The Recipe for Recall


My last post was a formula for how (and why) to get on your donor’s “automatic recall” list.

A formula is a concept – a helpful idea… but it’s not specific and actionable. And our goal here is to be specific and actionable.

So let’s get tactical. Here’s a “recipe” for smaller nonprofits for how to get on your donor’s automatic recall list.

The Classic Recipe

There’s a tried-and-true fundraising communications recipe used by nonprofits for 70 years that really works:

  • Regular relevant appeal letters
  • Regular relevant newsletters

The key here is the “regular” part. I’d say “regular” means at least six mailings over the course of the year, with more appeals than newsletters.

Today, organizations are layering in email fundraising in addition to their direct mail:

  • Regular relevant e-appeals
  • Regular relevant reporting stories

(Notice I’m not mentioning e-news. E-newsletters tend to be organization-focused and, while not negative, tend to be less helpful than Asks and Reports at helping donors reach automatic recall.)

The key, again, is the “regular” part. I’d say “regular” means about eight e-appeals and twelve reporting stories per year.

If you’re at a smaller nonprofit and those numbers seem overwhelming, please don’t worry. You can succeed with fewer communications. Plus, direct mail and email are only a part of your overall fundraising strategy.

That said, those numbers should give you a sense of what’s possible. Larger nonprofits communicate far more often than that, and they:

  • Raise a remarkable amount of money
  • Effectively identify new major donors
  • Experience the opposite of the mythical “donor fatigue” – they see high levels of donor loyalty

Every one of those bullet points is available to your organization. (Your donors aren’t any different from theirs.)

And if you’re sold on the idea of communicating more often, but doing so is a capacity / human resources issue, check out Work Less, Raise More. There are trainings that will help you create effective fundraising in 30 minutes.

Finally, know that the “recipe” mentioned above is a proven system in use today because it’s effective at helping organizations do two things:

  1. Raising money with each mailing (or email) so that you can do more of your mission
  2. Building “automatic recall” over time, which increases revenue over time by increasing your number of major donors and legacy gifts

You can communicate with your donors more than you think you can. It’s a habit you must build.

But it’s a habit you want to build, because donors in motion tend to stay in motion, and donors at rest tend to stay at rest.

Are you on their Automatic Recall list?


I don’t know about you, but I’m always looking for “rules” that help me understand how complex systems work.

So when I saw this recently I knew I had to share it:

Automatic Recall = Relevance x Repetition

In other words, the ability of a donor to immediately recall your organization is a product of the relevance of your messages and the number of times they’ve heard your messages.

That’s a great bon mot to explain why we’re always encouraging you to communicate with your donors more often.

Automatic Recall

To be on a donor’s “automatic recall” list means she can name your organization, without prompting, when she’s asked for the organizations she donates to.

It means that if she suddenly came into some extra funds – an inheritance, a bonus from work, etc. – your organization would be one of the first that come to mind to give a gift to.

It means that if she receives a letter or email from your organization, she’s more likely to open and read it.

Not every organization a donor donates to will make it on her automatic recall list. For example, when your nephew does a peer-to-peer fundraiser and you donate $25, that organization will most likely not be on your automatic recall list.

As fundraisers, one of our goals is to get on the automatic recall list of as many of our donors as possible.

So how do we get on that list?

Relevance of Your Messages

How “relevant” are your fundraising messages to your donors?

Because here are the things your donor cares about, in order of importance:

  1. Themselves — even the most generous among us tend to care more about ourselves, our families, our jobs, whether we’re living up to our ideals, etc.
  2. Your Beneficiaries or your Cause — something about your beneficiaries or cause piqued the interest or passion of your donors, and your donors were interested in your beneficiaries or cause before they ever heard of your organization.
  3. Your organization — your organization is a tool your donor uses to 1) live up to their ideals, and to 2) help the beneficiaries or the cause.

So to be the most relevant, your fundraising messages need to be about the donor reading or hearing it, then about the beneficiaries or the cause, and then about your organization.

If your fundraising is mostly about your organization – or if most things in your fundraising are shared in the context of your organization – you’re not scoring well on “relevance.”

