“Trust, then give” or “Give, then trust”?


You know me – I’m always talking about how the “stories an organization tells itself” about fundraising have a lot to do with an organization’s success or failure.

There’s another “story” we should talk about. It’s specifically around acquiring new donors:

“We need a person to know and trust our organization before they will give a gift.”

This is true when organizations are just getting started – maybe up to a couple of hundred donors. And occasionally in the major donor context.

But the problem with that approach is that it doesn’t scale. There aren’t very many people, in the grand scheme of things, that want to take the time to get to know and learn about your organization.

So it turns out that if you want to acquire significantly more donors than you’re acquiring now, it’s a better use of time and money to learn to be effective at “just asking potential donors to give a gift” than it is to “get to know people and then asking them to give a gift.”

Important note: I should mention that this post isn’t just me philosophizing over here. It’s me attempting to summarize what I (and others) have learned watching organizations spend millions of dollars attempting to acquire new donors.

So for smaller organizations who want to acquire more new donors, ask yourself if you have the belief mentioned at the top of this post. If you do, I suggest you replace that “default” belief with this new belief:

At this moment, potential individual donors care more about our cause, and about their ability to make a difference with a gift, than they care about our organization.

So our fundraising materials should spend less time talking about our organization, and more time talking about a) the cause or issue we work on, and b) how a donor’s gift will make a difference.

If you follow this advice when creating your mass, outbound fundraising communications and marketing, you’ll acquire more new donors.

Should you think differently when having lunch with a potential major donor who was introduced to you by your Board Chair? Of course. That’s because you’re a savvy Fundraiser and you differentiate.

If you and your organizations can do the other-centered thing and focus your communications on what individual donors tend to be most interested in (instead of what you and your co-experts are most interested in), you’ll be rewarded with more donors.

And they will come to trust your organization over time.

To scale your organization, it’s not “build trust and then they’ll give.” It’s “get them to give, and then they’ll trust.”

People Make Donations to Tell Ourselves…


You and I make donations in order to tell ourselves who we are.

Each donation we make is a small step to:

  • Become who we want to be
  • Continue to be who we want to be
  • Remake the world in the way we think it should be

Those are CORE motivations for individual donors.

Does your fundraising to individual donors speak to those core motivations?

Because doesn’t it seem obvious that, if you tap into those motivations, your organization would raise more money?

To tap into those motivations, your fundraising will need to tell donors that they’ll love giving to your organization. Your fundraising will need to tell them that your organization has the same values that your donor has. Your fundraising will need to communicate, “people like you give gifts to this organization.”

And then the donor’s intellect will find the facts it needs to justify the donation.

Fundraising that says those things feels very strange at first, because most organizations are used to talking about themselves, their organization, and what they do.

But it’s always good to remember that ineffective fundraising to individuals is about your organization and the services it provides. Effective fundraising to individuals is about your donor and their life.

Of course your fundraising should mention your organization. And even mention some of what you do. But your fundraising to individuals should not be ABOUT your organization or what it does – big difference.

Here’s an example:

Your gift to the Hospital Foundation allows us to provide top-notch healthcare to members of our community. Our leading cancer research team is diligently working to discover new treatments.

That’s about the organization.

Your giving to the Hospital Foundation shows that you’re a hometown hero. You care about people fighting cancer and want new treatments available as soon as possible.

That’s about the donor.

Make more of your fundraising to individual donors about the individual, and watch the magic happen.

How to Choose What to Underline and Why

Underlining your letters.

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.

This post was originally published on March 15, 2018.

How to Avoid the “What does that mean?” Offramp

Off ramp.

I have a rule I follow when creating fundraising:

Avoid any statements that could cause a reader to think, “What does that mean?”

It seems like a simple rule, no? But it gets broken all the time – and most damagingly in a specific, important part of fundraising: phrases or sentences that are emphasized with underlining or bolding.

Here are several real-life examples of emphasized copy that have come across my desk in the last couple of weeks.

All of these were the first sentence in the appeal that was emphasized. Because most readers scan before they read, that means that for a large percentage of readers, these sentences were the first thing donors read in the letter.

