Fundraising when the world turns upside down…


Shortly after my organization started following new, more effective fundraising methods, the pandemic hit.

To my surprise, the fundraising writing tactics I had learned still worked, even in this new upside-down world.

Maybe you remember how many unknowns there were.

The stock market tanked. People were sent home from their jobs – many people lost their jobs. In some areas of the US, people couldn’t leave their homes except for a few reasons like going to the grocery store.

For a few months, it felt like the world was on pause.

But the need to deliver on our mission didn’t go away, for my organization or other organizations. Funds were still needed, but would donors still give?

At my organization, there was some question of whether it was appropriate to ask donors to give in this climate full of unknowns.

But all the advice I was seeing, hearing, reading from professional fundraising strategists (including Steven Screen!)…

…if there is a need, ask your donors to give. Full stop.

DON’T stop fundraising.

If donors CHOOSE not to give, that is their decision. But if you don’t even ask them to give, you are deciding they won’t give without even asking them. And you are letting your mission or your beneficiaries down.

So, I advocated for more appeal letters, more emails, more personal touches, more sharing in the uncertainty and asking donors for help.

I was pushier than normal, and this felt very uncomfortable. This was when I realized a big shift had happened. I was a fundraiser.

I had developed new instincts, and they were fundraising instincts.

I began to trust myself and my organization was, once again, willing to try something that felt uncomfortable.

And AGAIN, donors responded in a big way.

Donors wanted to help.

Many of these donors were sitting at home, feeling helpless, and giving was something they could do to help.

Key lesson here. When there is a need, ask donors to help. Even when times are tough. Especially when times are tough.

When you ask, you are empowering donors to do something – to help right a wrong, to provide something that is needed, to make a situation better. And that is noble work.

Whether you are new to the direct response fundraising world or you’re a seasoned pro, maybe you see yourself somewhere in this series.

It can be scary to let go of what you are used to and try something new. It can be humbling to admit the rules you’ve been following are the wrong rules for the job in front of you. It can be uncomfortable to push for something that others at your organization question.

In these moments, keep your mission in front of you – your organization’s mission AND your mission as a fundraiser.

It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Whatever the fundraising job in front of you, be bold and clear with your donors, and then trust them to do the rest.

Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

Never Go Dark

Dark mode.

This is the second idea I use to help organizations create fundraising plans that raise more money:

Never go dark on your donors.

Fundraising is similar to personal friendships. We all have friends who show up, and we all have friends who go dark.

As a nonprofit, don’t be a friend who goes dark. When you go dark, you have a lower chance of remaining their friend.

Don’t let donors go months – or even weeks – without hearing from you.

The more you are a regular part of your donors’ news feed – their mail, their email, their social – the more you are a part of their lives.

Truth: the amount of donor communications you send is one of the things that communicates whether your cause is important or not. Two appeals a year, a few emails and a bunch of social? That communicates that your work must not be that important. Eight appeals, four newsletters, and thirty emails? That communicates that your work is urgent and important.

(This is unfair to organizations with small staffs, but it’s unfortunately still true.)

Like a good friend, when you show up in your donors’ lives, talk about your donors and not about yourself (your organization). Show up and tell donors what’s happening with the beneficiaries or cause that they care about. Show up and “report back” to donors the amazing things their gift has made possible through your organization.

So as you make your annual plan for next year, look for times of the year when you’ll be going dark on your donors. Then find an easy-to-create donor-centered communication to send your donors at that time.

For many small organizations, it will feel awkward to send out so many donor communications. You need to consciously make the generous choice to show up in your donors’ lives early and often.

Your donor are adults. You can’t scare them away with a few more pieces of fundraising.

And imagine how much your beneficiaries will appreciate knowing that you never go dark on their behalf.

What to Plan First in Fundraising Communications


There’s an idea I use to help organizations create fundraising plans that raise more money:

Identify the pieces of fundraising you create that raise money, and put those on your annual plan before anything else.

Then, make sure you can produce and send all those revenue-generating pieces on time before you add anything else to your calendar.

Of course you will have to add other things. We all do.

And of course there’s a place for stewardship.

But there are people in your organization who treat all communications as equal, not realizing that some raise far more than others. And after you make your plan, you are going to be asked to make and send out additional comms that are not on the plan.

That results in real-life, impact-reducing scenarios every year:

  • Organizations send out an e-news (that doesn’t raise any money) instead of sending out that print newsletter (that raises thousands of dollars)
  • Organizations spending another two weeks polishing the annual report (which loses money) instead of sending out an appeal (which raises thousands of dollars).

But this does not happen in organizations that plan for their revenue-generating fundraising communications first and foremost. They don’t plan for as many e-news because they know that the print newsletters take time. Or they choose not to polish the annual report any longer because they know that, if they do, they won’t be able to make their appeal on time.

What you put on your calendar first, matters.

Hello from San Antonio!

BF Team photo.

The team from Better Fundraising and I wanted to say “Hi!” from the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference here in San Antonio!

If you’re here, please come and say hello. If you’re not here, I hope you can make plans to come to next year’s conference in San Diego.

If you were expecting a blog today and would still like to read one, here are a couple of posts that can make a real difference in your fundraising:

Your Fundraising IS the Relationship

The Gap and The Gift

I have to run and give a session. Thanks for being a Fundraiser!

Smeared Ink, Human Connection and Donor Love


Editor’s Note: the following is a guest post from John Lepp of Agents Of Good.  John’s book, Creative Deviations, is a master class in how to *think* about fundraising.  Yes there are lots of tactics and cool ideas to steal.  But if you can start thinking the way John thinks you will unlock your ability to raise money.  ~Steven

I like talking about the 1,000 things you can do in your direct response program because it speaks to the obsessiveness you must have about our craft. It also highlights the humanness of our craft.

Everyone is looking to automate since it is less work, more profitable (HIGHLY debatable) and faster…

BUT: human connection and love are not check boxes, my friends. There are no short cuts, magic bullets or quick ways to build meaningful connections with other people.

I want to share a few examples with you.

My pal Francesco Ambrogetti (formerly the director of development at UNICEF Italy) created a “Donorlove Department.” He would test all sorts of things to see what would increase a donor’s lifetime value and retention rates.

And he found that he could do that by doing two of the simplest, most human things possible.

He would send a handwritten card within 48 hours of getting a gift. The card simply shared that the donor’s specific gift was received, expressed gratitude and appreciation and reiterated what the gift was used for. He would also call donors on their birthday or the anniversary of their gift. A phone call. To say thank you.

A card. A phone call.

These two things helped him see a 30% increase in retention and 50% increase in the lifetime value.

A card and a phone call. Forget all the shiny objects and gee-whiz factor of technology…

A couple other ones I like to share are things like paperclips. Or stamps. Or smeared ink.

A card or photo or insert paperclipped to your letter sends a signal to your donor that a human was involved – quite simply since machines CANNOT attach paper clips to things.

A stamp (or many, many stamps) on your envelope WILL get looked at and noticed. The more the merrier… especially when placed willy-nilly and on angles. Machines and computers do not do things WILLY NILLY… Humans do!

I am left-handed. So whenever I address an envelope or write in a card, I smear my ink all over the place. Computers don’t do that. They are perfect.

Imperfections make for incredibly effective (and profitable) direct response. They will help you raise a lot more money.

These are just a few quick examples of things I have included in Creative Deviations. You can find it on Amazon or Apple Books around the world.

I would love for you to get yourself a copy, dive in and tell me ( what you think. Unless you hate it.

Editor’s Note: Steven here again. Get John’s book. Really. 

Why your direct response fundraising should be like a Hallmark Christmas movie…


Something strange happens to me at the end of October.

I’m a smart, logical, educated person who appreciates arts and culture.

But at the end of October when Hallmark Christmas movies start playing 24/7, I turn into… someone else. Someone who will watch movie after movie with essentially the same characters and the same plot. Someone who tears up at the end of the movie when the lovers FINALLY kiss and then a gentle snow begins to fall.

Sigh. It’s so sappy.

But I’m a direct response fundraiser, so I notice something else.

