How (And When) To Tell A Finished Story

First of all, what the heck is a “finished” story?

A finished story is a story where your beneficiary has already been helped. For example, say your organization helps homeless moms. For you, a finished story is where the mom has already been through your program, has moved out, and has a job that pays the bills, etc. If you’re a school or in the education space, a finished story is about the person who is already going to school or has graduated.

Are you with me? A finished story is where your organization has already done it’s work.

The Mistake Most Nonprofits Make

The mistake most nonprofits make is that every story they tell is a finished story.

That’s a guaranteed way to raise less money than you could be raising. Why? Because only telling finished stories has an unfortunate consequence: it diminishes the need in the mind of the donor. All donors hear about are people who have been helped, so they never emotionally feel the need your organization exists to serve, so they become less likely to give.

You can read more about this problem (and how to solve it) in our previous posts, “How to 8x Your Appeal Results” and “The Simple Outline For Appeals That Raise Money.”

So let’s talk about what you can do to raise more money and retain your donors longer . . .

When To Tell A Finished Story

This is the easy part. There are four main places and times to tell a finished” story:

  1. Your newsletter
  2. Your e-news update
  3. Your Annual Report
  4. During 1-to-1 Reports to major donors

There are, of course, other times. But those are the main times you should be sharing finished or “completed” stories with your donors.

How To Tell A Finished Story

In a nutshell, share the finished story and give the credit to your donor.

In our experience, most organizations don’t Report back to their donors often enough. And when they do, they barely mention the donor and they take all the credit. They say things like, “Last year we helped over 766 people …” or “We worked hard to save the Arts in Springfield over the summer and . . .”

We call that, “Ask, Thank, Brag” instead of the much more effective, “Ask, Thank, Report” formula.

Here’s the perspective you want: Report to your donors about what their gift accomplished. Not about what your organization did, but about what their gift did. You want to choose to look through the lens of the donor.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Mention the donor early. Make sure she knows she’s part of the story! Have the first sentence of your newsletter be something like, “Thanks in part to your generosity, the Arts in Springfield were saved!”
  • Give the credit to your donor. This is just an exercise in being other-centered. Look for places where you would say “Our [program name] served …” or “We provided $6 million worth of care …” Replace the mentions of your organization with a mention of the donor. You could say, “Thanks to your generosity, [program name] served …” and “You are part of providing $6 million worth of care.”
  • Include the “before” and the “after.” Make sure your donor knows what the situation was like before your organization got involved. That will help your donor see just how big the transformation was — and how powerful her support is.
  • Directly tell the donor that their gift helped provide the solution and caused the transformation, and highlight that sentence. Remember, your donors have busy lives and usually only look at fundraising pieces for a few seconds. Make sure it’s easy for her to see a headline or sentence that directly tells her she made a difference! Don’t hide that information — arguably the most powerful, important information the donor is hoping to hear — at the end of a long story in the last paragraph.

If you do these things you’re going to notice two incredibly powerful things happening . . .

First, your donor retention rate will increase (your donors will stick with you longer). That’s because donors will see how their gifts to your organization make a real difference. And when they see that their gifts make a difference, they are more likely to give you another gift.

Second, you’re going to start raising more money from your appeal letters. That’s because you’re going to have more donors to send them to (because you won’t be losing as many) and because donors trust you more! They see and feel that their gifts have made a difference, so they are more likely to give to you again!

So, go tell some finished stories in the right way at the right times. Then watch your organization raise more money!

Podcast: Your 6-Word Guide To Powerful Donor Newsletters


Want to know the formula to create a donor-delighting, money-raising donor newsletters? it’s simple and powerful:

Dear Donor,
You rock!
Here’s why …

This Fundraising Is Beautiful podcast (with Jeff Brooks) unpacks those 6 words into easy-to-follow advice to make your newsletter work great.

Every piece of content in every donor newsletter should fit this model. When you do that, you’ll have a newsletter that raises funds and improves donor retention by deepening your donor relationships!

Play episode #94: Your 6-word guide to powerful donor newsletters (right-click or ‘save as’ to save the file for later).

Subscribe to Fundraising Is Beautiful on iTunes.

