Three Questions to Get the Best Newsletter Stories

Questions and stories.

Want to write newsletter stories that show your donors the incredible impact they have had on your beneficiaries?

It’s easy, and I’m going to show you how.  But first you need to know one thing…

Most donors give because they want to make change.  They want the world to be noticeably different and better because of their gift. 

The best way to show donors the change that their gift made is to clearly demonstrate what the beneficiary’s life was like before and after the donor’s gift (and your organization) helped them.

Here are three questions you can ask a beneficiary that will give you everything you need to write a story that will make your donors feel amazing:

  1. What was your life like before <your organization/program/staff> helped you?
  2. What is your life like now because of the help you received?
  3. If you could say anything to thank donors who gave to support <your organization>, what would you tell them?

Ask these three questions and you’ll have a story that shows the change the donor’s gift help make.

By telling stories like this when you “report back” to your donors, you’ll build trust because your donors will see that their gifts cause change.  And because of that, they’ll be more likely to say “yes” the next time you ask for support in an appeal.

The Danger of Focusing on One Metric

Secret meeting.

A friend who’s a Fundraiser recently shared a story with me.  It was about a nonprofit who received a pitch from a consultant that he would increase their average gift size.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  What nonprofit wouldn’t want all of their donors giving more?

So the nonprofit hired the consultant.  And their average gift size went up! 

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Too bad what also happened is that their response rates went down.  And their retention rates went down.  So despite the increase in average gift, the organization is raising less total money than they used to be.  And they have fewer donors.

That doesn’t sound great.

This is a great illustration of the danger of focusing too much on one fundraising metric.  All the main metrics are important, but none of them exist in a vacuum.

It’s relatively easy to increase any one metric.  Need higher response rates to your direct mail?  Include a freemium!  (Your response rate will go up… but your package now costs more.)  Want to increase the ROI on your next campaign?  Don’t send direct mail, only send email!  (Your ROI will go up because you’ve lowered costs by so much, but you’ll raise less money overall.)

The trick is understanding the whole system and the tradeoffs made with every tactic.

Any time someone wants to optimize one metric, always be wary.  Ask what the consequences will be to the other metrics.

And always remember: the only metric you can use to pay for programs is Net Revenue.

How to Increase Your Email Open Rate by 14%

Email Open Rates.

A client of ours started sending monthly “e-stories” last November. And since November, their average email open rate has increased from 24% to 38%.

Most organizations would sacrifice a Board member for a 14% increase in open rates!

So you might ask, “What’s an e-story?”

An e-story is a low-fi, simply-formatted email from your E.D. to your donors. It tells one “before and after” story.

Here’s the outline:

  1. Warm, personal greeting
  2. Directly tell the donor that you are going to tell them a story that’s a good example of how their gift made a difference
  3. Tell a “before and after” story from your organization’s work
  4. Reaffirm to the donor that they helped make that ‘before and after’ happen
  5. Let the donor know that they can give again if they’d like to
  6. Thank the donor for their generosity

You want your e-stories to look like they came from your E.D.’s personal email. No formatting, no header image, no photo, no links to social, you get it.

It should feel personal.

Why E-stories?

Most “reporting” to donors via email answers questions that nobody is asking.

Typical “e-news” or “e-newsletters” have abysmal open rates. No one was reading them.

So how can organizations fulfill the need to “report back on a donor’s gift” via email?

If they aren’t reading the e-newsletters, that means e-newsletters aren’t relevant for most donors.

So we asked ourselves, “What would be relevant to most donors?”

Telling and showing the donor that their gift made a difference.

The Results

Your e-stories will raise more money than your e-newsletter.

Your e-stories will have higher open rates than your e-newsletter.

Your e-stories will cause more engagement than your e-newsletter (you’ll know this because of the replies and feedback you’ll receive).

Some organizations have been able to cease their e-newsletter all together. (And there was much rejoicing!)


It all comes down to relevance. The organization I mentioned found that e-stories contained information that was relevant to their donors. (After all, donors want to know what their gift did more than they want to know what your organization is up to.)

When the content of the email was more relevant, more people opened the emails. And now, because their donors are more likely to find relevant content in their emails, their donors open all of their emails at a higher rate.

