In Memory of My Fundraising Mentor

Mentor

I’ve been wondering how to talk about a certain situation, and Jeff Brooks just did me a favor.

Here’s the situation…

My Father passed away a little more than a month ago.  He was my fundraising mentor. 

Longtime readers know that I mention my mentor pretty regularly.  He’s in this post and in this post.  Though he’s not mentioned, he’s all over this free eBook

I purposefully never mentioned that I was talking about my Dad.  I wanted your takeaway to be the fundraising knowledge that was shared and the power of mentorship, not that I was related to my mentor.

But he was my Dad, too.

So it brought me (and my family) great joy to read yesterday’s blog post by Jeff Brooks at Future Fundraising Now.  With Jeff’s permission, I’m going to post it here in its entirety.

Future Fundraising Now: In memory of Bob Screen, fundraising mentor

In memory of Bob Screen, fundraising mentor

Posted: 24 May 2021 08:38 AM PDT

Last month, we lost one of the giants of fundraising, and my fundraising mentor: Bob Screen.

If you haven’t heard of him, it’s because retired a while ago and has little online presence. But if you’re over a certain age, you’ve heard of him. And you probably know him as a leading figure who helped make direct-response fundraising effective and knowledge-driven like it had not been before. He was especially a pioneer in direct mail and long-form broadcast fundraising.

I met him in the late 80s when I become a copywriter at his fundraising agency, Screen Communications. I had slim experience writing fundraising, but he hired me anyway.

This is the part of my professional journey that I rarely share the details about. I make it sound quick, easy, almost magical. Like: “I struggled in fundraising, then I found a mentor, and everything came together for me.”

That’s true, but it doesn’t reveal quite how it went. It was difficult. Sometimes painful. And it took a long time.

Here’s how my mentor worked with me:

I’d write a project for one of our clients and route it to him. He’d call me into his office, where he’d be waiting with my project (On paper; no email yet!) and a very sharp pencil.

He’d go through the project almost word by word, crossing things out, circling things, scribbling notes … and most importantly, explaining what he was doing and why.

I probably learned more about effective fundraising in one sitting like this than is possible at a whole quality fundraising conference.

But it was far from easy. I didn’t always get it first time around. I routinely repeated mistakes that I learned not to make. Bob never let those mistakes ride. Second time, third time … he’d raise the temperature of his corrections and the importance of the principle behind it.

Here’s the thing: any piece of information, no matter how useful, does not become your own until you’ve used it several times.

It’s necessary to screw up a few times in order to learn.

That doesn’t make it any less embarrassing.

There were times when I would have chewed off my leg to escape. I think you’d have felt the same way.

But it was effective. And over time I internalized hundreds of techniques and truths about fundraising, and became better and better at applying those odd and often counterintuitive truths to new situations.

More important, Bob Screen transmitted a mindset that made it possible to keep on learning. Things like:

  • You are not the donor. Writing in a way you find persuasive is not a dependable strategy. Get outside of your own head.
  • Offer! Always have a specific, compelling, simple call to action for your donors.
  • Write with energy. If you want to get through with your message, no project is ever “routine.”

Mindset is everything, because conditions change. If all you know are techniques, you’ll fall farther behind every year.

These things are gifts that have supported my career in the decades since.

The power of having a mentor — one who will stick with you in that awkward “adolescent” stage, where you’ve learned things, but don’t yet apply them consistently.

It’s not easy. Sometimes not fun. But it’s the greatest professional gift you can receive.

So I join many others who faced the sharp-pencil Bob Screen critiques in saying Thank you and Good bye to a giant.

Robert Screen
1940 – 2021
Everlasting Memory


Thank you, Jeff, for doing a brilliant job capturing so many of the themes my Dad taught – themes that are familiar (I hope!) to longtime readers: that every word matters, that you are going to screw up in order to learn, that you are not the donor, and to have a clear offer. 

That approach – that “mindset” as Jeff calls it – is what I was blessed to receive and what this blog is attempting to pass on.

There’s a final thing to mention.  The “sharp-pencil critiques.”  My Dad reviewed my copy the same way; word by word, explaining the principles behind the edits, and never letting a mistake ride.  He was a hard guy to work for.

And this is the pencil sharpener he used to sharpen all those pencils.  I took this picture when it was on his desk, next to one of his favorite pencils (Dixon Ticonderoga 1388 2 5/10, of course).

As I write this post, the pencil sharpener is on my desk.  It’s a great reminder to pay attention to every word. 

Not because the “writing” must be great. 

But because the right ideas, in the right order, arranged so that they break through into the donor’s life, can change the world one gift at a time.  And then thousands of gifts at a time.

Thanks, Dad.  I love you.

Thank Your 2019 Donors Meaningfully Right Away

Thank you.

