Your Fundraising Should Be MORE Repetitive

I often say, “In fundraising, repetition is the best friend you don’t know you have.”

Many people literally can’t believe I would say something so crazy.

But it’s true. Using repetition as a tool is the biggest lesson that advertising & marketing have to teach us fundraisers.

This post will tell you why that’s true, and how to use this idea to raise more money.

Two Reasons for Repetition

There are two reasons your fundraising materials — and all of your fundraising — should be more repetitive:

  1. Your donors don’t read the whole thing. They skip and skim.
  2. Humans often need to hear a message multiple times before they take action. And your donors are humans.

As always, this post is an attempt to explain what we’ve seen in head-to-head testing. Put another way, we know from testing that repeating the right things will increase how much money you raise, and this is an attempt to explain why.

Note: this idea is especially important for smaller organizations who are trying to make ‘the leap’ to the next level in revenue. Being more repetitive is counter-intuitive. It’s something your board or E.D. might push back against. But if you embrace it you’ll start raising more money both immediately and in the long term.

Your Donors (and Potential Donors) Don’t Read the Whole Thing

People don’t read your whole letter . . . or email . . . or newsletter, etc. (Except for your board, they read everything to find errors.)

If you want to make ‘the leap’ to the next level of income, you need to wrap your mind around this. People don’t read/watch/listen to the whole thing. They skim, they jump around.

If you want evidence of this, go check out the work of Siegfried Voegele.

So to increase the chances that your donor sees your main message (usually your call-to-action) you repeat it multiple times. That way, as your donor is skimming your fundraising, there’s a greater chance they will see what you want them to do.

Remember: you go through your fundraising with a fine-toothed comb, reading from the top to the bottom, looking at every detail. But most of your donors just glance at it. Repeating your main idea increases the chances that even your “glancers” will read what you want them to read.

This makes it difficult (at first) to write effective fundraising, by the way. We learn in school to set up an argument, tell a story, and then make our point. But the most successful fundraising tends to make it’s point, tell you why the point is so important, and then make it’s point again. Writing that way is a learned behavior.

Humans Often Need to Hear a Message Multiple Times Before They Take Action

You know this from your own life; telling a busy co-worker something multiple times, or talking to a friend who is doing something else at the same time.

It’s a good idea to assume that your donors are busy, or are looking at your fundraising and doing something else at the same time.

Smart fundraisers use this knowledge to do two things:

First, in their letters and emails, they’ll repeat key phrases and ideas multiple times. For instance, my rule of thumb is that each appeal letter should have three direct asks to the reader to send in a gift today. I usually put those three “asks” in the following three locations:

  1. Somewhere in the first three paragraphs
  2. Somewhere in the last three paragraphs
  3. In the P.S.

Because your donors are skipping around, if you only put your ask in one place in your letter, a whole bunch of donors just got your letter but don’t know you’d like them to send a in a gift. That’s a recipe for raising less money than you could be.

Second, smart fundraisers ask donors to do the same thing multiple times during the year. Because they know that of the donors who saw the message the first time you sent it, not all of them were convinced to make a gift.

Say you’re a community museum that has a hard time raising money with your general appeals, but the one time each year you ask your donors to ‘send a local child to the museum’ you raise a lot of money. Well, next year ask you donors to send a child to the museum twice (and do the things you need to do to make the funds undesignated).

To give you a real-life example, Jeff Brooks tells a great story about an organization that accidentally sent out the same exact appeal letter two months in a row. The same letter to the same people. What to know what happened?

The letter did better the second time!

The Consequences for Your Fundraising

It takes real discipline to use repetition in fundraising. Because when you do, your nonprofit will end up communicating more often to your donors, and communicating about fewer things to your donors.

Here’s a story to illustrate my point. We worked with an organization in the Midwest who raised about $10m per year. They talked about EVERYTHING they did, every program, all the time. They always wanted to say all the things!

We counseled them to make their fundraising simpler and more repetitive. For instance, in each letter and email they should only talk about one of their programs. Their response was an all-time classic:

“Steven, you don’t understand. We’re not a simple organization that just does one thing, like World Vision. We do so much more!”