Ask yourself as you read these: did this immediately make sense to the donor?

“One thing led to another… but you took care of that!”

“Your investment will make a real, lasting impact in the lives of those who are struggling in silence.”

“I wish for a good night’s sleep.”

“That is why I’m reaching out to you for a donation today.”

None of those sentences are easy to understand without additional context.

Which means that each of them was an “offramp” – an opportunity for the reader to delete or put down the appeal.

Good Examples

If you visually emphasize any words in your appeals, make sure they can be easily understood on their own. Here are some examples of first emphasized sentences that were effective:

“Today kicks off [ORGANIZATION NAME]’s fundraising campaign to launch our Comedy Bootcamp classes in San Diego and Indianapolis later this year.”

“The seal pup has several stingray barbs lodged in its face.”

“You can follow in the footsteps of your faith and feed needy children and their families by making a gift today.”

“There is still a $14,000 shortfall to reach our fiscal year fundraising goal.”

Each of those sentences is easy to understand. If a donor wants to know more, they can keep reading.

But they don’t need to read more to understand.

Here’s What to Do

If this is a new idea for your organization, here’s a roadmap for what to do:

  1. Create your direct response fundraising with the assumption that donors will scan your fundraising, not read it.
  2. Think of your emphasized copy as the parts of your letter or email that people are likely to read.
  3. Make sure that everything that’s emphasized is understandable on its own.
  4. Taken together, all the emphasized words and phrases should provide a summary of the piece of fundraising.

Follow that roadmap and you’ll create what we call “two letters in one.” Your letter will be effective both for people who are moving fast, and for people who read every word.

And that, my friend, is effective direct response fundraising!

Four Accidental Barriers to Connection with Your Donors

Traffic cones.

I see four main ways that organizations accidentally place barriers between their organization and their donors…

Design/Type Size

Here’s the situation in a nutshell: if your fundraising materials use small, hard-to-read type, you’re making it harder for older donors to read your fundraising. Fewer people reading your fundraising means you’ll raise less money.


Any time an organization finds itself using words and phrases that it uses when communicating with other professionals in your domain, that’s probably jargon.

Examples include phrases like, “provide quality resources” and “food insecure.” An example of a jargon-filled ask is, “Will you provide transition out of poverty case management support?”

Any time jargon enters your mass donor fundraising, it’s probably causing you to raise a little less money because it asks your readers to figure out exactly what you mean. Asking your readers to figure out what you mean is a sure path to fewer people reading your fundraising.

By the way, using jargon is usually a symptom of not differentiating who the audience is. When you’re submitting a grant application, of course you should use jargon because it’s a shared language with the grantor.

But jargon is not shared with the vast majority of individual donors. Don’t ask them to understand your vocabulary, make the generous act of “crossing the gap” to your readers by using language that they would use.

Too Much Organization

You’ve seen these before: fundraising materials that are overly focused on the organization itself. Organizations are in danger of this any time they talk about what their programs are, how those programs work, and how or what the organization thinks about their work.

But it’s a safe bet that individual donors care far more about what their gift will accomplish – what change will take place if they give – than they care about how the organization will make the change.

This barrier, too, tends to come from a lack of differentiation. Foundations and partner organizations are rightfully interested in programs and exactly how an organization will use their money and/or time. To that audience, content about the organization is appropriate. But individual donors are more interested in the change itself.

Going Conceptual

The final barrier is a sneaky one (even more sneaky than jargon). It’s using a concept or an abstraction as a primary description of what the donor’s gift will do/has done.

Here are some examples:

  • “Will you provide a special day?” instead of, “Will you send a child to summer camp for one day?”
  • “Your gift made Evelyn’s story possible” instead of, “Your gift made Evelyn’s recovery from child abuse possible.”
  • “Jamie found freedom, thanks to you!” instead of, “Jamie’s new wheelchair lets him go anywhere, thanks to you!”