Which means you’re not on your way to getting on many people’s “automatic recall” list.

But if you ARE crafting your fundraising messages to be mostly about your donors and the beneficiaries or cause, you’re halfway to breakthrough success…

Repetition of Your Message

Do your donors see your messages often enough to remember them?

The more times your donor sees a relevant message from you, the more she is likely to have a favorable impression of your organization.

That’s not going to happen with two or three appeals a year, plus a handful of emails.

And remember, you can always communicate with your donors more than you think you can.

Do You Want to Grow?

Most everybody already has a few donors that would put your organization on their automatic recall list.

In most cases, those folks have you on automatic recall because of proximity; they tend to be family members, or that group of initial donors who helped the organization get started, or friends of the founders or staff, or longtime community members.

But if you want to scale your organization or ministry, you need to increase the relevance and repetition of your fundraising communications.

Doing so will result in raising more money right away, and in the long run. It’s win-win.

Fundraising, Football, Conflict and Keeping Score


As Steven mentioned in yesterday’s email, I’ve been a football coach for a very long time. And for the record, my helmet when I played was not leather. 🙂

I’ve noticed some fun similarities between football and fundraising: 

  • There’s a season for both football and fundraising.  (But the best performers in both arenas practice all year long.)
  • Regardless of whatever the “hot new tactic” is, the fundamentals matter a LOT.  In football it’s blocking and tackling; in fundraising it’s things like your offer and donor segmentation.
  • Both have skills you can learn.
  • Both have teams that include people with different skills and responsibilities.
  • Both use data to measure success.

Fundraising, Football, Conflict & Keeping Score

Finally – but worth spending a moment on – there’s conflict in fundraising and in football.

On the surface, the conflict in football is more physical.  But there’s also conflict over who gets to play and who doesn’t.  There’s conflict between coaches over what plays to run.  (The game is often more draining mentally than physically.)

The same is true in fundraising.  There’s conflict between staff over the content and frequency of fundraising.  In smaller organizations there are often disagreements between Board and staff over fundraising methods.

The reason I bring this up is because football has one clear advantage over fundraising in this arena: keeping score is a lot easier.  When you try something one week, the scoreboard tells you right away whether it worked or not.

“Keeping score” and knowing whether your fundraising worked or not is more difficult – but it’s more important!  The coach in me is constantly encouraging organizations to measure their performance more closely. 

A question I ask all the time is, “What is your retention rate for your major donors?”  Too many organizations don’t know.  They haven’t “kept score” to see whether their fundraising efforts are effective at keeping their major donors around!  (And their Majors are often giving more than 80% of the total revenue an organization receives from individuals!) 

My encouragement to nonprofits goes back to one of the similarities between football and fundraising that I mentioned at the top: keeping score (measuring the performance of your fundraising) is a skill your organization can learn. 

Here are a few of the main metrics we advise nonprofits to track on an ongoing basis:

  • Overall donor retention rate
  • Major donor retention rate
  • # New Donors each year (broken out into New Donors and Reactivated Donors), and the total acquisition costs.  Use those numbers to calculate the Cost Per New Donor.
  • For each piece of direct mail: # Sent, # Gifts, Production & Mailing Cost, Gross Revenue.  Use that info to calculate % Response, Net Revenue and Return on Investment (ROI).  Of those, Net Revenue is the most important (not ROI).
  • For each email: # Sent, # Open, # Clicks, # Gifts, Gross Revenue.  Use that info to calculate % Open, % Clicks, % Conversion and Net Revenue.
  • In addition to tracking the metrics for each impact (email, letter, etc.), we also “roll up” the results for each campaign so we can track campaign efficacy.

That’s just a start, but it’s a good start.  If you learn the skill of tracking your performance and then “basing future decisions off of past performance,” your organization gets better faster at fundraising.  As a result, you’ll have a larger impact! 

The Olympics and Year-end appeals


I watched a little of the Olympics last week and noticed how the champions at the Olympics have a lot in common with the champions of year-end fundraising.