Now, I’ve done some work for World Vision. They are anything but simple. So I explained that World Vision isn’t simple, but they are disciplined in their donor communications.

So we convinced the organization to get more specific about one program in one letter. That letter raised roughly double any of their other letters that year.

By the way, iIf you follow this advice, it’s totally possible that your board and staff will like your fundraising less. They will think your letters and emails are repetitive. They won’t all hear about their favorite programs or parts of your organization. But you’ll raise more money and will be able to do more good. Whether they like your fundraising or not should not be a core issue. The core issue should be whether your fundraising is effective or not.

And if you use repetition as a tool, your fundraising will be more effective.

Repetition at Year-End

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that repetition is one of your core tools to year-end fundraising success.

Your donors are busier than ever, and repeating the same message (and your call-to-action) is one of the best ways you can get noticed by them.

Our Year-End Digital Fundraising Toolkit is on sale right now for more than 40% off. Grab it. You’ll see exactly how to use repetition over the next few weeks – among lots of other tips-n-tricks – and you’ll raise a LOT more money this year!

The False Assumption That Does Massive Damage

There’s an assumption most nonprofits make that does massive damage to their fundraising, their beneficiaries, and their donors.

When a fundraising letter, email or event does really well, too many nonprofits assume that they cannot do that same thing again.

Yet I know from experience (and lots & lots of testing) that the opposite is true! If something works, it has a very high likelihood of working again. And there are no longterm negative effects.

But between you and me, just saying this to nonprofits doesn’t change their behavior. They don’t believe it. It goes so strongly against their “common sense” that sometimes I think they literally can’t even hear me say it.

So let’s pull apart the assumption and take it piece by piece.

Assumption #1: “All our donors heard about this”

Unfortunately, “all our donors” didn’t hear about it. Less than half of them did. Take a look:

  • If it was a successful email, and your email open rate is 30%, then 7 out of 10 donors never saw your message.
  • If it was a successful direct mail piece, your open rate is maybe 50%, so 5 out of 10 donors didn’t even hear about it.
  • If it was an event, maybe a couple hundred people on your donor file heard about it. So hundreds, maybe thousands of people don’t even know it happened.

So instead of making assumptions, let’s embrace Reality #1: a maximum of half your donors heard about it, and it’s probably lower than that. If those donors liked it so much, why not send it again to give your other donors a chance?

Assumption #2: “We can’t repeat something, our donors will stop paying attention.”

Let me tell you a story. Storytime With Steven! Earlier in my career, I used to spend a couple million dollars a year buying radio ads all across the country. Our goal was to get each listener to hear the same ad three times in one week. 3 times in a week! Because when that happened we saw sales increase. The maxim we lived by was this:

  1. The first time a listener hears an ad, they barely notice it.
  2. The second time they hear it, they start to pay attention.
  3. The third time they hear it, they pay attention if they are interested.

The same principle holds true in fundraising. Unfortunately, fundraisers are afraid that donors will stop paying attention. But in my 25 years of fundraising I have NEVER seen data that showed donors paid less attention. There’s a story from a single donor or three, of course. Last year we had a client use the same offer in two mailings in a row because the first mailing did so well. They came to me really worried about “all the complaints” they were receiving. But when we checked, it was only about 15 complaints, half of were donors saying that the problem must be bigger than they thought for the organization to ask two times in a row. And in addition to those 7 or 8 complaints they received over 700 gifts.

It’s not a fun truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless: our donors aren’t paying as close attention as we’d like to think. So instead of assuming, let’s embrace the Reality #2: repeating your message helps your donors notice it, remember it, and be more likely to take action. Commercial advertisers and marketers know that repetition is one of their most important tools. (It’s also one of the reasons that “Repeat” is in Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat.)

Assumption #3: “Repeating messages will alienate our core donors.”

This is the only assumption that has a grain of truth. There are some donors that this could happen to. But the trick is to figure out who they are and treat them separately!

  • If there are board members who won’t like seeing a similar mail or email two times in a row, take them off the mailing list for the second impact.
  • If you’re going to use the same powerful ask at an event for the 2nd year in a row and you’re worried about a major donor, call that donor, tell them your plan, and ask them if they’d like to come.
  • If a donor complains, take them off your list for some of your impacts.

