What A Cardboard Cut-Out Taught Me About Fundraising

My first job out of college had a weird feature. When you walked in the door, the first thing you saw was a life-sized cutout of a 70-year-old woman who looked like Barbara Bush.

Her name was Mrs. Johnson

Mrs. Johnson had white hair, a blue sweater set, and pearls.

The company was a fundraising agency that helped nonprofits all over the country raise money. And we were instructed to write every single fundraising appeal as if we were writing to Mrs. Johnson.

This was my first job out of college. I was 22. And writing fundraising letters to Mrs. Johnson seemed really weird. After all, she wasn’t going to change the world! She looked like a grandma. It was my young friends and I who were going to change the world!

A Lesson In Demographics

Mrs. Johnson was in our office because the founder of that fundraising agency knew a couple powerful things:

  1. First, he knew his demographics: the average donor in the United States was a 69-year-old female. (Which is still true today, by the way.) And a 69-year-old woman was far more likely to give gifts, and give for longer, than me and my 22-year-old friends.
  2. Second, he knew that us copywriters tended to make a couple common mistakes. We’d write fundraising letters as if we were writing to all the donors at once, and we’d talk about the things that we cared about, that we thought were most important.

So, our founder had us write every letter as if we were writing it to Mrs. Johnson. Having her life-sized figure in the office was a powerful way to get us to think about who we were writing to.

We also learned a powerful lesson: an organization can really like a fundraising letter – but if Mrs. Johnson doesn’t like the letter, the letter will be a failure.

I share this today because most nonprofits make the same mistakes that us yahoo copywriters made back then. Organizations often write letters and emails that they like. They write a certain way to impress themselves and please the staff or board. They use insider jargon and describe processes that only people in their niche care about.

All of which causes them to raise less money. Because, as a rule, Mrs. Johnson doesn’t care about any of that stuff.

First, Figure Out Your Mrs. Johnson

It might be a Ms. Rodriguez. It might be a Mr. Patterson. It might be Mrs. Johnson. The important thing is to figure out who she is for your organization, and then write to her about the things that matter to her. Talk about your organization, without jargon, in a way that she can understand.

And if you’re guessing who your Mrs. Johnson is, don’t guess. Find out. It costs so little to find out. Do donor surveys. Do donor interviews. Do whatever you need to do to figure out who your supporters are. Please. Don’t. Make. Assumptions.

For instance, your donors are almost certainly older than you are. Every client I’ve worked with that had an age overlay done on their donors was shocked to discover how old their donors were.

One organization swore up-and-down that their average donor would be in their 50’s. Their average donor was 73.

It’s possible your Mrs. Johnson is different. For organizations that have a ton of child sponsors as donor, Mrs. Johnson tends to be about 49 years old, not 69 years old.

For organizations that are super youth-oriented, Mrs. Johnson might even be 35 years old on average. And she might be a Mr. It doesn’t matter. The thing is to figure out who it is for your organization, how old they are, and then write to them about what they care about.

Communicate To Her, About What She Cares About

You’re getting a handle on who your Mrs. Johnson is. You know she almost certainly knows less about your organization and your cause than you do. And that she has different interests and values than you do.

Now we’re getting somewhere!

You see, too many nonprofits look at their fundraising as their chance to communicate what is so special about their organization. But smart nonprofits look at their fundraising as a chance to communicate something of interest to Mrs. Johnson and people like her.

Don’t write about your organization. Don’t write about what your organization cares about. Instead, look for points of alignment between what your organization cares about and what your Mrs. Johnson cares about, and write about those things.

For instance, I used to serve an organization that helped disadvantaged women get an education, graduate from college, and get a job. The organization thought of itself as ‘giving a hand up, not a hand out’ and often asked their donors to “send in a gift today to help a local woman with a hand up, not a hand out.” Jim and I thought that this organization’s donors — their Mrs. Johnsons — cared more about providing an education than they did providing ‘a hand up.’ So we convinced the organization to instead talk about college credits, and to ask their donors to ‘send in a gift today help help a woman get one college credit closer to a job.’ Worked like crazy.

That’s a good example of focusing your donor communications on how your donors think about an issue, not how the organization thinks about an issue.