Steal Like An Artist

There’s a book all fundraisers should read. It’s called Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.

Here’s why. Too often small- to medium-sized nonprofits spend their limited fundraising time and budget trying to invent new ways to fundraise.

Instead, here’s what you should do . . .

Steal great fundraising ideas, and make your own version of them

That’s what Steal Like An Artist is about. It talks about the value of looking at what The Masters are doing, studying it, copying it, and then making it your own.

Picasso said, “Know the rules, so you can break them.” But too many nonprofits don’t take time to learn the rules. Some even refuse to believe the rules even exist. (I’m looking at you, Board Members!)

Here’s a list of what I think you should do:

Give $10 to 10 national nonprofits

I’ll put a list at the end of this post, and be absolutely sure to give them your snail mail address.

After you donate, watch what they send you. You’ll get a masters in fundraising for $100. Why? Because what they send you has been tested to work for their donors. You may not like it. You may not give to them again. But what they send to you is the result of millions of dollars of testing. Ignore the tactics they use at your peril. Because you might not like what they ask you to give to, but the way they ask you is something you should steal.

Have a swipe file

Most great fundraisers I know have one. It’s a banker’s box or file folder on your computer where you save fundraising ideas that look like they work. Pay attention to what the big organizations send you when they ask for money. In most (but not all) cases, they have weaponized fundraising tactics. Look at what they do, steal it, and use it for your organization.

Steal from yourself

If you did something last fall that worked really well, try it this spring. In my experience, most small- to medium-sized nonprofits operate under the mistaken belief that if something worked well with their donors they should save it until the same time the next year.


If it worked well, try it again as soon as you can. By taking the thing that works best and doing it multiple times, instead of just once a year, we’ve rapidly increased revenue for multiple organizations. One example that comes to mind; an organization that did one “shipping” appeal per year. They asked their donors to pay for the shipping costs to ship all of the donated gifts-in-kind overseas. I noticed that it worked really well, so I had them do it twice (instead of once) the first year we worked together. Those two appeals were the two best regular appeals of the year. The next year we did it four times. Worked even better!

So if you find something that works, steal from yourself and do it again soon!

Use tactics other nonprofits have success with

Here’s a simple list of tactics and strategies that we use as often as possible. You can too!

  • Matching grants. They work great.
  • Urgent deadlines. Deadlines are magic for increasing fundraising results.
  • Multipliers. Any time you can have a multiplier ($1 provides $4 of math tutoring!) your chances of fundraising success have increased. So look for gifts-in-kind or donated volunteer hours where you can ‘multiply’ the power of a donor’s gift.
  • A clear offer. Instead of just asking for support, distill a portion of your programs/outcomes down into a powerful, understandable part. Then ask your donors to do that. That’s called a fundraising offer, and they are incredibly powerful.

That’s it. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Use the tactics other nonprofits have had success with, and make your own versions of them.

And here’s a list of 10 nonprofits with great fundraising that you can learn from:

Your newsletter: The most powerful way to report

Now is a great time for you to report back to your donors and show them how their recent donation was used to make the world a better place. Your primary aim when reporting is to close the loop with the donor and show her how the problem you presented to her when you asked her for a gift has now been solved.

Reporting can take various forms including, but not limited to, in-person visits, phone calls, personal notes, letter from the executive director or video update.

Even with all of these great resources at your fingertips, your newsletter is still the most powerful way to report. It is a proven vehicle for delivering completed stories. If designed correctly, it will send a strong message to your donor that she made a big impact on your beneficiaries.

Without a doubt, delivering a donor-centric newsletter is the key to reporting success. Here’s why:

  • It puts the spotlight on the donor and the role she played in helping someone in need. When you write about your donor and tell her how great she is, her level of trust and connection with your organization increases.
  • Now that her trust and connection has increased, she is more likely to give you another gift and in some cases increase her giving. Increased retention and increased giving is an outcome of great reporting!
  • We know that donors are busy, so sending them a newsletter that is easy to read and full of great pictures and picture captions, is an efficient way to report back to your donors. They don’t need to wade through a long, detailed report. In a matter of seconds they feel great about their past giving.