The mistake most nonprofits make is to take the personal preferences of a very small handful of staff & donors and apply that to all their donors. That’s a big mistake.

Instead of making an assumption, let’s embrace Reality #3: all our donors are not the same, let’s not take the preferences of a few close-in donors and apply them to the rest of our donors. We’ll learn what most of our donors like through asking them and closely watching the results.

So . . . next time . . .

Next time you have a successful fundraising effort – be it in the mail, or email, or an event — look for how you can make the same offer to your donors again. Soon. Because if a lot of your donors responded the first time, it’s likely to work as well or better the next time.

Listen, this fundraising thing you’re doing is not a test. It’s possible lives are at stake. We don’t have time for false assumptions, and we have to be willing to take a couple complaints from board members in exchange for raising thousands of more dollars and bringing joy to so many more donors!

A Mistake I Wish I Didn’t Make

A finger caught in a mousetrap

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

It was a typical nonprofit workday when my boss walked into my office. He had a direct mail piece in his hand. It was from a non-profit he supported. He gave it to me and said . . .

“I like this. I bet it brought in a lot of money. Don’t you think we should do something like this?”


Has this happened to you? Speaking as someone who’s been in your seat; if it hasn’t happened yet, it will soon!

The next day my boss came in again and shared an idea for a fundraising project. The idea had been brought to him by a board member. Like the direct mail piece, it was for a different kind of non-profit and audience. He said it raised a lot of money and asked me that same question, “Don’t you think we should do it?”

Feeling the pressure and wanting to please my boss, I caved in. Within a few weeks my team and I were neck deep into the new project. We didn’t have the time or the resources needed to execute it properly – but by then we were too far along to stop.

When we finished we were all exhausted. And as you may have guessed, it didn’t make any money. Plus in our efforts to see the project through, we weren’t able to get to our regular work. So we missed deadlines and lost revenue.

Here’s what I learned:

Know what works for your organization. Then do it again, again, and again

Or as we say here at Better Fundraising, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. You’ve spent time and money in the past figuring out what your donors like and don’t like. For me, in every case I can remember, I’ve raised more money by doing another of what the donor’s responded to instead of trying something new.

Jim and Steven tell me they see this all the time – organizations who have successful tactics but replace them (or only use them once a year) because they think their donors will get tired of them. I can tell you from experience that so much time and money is wasted doing this!

How To Try New Tactics

Don’t get me wrong, I like trying new things but NOT at the expense of my staff and NOT if it puts ongoing successful fundraising projects in jeopardy.

So here’s how I ended up running things. If we wanted to try something new, we did our research, planned, and put it in the next year’s budget. In the meantime, we repeated what worked well for us in the past and we did it more than once. For example, we had a Thanksgiving letter that always worked great. So instead of trying something new, we sent two Thanksgiving letters the next year. It worked great.

The Two Big Lessons

  1. It’s very risky to replace a tried-and-true fundraising tactic with something new. Know how much revenue is at risk when you make the decision!
  2. If you did something that really worked with your donors, figure out how to use the same concept twice the following year. I should note that this doesn’t really go for events, but it has worked for me more times than I can count in the mail, email, and major donor proposals!

How To Write This Fall – Tips For Fundraising Success

An old typewriter sits on a wooden desk

Fundraising Season is beginning . . . and you’re going to write to your donors a LOT in the next few months. And I have an important tip for you.

Don’t assume your donors will read what you write.

Donors are moving fast (especially in their inbox). They are busy. They support multiple charities. And they don’t have to read your organization’s communications.

Right? Nothing bad happens to your donors if they don’t read your stuff. Their life just goes on. And as a matter of fact they’ve saved themselves some time.

So what is a nonprofit writer to do?

In almost all cases you have to earn their attention by being relevant and getting to the point quickly.

So pay special attention to your first sentence. Think of it this way: your first sentence has to earn your reader’s attention enough so that they want to read your second sentence.

I use two main strategies to get more people to read our clients’ fundraising materials:

#1 Very quickly state the point of your letter/email/brochure. Why are you writing the donor today? If you want the donor to do something, say it clearly right away.