Notice above that I said “primary description.” Concepts like the ones above are fine – helpful, even – when used to give your donor a fuller picture of what their gift will accomplish. But keep the concepts in the body of your fundraising message, and stay specific in places like the emphasized copy, the subject line, the reply card headline, the reply card action copy, and the Johnson box.

This advice is based on sending thousands of appeals, e-appeals and newsletters and noticing that the most effective communications to individual donors tend to have concrete, specific descriptions of what the donor’s gift will do or has done.

What’s Next?

Look through your organization’s fundraising materials to individual donors. Is your organization accidentally put up any barriers?

If you can identify and eliminate barriers like these, our experience is that you’ll immediately begin raising more money and be able to do more of your organization’s important work.

You’ll also know that you’re doing the right thing.

When you make the generous choice to create fundraising that’s more accessible to more people – making it easier to read, easier to understand, about what the donor cares about instead of about what the organization cares about – you’ve made your fundraising communications more inclusive to more people.

Quick Note on Type Size

Using larger type in your fundraising materials is both smart and the right thing to do.

Here’s what Health.gov says about type size:

“Choose a font that’s at least 16 pixels, or 12 points. If many of your users are older adults, consider using an even larger font size — 19 pixels or 14 points. A small font size is more difficult to read, especially for users with limited literacy skills and older adults.”


Using larger type is smart because it’s proven to be more readable (especially for older adults). 

When your fundraising is more readable, more of it gets read.

When more of your fundraising gets read, you raise more money.

So using large, easy-to-read type is smart fundraising because you’ll raise more money for your cause.

The Right Thing to Do

Using larger type is also the right thing to do.  It makes your fundraising more accessible to more people. 

In the same way that having a strong mass donor fundraising program is good for your organization’s DEI efforts, so is using easy-to-read type.

Use larger type – don’t accidentally put up a barrier between your organization and older adults!

How to Raise More Money by Asking for the Right Amount

Man holding a calculator.

We want to help you create powerful fundraising offers.

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

Quick Refresher

The most successful fundraising offers tend to have 4 elements:

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

Today, we’re going to break down element #3, ‘the cost of the solution.’

The Cost of the Solution Seems Like a Good Deal

There are a three main ideas here…

The Cost

When you’re able to tell donors exactly how much it costs for them to make a meaningful difference, donors are more likely to give.

Most nonprofits don’t do this. They say, “Here’s a bunch of stuff we do, please help us today with a gift.”

But in my experience (and the experience of all my mentors), you’ll raise more money if you find/come up with something specific to promise a donor that she’ll help do, and if that something specific has a price.

(Of course, the price for that thing has to be the right size for the donor. But we’ll talk about that below.)

Why is so helpful for donors when you promise that a specific thing will happen if a donor gives a specific amount? Because it shows them how much they need to give for their gift to make a meaningful difference.

To be clear, there are some donors out there who will give just because you work on a cause or people group that they care about. And when you remind them that you’re doing all of that work, some of those donors will give gifts.

But we’ve helped hundreds of organizations start raising more immediately when we help them identify a specific, meaningful part of their process that they can ask their donors to fund.

And then those organizations raise even more money when that specific, meaningful thing has a specific cost.

Because donors love to know what their impact will be. So by being specific about what their impact will be, and how much it will cost, you help your donors be more likely to donate to your organization.

Of The Solution

This might seem obvious, but let’s cover it just in case. The cost that you mention above needs to be for the exact solution in your offer.

  • If you’re talking about feeding a person, the cost needs to be for a meal.
  • If you’re talking about advocating, the cost needs to be for some meaningful part of advocating.

This often goes sideways when organizations follow this tactic almost to the very end… but not quite. For instance, an advocacy group will talk about how “$50 trains 50 volunteers to advocate effectively for the cause.” That’s a great offer. But then the letter will end with, “Please donate $50 to help us do all the things that we do.”

No. Stay on target. End the letter with, “Please donate $50 to train 50 volunteers today!” Then the reply card should say something like, “Here’s my gift to train volunteers.”

Seems Like a Good Deal

Donors are generous, compassionate, value-conscious humans.

Donors love it when they feel like they are “getting a good deal” on their donation.