We recommend to all our clients to send a meaningful Thank You to their donors in January.

It should be a non-normal Thank You. It should stand out from the rest of your donor communications.

We believe in this so much we invented “Thankuary” several years ago to help an organization do this. (That organization, by the way, just DOUBLED their year-end fundraising from 2018 to 2019.)

Because here’s the thing:

If you want to have the best chance of keeping your donors,

You have to Thank your donors well

Then later Report back to them on the effects of their gift.

Make It Meaningful

It’s January, which means you just Asked your donors quite a bit at the end of the year. (At least I hope you did). Which means it’s time to Thank your donors.

Here’s what to do:

  • Make it stand out in her mailbox. Send it in a larger envelope. Say “thank you” in audaciously large type on the envelope. Use a bold, exciting color.
  • Make it emotional. It should read like a personal note of incredible gratitude. Your ED might not like to sound emotional, but emotion is exactly what’s called for.
  • Do not initially thank your donor for supporting your organization. Instead, thank her for making a difference for your cause or beneficiaries. Thank her for her generosity. Thank her for her attention. Then, after you’ve done those things, you can thank her for supporting your organization.
  • Tell a couple short stories to illustrate donor impact. I’m talking two or three paragraphs each.
  • Send it only to donors who gave in the last twelve months.

This mailing doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. You don’t need photos. You don’t need charts, graphs or graphics.

You just need a letter that makes your donor feel thanked, like an important, valued part of your organization.

If you can’t send out a letter, do as much of the above as possible via email. But know that fewer people will read it, and it will feel less meaningful to them.

Ideally, you can do both. And in a best-case scenario: we have clients send an email to their donors to let them know the letter is coming.

The Effects

Can you imagine a better way – from a donor’s point of view – that you could start the year?

She’ll feel meaningful to your organization. She’ll know she’s appreciated. She’ll know that her gift made a difference.

She’s then more likely to donate when you send your next appeal.

She’s then more likely to donate next year-end.

She’s then more likely to keep you as one of her charities.

Seems like a pretty good return for the investment of time to send this letter, doesn’t it?

Do NOT Start Your E-Appeals with a Thank You

Thank donors.

We ran a test that you should know about.

We randomly divided a nonprofit’s email file into two groups. We sent both groups the same year-end email with just one difference: the first sentence of one group’s email thanked the donor for their previous support.

The version that began with the Thank You raised significantly less money.

The Lesson: don’t start your appeals or e-appeals by thanking your donor for their previous giving

It seems like the right thing to do – but it raises less money.

So we now have a policy: do not start appeals or e-appeals with a Thank You for the donor’s previous giving.

My Attempt to Explain the Results

Always remember that most donors don’t read the whole thing.

Remember the “heat map”? The eye-tracking studies that prove most donors jump around, don’t read things from top-to-bottom, and certainly don’t read the whole thing?

Here’s my explanation: a number of your donors will read the first line of your emails. And if that line is Thanking them for their previous giving, they appreciate being thanked and then delete your message because they think nothing is being asked of them.

Another thing to remember: at year-end, your donors are moving even faster than normal. They have parties to go to, presents to wrap, etc.

And if a significant amount of your donors stop reading after the first sentence, you are going to raise less money.

So for your December and year-end fundraising emails this year, don’t succumb to the temptation of Thanking your donors right off the bat. It feels like it’s the right thing to do. But you’ll raise less money!

How to Thank Your Donor So She Actually Feels Thanked

Thank You.

The goal of your Thank You and/or Receipt package is not just to acknowledge your donor’s donation.

Any organization can do that.

Any autoreply or receipt letter can do that.

Your goal should be to make your donor feel thanked, appreciated and important.

How?

I have already shared this before, but it’s worth sharing again…

thank a donor graphic email.

When you thank her for helping your organization do its work, you’ve make it about you, about your organization.

What you want to do is make it about her. So, thank her for her generosity. Tell her what her gift is going to do (instead of saying what your organization is going to do). Tell her how important she is to your organization.

When you do that, you’ll find that most of your Thank You/Receipt copy is about her. And less of it is about your organization.

Less about You, More about Her

Donors are inundated with requests for support. In the United States, there’s one nonprofit for every 200 people. And almost all of those organizations talk about themselves. Endlessly.

But a very few of them have learned the secret: your donors are more interested in themselves – their lives, their values, their impact – than they are in your organization.

So if you talk to donors about their lives, their values and their impact, they will finally feel like a nonprofit “gets” them. They’ll feel that there’s a nonprofit that’s working on their behalf – trying to help them do what they want to do – instead of just another nonprofit trying to sound great to get their next donation.

Do you feel the fundamental difference? The posture of gratitude for what the donor did, not for what she helped your organization do?