What do they have in common?  The “champions” practice and compete all year long – not just when the spotlight is shining on them

There are a lot of nonprofits that send out a year-end appeal – and maybe one other appeal during the year.

That would be like the South Korean archery team just picking up their bows a couple times a year.  They’ll never reach their potential.

Instead, the archers practice all the time.  They enter several smaller competitions.  All building towards the Olympics.

Similarly, the nonprofits who want to “reach their fundraising potential” when the spotlight shines on them at year-end practice all year long.  They work on perfecting their Spring Appeal.  They sweat over every word of the Ask at their event.  They send out one e-appeal a month, track the results, and see what their donors are most likely to respond to.

They practice.  Because how do they expect to get better at something they only do once or twice a year? 

And because they’ve been practicing the whole year, they SHINE when the spotlight hits them.

They raise record-breaking amounts of money at year end.

You know those swimmers who break the world record as they win the gold medal?  That could be your nonprofit with your year-end fundraising – but you have to put in the practice.

If you haven’t been practicing this year, I suggest you start.  You’ll raise money this fall, and you’ll raise more money at year-end because of it.

And if you or anyone on your staff is worried that you’ll be asking too much, read this.

One More Thing…

You know how you probably won’t think about archery again until the next Olympics?  And how you probably won’t even think about archery in the meantime?

The archers don’t have a choice about that.  They don’t control what’s on the viewers screens.

But your nonprofit has a choice

If you choose to send more letters, and send more emails, you’ll be on your viewers’ screens a lot more often.

And then you won’t be forgotten.  Your donors will get to know you better.  You’ll build relationship.  And because of that you’ll raise more money and do more good.

Everything You Send Makes You More Effective


All your bad appeals and e-appeals are useful and essential steps on the journey to great appeals and great donor communications.

No small nonprofit arrives on the scene sending out fantastic fundraising.

Nobody starts a nonprofit or ministry because they want to send out mail and email.

So you have to believe that a) “each piece of mail or email your organization sends out is an experiment and an opportunity to get better” and b) you’ll engage your donors and raise some money, too.

That’s a pretty good 2-for-1, no?

What simple email could you send out this afternoon that would be another “step on your journey” to great appeals and great donor communications?

Got Complaints? Get Specifics.


It’s easy to get fired up when someone comes in and nervously says, “Oh my gosh, we’re getting so many complaints!”  Panic sets in!

But rather than escalating the fear, get specific.  We recommend creating a report that is just as specific as a report on giving. 

Main Info:

  • Time period?
  • How many complaints were there?
  • How many gifts came in?
  • # of “Please remove me from your mailing list” compared to normal?
  • # of “unsubscribes” compared to normal?

For each complaint:

  • What is the person’s name or email address?
  • Are they a donor or non-donor?
  • If they are a donor, are they a mass donor or a major donor?
  • What was their complaint?

In my experience, reports that there were “so many” complaints and that “donors are really hating this appeal” have an outsized, negative affect on organizations. 

But then when specifics are reviewed, like a light being turned on in a dark room on a scary night, it’s usually just a couple of complaints.  And half of them are from non-donors. 

Quick Advice

In addition to having a report that requires specifics, keep these things in mind:

  • Don’t Overreact.  You know how sometimes, when you send out an appeal or an e-appeal, there’s an initial flood of gifts and you know you have a winner on your hands?  When that happens, does your organization immediately change your budget for the year and spend more money?  No.  You wait for all the results to come in and then decide what to do.  Follow the same process for complaints.  When complaints come in – which they will – wait for all the results to come in and then decide what to do. 
  • Context Matters.  A complaint from a long-time donor should be listened to.  Complaints from non-donors should basically be ignored.  Seven unsubscribes doesn’t deserve any attention if you normally get six.  
  • Count Everything.  If you’re talking about the number of complaints, you also need to talk about the number of gifts.  It’s counter-productive to focus on the five complaints that came in without viewing them in the context of the one hundred and sixty-seven gifts that also came in.

Don’t Let Complaints Hold Your Organization Back

Many organizations feel like they are held back from raising more money by complaints. 

However, I don’t think it’s the complaints that hold the organization back. 

