Your Fundraising Communications Should Create a Virtuous Circle

virtous circle

Of all the graphics we’ve created, this one gets requested most.

Our “Virtuous Circle” graphic was created to make it easy to see how the simplest building blocks of fundraising work together to create a powerful system

But we’ve never fully explained it, step-by-step, in writing. 

So buckle up.  And know that all of this all stems from one of our core principles: doing fundraising in a way that serves donors is your surest way to raising more money

A “Virtuous Circle” is…

A “virtuous circle” is a chain of positive events that reinforces itself.  A positive thing happens, which leads to another positive thing, which reinforces the system and strengthens it over time.   

Some fundraising programs are virtuous circles – they’re successful at getting donors to give, then they reward those donors, then those donors give again, etc.  These systems raise more money both in the short term and in the long run. 

But most fundraising programs aren’t constructed to be rewarding for donors.  They’re constructed to be rewarding to the nonprofit itself (organization-centric content that makes internal audiences feel great) and easy to execute (not doing the hard work of designing for donors, writing to their level, doing only one thing with each piece of communication, etc.).

So rather than a system of positive events that reinforce each other, the system loses revenue and leaks more donors than it should.

Let’s look at how you can ensure that your fundraising program is a virtuous circle – and not a vicious circle.


The Virtuous Circle begins at the top with Ask because most fundraising relationships begin with an ask.

An effective Ask is also the beginning of serving your donors well.  A good Ask serves donors by simplifying complex issues and making it easy for donors to make a meaningful difference. 

After your donor gives a gift, she feels great.  She gets that hit of dopamine that makes her feel warm and connected.  She’s just affirmed to herself that she’s the type of person who helps people in need, and that she supports causes that are important. 

It’s an incredibly powerful moment.

But it often starts to go sideways immediately because…

A Gift is Different than a Purchase

When your donor makes a gift, she feels great that she gave it.  But she doesn’t know whether her gift will have an impact… or not.

This is where it’s vital for nonprofits to know that a charitable gift is different than a purchase of goods or services.

Why?  When you make a purchase, you receive a good or service in return.  You then judge whether your purchase was a good idea – or not.  Was the meal worth it?  Was the laptop a good purchase?  Was the jacket made well, or did it fall apart after a year?

But when you give a charitable gift, you don’t receive a good or service in return.  So you don’t have any evidence that your gift made an impact… or not. 

But!  Your donor does receive one thing in return: she receives your donor communications. 

Therefore, one of the core jobs of your donor communications is to show and tell your donor that her gift to your organization made an impact.  Not to convince her that your organization is effective, not to convince her that your organization does lots of good, but to convince her that her gift made a difference.

So she’s given you a gift.  What should you do?


You do what your mom or grandmother taught you: you thank her.

You can read about how to Thank your donors effectively here and here.

But Thanking is only the beginning of the process.  Think of it this way: most donors are “buying” two things with their gift: the feeling they get when they give the gift, and that their gift makes a difference

Even when you’ve Thanked a donor, she still doesn’t know whether her gift made a difference or not.  She doesn’t yet know whether her gift to your organization was a good decision.

So you need to…


Reporting is how your donor sees, reads and feels that her gift made a difference.

Very few organizations Report back to donors well.  Many organizations don’t realize they should do it.  Some organizations want to do it, but instead of Reporting they make organization-centric communications that do more bragging than they do Reporting.

And because many donors never find out whether their gift made a difference… many of them never donate again.   

Don’t you feel like your donors deserve to be Reported to?  Doesn’t it feel like Reporting is a good way to serve your donors?

And there’s something in it for you, too.  If you report powerfully to your donors, you’ll retain more of your donors year over year. 

The Benefits

You Asked your donor to make a gift.  You Thanked her well so that she feels appreciated.  You’ve Reported, so she’s seen and felt that her gift made a difference.

You’ve “closed the circle,” and a host of good things are about to happen to your organization:

  • Your donors will trust you more because you Reported to them (when most of the organizations they donate to didn’t Report).
  • Because your donors trust you more, they’re more likely to give to your next appeal.  So your future appeals raise more money.
  • Because your donors give more often, you’re more likely to keep them for longer.
  • Because you keep your donors for longer, you raise more money in the long term.

