Change the Recipe, Change the Results


When a nonprofit is first founded, its fundraising letters / emails / personal asks tend to have high response rates and high average gifts.   

But in my experience, the response rates and average gifts tend to go down as the organization grows. 

Here’s my theory to explain this…

The recipe for fundraising right after an organization is founded is remarkably simple and goes like this:

  • The founder talks about whatever “the situation” is that caused him/her to start the organization
  • They describe what needs to be done to help, and how it will help
  • They ask the donor to give a gift to fund what needs to be done

Works like crazy.

But as a nonprofit ages and expands, it develops its own programs, approach, and expertise.  It develops an organizational ego.

In a nutshell, this results in fundraising that talks more about the organization itself than it used to.  The recipe changes to:

  • They talk about the work they are already doing
  • They describe how they do that work
  • They ask the donor to give a gift to fund their ongoing work

This fundraising recipe does not raise as much money.  It lowers donors’ awareness about whatever “need” the organization exists to serve because “the situation” is rarely mentioned.  And it lowers response rates and average gifts because the fundraising is mainly focused on work that has already been completed – most of the compelling reason to give a gift today has disappeared.

I don’t enjoy this truth, but it’s still true: fundraising to individual donors that talks about “powerful work that’s already done” will cause less money to come in than talking about “powerful work that needs to be done now that the donor can help make happen.”

Organizations that stick to the original recipe will grow faster.

Individual donors tend to give because there’s work that needs to be done.  Not because the organization is already doing the work.

How to Take a Successful Email to the Next Level

Next level.

Say you’ve sent out an appeal and it was successful.  And you’re sold on the strategy of “sending it out again at the same time next year.”

It’s like you’ve discovered a new “tool” that works really well, and you’re wondering how to get the most out of it.

Let me tell you a story to tell you how we normally do it…

A decade ago we were serving an organization that helps mothers and children who are experiencing homelessness.

They didn’t have any fundraising planned for summer, and we didn’t want them to “go dark” for a couple of months.  So we asked them if they did anything for the children of their beneficiary families when it was time for them to go back to school.

Turns out the organization provided each child with a new outfit, new shoes, and a backpack filled with school supplies.  (This organization knew that kids who had been homeless had experienced more than enough trauma, and didn’t want the kids to feel like “the poor kid on the first day of school.”  We love them for this!)

The organization was low on budget, so direct mail wasn’t an option.  We put together an e-appeal that asked donors to provide an outfit and backpack for a child. 

It worked great.

And we worked under the assumption that if more people saw this offer, more people would give.  So here’s what we did in the subsequent years to turn a successful piece of fundraising into a full-blown campaign.

  • Year #2, we sent the email again and we did a direct mail letter with the same offer.  We raised even more.
  • Year #3, we sent the email and letter, and added a 3-email series on the last 3 days before the first day of school.  We raised even more.
  • Year #4 we did all of the above, plus updated their website to feature the campaign for the entire month of August.  We raised even more.
  • Year #5 we did all of the above, plus we asked a major donor to provide a match.  We raised even more.
  • Year #6 we did all of the above and used the campaign as a way to increase major donor giving over the summer.  We raised even more.

Today, this campaign is a pillar of the organization’s fundraising plan.  In addition to raising several buckets of money, it raises awareness about what happens to kids who experience homelessness.  It’s brought new donors into the organization.  It brought some donors deeper into the organization’s programs.

And it all started with one email that worked. 

So if you send out something that works, do two things:

  1. Notice what the campaign asked for.  In this case, it asked donors to provide a new outfit and backpack with school supplies for a child.
  2. Then ask yourself how you can get that same ask in front of even more people, even more times, at the same time of year.

After you go through this process a few times. you’ll have multiple proven campaigns with predictable, increasing revenue.  These campaigns become very real “assets” that reliably raise money year after year.

Send the Same Thing at the Same Time to Save Time


When you send out a fundraising letter or email that works great, I want you to do something: plan to send out the same message, in the same format, at the same time next year.

Think about how much time you could save!

And wouldn’t you love knowing that what you send next year is going to work great?

If you’re not already using this strategy, here are some examples of letters / emails / campaigns that nonprofits we serve are successfully repeating each year…

  • March “Send a kid to the museum for a day”
  • Late January “Monthly donor recruitment” campaign
  • July “Stop a girl from becoming a child bride”
  • Early August “Back to school”
  • Late October “Thanksgiving meals”
  • Early May “Send a kid to summer camp for a day”
  • Summer “Provide clean water for a family”
  • Early November “Christmas Newsletter”
  • Late October “Fall gift catalog”
  • Early March “Easter appeal”
  • September “Persecuted Church” campaign
  • Early June “Summer Book Drive”
  • Early May “Help a graduating student with disabilities get a job interview”

All of the above letters / emails / campaigns are reliable performers where the nonprofit can count on raising a bunch of money.