So figure out what your Mrs. Johnson cares about. Figure out what words and phrases she uses to describe those things. Then talk to her about what her gift to you will do using those ideas, words and phrases!

Just A Reminder, She’s Probably Older

One thing that hasn’t changed since I was a young fundraiser: the average donor in the U.S. is about a 69-year-old female. And she’s the type of donor who will stay with you longest and give you the most over time.

She probably isn’t on social media. She probably checks email occasionally, but doesn’t trust it because it’s so hard to tell what spam is. She might be on Facebook. But she absolutely has a mailbox and reads her snail mail more than you and I do.

So that tells you the media channels that you want to use if you want to reach her effectively. . .

All That From A Cut-Out?

Amazing. All of this epic long post from a cardboard cut-out that I first met in 1993. But it’s a lesson that stuck with me as long as I’ve been a fundraiser, and I think it’s made me a more effective fundraiser.

My hope is that it does the same for you. Figure out who your Mrs. Johnson is. Grab some stock photography with a picture that looks like her. Print it out, and stick it to your computer monitor. Every time you’re writing your fundraising, make sure you’re writing to her. About what she cares about. Using words she would use. Do that and you’re on your way to have a LOT of Mrs. Johnsons devoted to your cause — and sending you lots of money!

Last Chance! Raise More Money Online This Year

What happens when you wait . . .

I get it. I’ve put things off until the last minute before.

What usually winds up happening is I tell myself, “Oh, I’ll remember to do that in time.”

But by the time I get to it, 9 times out of 10, I miss out.

Don’t let that be you.

Order your Year-End Digital Fundraising Toolkit now!

Because December 31 isn’t here yet. And there are lots of things you can do to raise the money you need before the 31st. Even in the next couple weeks!

If you’re ready for year-end, you can skip this. If you’re not ready, we get it. We’ve been there.

Don’t panic. You can do five things today for more revenue by year-end.

1. Use an interrupter

Make it so easy for your donors to give you a gift online that they can’t miss it (or get distracted by other options). Use some sort of interrupter like a splash page, homepage overlay, or just a big, bold donation button that goes straight to your donation page.

2. Make messaging simple and urgent

Tell your donors you need to raise $X by Dec 31. Let them know if you have a match or a shortfall. Tell them they have X days to do it. Believe it or not, that’s all they need to know. Remind, don’t persuade.

3. Skip the details

This isn’t the time to tell stories, share photos, or offer details about your programs. Trust us. Get straight to the point and ask for a generous year-end gift.

4. Send three emails in the last few days of the month

You should send emails on December 27, 30 and 31. These can (should!) be versions of the same email that progressively get shorter and more urgent — eg. “This is your LAST CHANCE to give a gift this year!”

5. Test social media advertising

If you’ve never tried it, build some Facebook ads to run during the last week of the month. Use the same messaging as your emails — but shorter! Advertise them to a lookalike audience of people who like your Facebook page.

If you want a great cheat sheet to walk you through exactly what to do, remember — we’ve developed a Year-End Digital Fundraising Toolkit. It can be yours for just $149. Buy it now and this year-end will be your best year-end yet!

Order the Year-End Digital Fundraising Toolkit

You Have 1 Extra Week – How To Make The Most Of It

There’s an extra week between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, which is a big deal if you’re a fundraiser.

Your extra week means you have an extra week raise money during the strongest fundraising season of the year.

What Will You Do With Your One Wild, Precious Extra Week?

Just like how your fishing is more effective when the fish are running, your fundraising is more effective this time of year. It’s not that your fundraising materials are magically more effective, it’s that more donors are more likely to give gifts!

Because ‘the giving season’ is a week longer this year, you can expect to raise more money if you take advantage of your opportunity.

And this week, December 3rd through 9th, is your extra week. It may not feel like it, but it’s extra. It’s a gift. What are you going to do with it?