Implementing the Virtuous Circle

Implementation looks like this:

  • For Major Donors you have a relationship with, you take each donor linearly through the circle.  You Ask them.  When they give, you Thank them.  You Report back to them.  Only after Reporting do you Ask them for another gift.  Of course there are occasional exceptions, but the idea is to take each donor through the steps, in order.
  • For Mass Donors, you need an ongoing stream of communications throughout the year that is a mix of Asks (appeals, e-appeals) and Reports (newsletters).  Of course, Thank every donor who gives a gift.  You need multiple Asks and Reports spread throughout the year because a) donors don’t open every piece of mail or email you send them, so you don’t know what they’ve seen, and b) it’s not cost effective to take each donor through the steps in order like it is with Major Donors.  Think of it this way: a stream of several appeals and newsletters throughout the year isn’t perfect for anybody, but based on all our testing, we know it’s what’s best for your mass donors as a group.


If you’ve taken your donors through the Virtuous Circle, you can Repeat the circle.  You’ve earned the right to Ask your donor again.

And you’re going to raise more money. 

Because the system most organizations are putting their donors through is either “Ask, Thank, Ask” or “Ask, Thank, Brag.”    

But with the Virtuous Circle of Ask, Thank, Report, your organization will have a communications program that treats donors the way they should be treated – and this program raises more money.

This Maya Angelou quote sums it up best:

  • I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Because your donors don’t get every piece of communication you send. 

They don’t remember (or even read) most of the words that you say.

But if your donors can feel that your organization is about more than just their donation – that your organization will go the extra mile to make sure they know their gift made a difference – that’s when the magic happens.  It’s when your donors start to feel like maybe your organization exists to help them be great, instead of being just another charity that wants their money. 

The Virtuous Circle makes donors feel valued and important by centering your communication strategy and program around your donors and their needs.  And when you serve your donors’ needs, you tend to raise more money. 

The Easy Way to Raise More Money and Keep Your Donors


Really simple – but powerful – idea for your nonprofit…

If you communicate to your donors more through the pandemic, you’ll be more likely to retain your donors.

Your communications have to be relevant, of course. They can’t be all about your feelings about the pandemic and downturn. They can’t be about what the pandemic is doing to your staff or your partners.

Your communications need to be about your cause or beneficiaries. And they need to be about your donors.

Here’s The Big Idea

You know those “big” nonprofits who send out 14 pieces of direct mail and 75 emails a year?

They don’t send so many pieces of fundraising because they’re big organizations.

They became big nonprofits because they send out 14 pieces of direct mail and 75 emails a year.

Wait, What?!?

Here’s what happens:

  • Your organization sends out a couple more fundraising appeals and emails than normal
  • You pay attention to results, and your organization learns more about what works and doesn’t work for your fundraising
  • Your organization gets more efficient at creating each piece of fundraising
  • Soon each piece raises more money and costs less to make
  • Now your organization is raising more, doing more good, and getting bigger

You get bigger because you start mailing more and learning more.

It’s All About Reps

The way to get better at direct response fundraising (your appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, etc.) is to practice.

You need more reps.

More practice + pay attention to results = learn more about what works

Learn more about what works + more practice = more money

So, during the incredible fundraising opportunity we’re all living through, figure out how to get more practice.

With time not spent on other things, could you send out two more e-appeals this month? (And don’t worry about “donor fatigue,” instead worry about being relevant.)

With time not spent on other things, could you get a couple powerful e-reports out? (You know, so your donors know that their gift to your organization makes a difference, so that they are more likely to give you a gift the next time you ask?)

Get more reps in. Pay attention to results. If the myth of donor fatigue is stopping you, throw that idea out the window, it’s useless.


Get better.

Do more good.

Pandemic Fundraising: What to Expect and How to Succeed in the Months Ahead


Every once in a while, we give you a free resource to help you raise more money.

It seems like a good time for that, doesn’t it? Because there’s a LOT of fear in the fundraising world.

So this free resource gives you what you need to guide your organization through the next few months – because we want your organization to be healthy after the pandemic!

Download here for free.

First, you’ll get a graphic that shows what will happen to your fundraising over the next few months. (It’s not possible to know the exact timeframe, but it’s absolutely possible to know the shape & pattern that donor behavior will follow.)

Second, you’ll get a document that shares – based on experience – how to communicate and fundraise your way through this.