They all started when we sent a letter or email, noticed that it did particularly well, and we decided to “do it again next year.”

Specifically, we sent the same message (with the same “offer”), in the same format, at about the same time.  The writing and design was updated only as much as absolutely necessary. 

When you use this strategy, four powerful things happen:

  1. You do less work because it takes less time to “update last year’s letter / email / campaign” than it does to “create a new letter / email / campaign from scratch.”
  2. You have more energy for other projects because of the “lighter lift” required by mail and email fundraising.
  3. Over time, your annual plan fills up with proven winners, so your annual revenue becomes more predictable
  4. You start raising more money every year because you get better and better at knowing what makes each letter / email / campaign work well.

    1. For instance, say you’ve done a “Stop a girl from becoming a child bride” letter for three years in a row.  You notice that one of those three letters raised more than the other two.  You open the PDF of the one that worked best and use it as the “template” for the next “Stop a girl from becoming a child bride” letter.  You’ve learned from your experiments and you’ve leveled up!

So… look at the results of your fundraising pieces from last year.  Did you do anything that you can “do again” this year with minimal updating?

Or if you’ve been “repeating” letters, emails and campaigns for years, what did you learn from last year’s fundraising that you can use to make this year’s fundraising more effective?

‘That one really stuck out’


We created our first appeal for a client a couple of months ago.  It was a success, and here’s what one member of their team said as we talked about how the appeal performed:

“It really stuck out.  It was different.”

I thought, “Great!”

Because the best-performing fundraising sticks out from:

  • The other fundraising in a donor’s mailbox and inbox that day, and
  • From the organization’s own fundraising

Why you want your letter to stand out in your donor’s mailbox is obvious: your letter is in competition with everything else your donor receives that day.

But why you want to occasionally stand out from your own fundraising is more subtle. 

Here’s what can happen: when an organization sends out fundraising that always looks the same, donors begin to identify it as “fundraising” and don’t open it.  (This is the explanation we came up with at the agency I was working for 20 years ago when we noticed that organizations that used similar outer envelopes multiple times in a row tended to raise less and less money.)

Here’s a quick example: in the 80’s or 90’s an organization figured out they could use small brown paper lunch bags as envelopes.  They would put the appeal/reply card/reply envelope in the bag, seal the bag, stamp and address it, and send it out.  Those appeals raised far more money than usual. 

For a while.

Within a year or two, those packages started raising less and less money.  Pretty soon they started performing like appeals sent in a regular (and less expensive!) #10 envelope.

Why?  People figured it out.  They knew what it was.  They didn’t open the bags more than they opened anything else.  They lost interest.

All this tells us is that it’s good to stand out… and that sooner or later you’re going to need to change again.

This is why organizations will use a mix of different types of envelopes and colors over the years.  And will use different messages over the course of a year.  (This is just one of the reasons for the approach of Asking strongly in appeal letters, then Reporting back to donors in newsletters that look and sound different; the packages and messages you send to donors regularly look and sound different.)

You can and should create “fundraising assets” that you can use again and again.  For instance, you might send a “gift catalog” every October that you only tweak slightly from year to year.  But you shouldn’t send the same type of message, on the same type of letterhead, in the same type of envelope again and again and again.

Show me an organization whose mail all looks basically the same, with the same type of messaging, and I’ll show you an organization that’s leaving a lot of money on the table.


Band practice.

When you’re in a band, it’s much more enjoyable to walk onstage when you know how to put on a good show. 

But when your band performs its first shows, you don’t know yet how to put on a good show.  You need to perform a lot of shows before you get good, before you have that “earned confidence” when you walk out in front of a crowd.

It’s the same thing with your fundraising materials; it’s much more enjoyable to send out a letter when you know it’s a good appeal.

But when you send your first appeals, you don’t know yet how to write or design a good appeal.  You need to send a lot of appeals before you get good, before you have that earned confidence that “this appeal is going to raise a lot of money for us.”

Just like with the band, you have to practice before you get good. 

The incredible thing is that in fundraising, you don’t need confidence when you start!  Your audience is friendly to your fundraising.  Your donors care about the cause you’re working on, and they want to help!

It is on you to get started, though.

Time to get in touch with your printer…


Here’s a quick public service announcement: the sooner you get in touch with your printer about your fall mailings, the better.

A lot of mail is going to be sent:

  • In the couple of months before the election by both sides 
  • In the couple of months after the election by the losing side

So contact your printer now.  Tell them your drop date, your mail quantity, your paper needs.

