Reporting Back in a Pandemic (Or after Any Disaster)


Better Fundraising has three tips to make your Reporting Back to donors resonate.

Because if your reports are timeless – if they could have been sent at any time during the past year – it means they aren’t relevant to the world the donor is living in today.

And if they aren’t relevant, they don’t need to be read.

Which trains your donor to read fewer of your communications – and you don’t want that, do you?

So here are three tips to make your Report Backs relevant to your donors:

Report back on something that happened during the pandemic.

What happened in January isn’t relevant right now.

And your messaging has to be relevant right now, or it’s mostly useless.

You want to share a story of something that happened because of the pandemic. That might mean a transition to telemedicine to care for a hurting person. It might mean emergency rent assistance for someone who lost their job.

But it can’t be the same story you would have told if the pandemic hadn’t happened.

Think of it this way: during Christmastime, you don’t see a lot of stories about Halloween. And any story you tell right now about something that happened before the pandemic is at high risk of being about Halloween while everyone else is singing Christmas carols.

A “Breathless Report from The Field” will beat “Standard E-News.”

Your donor knows that the world is upside down. So don’t give her a standard e-news report.

Don’t treat your writing like business-as-usual.

The organizations that will bond with their donors most closely are ones who make their donors feel like they are right there – getting the fresh news. Yesterday’s update from the CEO. The email that came in earlier this morning from program staff.

We’re already seeing this in action. Organizations we serve are sharing simple little updates of stories that just came in. The person who received the meds they needed – the family that was rescued.

And the donors love it! High open rates. Lots of giving in response to Reports. And even replies to the emails thanking the organizations for letting the donors know what’s going on.

Donors respond to this type of immediacy.

Donors are wondering, “what’s going on right now?” and are forgiving (even appreciative) of communications feeling like they were put together at the last minute.

Remember: donors care more about your beneficiaries and knowing what’s going on than they care about the professionalism of your communications.  

Fear is Contagious. Hope Is, Too.

Donor generosity is amazing.

Hopefully, you’ve done a great job sharing the problems facing your beneficiaries, cause, or organization. And you’ve raised a ton of money these last few weeks.

So be sure to share good news and hope, too.

Because donors want to hear some good news; they’re hoping that there are signs of people taking care of each other when there’s so much bad news on the front page.

When you do this, give the credit to your donor. Be super clear that the good news is happening because of her, and her generosity.

Because if donors are looking for some good news – and you share good news with them and give your donor the credit for causing that good news – don’t you think that increases the likelihood that she’ll like your organization a bit more?

And don’t you think that will increase the chance she’ll read your next email or letter?

And don’t you think that increases the chance that she’ll give to you during the coming slump?

And she’ll continue to be a donor once all of this is over?

I don’t “think so” – I know so.

Newsletter Picture Captions that Help, not Hurt

Newsletter captions.

People read picture captions.

So make sure your picture captions do a great job delivering your newsletter’s main message.

Thankfully there’s an easy way to do this.

One Simple Rule

Here’s how we think about every newsletter picture caption.

The caption should not be about what’s happening in the photo.

The caption should be about the donor’s role in what’s happening in the photo.

That means that every single picture caption should mention the donor.

Example Time

Here are a bunch of examples from real, money-raising, donor-retaining newsletters:

Thanks to you, Linh and her baby are both getting the food, necessities, and long-term support they need!

Because of your generosity, doctors were about to repair Jun Jun’s cleft lip. Jun Jun will join his adoptive family soon!

Your generosity helped Maria re-discover the courage and strength she had lost while she was homeless.

Devi was able to begin her freshman year, making her dreams come true with everything she needed for her dorm room at Georgia Tech – thanks to you.

Your gift helped women in Uganda receive the physical and emotional healing they desperately needed.

This year’s graduating class celebrates – thanks in part to your generous giving!

Your generosity has trained more than 500 police officers and first responders to stop and prevent child abuse.

Answer the Question Your Donor is Asking

One of the questions running through a donor’s mind as she looks at your newsletter is this: “Did my gift make a difference?”

Photo captions that follow this model show and tell her, again and again, how her gift made a difference.