The pandemic and economic downturn are doing grave harm to a lot of organizations. But you can minimize the impact and even come out ahead on the other side.

Some organizations are going to have incredible years – even organizations not overtly connected to the pandemic.

It all depends on the choices you make in the coming hours, days, and weeks. It’s up to each organization – to your organization – on how to respond.  

Please download this guide. It has our best experience and advice, taken from past crises and downturns, to help your organization succeed.

Hindsight IN 2020


“They say a wise man learns from others’ mistakes. I learn from others’ successes, why pay attention to the mistakes?”
~Behdad Sami

Thousands of smart fundraisers have gone before you. The best advice we can give small-to-medium-sized nonprofits for 2020 is to find out what successful fundraisers have done in the past and apply it to your organization’s fundraising.

If You See a Tactic a Lot, It’s Probably Working

One thing to pay attention to: if you see a tactic a lot from professionally run organizations, the results from it are probably great.

For instance, here’s a list of things we see (and use) all the time because they work great. Many organizations don’t like these tactics, but they work great:

  •  Telemarketing
  • Printed gift receipts with reply cards and reply envelopes
  • Appeals that boldly share stories of Need
  • Direct mail
  • Letters and emails that are highly repetitive
  • Fundraising messaging that’s so simple it makes expert internal stakeholders uncomfortable
  • Having detailed plans and revenue goals for Major Gifts Officers, with high accountability
    We learned each of these (and many more) from the successes of fundraisers who have gone before us.

They taught them to us because, out of all the available options, they worked the best.

So rather than reinventing the wheel, always look first to hindsight.

And of course, hindsight shouldn’t be the only place you look. But it’s the only proven resource that small-to-medium-sized nonprofits have, because testing and innovating are expensive.

Two Powerful Things

Here are two powerful things that FAR too few organizations (particularly Boards and leadership) do:

  1. Take time to ask the question, “For organizations at our stage, who has been successful at this before, and how did they do it?”
  2. Then trust the results of successful fundraising done before, more than trusting what internal stakeholders think will work, or what they like or don’t like.

Because in our experience, the successes of others won’t look like what you’re doing now.

At first blush, you’ll probably think it won’t work for your donors.

You probably won’t even like it.

But it will likely work.

So go to and browse the results. Pay attention to the results-based teaching we do on this blog. Follow people who have a ton of direct response fundraising experience – people like Lisa Sargent, Jeff Brooks, Tom Ahern, Agents of Good, Mark Phillips of Bluefrog, and Simon Scrivener.

If you have the budget and time to innovate, that’s great! Please do it and share!

And if you’re a cash-strapped smaller nonprofit, learn from the past successes that the experts above are constantly sharing!

Are You Learning from Your Experiments?


I tweeted this out last month, and it got a lot of love (well, for me anyway):

You ran a bunch of fundraising experiments in 2019 – have you learned everything you can learn from them?

And the appeals, e-appeals, and newsletters you sent out are not the only experiments you ran. Your whole fundraising program is an experiment. Your major donor program is an experiment. Your direct response program is an experiment.

Here are some example questions, and what they attempt to measure:

  1. What percentage of your donors did you retain in 2019 versus previous years? This will help you know, overall, how well your fundraising program performed last year.
  2. What percentage of your major donors did you retain in 2019 versus previous years? This will tell you how good your program is at retaining major donors – you know, your most important group of donors. Want to really get into the data? Measure the amount of major donor revenue you retained. That will show you if you’re retaining your highest value donors (which is best). Or if you’re just replacing lost revenue with new revenue each year. (H/T to Veritus Group for popularizing this idea.)
  3. Of your appeal letters, which one had the highest net revenue? Which one had the highest response rate? These will help you answer which appeals you should ‘repeat’ and do again this year – and which ones you should not do again this year.
  4. For each mailing, what’s your response rate by recency? For instance, if you send your appeals to all donors who have given a gift in the last 24 months, what’s the response rate and net revenue from the 18-24-month group? That will tell you whether you should continue to mail to those donors.

With the answers to questions like these, you can make the types of changes that smart organizations use to raise more money every year.

And if you make all the needed changes to the best of your ability, it’s like compound interest. 1 + 1 + 1 = 5. That’s where organizations see the big growth.

And it’s basically free money! It’s just measuring experiments that you’ve already run and using data to make your 2020 fundraising decisions.

