Hey! I just made this short video for you because I was working late. I’m preparing for the best fundraising conference out there – the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference next week in San Diego. Click here to watch the video – and I hope to see you at the conference!
Your brand is what your donors consistently experience.
Your brand is also your logo and your colors and how you describe your work. Those things matter.
But in my experience, they don’t matter as much as what your donors experience during and after they give a gift to you.
A Brand is an Experience
There’s a big difference between a nonprofit brand and a product-based brand. When you purchase a product, you get to experience the product. You know if it’s well-made or not. You know if you feel good or look good with it.
But when your donor makes a gift to your organization, she doesn’t receive any product. The only thing your donor receives are your ongoing donor communications.
So it’s your donor’s experience of seeing, reading, and then feeling emotions caused by your communications that are your brand to her.
You might think it’s your logo and colors. But that’s a small part of the experience for her.
Three Branding Elements that Raise Money
Here are the three things that I see – the “brand elements” if you will – that make the most difference in small- to medium-sized nonprofit branding.
If your fundraising doesn’t have these elements, you can start raising more money immediately by adding them in the right places.
- Make your donor feel needed. Donors love to feel needed! Do you tell her directly that she’s needed? Do your communications reinforce that she and her gift are needed? Telling her you need “partners” or asking her to “continue our good work with your support today” do not do this. This happens best anytime you’re asking for money: appeals, e-appeals, events, etc.
- Make your donor feel great when she gives a gift. Does your receipt arrive fast? Does it acknowledge the intent of her gift (if you know it)? Is it followed with a phone call? A personal note? Any nonprofit can make a donor feel acknowledged – but does your Thanking process and content make a donor feel special?
- Regularly tell your donors what their giving accomplished. An annual report and standard-issue nonprofit e-news do not do this. You have to intentionally communicate to donors the impacts of their giving, in language they understand, and give them the credit for the change. Look at your donor communications and read the words carefully – do they tell your donor what your organization did, or do they tell your donor what she did?
I know most nonprofits don’t think about their brand in this way. But in my experience, these three elements, far more than elements like “your organization’s competency” or a tagline, are the active ingredients of a nonprofit brand that engages donors and keeps them giving.
So focus on these three elements. They move the needle more.
Add them to your brand and you’ll start raising more money immediately. And you’ll raise more money in the long term because you’ll keep more of your donors.
Here’s an easy-to-follow tip to increase the amount of people who read your next newsletter:
Use the word “you” as the first word of the main headline on your cover.
That tells your donor right away that the newsletter is to her, and for her. And don’t you think she’ll be more likely to read if you signal to her that the newsletter is about her in some way? Versus what most organizations do, which is talk about themselves?
Want another tip? Use the word “you” again – in either the subhead or the first sentence of the main story.
Now you’re signaling to the donor that this really is about her. That the “you” in the headline was not just “donor-centered window dressing,” but was a signal that your organization really does care about her.
And now your donor is thinking, “Hey, this organization might be different from the other organizations I give to. They might appreciate me.”
And one final tip: use the word “you” in every single picture caption.
My rule is that picture captions should not be about what’s happening in the photo. Picture captions should be about the donor’s role in what’s happening in the photo. So instead of “Lisa and Laure enjoyed a week of summer camp at our facility” it should be, “Thanks to you, Lisa and Laura enjoyed an incredible week of summer camp!”
Now you’ve really done it. Your donor knows that you sent her a newsletter that’s about her and about what her gift accomplished.
That’s a Big Deal! Because very few (if any) of the other nonprofits she’s giving to have taken the time and money to show her what her gift did.
Some of them have sent her chest-thumping newsletters about what the organization did. But none of them have gotten in touch with her to tell her what she did.
And when you use the word “you,” she’s more likely to read more. And to know more about your organization. And to give more the next time you send her an appeal.
All from using the word “you” more often.
Think about it this way. As a donor, which type of newsletter would you like to receive: a newsletter that’s to everybody and all about the organization, or a newsletter that’s to you and all about what your gift did?
You know which one your donors would prefer. So follow these tips and make them one!
Let’s go back in time for a minute…
Back in the late 90’s, blogs became a cool trend as many of us clamored to find new and exciting ways to share our thoughts with the world.
In the decades since, the blog has evolved into a tool that many nonprofits are now using to better engage their audiences.
Is this true at your organization?
Having seen the fundraising benefits that a good blog can have, here are a few ways and reasons why your nonprofit blog can be a powerful fundraising tool:
1. Be Intimate
Blogs, like most donor-focused communications, are deeply personal.