They answer her main question.

And remember, when your donor knows that her gift made a difference, she trusts your organization more.

When she trusts your organization more, she’s more likely to respond to the next appeal you send her.

So because newsletter photo captions are one of the most widely read parts of your newsletter, they are wildly important for you to use correctly to let your donor know that she and her gift made a difference.

Follow the simple rule above, and you’ll be on your way to raising more money and retaining more of your donors!

Read the series:

Newsletter Headlines That Work

My recent post gave you a simple outline for how to easily write newsletter stories.

Today is about newsletter headlines: a massively important part of your newsletter’s success, but a part that most organizations spend very little time on.

Remember our belief that about 80% of the people who open your newsletter will read only your headlines and picture captions?

Doesn’t that make your headlines important? Maybe even more important than the story the headline is for?

We think so. So here’s how to write successful headlines…

Headlines Have One of Two Jobs

We try to do one of two things with newsletter headlines.

  • Be so dramatic and interesting that the reader wants to read the article. Think of it this this way: the headline is the ad for the story.
  • Share the outcome of the story and involve the donor. Think of it this way: your reader should know, just from reading the headline, that their gift did something powerful.

Example Time

Here are a handful of examples of ineffective headlines – taken from real newsletters in our files. They don’t accomplish either of the objectives above:

  • IFI Training Day Expands
  • Elizabeth’s experience encourages others to get their annual mammogram
  • Committed to change lives
  • Together We Rise
  • 5th Annual Zip 5k + Fun Run Breaks Record for Participation
  • Board of Directors Highlights/News
  • What is Extreme Poverty?
  • Upcoming Fundraisers
  • Camp and Retreat Centers as Holy Ground
  • Staff Updates
  • Pathways Supported Employment program fills in the missing pieces for people recovering from homelessness

And here are examples of effective headlines:

  • You’re helping find “Desperately needed” new treatments
  • “I wanted to Die”
  • The power of One Meal
  • “There is no more disease!”
  • Blind from a Chemical explosion, today he can see!
  • You did this!
  • You’re a hero!
  • Food delivered!
  • He used to eat garbage, you gave him dumplings!
  • “We never expected this to happen”
  • Cancer Patient Living on French Fries and Soda Pop
  • From Abuse to Prison to Redemption
  • “Your baby has cancer”
  • 100 Happy Children
  • You helped save Darryl’s life
  • The Joy of Clean Water – Thanks to You!

Take a look at those effective headlines again.

Don’t you want to read the stories for those, more than you want to read the stories after the boring headlines?

And don’t you know – just from scanning the good headlines – that your gift made a meaningful difference?

In other words, you didn’t even have to read the story and you knew your gift made a difference. Which made you trust the organization a little bit more. Which made you more likely to give them a gift the next time they asked you. Which made the organization raise more money and retain more of its donors.

All that from a good headline.

You are in a BATTLE for your donor’s attention

Always remember – nobody has to read your fundraising.

You’re competing with people’s phones, with the internet, with making dinner, and with all of the other mailings from nonprofits that your donor received that very same day.

Strong dramatic and/or donor-focused headlines are one of the most powerful tools you have to convey your main message and get donors to read your stories! They are an integral part of whether your newsletter is going to raise money… or not.

So go look at your headlines – for both your printed newsletter and your e-newsletter. If they aren’t doing either of the two jobs above, it’s time to fire them and get some headlines that will do their jobs. There’s too much at stake to have your headlines causing fewer people to read your newsletter!

Read the series:

Outline for newsletter stories


Here’s the outline we follow for newsletter stories.

It’s remarkably simple, and it does two powerful things:

  1. It makes your newsletter easier and faster to write, because you have a model to follow
  2. It makes sure each story helps you achieve the purpose of your newsletter

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Simple Newsletter Outline


  • Summarize the situation the beneficiary was in
  • Tell the donor the situation changed because of them
  • Summarize the positive situation the beneficiary is in today


  • Tell the beneficiary’s “story” as above, but go into more depth


  • Thank the donor for making the transformation (from “before” to “after”) possible
  • Thank the donor for caring about the beneficiary enough to take action to help

Note: most newsletter stories are between 150 and 250 words. So the number of paragraphs will vary depending on the length of the story.

