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.



Organizations become trusted by donors when organizations show up, again and again, with communications that are relevant to the donor.

Those donors have lots of interactions with you.  Those interactions over time, repeated and reinforced, lead to trust.

You cannot earn trust very quickly when you have one event and two pieces of fundraising a year. 

And remember, the primary things that a donor cares about are:

  • What’s happening directly to the beneficiary group or cause that she cares about
  • How her gift can make a difference
  • How her past made a difference

That’s what she cares about most. That’s what your fundraising should be about to be most relevant to her.

If your communications are mostly about your organization, you’re not talking about what she’s passionate about.

In 2021, resolve to talk more about what she’s passionate about.  Tell her about the negative things that are going on with the people you serve for the cause you work on, and tell her what her gift will do to help.  That’s asking.  Then be sure to report.  Tell her the positive news about how her gift made a difference.

Don’t stay silent for long periods of time.  Don’t go dark.  Earn her trust.

Not very many organizations have it in them to build a habit of regularly contacting their donors with relevant messages.  It’s hard work.

That means there’s an incredible opportunity for you and your organization.

Repeat What Works


After a difficult year, and a not-so-simple start to 2021, we’d be excused for wanting to wipe the slate clean.

But does starting over with a clean sheet of paper work for fundraising?

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?  But it’s usually the wrong thing to do.

The best way to move into 2021 is by looking at what worked best in 2020 and copying it.  Even during the pandemic, many organizations saw better than average results.  Some set records.  So, it would be a shame to not repeat what worked, right?

You can save yourself a LOT of time by doing this, AND you’ll raise more money doing it.  Why?  Because your donors voted with their wallets and told you that some of your fundraising last year was really effective.  It caught and kept their attention.  They wanted to get involved.  And it moved them to action.

If you think of your fundraising as a series of experiments, some of your experiments worked better than others.

So, your fundraising this year should include more of the things that worked well.  Take some time to identify those successes, and repeat them:

  • Copy the offers and creative approaches that worked.
  • Use those offers and creative approaches in other scenarios.
  • Find relevant, real-time opportunities for your donor to give today.

As you move into the new year, spend a couple of minutes brainstorming the reasons your donor gave last year.  And if you give her those same opportunities, she’s likely to help your cause again.

The Habit


There’s a habit your organization can develop that will result in raising more money and keeping more of your donors each year.

It’s the habit of regularly using the mail and email to stay in relationship with your donors.  

Here’s why the habit of regularly sending mail and email to your donors is so powerful…

The habit of regularly Asking your donors to do meaningful, powerful things with a gift through your organization results in more gifts.  Donors in motion tend to stay in motion.  Donors at rest tend to stay at rest.

The habit of regularly Reporting to your donors shows and tells them that their gifts make a difference.  Donors who know their previous gift made a meaningful difference are more likely to give to you again than donors who don’t.

The habit of regularly contacting your donors always works better than “going dark” for weeks or months at a time.

The habit of regularly contacting your donors via letters and emails is more effective than Social.

The habit of regularly contacting your donors always works better than sending nothing.

Getting in the habit of regularly sending out mail and email, paying attention to the results, always works better than any other approach.

It’s a habit you must develop 

First, you must get past the idea that mailing your donors more than a couple times a year will somehow result in the mythical “donor fatigue.”  If you need help with that, look here.  Or here.

Then you have to realize that each piece you send out is not precious.  Each piece you send out is an overwhelmingly positive incident that raises money, keeps you in touch with your donors, and learning opportunity.

Then you just have to practice.  You need repetition.  Sending out mail and email is like any other skill; you get better with practice.

Show me an organization that has developed a habit of regularly mailing and emailing its donors and I’ll show you an organization that has deeper relationships with its donors and keeps more of its donors every year.


fundraising is beautiful

Today’s post is a bit of an outlier.  It’s kind of personal, kind of bad news, but kind of good news.

The news is that after 112 episodes, Jeff Brooks and I have officially ceased our podcast, Fundraising Is Beautiful. 

I’m sad just typing that sentence.  The podcast is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.  (More on that below.)

The good news is that the episodes are currently available to you to listen to.  Right here, right now, for your listening pleasure. *

I’m confident that listening to any of them will make you a more effective fundraiser. 

But we’ve got a lot of episodes!  You might wonder where to start.  So here are three episodes that a lot of people found entertaining and/or helpful:

Final Thoughts on FIB

If you’d like to read more about why we decided to call it a day, read Jeff’s great post about it.

And here’s my favorite tweet about its demise . . .

  • There’s @jeffbrooks and @stevenscreen being innovative.  The only people in the world *not* starting a podcast.

If you’re still reading, let me share a couple things I learned while doing the podcast:

  • I’m a better writer, public speaker, and teacher for having done the podcast.  Those things are learned behaviors, and you’ll get better with practice.
  • Having to explain and teach what you know will make you better at what you do.  I’m a better Fundraiser for having done it.
  • Jeff rubs his fingers together while talking and it makes a scritchy noise.
  • There’s a whole set of topics that are of great interest to consultants… but aren’t of interest to Fundraisers trying to help their organization raise more money next month.  And the universe of consultants is quite small compared to the universe of people trying to help their organization get better.
  • Helpful podcasts with titles that sound like clickbait will get more listens.  People are interested in specific topics and actionable tips on how to get better.
  • The sound quality of some of the very first episodes is… dodgy.  As in we were apparently recording with lousy mics.  Near squirrels.  In some kind of tube.  I’m more than a little embarrassed about that but came to realize that it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we started.  We fought the resistance.  And beat it 112 times.

To anyone starting a podcast or a blog, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Not because it will raise your profile or anything like that.  But because of what you’ll learn, what you’ll realize you know, and because it will make you better.

Thank You, Jeff

Grateful and humble thanks to Jeff for making Fundraising Is Beautiful with me for 10 years.  I’m honored to have done it with you and learned from you.  Thanks for all the laughs, the rants, and your friendship.

Fundraising IS beautiful.

* Lots of great episodes are available right now, but our team is still adding some of the older ones – so keep checking back!