The Ingredients in Successful Offers

We’re doing a series of posts that explain “fundraising offers” so that you can use this super-tool to raise more money.

The previous post talked about what an offer is. My definition is as follows:

You can think of the offer as the very short summary of what you’re communicating to the donor about at this moment.

Over the last 70 years, smart fundraisers have noticed that successful offers tend to have a few things in common. Here’s my attempt to break down what you need to know – the ingredients that give you the best chance of succeeding…

The Four Elements of Successful Offers

Here are the four “elements” or “ingredients” that I always include when I create fundraising, and look for when I review fundraising…

  1. A solvable problem that’s easy to understand
  2. A solution to that problem that’s easy to understand
  3. The cost of the solution seems like a good deal
  4. There’s urgency to solve the problem NOW

My next posts are going to look at each of these elements in turn.

Today, we’re going to break down what’s in the first element, “a solvable problem that’s easy to understand.”

A solvable problem that’s easy to understand

There are three main ideas here.

A Problem

First, let’s talk about “a problem.” When you are talking to all of your donors (appeals, emails, events, newsletters, etc.) your fundraising will raise more money if it talks about a problem that needs to be solved.

This is the hardest hurdle for most nonprofits to jump. Most nonprofits don’t want to talk about problems. They don’t want to talk about the needs of their beneficiaries. Or about the negative consequences if the organization were not able to do its work.

This is not the place to dig into why that happens.

But I hope you’ll trust both my good intentions and 25 years of experience when I say this:

Sharing a need or a problem with your donors will help donors remember why they give to you in the first place, will help donors remember that there are people in need right now, will not take away from the “dignity” of your beneficiaries, and will help you raise more money.

To share some examples, here are some “problems” I’ve used in just the last week:

  • “Operas in future seasons are at risk of not being funded”
  • “A smart, underprivileged girl has qualified for college but can’t afford to go”
  • “Children are being sexually abused, and the people around them don’t know the signs or what to do about it”
  • “We have a budget shortfall”


The problem you share needs to be “solvable.”

More donors respond when you present them with a problem that can be solved quickly or easily.

For instance, if the main problem your letter presents is “poverty in Africa” or “illiteracy in our country,” those problems are too big to be solved today. You won’t raise as much as you can.

Here’s my explanation for why. At some level, the donor knows that her gift will not “end illiteracy.” She knows that she can’t “end poverty in Africa.” So she believes your letter a little less. And she’s less likely to give a gift.

Instead, you want to share “solvable” problems like “one poor family in Africa” or “one junior high class that’s struggling to read.” The donor can easily see how those are solvable problems. Now she believes in your letter a little more, and is more likely to give a gift.

Easy to Understand

Finally, the problem needs to be easy for the donor to understand.

This is where it’s helpful to remind organizations that their donors do not know nearly as much about the problem you’re working on as the organization does.

Organizations tend to present complex problems to donors – problems that require a lot of context to fully understand and be moved by.

The problem with that strategy is twofold:

  1. The vast majority of donors don’t have all that context. So the fundraising isn’t meaningful to them.
  2. You’re communicating with those donors in the mail or email, where they are only giving you a few seconds of attention before deciding what to do. You don’t have time to give them all that context in just a few seconds! It’s like trying to give someone a PhD in a week. No matter how smart they are, it’s not going to work.

Let me share an example with you. We serve an organization whose mission is to “end generational homelessness.” It’s an awesome mission, and they’re an incredible organization. Their ED is one of the most inspiring leaders I know.

But when they make “generational homelessness” the problem in their fundraising, they raise less money.

That’s mostly because “generational homelessness” is a) not solvable with a gift today, and b) a really complex problem.

The fundraising offer we moved them to – the main thing they talk about at almost all times – is “Local moms and kids are homeless, and you can provide them with a safe place to stay for a night.”

The problem “local moms and kids are homeless” requires a lot less time and understanding from a donor – and it’s helped this organization grow their fundraising by an average of 20% per year for the five years we’ve been working with them.

Next Up…

The next post will show you how to use the second element in successful fundraising offers: “A solution to that problem that’s easy to understand.”

And listen, all of this probably seems like a lot of work.

It is.

But it works like crazy.

Our industry has 70 years of knowledge about how to create powerful offers. It can’t be downloaded to your brain, Matrix-style, in 10 minutes.

But I’m taking apart “offers” bit by bit, and explaining them, so that you can make powerful offers for your organization.

Because a powerful fundraising offer will help you raise a lot more money.

Read the entire series:

  1. How to Create a Great Fundraising Offer: What’s an Offer?
  2. Why a Good Fundraising Offer Works So Well
  3. The Ingredients in Successful Offers
  4. How to Describe the “Solution” Your Organization Provides
  5. How to Raise More Money by Asking for the Right Amount
  6. How and Why to Give Your Donors a Reason to Give Today
  7. What About Internal Experts Who Don’t Like Fundraising Offers?
  8. How to Make Sure a Low-Priced Offer Does NOT Produce Small Gifts
  9. Half As Important
  10. Offers for Major Donors
  11. Summarizing and Closing This Chapter on Fundraising Offers

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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