It’s the organization’s reaction to complaints, and fear of complaints, that holds them back.

Make sure your organization is comfortable with a few complaints.  Because the occasional complaint is a “cost of doing business” for fundraising organizations. 

Set up a simple system to track and evaluate complaints.  Like that light going on in a dark room, you’ll find the specifics far less scary than the emotions.

How to Make Good “Fundraising Bets”


At the beginning of your fundraising career – or when you start doing more direct response fundraising than you have in the past – you need to make “bets” on what you think your donors will be most likely to fund.

You’re writing an e-appeal and wondering, “Should I talk about this program, or that program?”

You’re writing an appeal letter and wondering, “Should I ask donors to fund this, or to fund that?”

Each decision is a bet.

The more bets you make, if you pay attention to the results, the better you’ll get at making bets. And ultimately, the better you get at making bets, the more money your e-appeals, appeals, newsletters, and events will raise.

The way to get better at this is for your organization is to practice. 

Let me give you an example.  It’s an outlier for most of us, but it makes the point.

My mentor spent his career doing direct response fundraising for some of the biggest nonprofits in the country in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, including most of the national Christian nonprofits.

True story: by the end of his career, he had sent so many pieces of direct mail, to so many of the lists available, that he could make accurate predictions for how each letter would perform.

He would hold the mockup of the letter in his hand, look at the offer, and look at the writing and the design.  Then he would look at the mailing list that it was being mailed to.  Cultivation, acquisition, didn’t matter – he could tell you with relative certainty how many people would respond, what the average gift would be, etc.

I walked into his office once and he was concentrating so hard he didn’t notice me for a couple minutes.  He was as “in the zone” as it’s possible to be.  I watched him write some numbers in the margins of a printed-out spreadsheet, then I asked him what he was doing.

He said, “I’m writing down my predictions for how each letter to each mailing list is going to perform.” 

Here’s the amazing thing: he was usually correct to within a 10th of a percentage point on response rate, and within a dollar or two on average gift size.

It was remarkable.  It was otherworldly.

He was able to do it because he had done it so many times before.  He was very, very good at making “bets” for what an organization should talk about, how they should talk about it, and who they should talk about it to.

And when he was wrong – when one of his predictions didn’t match up with what actually happened, he would say, “Huh, I wonder what I missed?”  And then he’d look at the letter and the list to figure out where he had gone wrong, so that his next bet was more accurate.  So that his next bet raised more money for whatever nonprofit he was serving.

You and your organization can get great at knowing what to talk about, how to talk about it, and who to talk about it to. 

But you have to practice.  A lot.

It’s not a gift, not a talent, not an ability.  It’s an acquired skill.

How an Abundance Mindset Results in Raising More Money


Thinking that your donors would like to give only one gift a year is a fearful way to live.

Instead, imagine an abundance of caring donors and multiple gifts.

Imagining abundance – along with the gift of a fundraising habit of sending out relevant fundraising materials regularly – makes the sky the limit for your organization.

That doesn’t mean raising money will be easy.  If it were easy, everyone would be raising millions of dollars and have six-pack abs.

It’s not easy.  That’s why so few people and organizations do it.

But the path is knowable.  It can be done.  And you tend to make your own luck along the path.

Believing that a large percentage of your donors would love to make multiple gifts results in a fundraising plan that produces a large percentage of donors making multiple gifts.

Don’t live in fear.  Donor generosity is astounding.  Believe in abundance.

How to Innovate (and when NOT to)

Make Things Much Better

We talk often about “Repeating” the tactics and messages that work for your donors.

During one such post a while back, I brought up an important question: “how do you innovate when you’re in a culture of repeating what’s worked in the past? Because you have to innovate.”

I Was Wrong, That’s Awkward…

Let me begin by saying that I was wrong about something: you don’t have to innovate.

This might be controversial, but most nonprofits should not be innovating.

In my experience, the vast majority of nonprofits should focus on the basic building blocks of solid donor communications and fundraising before they try to innovate.

