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!

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!