Here’s What To Do With Your Extra Week

Here’s a list to help you prioritize your time. These are organized roughly in order of importance:

  1. Contact any major donors who have not yet given a gift this year. This is the single most important thing, with the biggest financial impact, that you can spend time on. One gift from a major donor who missed your earlier communications can make or break your whole year-end campaign – not to mention the long-term relationship benefits.
    1. If at all possible, try to meet them in person. Next best is telephone. Next best is email.
    2. When you speak to them, be able to very quickly describe why their gift is needed before the 31st, and what their gift will do.
  2. Send another appeal letter. If most of your donors are local, you can send a letter out the week of the 11th, nonprofit postage, and still have it get in homes in time to drive donations before year-end. Make this letter a shorter version of your regular holiday letter, and mention the ‘December 31st deadline’ multiple times. In our experience, you’ll raise about 1/3 of the amount you raised with your regular holiday letter, and this is new, additional revenue!
  3. Prepare your 3 emails for the end of the year. Our Year-End Digital Fundraising Toolkit will show you how to do this well, and includes samples. Here’s the strategy; online giving sees a massive spike during the last three days of the year. During that spike, you want to remind donors that their gift is needed and their gift makes a difference. The best way to do that: have an email in their inbox each of the last 3 days of the year.
  4. Prepare your Thank You / Receipt letter for everyone who gives here at the end of the year. Do not use a generic thank you letter. You’ll build stronger relationships with your donor if the language in the letter reflects what the donor has just done. For instance, you could begin the letter by saying, “Thank you for giving such a generous gift at the end of the year! As I mentioned when I asked you, your gift is going to [insert what their gift is going to do, using the same phrasing you used in your appeals and emails].”

If you’ve already done all those things, fantastic! You’re on your way to a successful year-end fundraising season. Your donors and your organization are going to thank you for all your efforts and for the money you’ve raised.

Extra Credit

If you’ve completed everything you can, here’s how to earn “extra credit” and make sure 2018 starts off with a donor-loving, relationship-building bang:

  1. Plan your early 2018 Thank You email. We recommend an emotion-filled email, dripping with gratitude, to your donors on January 2nd (the first work day of the new year). Thank them for their gift in 2017, and for all the ways your beneficiaries were helped. No Asking, no Reporting, just Thanking.
    1. Ideally, this email would only go to donors who made a gift in 2017, not your whole email list.
  2. Get started on your donor newsletter. This is where you Report to your donors on what their last gift accomplished. Because so many of your donors will have given in November and December, it’s really powerful for them to receive a newsletter in January or February that tells them what their gift accomplished. Remember, most organizations don’t tell their donors what their gift accomplished. Getting good at “Reporting” to your donors is one of the best ways a small nonprofit can stand out, build loyal donors, and raise more money.

Good luck, use your extra week well, and visit our store if you need any samples to help you out!

Lessons from 25 Year-End Fundraising Seasons

This year will be my 25th year-end fundraising season. (In related news, I have a lot of grey hair.)

That means I’ve been a part of about 250 separate year-end campaigns for different nonprofits around North America.

Let me share with you what I’ve learned. Because we do lots of testing, pay close attention to what works, and have a pretty good handle on what works the best.

But before I do, allow me a brief aside. The thing I’m personally most excited about this year is the four low-cost products we just released. They take complex year-end fundraising campaigns and break them down into simple, easy-to-follow steps. They are written and designed so that you’ll learn what to do, when to do it, and how to say it. I couldn’t be more proud.

Today, I want to share how to think about year-end fundraising. It’s a short set of ideas that put you on the path to happy donors and full bank accounts.

Idea #1 – Your donors love to give, but they are busy

Before you do anything, just think about this for a moment. Your donors love to give! Share this idea with your staff and board. If you want to have a great year, you must remember that your donors love to give, but they are busy!

Most nonprofits think two unhelpful things:

  1. Our fundraising makes people give gifts they don’t really want to give.
  2. Every donor receives every message we send.

Neither of those things are true. And if you think those two things, you will only communicate with your donors a couple times in December. That’s a HUGE mistake.

Instead, remember that your donors love to give, but they are busy. They need to be over-communicated with during this busy season. (And if there’s a donor or board member who has already given their year-end gift, by all means remove them from the mailing list!) But for everyone else, you need to communicate to them often enough to break through all the noise, get their attention, and remind them to give you a gift.

Idea #2 – Think of your year-end fundraising as a service

That’s right. Not as fundraising, but as a service to your busy donors who love to give.