The big picture thinking here is donors want to be reminded they made a good decision by giving to you. The most powerful and proven way for you to remind them is to send them a stream of great communications, including a donor-centric newsletter. Publishing them on a regular basis will send a strong message that you care about your donors, that you have good news to share, and that there is more work to be done.

Your newsletter is the most powerful way to report back to you donors, so do all you can to create and deliver the best newsletter possible.

5 Ways To Report Back To Donors With Newsletters

When I was a young fundraiser, over two decades ago, I thought fundraising was sales. I had to sell major donors the case for support and do my best to move them to give a charitable gift.

I quickly realized this was a negative equation. I was taking from the donor but never really giving back. It was then I felt the need to report back to the donor, telling them how great they were for making the world a better place, but I didn’t know how to deliver this content.

Over the years I have found the best vehicle for reporting back to donors is your organization’s newsletter. If your newsletter is designed with the donor in mind and it communicates a strong sense of how important her role is in changing the world via your organization — magic happens! Your donor feels great about their recent gift and deepens their trust in you and your organization.

When using newsletters to report to major donors, I try to leverage these five elements. They have worked really well. Here they are.

  1. You don’t need to create a separate newsletter or report for your major donors. Use the same newsletter you create for your mass donors. This will save you time and money.
  2. Show your major donors that you spent time preparing the newsletter and outer envelope. Don’t fold the newsletter. Larger packages gain attention in the mail. Since you didn’t fold the newsletter you can deliver it in a large outer envelope. Hand address the envelope and use a real stamp to deliver it!
  3. You aren’t going to send a special newsletter (point #1) but you can draft a special, custom cover letter to include with the newsletter. Address the letter to your donor, tell your donor how great you think they are, and thank them for making the world a better place.
  4. If there is a special article or section of the newsletter you want to bring to their attention, then use a post-it note, paperclip, or highlighter to mark that section of the newsletter. In your cover letter, tell the donor why you marked that section for them.
  5. As a major gift fundraiser you are always looking for a good reason to contact the donor, so call them prior to the newsletter being delivered to let them know it is on its way! During your call you can say the same things you say in the cover letter.

Just know that your major donors are people that care deeply about your mission. They care about your work and the people you serve. They care about all of this so much that they are even willing to send you money so that your good work can continue! They deserve something in return for their gift and the newsletter is the best vehicle I know of to deliver good news and appreciation to your donors.

Your Newsletter: What To Leave Out

It is newsletter season!

I’m hearing from lots of organizations who are working on their next newsletter. Either all these folks are upstanding and know their donors deserve to be Reported to, or they are smart because they know they’ll raise money and retain more of their donors if they Report. Hopefully both!

In a slight departure from the norm, this is a list of what not to do. Because sometimes knowing what not to do is more helpful than knowing what to do. So here’s a list of things to leave out of your newsletter.

Will any one of these things kill your response and drive donors away? No. But if you want to make a newsletter that more donors will read, and help you get future donations, you’ll eliminate as many of these as you can …

What to leave out of your newsletter

  • Photos of people giving or receiving big checks.
  • Photos of more than 3 people.
  • Any articles about: how great your organization is, awards won, certifications garnered, or statistical comparisons. There is one exception: if you can frame the story around a donor benefit, then it can be helpful for donors. For instance, the headline of a story about “Our Programs Among Most Effective In Nation” could be reframed to say “Proof That Your Gift Is Effective.” It’s that way of thinking that can take your newsletter from self-congratulatory advertising to a donor-retaining and money-raising publication.
  • Any articles about the organizations that you partner with.
  • Stories where there’s more information about your program or staff than about the beneficiary.
  • Any article or story that doesn’t mention the donor.
  • Type that’s too small to be easily read by a 70-year-old.
  • Anything written above a 10th grade level. (This isn’t about donor intelligence, folks. It’s about ease of readability. Because ease of readability is directly related to fundraising results. Easier to read and understand quickly? Raise more. More complex writing with a light sprinkling of jargon? Raise less.)
  • The word “we” and; “us” and; “our.” (You can actually have a couple of these, but try to have one of them for every three times you say “you” and; “your.” Remember, the most effective newsletters are about what your donor did, not what your organization did.)
  • The words “partner” and “partnering.”
  • Headlines that don’t tell your donor anything useful. (Most people will only read your headlines and picture captions. Make sure those two things communicate the message you’re trying to send!)