The Power of This Approach

When you use this approach, your donor doesn’t have to read more than the first paragraph to get your newsletter’s main messagethat the donor’s gift made a meaningful difference in the life of one person or for your cause.

At Better Fundraising, we assume that 80% of the people who open your newsletter will only read the headlines, picture captions, and a paragraph or two. For those people (4 out of 5!), you want to do everything you can to ensure they still get your main message.

Other nonprofits will make their donors wade through tons of words to find out whether the donors’ gifts made a difference. Sometimes the donor will never find out. I’ve seen newsletters where the donor is never even mentioned.

But by following this model, you and your organization will communicate your main message to almost every person who opens your newsletter. That’s a huge win!

Repeat This Formula in Every Story

When a donor opens your newsletter, you don’t know which story (or stories) they’re going to read. So you want to use this formula for every story so – whatever they read – they get the message that their gift made a difference.

This approach will feel repetitive to you – since you see every story. But most of your donors won’t read every story.

It will feel repetitive to your staff and core stakeholders (like your board) because they’re far more likely than most donors to open every newsletter and read every story.

But Remember

Your newsletter is not for you, your staff, or your core stakeholders. It’s a communication vehicle to show the remaining 95% of your donors that their gift made a meaningful difference.

Why is showing donors that they made a meaningful difference so important?

So that they can trust that giving a gift to your organization makes a real difference

So that they’re more likely to give you a gift the next time you ask

So that they’re more likely to keep giving to you year after year

So that they’re more likely to become a major donor

So that they’re more likely to leave you a gift in their will

So no pressure… but make sure your newsletter shows each donor that their gift made a meaningful difference. And one of the most powerful ways to do that is to write the stories following this outline.

Read the series:

What your next newsletter should be like


It’s time to get tactical.

We gave you a couple of big ideas for how to think about your newsletter. (If you want to delight your donors and raise more money, that is.)

Now as we move into the details, here’s a summary for the elements of your newsletter:

  • Send it in a #10 or larger envelope (not a self-mailer)
    • Teaser should be “Your newsletter enclosed”
  • 4 pages long (1 tabloid-sized sheet, folded in half to make 4 pages)
    • The first three pages should be Stories of Success – between 2 and 4 stories, each about an individual beneficiary, each sharing the “before” and the “after” for that beneficiary, and each giving credit to the donor for making the transformation happen
    • The back page should be a Story of Need with an offer – this is a story that describes a current need being faced by beneficiaries and a description of how the donor’s gift of a certain size will perfectly meet the need for one person
  • A separate reply card, with bonus points for pre-printing the donor’s info and customizing the gift ask amounts based on the donor’s previous gift
  • A separate reply envelope that the donor can use to send back their gift

Of course, there are other newsletter formats that work.

But if you’re looking to improve your newsletter, this particular way has been battle-tested by thousands of nonprofits.

It’s worked so many times for so many types of organizations that it’s our “default setting.” In other words, if a nonprofit asks Better Fundraising to create a newsletter – and we’re going to be retained or fired based on the results – this is the model we follow. It’s the model we recommend to all our clients, the model we speak about at conferences, etc.

Why So Specific?

My goal is to show you exactly what to do to raise money and delight your donors, and to take the mystery out of successful nonprofit newsletters.

We want to make it as easy as possible for you. I heard from a client earlier today who said, “The reduction in anxiety from having a proven model to follow is priceless.” That’s what we’re offering here. And next, we’ll tackle how to write your stories, how to design your newsletter, who to send it to, even the best way to write headlines and picture captions. Stay tuned!

Read the series:

Why are you writing about the organization?


This is the second post in our series on donor-centered-newsletters – the kind of newsletters that delight donors and raise more money for your nonprofit.

The first post was about the purpose of your newsletter. This post is the second and final Big Idea you need to succeed.

And after this – I promise – the posts will get tactical.

But if you don’t know this one idea, all the tactics in the world won’t help very much.

