Create & Relieve Tension

Rope Knot.

The most effective fundraising communications create and relieve tension throughout the year.

“Creating and relieving tension” is a way smart fundraisers can tap into how humans are wired, to increase your donors’ engagement with your organization.

You’ve seen this at work in movies, TV shows and plays. There’s a classic “three-act structure” where there’s an “inciting incident” that creates tension, then there’s drama, then resolution to relieve the tension.

This approach has been used for centuries because it works. But there’s a specific way to do it in fundraising…

What Works Best

If you look at the best-performing fundraising programs – in terms of net revenue and donor retention rates – you’ll notice the following approach. I’m sure you’ve seen it yourself:

  1. They create tension with powerful appeals
  2. The relieve tension with powerful newsletters

There are a few outliers. But when we started Better Fundraising and really dug into the data, we saw that some organizations drastically outperformed their peers.

The high-performing organizations tended to have a mix of appeals and printed donor-centric newsletters.

The Simple Explanation

Great appeals create tension by presenting unsolved problems to donors.

They remind donors that all is not right with something the donor cares about. They leave the donor hanging. The donor does not know what’s going to happen.

That’s why great newsletters relieve the tension by sharing stories of how the problem has been solved.

They “close the loop” for the donor. They show the donor, usually through a story of a beneficiary, that the problem was indeed solved.

This leaves the donor feeling satisfied. Pleased that her gift made a difference. Trusting the organization more.

I Don’t Know Why, but the Data is Clear…

You raise less money when you create and relieve tension in the same piece of fundraising.

The standard theory: when you relieve your donor’s tension, you remove some of her emotional momentum and reason to give.

But when you leave your donor with a little tension, she is more likely to take action. Because by taking action, she resolves the tension.

She can say to herself, “I know that I helped. I know that I did my part.”

Side note: note that in this scenario, the donor is giving to help someone and to “scratch her own itch” – to relieve the tension she feels. She is not giving to scratch the organization’s itch. My personal theory: if more organizations knew that donors gave mostly to scratch their own itches, organizations would make more donor-centric fundraising, and a LOT more money would be raised.

How Does This Help You?

Great question. This whole line of thinking is a bit conceptual. So here are your takeaways:

  1. During your year, you should have a mix of printed appeals and printed newsletters
  2. Your appeals should present current problems to donors – not share a story of someone you’ve already helped, or work you’ve already done (free tips here)
  3. Your newsletters should be full of stories of people you’ve helped and work you’ve already done (just be sure to give credit for those things to your donor)
  4. Don’t try to do both things (share a need and a “story of success”) in the same piece of fundraising. When you do that, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

And Up Next…

Many organizations don’t like to share current problems, or unsolved problems with their donors.

I get it. It’s uncomfortable.

But it sure works better. And I think that the arguments that there’s something wrong with that approach fall apart when examined.

I believe Asking in this way is a form of donor love. Or #DonorLove.

I call it #DonorToughLove, and I’ll write about it next…


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

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