When you pull it apart, a blog is basically a collection of thoughts passed from one person to another – just like your fundraising appeals and reports. And because people relate to people, your blog can be a great place for you to share your messages with passion and personality.
Charity Water’s blog has done a great job with this. They use their blog to introduce people within their organization and give them a platform to share why they care so much. Donors naturally feel a connection to this kind of communication. Plus, it makes a fundraising ask or invitation to get involved much easier to weave in.
You may already know this, but your blog is also the perfect place to tell top-notch stories of beneficiaries, the work your organization does, processes, and showcase your donors’ gift in action. All of this helps to educate donors to your cause, increasing their understanding of the need and how their gifts are solving the problem.
2. Be Immediate
Aside from social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, your blog may be the most immediate method of communication you have.
Use it to your advantage!
For example, if you have an emergency to tell your donors about, then use your blog to support your other fundraising efforts. I remember doing this for a nonprofit I worked with during the devastating 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. With so many people sending in donations and eager to help, a single thank you letter just wasn’t enough. Donors wanted up-to-the-minute updates on what their gifts were doing, and the blog enabled this.
Even more than being a wonderful engagement tool, our blog also proved to be a powerful fundraising platform. Because we had reported back with such detail and frequency, we found that donors were already engaged, making it much easier for us to ask for financial support.
3. Be Informative
Every piece of communication you send in the mail, post online, or hand to a donor – every one of them serves a purpose.
For example, your appeal letter presents a problem or need that you’re asking the donor to fill, while the newsletter closes the loop on that problem and positions the donor as the hero.
But there’s a lot that happens in-between, that donors know nothing about, right? So, your blog is a great place to include that kind of detail.
For example, if your fundraising appeal is asking the donor to provide a night of shelter, use your blog to explain more about how that process works and what it looks like for the person being served.
Because your blog is an intimate, immediate, and informative way to communicate with your donors, take some time to explore it. The humble blog can provide your organization with a great fundraising opportunity.
I’m going to list a handful of questions I get all the time about donor newsletters.
My answers are going to be super-prescriptive, meaning I’m going to eliminate the gray area and just tell you what I would do.
Every answer has been tested to work better than (i.e., raise more money than) whatever approach was used previously. In most cases, the answers have been tested and found more effective hundreds of times.
Let’s get to it!
Questions & Answers
“What should the newsletter be about?”
It should be about your donor, and the effects of her previous gift. It should not be about your organization.
“What should the stories be about?”
Roughly 2 out of 3 stories should be about a single beneficiary. If you don’t have beneficiaries, then 2 out of 3 stories should directly show and tell your donor the impact her gift made.
“Should the stories all be about one thing?”
Yes. In our experience, newsletters that are themed – all the stories are about one portion of what your organization does – will raise the most money.
“What should I do to make my newsletter raise money?”
The back page of your newsletter should feature what we call a “story of need.” Describe a current need your organization or your beneficiaries are facing, and how the donor’s gift today will help meet that need. (Many donors would like to make a gift after hearing that their previous gift made a difference, and this story gives them a reason to make a gift now.). Additionally, your newsletter should also include a separate reply card and reply envelope.
“What should my reply card look like?”
It should look like a standard appeal reply card. The “action copy” that describes what the donor’s gift will do should tell the donor that her gift will meet the need that’s mentioned on the back page of your newsletter.
“What grade level should I write at?”
Around 7th or 8th grade. Writing at this grade level has nothing to do with the intelligence of your readers, or how intelligent they will think your organization is. It has everything to do with how fast and easy it is for them to understand what they’re reading.
“What will people be most likely to read?”
Your headlines, subheads and picture captions. Make sure that if a donor reads only those elements she will receive your main message: that her gift made a meaningful difference. Be sure to devote the appropriate amount of time to these elements; they are the most-read parts of your newsletter, so you should spend more time on them than you do on the stories themselves.
“What is the purpose of the donor-centric newsletter?”
Primary purpose: to show and tell your donor that her previous gift made a difference. Secondary purpose: for the donors who are now inspired to help even more, to make it easy for them to give a gift today.
“How often should the newsletter mention the donor?”
She should be mentioned in every story. You accomplish this by using the word “you.” In most stories she should be mentioned at least twice.
“Am I writing to all donors?”
No. Write as if only one person is going to read it.
“Who should I send this to?”
All donors who have given a gift in the last 18 months.
“Can I send it to our volunteers / lapsed donors / non-donors?”
You can, but it’s a waste of your money. Newsletters are empirically lousy at turning non-donors into donors (we’ve tested it). And if you include content in your newsletter for volunteers, your newsletter is less effective for donors.
Those answers will help your newsletter start raising more money immediately.