You are reminding them to do something they would love to do.

So what makes a good reminder?

  • A clear focus on the action you want them to take. In all your communications (letters, emails, your website, social) get to the point very quickly. Ask them to give a special year-end gift before the end of the year.
  • A clear focus on the deadline. Remind donors, again and again, that their special year-end gift is needed before the end of the year. Deadlines are magic in fundraising, and this is the best deadline you’ll ever have. Mention it early and often!
  • Remind them what their gift does. This is NOT a reminder of what your organization does with their gift. For instance, if you’re an Arts organization, don’t remind them that their gift ‘supports our programs to promote the arts…” Instead, remind your donors that their gift ‘supports the arts so that our community has a thriving arts scene and culture.’

Idea #3 – The only other ideas to add are reasons to give now

Resist the urge to talk about your upcoming capital campaign, or tell a story about somebody you’ve already helped.

The only other ideas to add are reasons your donor should give a gift right now. Things like:

  • Their gift will be doubled by a matching grant
  • Your organization has a shortfall and you need to ‘close the gap’ as quickly as possible
  • You have a big need for funds early in 2018 and the donor’s gift will help

The Main Point

You can do these things and still write a warm, personal letter or email. Really, it’s a matter of focus. Make sure you communicate the main things in a way that donors who just briefly glance at your letter will still get the point.

So of course you can talk about how it’s been a good year. And you can thank your donor for their previous generosity. You can even talk about how pretty the snow is.

But those should not be the main, most noticeable parts of your letter. If you write and design you year-end fundraising following the principles above, you’ll raise a lot more money!

How To Get Matching Funds from a Major Donor

Matching funds are the easiest way to make everything you do (appeals, events, newsletters, you name it) raise more money.

And your easiest source of matching funds are your major donors.

We’ve had great success helping our clients get their major donors to donate matching funds. When done correctly it engages the major donor, gives the major donor a chance to multiply their impact (who doesn’t like that?) and helps you raise more money towards your development goals.

Here’s how we go about it. And of course every major donor is different, but here’s the approach that’s worked for us . . .

Review your major donors for the right donor(s)

Look for a donor who either a) hasn’t given a gift yet this year, or b) you think has the capacity to give another gift at year-end. At year-end, I think approaching majors who haven’t yet given a gift this year is your best move.

Approach the donor with a question

Use the opening question of, “Would you like the chance to multiply your giving and increase the impact of your generosity?” You want to — right away — get the donor in the frame of mind that they can increase their impact by donating matching funds.

Share the stats with them

Make it clear to the donor that they will be multiplying the impact of their own giving. Here’s why: not only do they get their gift matched by the rest of your donors, but there’s additional giving that takes place because of the match!

Look at these stats from MailChimp. I would share these stats directly with your major donor, and talk about how their donation can make results like this possible:

  • Matching funds increase average gift size by 41%
  • Matching funds increase the # of donations by 110%
  • Matching funds increase revenue by 120% (and that’s not including the matching funds themselves!)

Do you see how a match does more than double the money you raise? You get 2x the original amount because you have the match, and the funds raised to match it. But then your fundraising performs better than average too! This is an instance where 1 + 1 = 2.5. THAT’s the opportunity you have to give your donor!

Give them a deadline

If your donor is interested but doesn’t commit, give them a deadline that’s reasonably soon. You want to make them feel like opportunities to multiply their impact like this don’t come around that often (which is true). Tell them that if they say “no” you are going to contact another donor because you need the match to increase fundraising results.

And if you haven’t heard from them by the deadline, contact them to check in. Then if you need to talk to another donor, talk to the next person on your list.

Having a match really is the easiest way to increase your fundraising results. And if you want those kind of increased results for your year-end fundraising? Figure out what major you should be talking to right now and approach them right away.

If you need any other help with your major donor fundraising before December 31, click here to purchase our webinar. It’s watchable on demand, and includes a major donor tracking spreadsheet. You’ll learn to prioritize which majors you spend your time on first, how to get them ready to be asked, and then how to ask them well! You’ll raise far more money from your majors before the end of the year!

Guest-Post Bonanza!