This is why matching grants work so well! To a donor, it feels like she gets to have twice the impact for what she normally gives. To her, it feels like her impact has gone on sale for 50% off.

Because of donors’ desire to get a good deal, offers tend to work better when the cost of the solution seems like a good deal. Let’s look at some offers we’ve had tremendous success with:

“$1.92 to feed a homeless person Thanksgiving dinner” seems like a good deal.
“$300 to cure a person of a major disease” seems like a good deal.
“$10,000 to send an underprivileged girl to an Ivy League college for a year” seems like a good deal
“$50 to join my neighbors in the fight against cancer” seems like a good deal.
“Your impact will be DOUBLED by matching funds” seems like a good deal.

As you create your own offers, look for a couple of things to help show donors how they are getting a good deal:

  • Small parts of big processes that make a big difference. Things like “the cost of airfare to help an adoptive family meet their new child” or “the cost of internet streaming services so that people around the world can watch our sermons.” See how those examples are small parts of big processes – but they seem to have an outsized impact?
  • Anything that has a multiplier. If you use volunteer hours or grants of any kind to help a process or part of a process, that means the cost of that process is lower than it would normally be. For one organization, we helped them see that they were providing over $200-worth of service to local families for just $50. So now their main offer is, “Just $50 provides over $200 worth of help to a local family to stop domestic violence.”

And any time you can get matching funds, get them. You can use them far more than you think before your donors will tire of them. FAR more.

In a nutshell: any time you can convey to donors that “their gift goes farther/has more impact than normal,” you’ve increased your chances of getting a gift. And of getting a larger gift. For instance, matching funds increase both the average number of people who respond AND the size of their average gift!

Other Helpful Advice

Here’s a handful of helpful tips we’ve picked up over the years:

  • The offer amount may be different than how much you ask a donor to give. For instance, it may cost $12 to do something meaningful. Your letter or email would repeat the $12 figure often and talk about how powerful it is. Then you’d ask the donor to give you $36 to help 3 people, or $72 to help 6 people, etc.
  • In your mass donor fundraising, the cost of the offer will be more successful if it is less than $50. I’ve gone as low as 44 cents. What you’re looking for is a cost/amount that any of your donors can easily say, “Yes, I can do that.”
  • Don’t worry if your offer amount is low. People tend to give at the amounts they give at. In other words, if you have a donor who usually gives you about $50, when presented with an offer of $10 she’ll either give you $50 or $60. But she won’t give you $10.
  • For major donors, you can create higher-cost offers. For instance, your mass donor offer might be “$50 trains 50 volunteers” while your major donor offer for the same program might be, “$5,000 pays for our volunteer center for the year” Same program, different offer and different price point.

These Funds Can Be Undesignated!

Finally, you might be wondering how you can get specific on the cost of doing one part of what you do AND have the funds be undesignated so that you can use them anywhere you. Go here to download our whitepaper on this very thing!

But Wait, There’s More!

This post was originally part of a longer series about fundraising offers. The next one in the series will show you the final of the four elements: how giving donors reasons to give NOW will dramatically increase the number of gifts you receive.

And remember: if all of this were easy, you and everybody else would be raising piles of money. It takes a lot of thought to create and refine a good offer.

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

Read the whole original series:

  1. How to Create a Great Fundraising Offer: What’s an Offer?
  2. Why a Good Fundraising Offer Works So Well
  3. The Ingredients in Successful Offers
  4. How to Describe the “Solution” Your Organization Provides
  5. How to Raise More Money by Asking for the Right Amount
  6. How and Why to Give Your Donors a Reason to Give Today
  7. What About Internal Experts Who Don’t Like Fundraising Offers?
  8. How to Make Sure a Low-Priced Offer Does NOT Produce Small Gifts
  9. Half As Important
  10. Offers for Major Donors
  11. Summarizing and Closing This Chapter on Fundraising Offers

A Powerful Fundraising Sentence


Today I’d like to share one of the most powerful fundraising sentences I’ve ever heard. 

I’ll show you why it’s so powerful, and how to apply its lessons to supercharge your organization’s direct response fundraising.