If you can embrace that fundamental difference, and start communicating to your donors that way, you’ll begin to build a tribe of loyal donors who will give you more gifts, larger gifts, and will give to you for longer.

Answer Her Three Questions

Answer her questions.

Here’s a little checklist I use to create powerful receipt packages, autoreplies and thank you letters.

I make an assumption that after a donor makes a gift to a nonprofit, at some level she’s asking herself three questions:

  1. Did you receive my gift?
  2. Did you appreciate my gift?
  3. Are you going to do what you said you were going to do when you asked for my gift?

When writing and designing receipts and thank yous, I make sure the answers to those questions are the very first things communicated.

It’s a simple strategy, I admit. But it works for organizations that are trying to make the shift from organizational-centric communications to donor-centric communications, because it helps them avoid the common mistakes.

Notice What’s Not There

Notice something powerful…

Her questions are not about your organization. Her questions are not about your programs, your mission and vision, or your effectiveness.

Her first questions are about her and her gift.

Is there anything inherently wrong about talking about your programs, your vision and mission, or your effectiveness?

No. Of course not. But I would talk about those things after you’ve answered her primary questions.

“Did you receive my gift?”

This is more important than you think.

And if you think that most donors aren’t worried whether their gifts were received or not, I encourage you to go talk to lots of older donors who give through the mail. They often wonder this, especially when it takes more than a couple days for them to receive a receipt.

“Did you appreciate my gift?”

Donors want to feel appreciated. Valued. Meaningful. Very few nonprofits ever tell their donors that.

If you communicate to your donor that she’s appreciated, valued and meaningful – don’t you think there’s a much better chance that your donor will give you another gift down the road?

“Are you going to do what you said you were going to do when you asked for my gift?”

Most organizations make asks of their donors in specific situations: “please help us raise $400,000 at the event tonight” or “please give a gift to support the annual fund” or “your $25 gift today will introduce a local child to the opera.”

But then those organizations send boilerplate thank-yous that don’t acknowledge the specific ask. They ask you to “introduce a local child to the opera” and then send a thank you letter that says, “Your gift is supporting our 11 programs to support the arts in our county.”

To a donor, this causes disconnect. She wonders, “Hey, did the organization not know that I was giving to introduce a kid to the opera?”

You don’t want your donor wondering things like that!

It leaves the impression that a) the organization doesn’t have its act together, or b) it’s cavalier with donors’ gifts.

Ouch.

You don’t want to leave that impression. Especially if it’s the first thank you/receipt a donor receives.

The solution: customized thank you copy for each specific ask/event/offer you put in front of your donors.

My Suggestion

Answer her three questions first. Then the rest of what you put in there is up to you.

If your organization is exceptionally effective at using her gift, that’s of value to her. If you know she supports the same vision you do, that’s of value to her, too.

Just start by answering the questions she’s asking. That strategy will rarely lead you astray.

Your All-Important First Thank You/Receipt

New donor reading thank you letter.

My theory is that the Thank You/Receipt you send to a brand new donor is one of the most-opened, most-read messages you will ever send.

With your first touch point after a donor’s first gift, she begins to form her opinion of how important she is to your organization… or not.

Is she important and meaningful… or a small cog in a big machine?

Are you going to talk to her about her gift… or tell her more about yourself (your organization)?

Are you going to use boilerplate language that’s about your whole organization… or customized language that speaks to the specific event or offer she gave to?

Ask yourself: what kind of letter would YOU like to receive? Which kind of organization would YOU rather give to?

Your New Donor Gives to LOTS of Organizations

She’s constantly scanning for organizations that help her make the change she wants to make in the world.

And she gave your organization a gift. She picked you!

How will you respond?

You’ve already made a favorable impression on her – she gave a gift, after all.

But this is your chance to confirm her first impression.

This makes the first sentence of your Thank You/Receipt copy the most important sentence.

It’s your first sentence that tells your donor:

  1. Are you really grateful for her gift, or are you just writing to acknowledge it?
  2. Are you writing to thank her for her generosity and what she’s going to accomplish, or are you writing to tell her more about your organization?

Because your donor is trying to get a feel for your organization. She’s trying to decide whether her gift to you was a good idea… or not.

So go look at the language – and especially the first sentence – of the Thank You/Receipt package you send to first-time donors. Make sure it acknowledges that it’s her first-ever gift. Make sure you mention your donor twice as much as you mention your organization. Make sure your first sentence is short, easy to read, and makes a great first impression!

A System to Thank the Right Donors the Right Ways at the Right Times

Envelope with a thank you note.

I want to share some simple best practices for your Thanking system.

Think of these as our recommended “default settings” for a system that thanks the right donors the right way at the right time.

And I want to acknowledge right away that you don’t have to do exactly what I suggest below. But in my experience, you want to be close.

There’s no magic to any one of these things. But there is fundraising magic to doing all of them on a regular basis.

Here’s the list…

  • Mail out a printed receipt letter, within 24 to 48 hours, for all individual gifts.
    • You don’t need to do this for monthly donors.
    • Include a reply card and a reply envelope. Here’s why.
  • For gifts received via your website, your system should send out an immediate autoreply.
    • For smaller organizations, I recommend sending a printed receipt even if you send an e-receipt. For those smaller organizations who struggle to find new donors and keep their existing donors, being “extra thankful” to a donor is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.
  • Make sure the receipt letter (printed or electronic) directly reflects the donor’s intent when they made the gift.
    • This means you want to have custom receipts for each piece of fundraising you send out. For instance, if your appeal asks donors to “give to help during the summer slump,” the first paragraph of your letter should say something like, “Thank you for giving a gift to help during the summer slump” and then reuse words and phrases used in your appeal. Why do this? Because when your donor gives to the summer slump (or to your event, or whatever) and you send her Thank You that talks about your 14 programs and how effective your organization is, she thinks you did not do with her gift what you said you were going to do. You want to avoid that!
  • The text/letter portion of your receipt should be more about the donor and less about your organization.
  • All gifts over a certain amount should receive a call and a hand-written note from your Executive Director/CEO within 48 hours. You get to decide what that amount is, based on how much time your ED/CEO will allot to make those calls and write those notes. In other words, if your ED is willing to call five donors a week for this program, lower the gift threshold so that she gets to make about five calls a week.

Thanking Systems can get super complex. This one should get you started. Tweak it as necessary per your organization.

But remember: build your system to Thank and retain the donors who are giving the highest amounts!

How to Thank Your Donor So She Actually Feels Thanked

Thank You.

The goal of your Thank You and/or Receipt package is not just to acknowledge your donor’s donation.

Any organization can do that.

Any autoreply or receipt letter can do that.

Your goal should be to make your donor feel thanked, appreciated and important.

How?

I shared this last Friday, but it’s worth sharing again…

thank a donor graphic email.

When you thank her for helping your organization do its work, you’ve make it about you, about your organization.

What you want to do is make it about her. So, thank her for her generosity. Tell her what her gift is going to do (instead of saying what your organization is going to do). Tell her how important she is to your organization.

When you do that, you’ll find that most of your Thank You/Receipt copy is about her. And less of it is about your organization.

Less about You, More about Her

Donors are inundated with requests for support. In the United States, there’s one nonprofit for every 200 people. And almost all of those organizations talk about themselves. Endlessly.

But a very few of them have learned the secret: your donors are more interested in themselves – their lives, their values, their impact – than they are in your organization.

So if you talk to donors about their lives, their values and their impact, they will finally feel like a nonprofit “gets” them. They’ll feel that there’s a nonprofit that’s working on their behalf – trying to help them do what they want to do – instead of just another nonprofit trying to sound great to get their next donation.

Do you feel the fundamental difference? The posture of gratitude for what the donor did, not for what she helped your organization do?

If you can embrace that fundamental difference, and start communicating to your donors that way, you’ll begin to build a tribe of loyal donors who will give you more gifts, larger gifts, and will give to you for longer.

Your Nonprofit Is a Gift to Your Donors

Your Nonprofit Is a Gift to Your Donors.

Your organization is a gift to your donors.

You help each donor to do good that they could not do by themselves.

Because your donor doesn’t have programs. She doesn’t have program staff. She can’t do all the things that you do.

Your donor has not organized her life – as your organization has – to help people as powerfully as you do. What a gift that you’ve created this organization for your donor to tap into!

You help each donor experience the joy of giving.

Remember, your donors LOVES giving. Gets a real joy from it. So when she makes a donation to your organization, she benefits, too!

Off the top of my head, remembered from peer-reviewed research I’ve read:

  1. Donors are physically healthier than non-donors.
  2. Donors feel more connected than non-donors.
  3. People who donate are more likely to earn more the following year than non-donors.

(I wish that more Fundraisers – and their bosses – remembered this more often. When you own the idea that donors love giving, it makes you approach fundraising differently, and causes you to raise more money.)

You are her partner.

As much as I rant against using the word “partner” … I think that most donors, if they really sat down and thought about it, would think of the charities they give to as their “partners.”

(But always remember, from her perspective, who is partnering with whom.)

And you know what? You are her partner. She’s able to do far more to make the world a better place with your organization in her life.

She’s on a quest to make the world a little better, and you are her needed partner on her quest.

So in the craziness of year-end fundraising, remember that your organization is a gift to each of your donors.

You’re helping each donor make the world a better place – and helping each donor be happier and healthier – one gift at a time.