You can guess what’s going to happen next:

More relevant emails → higher open rates

Higher open rates → more people reading their fundraising

More people reading their fundraising → more people giving

More people giving → more mission work done!

Go look at your organization’s email communications. Are you reporting in a powerful, relevant way? If not, add a few e-stories. You’ll be glad you did!

Note: if you want me to walk you through creating an e-story (or donor reporting letter) for your organization, there’s inexpensive training at Work Less Raise More.

Attention Deficit

Grab attention.

When you’re starting out, you don’t have anyone’s attention.

That’s true whether you’re starting a nonprofit, starting a food truck, or starting a political career.

But when you’re starting a business or a YouTube channel or an advocacy campaign, you work hard to get people’s attention.  Those folks wave their arms around.  They say edgy things.

One of their driving principles is ”Without anyone’s attention, this venture will not succeed.”’  So they make a ruckus.

Why don’t more nonprofits make a ruckus like that?  Why don’t more nonprofits say and do edgy things?

I think it’s because so many of us are nice.  We want to be warm to people.  We don’t want to make people uncomfortable.  We want to convince people of our competency. 

One of our driving principles is ”We want the power of our work to inspire people to give.”  And that’s not even a principle – it’s just a desire.

But can’t we remain “nice” while making it a priority to earn more attention for our cause

And as nonprofits, don’t we have the ultimate motivating reason to generate more attention?  We know that that the more attention we earn, the more donors we’ll acquire, and the more of our mission we’ll accomplish.

The standard nonprofit toolkit does not have “generate a ton of attention” in it.

But shouldn’t it?

And as you look at your plan for this year, are you intentionally making at least one concerted effort to get more people to pay attention to what’s going on with your cause? 

10 Fundraising Tactics You Should Use This Fall

Want to amp up your fall fundraising? We recommend these ten tactics to all our clients because they’ve been proven to work again and again and again:

  1. Report to your donors this fall — show them what their previous gift accomplished! Your donors are less likely to give you to at year-end if they haven’t heard lately what their gifts accomplish. We often produce an October Newsletter for our clients and work hard to highlight amazing stories made possible by the donor’s gift.
  2. Reporting is especially important for Major Donors. Make absolutely certain each major donor reads or hears a story of impact each fall.
  3. Focus on your donors more than on your organization. In all your communications, emphasize the donor’s role (“You helped make this happen!”) more than your organization’s role (“We helped 347 people this year…”)
  4. Make your communications to Major Donors stand out. When sending them an appeal letter, use a nicer envelope and hand write the address. When sending them a newsletter, put it in a 9×12 envelope and don’t fold the newsletter. Trust us; it’s worth spending the extra time and money to ensure your major donors pay attention to your communications!
  5. Communicate more than you think. If you only mail your donors a couple times, mail them at least one more time. For smaller organizations who mostly use email for fundraising, please mail your donors at least twice. We recommend most organizations mail their donors at least 4 times from September through December.
  6. During December, review your list of major donors. For all majors who have not yet given a gift this year, ask them!
  7. Have a campaign for Giving Tuesday, not just one email. Email your list on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Pro Tip: having a match for giving Tuesday really increases results. So many nonprofits are asking for gifts that day — having gift-doubling matching funds really helps your organization stand out.
  8. After giving Tuesday, change the first/main image on your website to a simple call-to-action to give a gift before the end of the year. Keep that as the main message on your homepage until January 1.
  9. During year-end, mail another appeal letter. Most organizations only mail one letter, but they should mail two. Mail the first letter the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and mail the second letter around December 11th. The second letter will raise about 1/3 the amount your first letter raises, and it won’t reduce the effectiveness of your first letter.
  10. Send 3 emails the last 4 days of the year. Everyone’s inbox is crowded – make sure they see an email from you when they are so likely to give a gift!

Awareness of the Problem > Awareness of the Work


The previous post showed how fundraisers can harness awareness and tension to raise more money.

There’s a key thing to note, and it’s worth taking a whole post to say it well…

You want awareness of the problem your organization exists to solve more than awareness of your organization’s work to solve the problem.