The pushback, and the answers

When we work with our clients, or speak at conferences, there are two pieces of pushback we get all the time from this list. Here they are, along with our responses.

“But wait, how will our volunteers/clients/partners know about the volunteer opportunity/where to go to sign up/how to work with us?”

The answer: If you want your newsletter to be worth the time and money to create, it needs to be only for donors. Most likely, you need a different publication for your non-donor audiences. Over time, we’ve seen that newsletters that are aimed at donors AND other audiences do not effectively Report to donors (and tend to harm overall fundraising). So you have to make a hard choice and make your newsletter about your donors. And only send your newsletter to your donors.

“But wait, if we don’t tell them in our newsletter, how will our donors know how great and effective we are?”

The answer: an effective newsletter absolutely tells your donors how great and effective you are, it just does it differently than most organizations are used to. Here’s why. Most donors are not asking themselves if your organization is great and effective. (Are some foundations and some major donors asking that? Of course). Most donors are asking a much simpler question. They are wondering, “Did my gift make a difference?” We’ve done hundreds of newsletters and the results are really clear. Showing your donor how her gift made a difference is FAR more effective for fundraising results (both short- and long-term) than showing her how great and effective your organization is. Because for a donor, showing her that her gift made a big difference is how you show her how great and effective your organization is.

Short, sweet summary

Your newsletter should be an exercise in giving credit away. Focus on what your donor did, not on your role. It works in friendship, and it works in fundraising!

Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Newsletter Article

The first sentence of every newsletter story is really important.

Don’t do what most nonprofits do. They assume that all donors read to the end of all articles. I routinely review newsletters where the most powerful parts of the stories are in the last paragraphs – where very few people will see it. Because all the eye-tracking studies show that most donors don’t “read” your newsletter. They scan it.

So, you want to work hard on the first sentence of your newsletter articles and stories. If the donor likes your first sentence, she’s more likely to read your second sentence, and so on.

And you don’t have to be a “writer” to make the first sentences of your newsletter sing. But you do have to think about them differently. I have 25 years experience that testifies that the following ‘ways of thinking differently’ about how your start your newsletter articles will help you raise more money.

Keep it simple

Make it short and easy to read. No long sentences. No complex sentences with multiple clauses. Your reader should be halfway into the second sentence before she realizes it.

Now you have momentum. Now you have a greater chance your donor is going to get the message you’re sending her.

Good Example: “Ebola took everything Elisabeth had.”

It’s not about your organization

The first sentence of any newsletter article should never be about your organization or staff.

The most successful newsletters are written with the purpose of showing your donor what her gift accomplished. Not to talk about all of the things you’ve been doing or have coming up. Because more people are reading your newsletter wondering “I wonder if my gift made a difference?” than are wondering “I wonder what the organization has been working on?”

So, your first sentence should be about the donor, or about a beneficiary.

(And remember: as your donor is deciding whether to read your story or not, she is in a hurry and has other things asking for her attention. So, if your first sentence is about your organization or staff, she’s just not as likely to keep reading.)

After all, would you be more likely to keep reading if the story was about something amazing you helped do, or something an organization you support is working on?

Bad Example: “After landing in the capital city of Kinshasa, The Democratic Republic of Congo, our team traveled inland to a village outside the town of Kivuvu.” Why would a busy donor keep reading?

Good Example: “Thanks to you, Sarah’s life turned completely around.” Bonus points for including the donor and a beneficiary in the very first sentence!

It’s the start of a summary

I need to do an entire post on writing newsletter stories. But here’s one of my tricks; the first paragraph is often a summary of the whole article.

Why? Because most people are not going to read the whole article, but you still want them to get the message you’re trying to send. So if you summarize the message in a compelling way two great things happen:

  1. More people get the message you’re sending
  2. More people will read the whole thing

Good Example: “Your gift did something simple but life changing for a mother named Teri Maes, and you might have saved the lives of her two sons.” This one is a little long, but it summarizes the whole story AND includes the donor!