Instead of “Hindsight is 2020,” I propose “Use hindsight in 2020!”

Why does Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat work?

Ask Thank Report Repeat.

I remember receiving an email from a woman I met at a conference where I spoke. She ended her email to me with this comment:

“Because of your knowledge, I’ve been kickin’ a** in fundraising, and it 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’s a knowledge issue. Almost anyone can learn the fundraising fundamentals I teach. The key is that 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 and their stewardship decisions, and it gives them the credit for making the world a better place because of their donation.
  3. You’ll 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 an excellent thing for most nonprofits.

As you run fast into the year ahead, I encourage you to consider learning more about Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat. Embracing it will help you leverage the fundraising power behind this simple, donor-centered communication rhythm.

Want to know more? Get Jim’s recorded webinar and start learning how you can raise more money and steward important donor relationships during this crucial fundraising season.

To help you with your major donor fundraising this year-end, we’re running a series of Jim Shapiro’s most helpful posts.

We hope it provides you with some tips and tactics that skyrocket your major donor revenue during this important fundraising season.

Fundraising Assets > Fundraising Art Projects


There’s a question you should ask about every piece of fundraising communication your organization makes:

“How and when, with as little work as possible, could we use this again?”

That’s what the savvy fundraising organizations are doing. For instance:

  • This year’s Fiscal Year End letter looks and reads almost exactly the same as last year’s Fiscal Year End letter.
  • This year’s event script follows the exact same flow and timing as last year’s event script.
  • This year’s Back to School e-appeal uses the exact same offer and copy as last year, only the story has been updated.

When you start doing this, you and your organization benefit.

You benefit because you can get things done faster. It’s a LOT easier to update last year’s successful appeal than it is to make a whole new one.

Your organization benefits because you tend to raise more money this way. Why? Because you start paying really close attention to what works and what doesn’t. And you end up doing more of what works. Which raises you more money.

True Story

We work with several organizations that mail their donors about 10 appeals per year.

On average, 7 of the 10 appeals are updated versions of the same mailing sent the year before. Same for the email versions of those impacts.

Think about how much time that saves them!

There’s another benefit – it makes their income much more predictable. For instance, say last year’s successful February appeal raised $50k. If you mail the same thing again next February, you can count on raising about $50k or more. But if you create a whole new piece from scratch, you might raise $50k, you might raise $25k. Which scenario would you prefer?

For Comparison…

Most organizations approach each piece of fundraising as an Art Project:

  1. They assume this year’s letter needs to be different than last year.
  2. They assume they need to say things differently than they’ve been said before.
  3. If something worked last year (or last month!) it’s assumed that it won’t work again.

Based on those assumptions, they create something new and different each time.

Which is unfortunate because all of those assumptions are incorrect.

Those assumptions lead to what we call “art projects” – unique pieces of fundraising that take more work to create and tend not to repeat the successes of the past.

At a nonprofit, where time and money are often scarce, why would you choose to take that approach?

So, What Assets Do You Already Have?

That’s a question you should ask yourself immediately. Especially since we’re entering the busy fundraising season!

As you think about your fall – what fundraising assets do you have from this spring, from last year, or from three years ago that you could simply update and use?

Because if that piece of fundraising worked, you know your donors liked it.

And I have 26 years of experience that says if your donors liked something once, they’ll like it again.

It will save you time.

And I promise – no donor is going to contact you and say, “Hey! Wait a minute. This letter/email is just like that one you sent 7 months ago!”

It just doesn’t happen.

So go find an asset you’ve created. Use it this fall to save yourself some time. and raise a bunch of money.

And for any fundraising you create in the future, always ask yourself how and when it can be used again.

When to Attempt to Innovate

When to Attempt to Innovate

I wrote recently about how the vast majority of small nonprofits should not spend time and money attempting to innovate.

But there are times when attempting to innovate is the right thing to do:

You should attempt to innovate after you have stabilized your fundraising, optimized your fundraising, and expanded your fundraising.

Stabilize, Optimize, Expand, Innovate

Most small- to medium-sized nonprofits need to stabilize their fundraising.

That means getting your systems locked in so you know exactly what to do, when to start, how long it takes, and you get it done on time. (Most small nonprofits have work to do on this stage, in my experience.)

Then they need to optimize their fundraising.