If you’d like help taking your next newsletter from blank page to a donor-delighting, money-raising newsletter, take the Newsletters webinar I created with Chris Davenport (the founder of the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference).
You’ll see our super-simple template for your newsletter. It makes it as easy as possible for you. And I’ll walk you through all of the steps.
We received one quote that made my month: “Thank you so much for the webinar series – the best training $$s I’ve spent in the last 5 years.”
This month I’m sharing the things that we saw working really well for nonprofits in 2018.
I talk about these ideas a lot, but they bear repeating as you begin your year…
You have to Thank your donors well,
and Report back to them on the effects of their gifts,
if you want to have the best chance of keeping your donors.
Here’s the power of Thanking and Reporting, in the simplest possible terms:
- Thanking your donor well tells her she’s important and that her gift is going to make a difference. Almost no nonprofit clearly tells their donors this! If your thank you letters, receipts and emails clearly communicate her value, she’s more likely to give another gift to your organization.
- Reporting back to your donor on how the world is a better place because of her gift shows her that her gift made a difference. Again, almost no nonprofit does this. And if your newsletter shows your donor that her gift made a difference, she’s more likely to give another gift to your organization.
It really is that simple. It’s not magic.
But it IS why organizations spend money and time on Thanking rapidly and well. And it’s why organizations with good donor-focused newsletters have higher donor retention rates.
Remember: each of your donors is giving to several organizations. Some of them make her feel important. Some of them make her feel like her gift makes a difference.
If your organization is one of the organizations that makes her feel important, and makes her feel like she made a difference, she’s more likely to stick with you.
And give more gifts.
And give higher gifts.
So “close the loop” by Thanking and Reporting.
Keeping your donors for longer is one of the primary keys to successful fundraising. And Thanking and Reporting will make you a pro at keeping your donors!
If you’ve been thinking about no longer printing and sending your Annual Report, keep reading.
But for you “Steven, just tell me what to do” people, here’s the summary: if you have a good donor-centered newsletter, published multiple times per year, you don’t need to send your annual report to the vast majority of your donors.
Because they don’t need it. And in all likelihood, it’s a waste of money.
Annual Reports Meet a Need… in the PAST
My personal theory is that in the past, annual reports served a useful purpose for donors:
- They made the organization look professional
- They made the organization look like they are good at what they do
- They showed some of the impact that the organization made
All good things.
But here’s the Main Thing: most donors, most of the time, don’t make their giving decisions based on whether an organization is professional or good at what they do.
Smart fundraisers have figured out that most donors make their decisions based on how you make them feel. On emotions.
(I should mention that annual reports are very good at generating one emotion in donors: boredom.)
A Better Idea: Make Your Donors Feel Their impact
How do you make donors feel strong emotions? Send them a donor-centered newsletter that focuses on the donor’s role in the work your organization does, not on your organization’s role. Tell stories of individuals, and tell the stories with emotion.
Those emotional stories that show a donor what her gift did are what makes so many people give gifts in response to receiving a newsletter.
Listen to that again: when you send donors a good newsletter, donors respond with gifts.
When you send them an annual report – no matter how good it is – what do they respond with?
So you get to pick. The choice is pretty clear.
The Two Mis-directed Arguments to Send Your Annual Report
There are two arguments against cancelling your annual report. Neither hold water (in my experience) and they go something like this:
- “Even though donors don’t respond, we know they like it and it helps drive future gifts.” I have cancelled a bunch of annual reports over the last ten years. We have NEVER seen a drop in giving. Not even once.
- “We must give it to Major Donors, they need it.” No, they don’t. They do need regular Reports on what their giving has accomplished. The annual report is, at best, an OK Report. What’s far better? Customized reports that are aligned with the donor’s passions and interests. Stories of beneficiaries. Pictures of beneficiaries. Meetings on site. Etc. All higher effort than sending an annual report, and all more effective.
The Real Reason to Keep Your Annual Report
There’s one very good reasons to keep your annual report:
- You have some Foundation partners, and/or large grantors, who require an annual report.
Then, by all means, make them one. But figure out exactly the requirements and just do that. Don’t do anything else. And print it only for them (if they even need it!).
What to Do With Your Freed-Up Time and Money
Create a donor-centered newsletter. Or if you already have one, make and send another issue. A great newsletter will outperform – and cost less than – an annual report.
Another idea we’re seeing that’s working: about once a month, have your ED send out an email that tells the story of one beneficiary. Make it feel really personal. Strip out as much of your organization’s standard email formatting as you can.
If You Are Forced To Do an Annual Report
If the Powers That Be require you to make an annual report, try to make it a Gratitude Report.