We’ve improved the fundraising results for hundreds of organizations just by helping their fundraising materials get to the point faster. Because most nonprofits seem to assume that their donors will read the whole thing. So, they take a long time to get to the point, and then they only mention the point once.

My operating principle is that maybe 10% of donors will read it, but 50% of people will skim it IF you give them something interesting/urgent/valuable enough to skim.

Note those percentages don’t add up to 100%. That’s because no matter what you do, a significant percentage of donors are either going to miss or not read each message you send out. And that, my friend, is why nonprofits need to communicate more often than they think they do. Because most nonprofits assume every donor receives and reads every message. That’s a long way from what actually happens.

OK. The second way I get people to read is to use drama and tension.

#2 Write such a drama-filled first sentence that the reader really wants to know what the second sentence says.

Pick right up in the middle of the beneficiary story you’re telling. Or summarize the most drama-filled moment. But use emotion to get a reader curious about what happens next.

Here’s a great example, “When the police rang the doorbell, Gloria didn’t know what she was going to do.” This works for even the most boring subjects! “Our fiscal year end is approaching and I don’t think we’re going to make budget” is the opening line of one of the most successful letters I ever wrote.

So when you’re writing this fall, remember that your donors are busy and moving fast. Pay special attention to the very first sentences of anything you put out there. And I guarantee you that if you earn your donor’s attention, you’ll earn more of their donations!

Fundraising’s “Virtuous Circle”

the fundraising "virtuous circle": Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat

I had the privilege of teaching at the South Sound AFP chapter a few nights ago. The group was made up of young professionals, several of whom had been fundraising for less than 6 months.

We walked through fundraising’s Virtuous Circle. A “virtuous circle” is a chain of events that reinforces itself through a feedback loop. Here’s what it looks like in fundraising:

  1. Asking donors to solve a problem with their gift,
  2. Thanking them promptly and emotionally,
  3. Reporting back to them on how their gift made a difference.

Doing those three things well, one at a time, and in the correct order causes donors to trust your organization. This makes it more likely they’ll give to your next appeal, and stay donors for years and years.

I asked the group how many of their organizations Reported back to donors. **Only one person raised their hand.** Only one organization in the whole room was completing the circle.

I’ll do a longer post about fundraising’s virtuous circle later, but for now let’s focus on the incredible opportunity this presents for you and your organization. If your donor is giving to (on average) 7 to 10 different charities – but your organization is the only one does a great job showing her what her gifts have done, what do you think will happen? Here’s the short list:

  • Your donors will stick with you for longer
  • Your newsletters will raise money
  • Your response rates to appeals will increase
  • Even event income goes up

I think every fundraiser needs to learn (or be reminded of) this fundamental part of fundraising. Letting your donors’ know what their gifts have done is both honoring and a huge opportunity to raise more money to do more good.

VIDEO: Repeat Your Way To Fundraising Success in 2017!


In this blog I’m going to apply some of the thinking behind Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat and repeat something from last year.

Last January we posted this video. In it, we talk about how to build a successful fundraising plan by repeating what worked from the previous year.  This video is just 6-minutes long and is a great place for you to start as you develop your 2017 fundraising plan.

Why Does "Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat" Work?


I recently received an email from a woman I met at a conference I spoke at. She ended her email with this comment; “Because of your knowledge I have been kickin’ a** fundraising and will only get better as we make more money, add more staff, and implement more of your plan!”

Reading this made me ask myself, ‘Why does Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat work so well?’ Here are just some of the reasons . . .

  1. Fundraising is not a talent issue, it is a knowledge issue. The fundraising fundamentals I teach can be learned by most anyone. The key is they must have the willingness to learn.
  2. Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat puts the donor at the center of the fundraising conversation. The system honors the donor, their stewardship decisions and gives them the credit for making the world a better place because of their donation.
  3. You will communicate more often to your donors when using Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat. The system requires you to Ask with clarity, Thank promptly and Report back emotionally. Doing these things means you’ll communicate to your donors more often – which is a very good thing for most nonprofits.

My hope is as you run fast into 2017 you will consider learning more about Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat.  And that you will leverage the fundraising power behind this simple, donor-centered communication rhythm.