That’s making each appeal or e-appeal work as well as possible. That’s using segmentation and talking to different groups of people with different messaging. That’s analyzing the results of each fundraising campaign and making the next one better.

Then organizations need to expand their fundraising. That’s trying a new channel, like radio or Facebook. Or beginning a scalable donor acquisition program. Or sending 6 appeals instead of 4.

Then, and only then in my opinion, should organizations be trying to innovate.

The three things above are hard. But our industry knows how to do them.

Don’t Skip a Stage!

Too many nonprofits skip over the steps above.

They skip things that we know will work to raise them more money. Instead, they try things that might work.

They waste tons of time and money. And they pay the opportunity cost of the money they could have raised – and the donor relationships they could have made deeper.

Because remember, innovation doesn’t always work. In fact it rarely works.

(Side note: this is why I’ve been saying “attempting to innovate.” Because when organizations attempt to innovate, they often come up with a) things other organizations have tried before that didn’t work, and b) new strategies and/or tactics that don’t work.)

To all you small nonprofits out there: let the big organizations, who have optimized their fundraising, spend the money to innovate. There will be some successes and some failures.

Then copy their successes.

The Real Trick

The real trick is knowing when to innovate.

In my experience, too many smaller nonprofits like the idea of innovating – of working on something exciting – more than they like the hard work of following best practices.

So they attempt to innovate when they should be following surer paths to success.

If a nonprofit follows best practices, it will raise more money.
If a nonprofit tries to innovate, it might raise more money.

And you want to know what’s really exciting? Raising more money with less work. That’s what happens when you follow best practices!

Why attempting to innovate is rarely the smart choice

Why attempting to innovate is rarely the smart choice

The vast majority of nonprofits should not spend time and money attempting to innovate.

Let’s keep this super brief.

The fastest, cheapest way to raise more money is almost always to follow fundraising best practices.

Especially when most small nonprofits can see growth of 15% to 20% per year when they start following best practices.

“But wait,” I can already hear people thinking, “we’re small, we have to innovate. And regular fundraising is boring.”

Please hear me out: that line of thinking is what keeps many small nonprofits small.

First of all, you do not have to innovate. Your organization was started to do one thing: make an impact for a cause or group of people who need help. Not to make an impact AND create innovative fundraising.

Having the impact your organization was started for and creating innovative fundraising are two completely different things that require completely different skillsets. It’s highly unlikely that a small nonprofit will be good at both.

Attempting to Innovate is a Bet

Organizations that attempt to innovate are betting time and money that the results will be better than the results they could get from best practices.

Sometimes you win. Most of the time you lose. Best practices are best practices for a reason: they are proven.

In my experience, attempting to innovate is a bad bet for most small nonprofits.

Let the “big guys” innovate. Let the big guys absorb the costs of all the testing and failures that lead to breakthroughs. Small nonprofits should be following the known paths to success.

Try Proven Tactics that are New to You

Most small nonprofits confuse “trying new things” with “attempting to innovate.”

Should small nonprofits should try new things? Of course.

For instance, you could try to acquire new donors using radio. That might be new for your organization, but it isn’t innovation. It’s a proven tactic. There are known Cost Per New Donor amounts (around $100). There are known ROIs (around 1.1 to 1.3). There are known ways to make it succeed (have a great offer, tell stories, long form is more effective than short form).

The thing I want smaller nonprofits to know is that the Fundraisers Who Came Before You have tried almost everything. If you look around, they’ve figured out what tends to work well and what doesn’t. Lean into that set of knowledge!

And here’s the amazing thing; those Fundraisers Who Came Before You will share their knowledge! They’ll tell you what they did and how they did it. They’ll share the results. You can apply what they learned to your organization, to grow faster.

You just have to take the initiative.

The Good News for Small Nonprofits

There are things you don’t have to do. Things you can take off your plate.

And one of them is attempting to innovate.

There’s an incredible body of knowledge that’s been built up over the last 70 years for how to raise money effectively. Lean into that body of knowledge – it’s what I do every day.

Every once in a great while, attempting to innovate is the right course. It’s fun (and usually expensive).

But the majority of the time there are huge gains to be made not from attempting to innovate, but from taking what’s worked for other organizations and applying it to your organization.

You’ll save yourself a lot of time and heartache. And you’ll do more good faster.

PS — Get some of our best practices from our free e-book, “Asks that Make Your Donors Take Action.”