When a nonprofit’s fundraising creates awareness of the problem they are working on, recipients of the fundraising experience tension and are compelled to action.

Note: if causing your donors to experience tension doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, remember that tension is the source of almost all actions taken by humans:

  • If I’m having health problems because of what I eat, I experience tension with what I eat, and I take an action to eat healthier.
  • If I’m wanting a new TV, I experience tension with my current TV, and I take an action to buy a new TV.
  • If I see a family who is losing their apartment because they are caring for a daughter who is in the hospital for several months, I experience tension with that situation, and I send in a gift to help them keep their apartment.

It’s all the same thing.  This type of tension is your friend in fundraising.

So, when a nonprofit creates awareness of the problem that the organization works on, donors experience tension with that situation, and send in a gift to help solve the problem through the nonprofit.

But when a nonprofit creates awareness of the work the organization is already doing on the problem… where’s the tension?

Why would people feel tension?  It sounds like the organization has everything taken care of.  They are helping so many people!  That’s so great!

In your fundraising, make sure you’re raising the right kind of awareness.  If a nonprofit is always and only telling stories about people who have already been helped… you’re raising the less helpful kind of awareness, so you’re raising less money than you could be.

In our experience, the organizations that raise the most money and retain more of their donors have about a 2:1 ratio – they “raise awareness of the problem their organization is working on” about twice as often as they “raise awareness about the work their organization is doing.”

Free Resource: The GoodNewsletter


OK, it’s time for some good news. (This month we had a loooooong series of posts about complaints. I’m sorry? You’re welcome?)

There’s a free daily email called “GoodNewsletter” that I encourage you to subscribe to.

It has nothing to do with fundraising – it’s a daily email with a couple of stories of good things that have happened in the world.

It’s nice to have a bit of good news in my inbox every morning. Sign up here if you’re interested.

It’s a great reminder that progress is being made.

On a related note, I think the highest form of fundraising program shows donors both the needs for action and progress that’s been made (the good news). It sends out pieces of fundraising that focus on the needs and ask donors to help. It sends out pieces of fundraising that focus on the progress that was made and thanks donors. (This is why there’s both an “Ask” and a “Report” in fundraising’s Virtuous Circle.)

Because seeing only one side has negative consequences. Seeing only good news leads donors to think that the problem your organization works on isn’t particularly big or harmful.* Sounds like things are going great and no help is needed today! And seeing only bad news leads donors to think that the problem is unsolvable. Sounds like things will never get better.

So, share both.

If your organization shares both the needs and the progress, you’ll create donors who both understand the need for action now and know that their gifts (and your organization) have made a difference.

Those are the kind of donors you want. And you can create them with the right mix of messages.

* This does not apply to some organizations where “bad news” of problem they work on personally affects the donor. In other words, the donor doesn’t need to hear the “bad news” from the organization because they are living it. This happens with causes like Cancer – when a loved one has it, you never forget what it was like. Or with the environment – when you live near a place that’s been damaged, you’re constantly reminded of it. I’m convinced that’s why some organizations don’t need to share any bad news in their fundraising, yet they still succeed. And I’m convinced that if you’re at the type of organization whose “bad news” doesn’t affect any of your donors, you should share the “bad news” with them if you’d like to raise more.

The Harmful Big Assumption


When a nonprofit is discussing a complaint that’s come in, someone invariably says…

“…and if this person complained, there must be a lot of other donors who feel the same way but didn’t send anything in.

This is a big assumption. And it’s made out of fear.

It’s a completely understandable assumption. It’s the same assumption I made at the beginning of my career.

I think people naturally assume that a complainer speaks for more people than themselves because fundraising can be awkward. Fundraising makes us feel vulnerable. Many people just plain don’t like it.

But if we’re going to make the assumption that every complaint indicates that there must be a lot of other donors who feel the same way but didn’t send anything in, I counsel organizations to make another similar assumption: that every gift indicates that there must be a lot of other donors who feel the same way but didn’t send anything in.

After all, it’s hard to argue that only one of those assumptions is true, no?

Put it this way: if you argue that each complainer speaks for other people, you also have to argue that each giver speaks for other people.

Say a complainer “speaks for” 5 people who didn’t send a complaint in. And a giver “speaks for” 5 people who didn’t send in a gift.