Here we go…

It’s one of the most successful fundraising sentences I’ve ever heard:

“You can cure a major disease like Leprosy for just $250 dollars.”

This sentence has three main elements:

  • The “before” is that a person has leprosy
  • The “after” is that a person will be cured of their leprosy
  • The cost is $250

(If you need a refresher on how we use “before” and “after,” read this post or this post.)

Here’s how those elements work together…

  1. There’s a large contrast between “having leprosy” and “being cured of a dreadful disease.”  That’s a big change in a person’s life! 
  2. The cost to cause that big a change seems pretty minimal.   

Any time you can show a donor that they can make a big change with a gift, and the cost to “cause the change” seems like a good deal, you’re about to raise a lot of money.    

In Your Fundraising

In your fundraising right now, when you tell donors what will happen when they give a gift, does it feel like the donor will cause a big change?

The secret is finding a “before and after” with quite a bit of “distance” between them.

And the good news is that if you describe things well, almost all your “befores and afters” can seem powerful.  Here’s a list of examples off the top of my head:

  • “You can save an heirloom quilt from mold, moths and being forgotten for just $150.”
  • “You can provide a struggling village with a cistern that improves farming results, improves hygiene, lowers sickness and helps a village break the cycle of poverty for just $10,000.”
  • “You can help a child with disabilities go from unable to exercise to skiing with a qualified instructor and adaptive equipment for just $50.” 

Each of these is a fundraising “offer” (and here’s our free eBook on how to make great offers for your organization).

Your donors care about your beneficiaries and/or your cause.  If you can focus their attention on a portion of your work – a “before” and an “after” – that show a big change, and the cost of that change seems like a good deal, you’re on your way to even more fundraising success.  

Before’s & After’s


Our last post was about how the distance between the “before” and the “after” shows the donor the power of their gift.

Speaking of this, I’ve noticed that there are four different ways organizations tend to handle “before’s and after’s,” and each results in different fundraising results…

Only the “Before”

Organizations that share only the “before” – the need that exists in the world before your organization has helped – will raise a lot of money in the short term.

But these organizations have troubles keeping their donors, because their donors never see or feel what their gift accomplished.

This short-term success can be extended to medium-term and even long-term IF the organization has a fantastic donor acquisition program and works on an issue with broad appeal. But it’s not a good strategy for smaller organizations – and I don’t think it’s particularly honoring to beneficiaries or donors.

Only the “After”

If organizations only share the “after” – the positive state after the organization has done its work – the organization will raise less money than it could be raising.

Some donors are motivated just by hearing the “after.” But a lot more donors are motivated by hearing the “before” and the “after.” When the “before” is never shared, a significant percentage of people don’t give, or give less.

A secondary consequence of only sharing the “after” is that organizations accidentally hide the need faced by their beneficiaries.

No “Before” and No “After”

If you share no “before” and no “after,” you also raise less money. This happens when a nonprofit tells donors that the work is happening now, that the work will continue, and asks the donor to “continue to” support the work. There’s no “before.” There’s no “after.”

These organizations accidentally communicate to donors that no change happens when the donor gives – so why should the donor give?

I hope it’s obvious that “why should the donor give?” is a rhetorical question, because the nonprofit is presumably doing good work. This post makes the case for why asking a donor to “continue to” support an organization’s work is one of the least compelling ways to ask for support.

“Before” AND “After”

The organizations where we’ve seen the greatest fundraising success share both the before and the after. They share the bad news and the good news.

When Asking in appeals and e-appeals, they share what’s happening now (the “before”) and what will happen if the donor gives a gift (the “after”).

When Reporting in newsletters, they share what was happening (the “before”) and what’s happening now (the “after”).

The constant contrasting of the “before” and “after” helps a donor see how big an impact their gift to your organization can make, or has made in the past. This is the best strategy, and it provides a strengthening blend of short-term and long-term success.

This strategy honors beneficiaries because it creates awareness of the current situation and of the hopeful future that’s possible. It honors donors by showing them the impact of their generosity.