The Non-Obvious Mistakes that Cost You Money


This post is a list of what I call “non-obvious mistakes.”

No one in your organization will ever notice them.

But they cost you thousands of dollars every time you send out an appeal.

Because these mistakes are the difference between an appeal that raises $40,000 instead of the $68,000 it could have raised. These are the difference between an appeal that raises $2,500 instead of $8,000.

Regardless of how big or small your organization is, these non-obvious mistakes are expensive:

  • Lack of clarity about what the donor’s gift will do. Saying things like “Please send a gift today to provide hope” are not clear descriptions of what a donor’s gift will accomplish. As Brené Brown puts it, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” (Want to know how to be clear? Have a great offer.)
  • Not printing your donor’s name, address, and suggested gift amounts on their reply card. The tests are clear: customized reply cards with customized gift asks will increase the number of people who respond, and increase the size of gifts they give.
  • Mailing too many people. You’re sending your mailing to all your past donors, even the ones who haven’t given in several years.
  • Making your appeal hard to read. These are things like type that’s below 13pt, too many words per page, too-small margins, too much reverse-type, etc.
  • Not including clear reasons why the donor should give a gift right now, today. Most nonprofit appeals and e-appeals share what’s happening at the organization and ask for support. But they don’t include any reasons that the donor should give a gift right now – and then are weirdly surprised when very few donors give a gift today.
    How many of those mistakes is your organization making on a regular basis?

These get missed because – somewhat rightly – we’re usually focused on the obvious mistakes that everyone knows about:

  • Messing up donor data. Like addressing mail to me as “Dear Seven” instead of “Dear Steven” and doing it for years. (True story.)
  • Print shop foul-ups. Things like half of your donors getting a reply card for a different nonprofit. (Another true story. Super fun!)
  • Lousy Links. When the links and buttons in your email don’t lead donors to the right place.

Everybody who has done direct response fundraising for any length of time has a couple of these under their belt. Things happen. But you can build systems and processes to eliminate most of these obvious mistakes, most of the time.

But it’s the other kind of mistakes that kill you.

It’s the non-obvious mistakes that stop organizations from “making the leap” to the next level.

It’s the non-obvious mistakes that keep organizations from ever reaching the scale they need to make a big difference.

The best thing you can do is learn. Read this blog. Follow people who have done this stuff at scale. For instance, follow Lisa Sargent on Twitter – she’s rocking it lately with great advice. As much as possible, do what experienced people recommend, not what know-nothing opinion-havers in your organization say they like.

And for those of you who can’t do what experienced people recommend because people in your organization won’t let you – hold tight. I’m working on something I’m calling the Convince Your Boss Kit. Stay tuned. And for now, do as much as you can!


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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