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.