Analytical Ones Logo

This month I was honored to write three guest blog posts for Analytical Ones, the leading nonprofit donor data analysis firm.

The three posts tell the story of how we came up with our Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat system – and how to use it to raise more money and build trust with your donors. Plus there’s a short section on using the simple system with Mass donors as opposed to Major donors.

Here are the links:

Part I: The story that successful fundraising organizations tell their donors

Part II: Simplicity Before Complexity

Part III: Building Trust

Enjoy!

What I Wish I Knew Then

Note from Steven: This is a guest post from Lisa, an experienced Development Director who is on the Better Fundraising team.

When I was a new development director, there never seemed to be enough time, money or man power to get everything done. It was overwhelming. Sound familiar?

I knew I needed to prioritize . . . but even that was hard.

As you sit in your seat today, wondering how you can have the biggest impact possible, take this advice from a person who played every role in her development department. Here are three things I wish someone would have told me right at the beginning . . .

Make it clear what the donor’s gift will do

Specifically, make it clear enough so a donor could easily repeat it to their friends.

Your organization probably does a lot of great things, but you need to focus on just one powerful thing. It’s ok if what you ask donors to do is only part of what your organization does. I’ve noticed that most donors respond better to one simple thing than having to learn about all your organization does.

Always have a system to thank your donors promptly

Donors should be thanked and receipted 24-48 hours after you receive their donation. If they give online they will get a digital thank you right away, but follow that up with a thank you in the mail. For larger gifts, you may want to call and personally thank the donor.

As I built relationships with donors over the years I learned that you cannot thank a donor too quickly. But, thanking a donor to slowly is a surefire way to losing donors over time.

Show each donor the difference their gift made

People give because they want to make a difference. So let them know how their gift made a difference! For most of your donors, this can be done in your organization’s newsletter. Or an e-update, but in my experience e-updates aren’t nearly as good at engaging donors as a printed newsletter.

And for major donors, do whatever it takes to show them.

Take them on a site visit, prepare a special report just for them, whatever it takes to show them how their gift made a difference!

Do these three things and you WILL see improvements in your program. Better Fundraising gets this. Their Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat formula teaches and emphasizes the fundamentals of fundraising, helping you prioritize and work on the things that really matter!

3 ways to maximize your year-end fundraising letters

The most successful year-end fundraising campaigns all share some key features. They use tested, proven strategies that win year after year. And year after year, organizations just update the letters and send them out again.

That’s right.

They send the same message year after year. And get a fantastic response, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars!

You can get the same fantastic response by taking the three tips below to heart.

Tip 1: Ask boldly. Ask often.

Don’t wait until the end of your letter to ask the donor to give. Try asking in at least five or six places throughout. It helps to be specific and concrete when you ask a donor to give. Remind them that the people or cause you serve need help. Tell them what will happen if the money isn’t raised, and the specific impact their donation will have.

Tip 2: Talk about the people who need help, not your organization.

It’s a common mistake to make your organization the hero of your story. It’s also a big one. Your donor should be the hero of the story. Use your letter to explain how the donor can directly make an impact, not how they can help your organization make an impact.

Tip 3: Create urgency, include a deadline and a goal.

Year-end is a natural deadline to highlight in your letter, especially since December 31 is also the deadline for federal charitable tax deductions. Repeat the “midnight, December 31” deadline throughout your letter, on the OE, and the response device. Remember to always pair it with a clear monetary goal.

Get proven year-end fundraising letter samples

Would you like to see some real letters that used the principles above — and brought in more and bigger donations at year-end? And what if we said you could steal from these letters to create your own letter to your own donors?

You can get these samples — and see why they worked, as well as get in-depth instructions on how to use them to create your own successful year-end appeals — for just $129. That’s just $129 to raise thousands more!

We want you to raise more money for your great cause.

Better than a class

Buying these proven samples is better than a fundraising class or conference. With those, you spend anywhere from $150-$500, lose a day of work, and maybe learn something. Hopefully you’re a better fundraiser than you were before.

With these samples you’ll spend $129, upgrade your entire year-end fundraising, and raise thousands more dollars while spending less time doing it. This is a “the best money we’ve ever spent” kind of opportunity.