If you received 2 complaints, that’s 10 people who had a complaint but didn’t send it in. If you received 50 gifts, that’s 250 people who considered making a gift but didn’t send one in.

So, what’s best for the organization: making changes to the fundraising so that the 10 donors avoid thinking about making a complaint, or making changes to the fundraising so that the 250 people who were thinking about making a gift go ahead and make a gift?

Seems obvious, right?

What’s more, there are multiple proven tactics to help people who are looking at your fundraising to go ahead and make the gift:

  • Custom reply devices on each mailing and custom landing pages for each email
  • Custom gift ask amounts for each donor
  • Ensuring your online content echoes and reinforces your offline content, so that more donors will see the same message multiple times, which increases the likelihood of them giving a gift.

Now we’re in the realm of proven tactics instead of worry.

Big Picture

Complaints are going to happen to any growing organization that’s reliant on individual donors.

When a complaint comes in, don’t let a reasonable-but-fear-based assumption harm your fundraising efforts. Don’t focus on the negative.

Instead, choose to have an abundance mindset. Move from worry to making proven improvements.

The whole goal of this series of blog posts on complaints has been to help organizations get used to complaints, because complaints are a natural part of growth, and set up a system to handle complaints with the appropriate amount of energy.

When you do this, you’ll spend less time and energy on complaints. And you can spend that time doing concrete things that will help your organization raise more money in the future.

If you’re going to make an assumption about donor behavior, also look to see if the opposite assumption is true.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal
  4. Natural, But Not Productive
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption (this post)
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints

Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint

Receive complaint.

Here’s a handy outline for how to handle a complaint in person or on the phone.

You’re welcome to modify the outline as needed for your organization – there isn’t any magic in any one particular step. But there is magic in the overall approach, which I’ll describe below.

This approach assumes that the person complaining is reacting to the content or strategy of your fundraising, as opposed to an error the organization made, like mailing a donor who has asked not to be mailed, or calling a donor by the wrong name, etc.

Here’s the outline:

  • Thank the person for getting in touch.
  • Ask them to tell you what’s bothering them.
  • When they are finished, ask, “Is there anything else?”
  • Thank them for reading and responding to your fundraising.
  • Tell them that you appreciate them because most people a) don’t pay as close attention as they do, and b) don’t get in touch when they have a problem.
  • Tell them that you’re sorry they don’t like the [INSERT REASON FOR COMPLAINT], but that your organization a) does this because it causes the most engagement with donors, which b) causes the most gifts to come in, so that c) your organization can help your beneficiaries or cause as much as possible.
  • Tell them that your organization realizes that not every donor is going to like every piece of fundraising, that you wish that weren’t the case, but “the occasional staff or donor not liking the occasional piece of fundraising” is a small price to pay in order to help more beneficiaries.
    • NOTE: you can even say, “I don’t really care for [INSERT REASON FOR COMPLAINT] either, but I know it works great and because of it we’re having more of an impact than ever.”
  • Ask the person if they would like to be communicated with differently (e.g., “removed from appeal letters,” or “receive fewer communications”).
    • Repeat their preferences back to them, and ensure your organization has a system in place to execute their preferences.
  • Thank them again for getting in touch, and for giving you the chance to tell them why your organization does fundraising the way it does. Then tell them that you so appreciate the person getting in touch so you can communicate with them in the way they want to be communicated with.

The Big Idea

The “magic” of this approach is the belief (and attitude) that your organization has done nothing wrong.

Most organizations respond to complaints and complainers out of fear. The whole conversation with a complainer is filled with fear-based worries like, “Are we going to lose this donor?” and “So many other donors must feel this way.”

And after a conversation with a Complainer, there’s often an immediate push to change an organization’s fundraising approach – regardless of whether the approach is successfully raising money.

Don’t use that fear-based response. Instead, believe that your organization has done nothing wrong and confidently follow this outline.

Because complaints are going to happen to any organization that’s raising more and acquiring more individual donors. The trick is to learn to accept complaints as a “cost of doing business” instead of managing the organization to remain small enough so that you rarely get them.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint (this post)
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal
  4. Natural, But Not Productive
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints