Four Times You Can ‘Break the Rules Like an Artist’

Break the rules.

There are best practices for direct response fundraising for a reason.

Smart Fundraisers and organizations, looking at patterns over the last 70 years, have noticed that some tactics in appeals and e-appeals work better than others.

But there are absolutely times you can “break the rules” and succeed. Sometimes succeed wildly.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
— Pablo Picasso

Here are four instances when you can break the rules…

The Story, or Storyteller, is Incredible

My general rule of thumb is to ask the donor to give a gift, and tell her what her gift will accomplish, no later than the third or fourth paragraph.

But if the story in the letter is so dramatic and powerful that it’s a good bet the reader will keep reading, you can absolutely work the ask in later.

Also, some nonprofit leaders are so good at storytelling that their letters just draw people in. In that case it’s also OK to delay the ask. But that happens in perhaps 5 out of 100 organizations, in my experience.

Fiscal Year-End

I’m always banging on about how it always works better to ask donors to “help beneficiaries” than it does to ask donors to “support the organization.”

That said, a “Fiscal Year-End Appeal” is as close to a sure thing as you can get.

Each year I’m a little doubtful because asking donors to “help us end our fiscal year strong with a gift today” feels like it violates my core understanding of how fundraising works… and each year it works great.

As an aside, a “shortfall letter” that asks donors to “erase the shortfall” will also always work well. And you can do them more often than you think.

Writing to major donors

As a rule, a major donor is more likely to read more of what you send them than a mass donor is.

So you can take longer to get to the point. You can be more relational. Your letter or email can be more personal.

Don’t ignore the foundational truth that a significant percentage of people will scan, not read, whatever you send them. But major donors are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and read more.

The Situation is Extraordinary

The pandemic is a good example of this. The situation was so extra-ordinary that organizations simply could explain how their beneficiaries were being negatively affected, ask donors to help, and money poured in.

The asks didn’t need to be specific. Exactly what the donor’s gift would do sometimes didn’t even get explained.

But any time donors know that a situation is extraordinary and harmful, you don’t need to “follow the rules” as closely to get them to respond. This goes for most natural disasters, whether they are news globally or local in scale.

The Rest of the Time

In the meantime – when you’re not in one of the above situations – develop a practice. Learn as much as you can. Don’t treat any one piece of fundraising as precious.

Learn the “rules” like a pro, and you’ll know when to break them like a fundraising artist.


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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