look at the steps an Insider needs to go through to make effective fundraising for mass donors:

  1. Insiders first need to embrace that most donors are different than them.
  2. Then Insiders need to embrace that it’s OK for themselves to speak differently.
    • Note that this is where protestations about “but that’s not our voice!” always come up. But the strict adherence to a particular voice almost always means the organization will be ineffective communicating with people who think differently than Insiders – which is almost all individual donors.
  3. Then Insiders need to be confident enough that this new type of fundraising will work, that they will actually send it out.

So it’s a lot of emotional work for Insiders to be other-centered enough to send out fundraising that’s prepared for group of people who are different than themselves.

But for the Insiders and organizations that do it, the fundraising rewards are huge.

Ask Before a Need (not after)

The early bird gets the worm

The the third idea I use to help organizations create fundraising plans that raise more money is this:

Ask before a Need.

(You can find the first two ideas here and here.)

Put another way, you’ll raise more money if you appeal for funds right before your donors understand you have a need for funds.

To illustrate the principle, think of the classic “Back To School” appeal in the Education sector. Schools and Education Foundations routinely send “Back To School” appeals in September, after the students have already gone back to school.

We’ve helped maybe fifty schools and Education Foundations raise more money (with basically the same letters and emails!) simply by moving their Back To School appeals from September to late July or August.

Just by making the ask before a need, rather than after, they raise significantly more money. Usually between 1.5x and 2x more.

Here’s why “asking before a need” works so well. When an organization asks donors to help after you’re already helping your beneficiaries, you’re just asking donors to fund work you’re already doing. That’s not particularly exciting to donors.

When an organization asks donors to help before the Need arrives, you’re asking donors to play a powerful role in meeting the need right as it happens. That’s exciting to donors.

Specific Timing

So, if your beneficiaries or your organization experience a Need, schedule your Asks (appeals, e-appeals) before the Need.

In general, send your appeal letter about 6 weeks before the Need begins. If you’re running an email campaign, start it about 2 weeks before the Need begins. If you’re only doing a couple of emails, start them 2 or 3 days before the Need begins.

If you want to have the largest impact, do all three:

  • Direct mail about 6 weeks before the Need begins
  • An email campaign starting about 2 weeks before the Need begins
  • Multiple emails in the 2 or 3 days before the Need begins

Next Year

As you plan your year, here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Identify the “Needs” faced by your beneficiaries
  2. Schedule your Asks before those needs
  3. Ask your donor to send in a gift to help meet the need

This simple shift will help you raise more money with the exact same number of communications you sent the year before.

The Magic Words in Fundraising: “Let’s Try It”


In my last post, I shared what it felt like to realize that marketing rules and fundraising rules were different. Click here to see how well I handle being wrong.

Being willing to learn the rules for fundraising writing changed everything for my organization, and for me.

I walked away from my learning and writing adventure with an appeal letter that was like nothing my organization had ever tried before.

  • The letter was direct and clear.
  • The writing was simple, around a 5th grade reading level.
  • We told donors in a clear way what the problem was and how they could give to help solve that problem.
  • We included a story that illustrated the problem.
  • We asked donors to give multiple times throughout the letter.
  • The letter was FOUR PAGES LONG, plus there was a full-sized reply sheet.
  • The font was large and readable (15 pt!).
  • And the design was simple… a lot like plain old letterhead with a few design elements.

I printed out the letter and walked into my boss’s office. I watched his facial expressions as he read it.


And then he said,

“Sarah, I don’t know if this will work. I’m somewhat skeptical. But let’s try it.”

“But let’s try it” – these turned out to be the magic words.

That letter where I followed FUNDRAISING rules raised five times what the previous year-end appeal raised.

And it changed the way we did direct mail and email fundraising.

Even though the new way of doing things was a lot more effective, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

But it turned out the things I learned served me well, even when the world changed completely.

Next time… fundraising when the world turns upside down.

Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

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