Don’t start with a statistic

In a nutshell, experts love statistics. But donor’s don’t.

Experts like you, your staff, and your incredible program people love statistics. Statistics are meaningful to experts because they provide context, show progress, and show expertise.

But that’s not what most donors are looking for. They are looking for a quick, easy way to know whether their gift to your organization made a difference. That’s usually a story of a beneficiary, with a little editorial content for how the donor’s gift helped the beneficiary.

Starting with a statistic immediately reduces the number of people who will keep reading because it asks the donor to understand something new and then understand why it’s important or helpful. That’s a lot to ask of a non-expert donor who is moving fast.

She’d rather read a story, my friend. So start with a story.

Bad Example: “Only one in nine children in our great state will ever go to a symphony.”

Drama! Action! Peril!

I’m going to quote my post on appeal letters on this one:

“Fill it with drama or make it interesting to your donor. Drama and tension are two of the best tools you have for engaging their interest. Or make it something that would be interesting to your donor – which is likely something different than would be interesting to you!”

My best one-liner about this is, “You want to write like the National Inquirer, not National Geographic.” That probably over-dramatizes it, but drama and emotion catch people’s interest. Most nonprofits assume they have their donor’s interest – and that’s a bad assumption.

Bad Example: “Drs. Martha and Robert Bryant strive to use their medical practice to make an impact.” Who are those people? Why should the donor keep reading?

Good Example: “The first night Jacqueline went to community theater, her life changed in the second act.”

So as you go to work on your next newsletter, here’s what I hope you’ll remember:

  1. Very few people will read an entire newsletter article. So get to the point very quickly, summarize it, then tell the full scope of the story.
  2. To increase the chances that your donor will read more, make your first sentence easy to read and interesting to her!

What I Wish I Knew Then

Note from Steven: This is a guest post from Lisa, an experienced Development Director who is on the Better Fundraising team.

When I was a new development director, there never seemed to be enough time, money or man power to get everything done. It was overwhelming. Sound familiar?

I knew I needed to prioritize . . . but even that was hard.

As you sit in your seat today, wondering how you can have the biggest impact possible, take this advice from a person who played every role in her development department. Here are three things I wish someone would have told me right at the beginning . . .

Make it clear what the donor’s gift will do

Specifically, make it clear enough so a donor could easily repeat it to their friends.

Your organization probably does a lot of great things, but you need to focus on just one powerful thing. It’s ok if what you ask donors to do is only part of what your organization does. I’ve noticed that most donors respond better to one simple thing than having to learn about all your organization does.

Always have a system to thank your donors promptly

Donors should be thanked and receipted 24-48 hours after you receive their donation. If they give online they will get a digital thank you right away, but follow that up with a thank you in the mail. For larger gifts, you may want to call and personally thank the donor.

As I built relationships with donors over the years I learned that you cannot thank a donor too quickly. But, thanking a donor to slowly is a surefire way to losing donors over time.

Show each donor the difference their gift made

People give because they want to make a difference. So let them know how their gift made a difference! For most of your donors, this can be done in your organization’s newsletter. Or an e-update, but in my experience e-updates aren’t nearly as good at engaging donors as a printed newsletter.

And for major donors, do whatever it takes to show them.

Take them on a site visit, prepare a special report just for them, whatever it takes to show them how their gift made a difference!

Do these three things and you WILL see improvements in your program. Better Fundraising gets this. Their Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat formula teaches and emphasizes the fundamentals of fundraising, helping you prioritize and work on the things that really matter!

​Improve Your Fall Fundraising the charity: water Way

Had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Harrison, the founder of charity: water for the Fundraising Is Beautiful podcast.

There’s a TON of tips you can use to improve your fall fundraising results! You’ll hear Scott talk about:

  • How important immediacy is
  • How to take your donors on a journey with every piece of donor communications
  • How charity: water “productizes” what they do to make it easy for donors to understand and then do something meaningful with each gift
  • How he’s comfortable sharing bad news with donors, and why that ultimately helps his organization.

I really encourage you to go take a listen. (And even subscribe!) I’m a better fundraiser for having listened to Scott, and you will be too! Here’s the link.