When you start hearing stories about nonprofits not being about to send out their mailings on time this fall, your future self will thank you!



Interested in listening instead of reading? 

I’ve been a guest on a number of podcasts lately, and here are the top three if you’d like to take a listen…

Build Good with Mike Duerkson

This conversation was mostly about fundraising offers – what they are, how they make your fundraising more inclusive (and raise more!), and how to build one for your organization. 

Here’s a 3-minute clip that got a lot of attention.

Confessions with Jess and Cindy

Just released last week – such a fun conversation!  This was mostly about the business-side of The Better Fundraising Company.  Listen to this one if you’ve ever thought about being a consultant to nonprofits or starting a business in the nonprofit world. 

Nonprofit Nation with Julia Campbell

This episode is about “what to do when your fundraising results are flat” and we get tactical!  We cover:

  • The beliefs that prevent us from fundraising effectively
  • Why donor fatigue is a myth 
  • How to communicate to donors in the best way possible 
  • Why getting complaints is actually a GOOD thing – and how to reframe them

Happy listening!

Make Your Website Accessible

User-friendly interface.

I had the opportunity to work with an incredible fundraiser at a nonprofit I used to work at.  And one of the things he taught me (among many others) was that colors aren’t visible to everyone the same way.

He showed me how, on our website, the two colors used in our organization’s marketing were difficult for him to see.

We realized that our fundraising could reach so many more people who cared about our mission if we made a few adjustments.

Here are some beginning ideas to make your online content more accessible to your donors – especially to your donors with older eyes.

  • Use high-contrast text, and minimize reverse text where possible.  Try a contrast checker to see if the colors you’re using are easily readable and high-contrast.
  • Check to make sure your font is large enough and easily readable.  For online reading, a sans serif font works best.
  • Make your donation form simple and quick.
  • Use alternative text and photo captions that clearly summarize photos and what you want the donor to do.

These are just a few ways to get started.  I’m definitely not a web designer or accessibility expert, but I’ve learned that we can always be looking for ways to improve, educate our teams, and create a culture that prioritizes accessibility in our fundraising.

PS — Want to dig deeper?  Try putting your organization’s website into WAVE.  This tool will evaluate your website’s accessibility according to the Web Accessibility Guidelines.

The Core Four

Core four.

“We want to raise more than 1 million dollars each year from our individual donors.  What should we do?”

That, my friend, is a great question that more small nonprofits should be asking. 

We were curious, so we looked at our clients that had broken the “raise $1mm in a year from individual donors” barrier.

This post shares the four strategies that had the largest effect.  And how using all four strategies at the same time had a supercharging effect…

Optimized Events

They professionalized their events by having a tighter schedule, fewer people on stage, a tighter script, and left the “we have to convince people to give” thinking at home.

Perhaps most importantly, they changed their content strategy.  The first thing they did was to figure out what the ask would be for, and then designed the content of the event to make the ask as powerful as possible.

They raised more money at the event, and their donors had a better time.

Strategic Major Donor Systems

They installed a proven system to manage their major donors.

Major donors were identified and ranked, relationships were cultivated, and the right amount of time was spent on the right donors.

The systematic approach retained more major donors year over year, and lifted more major donors to higher levels of giving.

More Donor Communications

They increased the amount of fundraising sent to individual donors beyond what they previously believed was possible

They saw that they were not going to grow into a larger organization until they embraced one of the key behaviors of larger organizations: communicating more often.

And they started raising more money every year.

Segment Appropriate Messaging

They embraced the wisdom that different audiences should be communicated to differently.  So they spoke differently to a Foundation, and differently in an email to individual donors, and differently to a long time major donor.

This caused consternation among staff, but the organizations started raising more money.

The Flywheel

Those four strategies work together like the proverbial “flywheel” to accelerate growth…

  • Because the event is optimized, more people come back the next year, plus more people invite their friends.  So there are more people at the event, and they tend to give more because the event is well constructed…
  • The major donors are identified, and then systematically cultivated, so the organization has a growing major donor file…
  • Because segment-appropriate messaging is used, each piece of fundraising raises more money because it’s relevant to that audience…
  • Because there are more donor communications, the organization raises more and retains more donors…
  • This leads to more donors going to the event… and the circle continues.

To show you what it looks like when it all comes together, here’s the event performance for an organization that we began serving in 2016:

Gross revenue chart.

Impressive, eh?

Virtuous Circle

Those are the “Core Four” strategies that, working together, create a self-reinforcing virtuous circle that helps organizations experience crazy growth.

Which of the Core Four could your organization improve at? If you’d like help, send an email to  Or go here to see how we help organizations like yours!