A Powerful, Unexpected Question

It’s 1994. I’m less than a year out of college working at a fundraising agency that specializes in helping large nonprofits raise money. And I’m writing my first newsletter.

I handed my draft to my boss – an accomplished and brilliant fundraiser.

He read the first story, scanned the rest of the stories, and handed the stack of paper back to me.

Then he asked me a powerful but unexpected question:

“Why Are You Writing about the Organization?”

I didn’t know it at the moment, but that was one of the most powerful lessons I ever learned about effective fundraising.

At the time, all I could do was say, “What do you mean? It’s the organization’s newsletter.”

 “Sure.” My boss said, “but most donors aren’t reading a newsletter to find out anything about the organization. They’re reading it to find out if their gift made a difference.

“The most effective newsletters are written to show donors what their gift accomplished. And the best way to do that is through stories about beneficiaries.

“So stop talking about the organization and its programs. Start talking about the donor and telling her stories about lives that have been changed because of her kindness. Then she’ll think it was a great idea to give to the organization and be more likely to give again.”

So I went back to my office to do a complete rewrite.

But I was a far more effective fundraiser from that moment forward.

Your Newsletter

As you create your newsletter, you’ll be tempted to “write about your organization.”

People in your organization will even push you to write about your organization.

They’ll say things like, “But we have to tell people about everything we do and tell them that we’re good at it!”

No. You don’t. In fact, when you do, fewer donors will read your newsletter. Because hearing about your organization is not why they’re reading. They’re reading because they’re hoping to hear about themselves. They’re hoping to hear whether and how their gift made a difference and whether they’re a valuable part of your organization.

Keep this idea in mind as you read this series. Then all the tactics – the writing style, the headlines, the picture captions – will make sense.

You’ll start keeping your donors for longer. And your newsletter will become a major revenue source!

Read the series:

What the purpose of your newsletter SHOULD be


This is the first in a series of posts that will show you how to create donor-delighting, money-raising newsletters.

We’re talking about newsletters that your donors love to open, the kind that increase the chance they’ll keep giving to your organization year after year, and the kind that raise way more money than they cost to send out.

What Is Your Newsletter’s Purpose?

Here’s our approach, and it’s been successful for every type of organization in every sector we’ve tried:

Your newsletter exists to show your donor how her gift made a difference, and to show her what her gift today will do.

There’s a lot in that one sentence, which we’ll unpack during this series.

But it’s just as helpful to understand what your newsletter should not be:

  • It should not a newspaper, full of all kinds of stories
  • It should not be about your organization, your programs, your staff, your volunteers, your sponsors, or your partners
  • It should not be about how much money you’ve raised
  • It should not be a “playbill” about the upcoming events and ways a donor can get involved
  • It should not “hide the good news” by only mentioning the donor at the very end of stories

And yet, those are the things that most nonprofits use their newsletters for.

 That’s why most newsletters don’t get read.

 That’s why they don’t measurably help organizations keep their donors.

 And it’s why most newsletters don’t raise much (if any) money.

Here’s the Big Idea:

Your donor is more interested in reading about herself – about what she and her gift did – than she is reading about any of those other things.

So if you want her to read your newsletter, write to her and write about her.

You Need a To-do list and a Not-To-Do List

Newsletters don’t raise a lot of money by accident.

The content is curated and the offer decided. Then it’s written and designed with the intent to raise money.

Everything included in it is done with a purpose. That means that a bunch of things are also excluded on purpose.

For smaller organizations, this is hard, because it means telling some staff that their program will never be featured in the newsletter. It means getting more stories and photos of beneficiaries. It means the “save the date” for your next event needs to be an additional mailing, not in your newsletter.

It’s hard, but it’s worth it. This approach works measurably better than any other approach I’ve ever seen in my 27 years of fundraising.

If you’d like to know more, stay tuned (and subscribe to our blog if you haven’t already)!

Read the series:

You Don’t Have to Thank and Report IF…

thank and report.

We talk a lot around here about how the three core functions of Asking, Thanking, and Reporting are necessary for fundraising success.

But there’s an exception.

There are some organizations out there that can succeed without Thanking and Reporting.