I first heard this idea from Agents of Good in Toronto. It’s a bit of a mind-hack, because the simple reframing of the name helps people see that even though the content is largely the same as an annual report, the goal of the content is to express gratitude to donors for their role. So the “Letter from the Executive” gets written to express gratitude, rather than the standard chest-thumping. The headlines are written to use the word “you,” which makes the content more likely to be read.
But here’s the thing; I think a Gratitude Report is pretty much the same thing as a donor-centric newsletter. Both of them focus on the donor’s role, not the organization. Both of them give credit to the donor.
You can do either one. Do both!
If you can’t do that, do the work to get your annual report stakeholders – the people who feel powerfully about it – to clearly define the purpose of the report and how you are going to measure success. Then measure it to see if it achieves that purpose. And think hard to see if there’s something else you could do to achieve that purpose for less money.
I bet you’ll come back to two ideas: a donor-centered newsletter or a Gratitude Report.
A Big Opportunity…
If you’re still doing a classic annual report, you have a big opportunity in front of you. How are you going to use it?
There’s something you need to know about the stories in your newsletter.
Most people won’t read them.
Now, that can be depressing. You want people to read all the amazing things that your organization is doing. And you want people to read the writing you put so much time and effort into.
But it’s the truth that most donors won’t read everything you send them.
One of the reasons the newsletters we help our clients create are successful is because we fully acknowledge that truth – and we use it.
We turn it into a super-power, in fact.
3 Tips to Start Each Story
#1: Use your first paragraph to summarize the whole story
Your first (and sometimes 2nd) paragraph should include the following three things:
- A statement describing a Need, or a person who was in need.
- A statement that joyfully explains that the need was met
- A statement that gives credit to the donor for helping meet that need
Here’s why that’s so powerful: even if your donor does not read another word, they will know their gift made a real difference – and that your organization values them.
You will have gotten your main message across, even if the donor doesn’t read the whole thing!
#2: Make it as dramatic as possible
If the first goal is to get your main message across, your secondary goal is to get them to keep reading. The way you do that is to add drama.
Make your summary (basically a short story) a dramatic one that people would like to know more about!
If they want to know more, they will keep reading.
#3: Use the word “you”
Make sure the donor knows that they played a role in the story you’re telling. So be sure to use the word “you” to speak directly to the donor. Some examples:
- “Thanks to you, she was able to receive the treatment she needed.”
- “But thanks to your support, all was not lost!”
- “You are going to love how you helped him!”
Here’s how I think about it. Every newsletter story has two protagonists: whoever the story is about, and the reader/donor.
We know from experience that if people think the story they are reading is about them, they are more likely to keep reading. And your newsletter stories ARE about your donors! (Or at least they should be.) The role of your newsletter is to help donors see the effects of their giving.
In the Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat framework, it’s where you Report back to donors and tell them how their gift made a difference.
You Learned This in 7th Grade
At least that’s when I learned it. It’s when Mr. Layton taught us, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.”
The first paragraph of your newsletter should “Tell them what you are going to tell them.”
Do that, and more people will keep reading.
And if more people will keep reading, more people will donate!
A bit of encouragement to Fundraisers…
I hope you see your work as adding incredible value to the lives of your donors.
Too many people look at fundraising and think they are subtracting. They look at fundraising as ‘taking money from donors in order to do something worthy and great.’ They think they are bothering donors with mailings. Or twisting their donors’ arms to make donors give.
But from the donor’s point of view, it’s not subtraction. Great fundraising adds to a donor’s life by connecting their money to their good intentions. Fundraising helps donors put their values into action.
Over our two decades of fundraising, we’ve realized that our jobs are not that much about the money we help raise. It’s really about helping organizations translate how they talk about themselves into fundraising communications – letters and emails and calls that help donors see how a gift puts their values into actions.
Being a great fundraiser is not about being persuasive, or even persuading donors to support an organization.
Being a great fundraiser is really two things:
- Knowing what donors value, and
- Helping an organization communicate about itself in ways that help donors to see how a gift to the organization helps put the donors’ values into action.
For instance, most donors value ‘doing a lot for a little.’ Lo and behold, matching grants and offers with multipliers that allow donors to ‘do a lot for a little’ work like crazy.
Most donors value hearing about the impact their gift had. Lo and behold, when organizations Report back to their donors about the effects of their gifts, they keep their donors for longer, and they upgrade more of their donors.
So now it’s your turn. Take what you know about donors and use that to change the ways your organization currently talks about itself – translate that into fundraising communications that let donors see how their gifts put their values into action!
And don’t look at your work as subtraction. Look at it as adding real value to the lives of your donors. You’ll connect good people with your good work to make the world a better place for all of us!