A Hallmark Christmas movie reminds me of effective direct response fundraising. It’s formulaic. You know what’s coming next. The plot is easy to follow. And you may tear up because, gosh dang it, it’s emotional!

And it works.

Every year, they make more of these movies because people – like me – are watching them!

Sometimes we try to make our direct mail fundraising appeals into something more like a Cannes Film Festival entry. Complex. Ironic. Edgy. Different.

But that just doesn’t work as well.

If you want to appeal to the highest number of donors, your direct mail fundraising should be more like a Hallmark Christmas movie.

Here’s the basic formula:

  • Tell them why you’re writing to them
  • Share the problem that needs to be solved
  • Tell how the problem could be solved
  • Ask the donor to give a gift to solve the problem
  • Go into more detail about the problem and solution
  • Include a story that illustrates the problem (optional)
  • Ask them to give again
  • Signature and title
  • P.S. Ask them to give again and include the deadline.

Listen. I get it. Near the end of every single Hallmark Christmas movie, I grumble and complain and wonder why I watch these silly movies.

Then the snow starts to fall and there’s a magical kiss and I’m a puddle on the floor.

There’s something about that feeling…

The direct response formula isn’t a secret. Simple. Easy to follow. Emotional. Maybe a little bit of magic… These things help donors get to the point where they will write a check to make something good happen.

Follow the formula with your next direct response fundraising appeal or email and let me know how it goes!

Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

Less is Less

Less is Less

Most organizations would agree that “Less is less” when it comes to fundraising.

If you ask less, you’ll raise less.

But the converse is also true: if you ask more, you’ll raise more.

If your organization believes that “less is less,” but doesn’t believe that “more is more,” you’ve placed a boundary around the generosity of your donors.

It’s worth asking how that boundary came to be.

Most organizations (and the people working in them) are afraid of being rejected when asking for money. So they set the boundary out of fear.

But like most boundaries that are placed out of fear, they are pretty limiting. The boundary around your donors’ generosity limits how much they will give to your organization, and how much money you can raise.

If you can remove your boundary – and embrace the truth of “more is more” – you’ll unlock your donors’ generosity and you’ll do more good.

Practice On Your Non-Donors


Want to become a more effective Fundraiser but your organization won’t allow you to send out enough fundraising to really improve your craft?

Practice on your non-donors.

Get permission to send more fundraising to the non-donors on your email list.

After all, you have nothing to lose with those folks, right? And the purpose of your email list is for members of the list to be turned into donors, right?

If people in your organization question you, focus their attention on how the organization has said that you need more new donors, and that’s exactly what you are trying to do.

The side benefit is that you and your organization will be more effective fundraisers because of it.

If your CRM setup means you don’t know which of the email addresses on your list are donors or non-donors, you have an extra step to take. Create an email list for your test sends, and from that list remove any addresses that look like they might be for your major donors, board members, staff and foundations.

Then start to try stuff. Send an e-appeal that tries a new approach. Try sending a “breathless dispatch from the front line” instead of the “standard sanitized perfectly-proofed update.” Send two e-appeals in a week. Send out a survey designed to get legacy giving leads.

It might be a bit messy. But it’s all practice that will make you more effective.

Organizations that want to get more effective at Fundraising allow little “messes” like these in order to learn and grow. As I said last week, “Ship your work. Get feedback. Improve it. Repeat.”

If you’re not regularly practicing, chances are you’re not getting more effective.

The Long Cut


“Ship your work. Get feedback. Improve it. Repeat.”

This lesson comes from the Tech and Art worlds, but it applies perfectly to fundraising.

Every time you send out a piece of fundraising, you’ve shipped your work. Celebrate it.

Then you get feedback in opens, click-throughs, # of gifts, response rate, etc. Measure it.

Then you ask, “What could we do to get more opens, click-throughs, etc.?” Improve it.

Then you keep it up. Because when you repeat the cycle, you get the “compound interest” of ever-improving results.

Ship your work. Get feedback. Improve it. Repeat.

It’s not sexy. But it’s a priceless way to serve your beneficiaries or cause.