Here’s what those organizations have in common:

  1. They’re working on a cause or with a beneficiary group that a LOT of people care about. Think “kids in poverty” or “pets with large cute eyes” or “diseases that touch everyone’s lives.”
  2. They’re skilled at Asking. They have great offers and great stories.
  3. They have donor acquisition down to a science.

Why is this true? If a lot of people care about what you’re working on, there are always more potential donors out there. And if you’re great at donor acquisition, you can replace all the donors you lose each year – and more. And if you’re skilled at Asking, you’ll raise a lot of money from your donors before they move on.

These organizations don’t need to Thank and Report because they don’t need to keep their donors.

These organizations don’t have to worry very much about keeping their donors because it’s so easy for them to get new donors.

Story Time

We did a website project years ago for an organization that worked on a “brand name” disease.

Something like 40,000 people each month are diagnosed with this disease – which affects not only the patient but all of their loved ones.

Each month, many of the 40,000 – plus untold numbers of concerned family members – would go online to research their disease.

Many of them would end up at this organization’s website. Thousands would give a gift.

This organization was acquiring several thousand new donors every single month just by having a semi-capable website.

Meanwhile, the rest of their fundraising was atrophying. Their Thanking was rote and organization-centric. Their Reporting was nonexistent (though they did brag occasionally). Their donor retention rates were abysmal.

But they worked on a disease that a lot of people care about. And they were good at donor acquisition. Even though they were only adequate at Asking, they still raised increasing amounts of money each year as more and more people came online and made donations.

They “succeeded.” But they sure could have raised a lot more money (and done a lot more good) if they knew what you and I know.

What You Should Do

If your organization is one of the lucky few, who don’t need to Thank and Report while still raising more money each year, congratulations! You’ve won the fundraising lottery.

But if your cause is smaller, if your Asking could improve, if new donor acquisition is a struggle – then keeping your existing donors is paramount.

You have to get great at Thanking. Not simply acknowledging a donor’s gift, but making her feel like a meaningful part of your organization. And you have to get great at Reporting. Show your donor the outcomes of her gift, and give her the credit.

Do those things well, and you’ll keep more of your current donors, and raise more money every time you Ask them!

The Most Dangerous Syndrome for Fundraisers


Here’s a great guest post from Jeff Brooks of Future Fundraising Now. And watch out for NPNGS in your fundraising!

Does your newsletter and/or website contain any of the following?

  • News about the accomplishments of your staff
  • Photos of well-heeled donors presenting giant checks to your organization.
  • Detailed history of your organization
  • Photos of people standing around (possibly holding wine glasses) at your fundraising event
  • Articles explaining how your programs and processes work
  • Manifestos about how your approach is superior to others’

If you answered yes to any of these, your organization might suffer from Nonprofit Navel-Gazing Syndrome, or NPNGS (pronounced “nippings”).

This condition can cause nonprofits to believe that if donors just understood them and grasped how awesome they really are – they’d give.

Unfortunately, that’s not how charitable giving works. Donors don’t give to keep you in operation. They give to make things happen. Fundraising that’s all about you is always less effective.

Donors don’t think like you. They’re less schooled in the fine points of what it takes to accomplish your mission. Their view of what you do is less nuanced than your view. They’re drawn to simplistic, even incomplete descriptions of your work – and the strongest philosophical argument can leave them cold.

Organizations with advanced NPNGS sometimes blame the fact that their self-focused fundraising doesn’t work on their donors. They see them as “deficient,” and sometimes go as far as trying to somehow find “better” donors who will appreciate them.

The sad truth is, they inevitably learn that few donors are willing to spend the time getting up to speed on them.

The cure for NPNGS is easy. It’s to embrace this truth: Donors are interested in you because of what you help them do. You are their agent in their mission to make the world better. That should be the topic of all your fundraising. Not the inner workings of your organization. Not the accomplishments of notable others. Not the need for raised consciousness or philosophical buy-in.

Your top-notch staff, your wonderful events, your well-honed methodology, your superior mindset – all these things are part of your uniqueness and your ability to accomplish your mission. But donors aren’t much interested in that. They just want to give to achieve clear results they can understand. Swallow your pride and meet donors where they are.