‘If you send this appeal letter you won’t get invited to any holiday parties’

No Parties For You

A client just told me a fantastic story that I have to share.

It’s a perfect – and funny – encapsulation of the fear that many nonprofits have about fundraising.

Here’s the Story…

Their organization helps smart, underprivileged young women go to college. It’s an incredible program.

They’ve sent out a couple of direct mail appeals here and there. Each would raise between $2,000 and $3,000. This revenue was always a pleasant surprise to the organization because they raise most of their money through a couple of events.

Last fall, they hired me to write a year-end appeal for them.

When the organization’s Founder reviewed my appeal draft, she was worried. She thought it was too aggressive. Too bold. “We don’t ask for support like this,” she thought.

So she showed it to her Board. Same reaction there: the appeal was too aggressive. One Board Member was really worried. She said to the Founder…

“If you send this letter out, you’re not going to get invited to any holiday parties!”

That is so bad it’s good.

Let’s take a look at that reaction. The person who said it was afraid that a fundraising letter would somehow offend donors. And that the offense would be so great that the donors wouldn’t invite the Founder to any of their holiday parties.

In what world would that actually happen?

Now, I don’t want to dismiss the Board Member’s feelings. They are real, and they matter. It can feel weird and risky to ask for money. Direct mail is a weird medium.

But the Board Member’s reaction was based in fear. And fear is a lousy way to determine communication and fundraising strategies – especially given we have 70 or 80 years of best-practices in the field of direct mail fundraising to base our decisions on instead. Thankfully, the Founder said, “You know what? We’re paying an expert to do this. We should do what the expert says.”

How Did the Letter Do?

The letter raised over $75,000, and money was still coming in when the Founder told me this story.

That’s approximately 25 times more than their previous letters raised.

There were zero complaints. And the Founder was invited to just as many holiday parties as she normally was.

I share this to help nonprofits understand a couple powerful ideas:

  1. Effective direct mail might make you uncomfortable, but it’s not for you. It’s for your donors. And your donors experience the letters differently than you do.
  2. There are 70 or 80 years of best-practices in direct mail fundraising (most of which also applies to email fundraising). Those best-practices became best-practices because they bring donors closer to your organization, not drive donors away.

So please, as you create your fundraising this year, don’t base your reactions in fear. Fear of effective fundraising almost cost this organization $70,000! And that’s in just one letter. Think about all the other letters they’ve sent over the years.

Don’t let that happen to your organization. Follow the best-practices. Ask boldly. Your donors will love hearing the difference they can make, and you’ll raise more money!


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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