Most nonprofits should “learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist” (eternal thanks for that quote, Picasso). Most nonprofits should take advantage of the incredible body of knowledge that’s been built up over the last 60 years for how to raise money effectively.

Listen, if you’re raising less than $2 million per year, you probably shouldn’t be innovating. You should focus your time on fundamentals like getting good at Asking, Thanking and Reporting, getting receipts out on time, focusing your time on major donors, having a website that’s good at receiving & tracking gifts, etc.

For instance, say you’re currently sending out 3 appeal letters per year and have a newsletter that doesn’t raise money. My advice would be to send out 5 appeals per year and start raising money with your newsletter before trying something your organization has never done before.

Those are the “long cuts” to success.

Two Paths to Innovation

Ok. You’ve fostered a culture of Repeating: you repeat tactics that work, and you invest the minimum time and money needed to update successful tactics (and not a dollar or minute more).

Then there are two paths to innovation:

  1. When you update your materials, work to improve We call this “incremental innovation,” and it’s what most nonprofits should be doing.
  2. Try entirely new tactics. This looks like “launching a Facebook presence” or “trying telemarketing.”

Incremental Innovation

Here’s how you innovate incrementally…

As you update materials you’ve used in the past (e.g., your year-end appeal letter, or your fall event), you do your necessary updates and then ask, “Are there any tweaks we could make so that this works a little better?”

Here are examples of tweaks you can make that almost always work:

  • Add matching funds
  • Make the language more donor-centric
  • Talk about your organization less
  • Add a deadline with consequences
  • Make the offer more attractive
  • Use customized gift ask amounts based on each donor’s last gift

Not very sexy, eh? But it’s how most of the really successful fundraising programs got where they are today. Incremental innovation over time creates a fundraising program that predictably raises more money.

Try New Tactics (but Minimize Risk)

The big idea here is to try new things without putting large portions of your revenue at risk.

Here’s a perfect example from a couple years ago: a nonprofit that regularly raised $50,000 from their Year-End appeal letter decided to not send their letter. They chose to only send emails because email was so much cheaper.

The organization saved approximately $4,000, but raised $25,000 instead of their regular $50,000. Ouch.

Any time you are considering an idea that puts a lot of revenue at risk, your goal should be to minimize the risk as much as possible.

For instance, they could have sent the letter to their Major and Mid-level donors. That’s where about 80% of their revenue came from. That would have guaranteed 80% of the revenue ($40,000!). Then they could have experimented by doing an email-only campaign to the rest of their donors.

And you know what would have worked even better? Sending the letter to all donors, and then sending a follow-up letter, and emails.

When trying something brand new, we usually follow these three principles:

  1. Determine the “minimum effective dose.” You want to figure out the least amount you have to spend in order to get a test with reproducible results. Maybe it’s a new Facebook presence where you need to spend 15 hours per week and $1,000 per month boosting posts. Maybe that’s a radio campaign where you need to spend $20,000 on spots to really know if the campaign is working or not. Whatever it is, do the research and figure out what you need to do to make your test a good test.
  2. Have a budget and a timeline. Define exactly how much money and time you’re going to spend on a test. If you don’t have a specific budget and timeline, you’re at risk of over-spending, or getting out too early, or running into conflict because different people in your organization have different expectations. We see this all the time in donor acquisition. Starting to do donor acquisition is hard, and usually takes at least a year to really get going. If you know that but don’t say it, and someone in the organization thinks it’s only going to take 3 months, you’re in trouble.
  3. Define success. You have to specifically define what success looks like. It doesn’t work to say “we’ve engaged our donors more” or “we’ve built awareness in our community.” You want to use specific metrics like “our retention rate will go up 2%” or “we’ll acquire 250 new donors.” Get specific. As Peter Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” I’ve watched a LOT of money get wasted on new initiatives where the results weren’t really measurable.

What’s Next for You?

Hopefully this helps you a) think about what you should be doing next to raise more money, and b) avoid the common mistakes many nonprofits make.

Now, make a plan and go get ‘em! And if you want help, get in touch. You can use our experience (from successes and failures we’ve learned from) to move your organization forward faster!

This post was originally published on June 21, 2018.