Why Easier to Understand Wins Every Time in Direct Mail Copy


When you’re writing fundraising copy, before you add a sentence, explain more, or tweak what you’ve already written… stop and ask this question.

Does this make it easier to understand or harder to understand?

It can be so tempting to complicate things. Explain the extenuating circumstances. Explore the nuances. Add something interesting but only loosely related.

But then you end up with something that is harder for your donors to understand.

As a professional fundraising copywriter, I ask myself this question all the time. It keeps me focused on what’s important to my reader, not just what’s important to me.

Here’s something you can try that might make it easier to write things for donors to read. Imagine you ARE your donor.

Do you ever wake up and think, “Hey, I’d like to read something really complicated today – where I have to read every sentence three times – and then I’m STILL wondering what’s happening?”

Probably not.

This is especially true if it’s something you don’t have to read.

When it comes to donors who are busy and moving fast, easier to understand wins out over harder to understand every time.

By the way, this also means easier to understand leads to more donations when you ask donors to give. Because donors must understand what you need before they’ll give.

Now we’re talking!

So next time you sit down to write fundraising copy, don’t forget this important question: does this make it easier to understand or harder to understand?

Bonus idea! Easier to understand vs. harder to understand is also important when you’re editing fundraising writing, planning a presentation, or communicating with donors in any way.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Stay in the Now

In the now.

When asking for support in an appeal letter or e-appeal, stay in the now.

Don’t talk about what your organization has done in the past. Don’t talk about how many people you’ve helped in the past. Don’t tell a story about someone you’ve helped in the past.

Here’s why…

In our experience, the most successful appeals focus on what is happening now and what the donor can do about it. Here are some examples:

  • There is a person who has a disease, and you can supply the cure.
  • There’s a classroom of kids that’s behind in math. You can provide the tutoring to get them caught up and even testing ahead of grade level.
  • Today there’s a person with a vestibular disorder and she’s dizzy. You can connect her to a trained physician.

You get the idea.

Anything else in the appeal that’s not about “what’s happening right now and what the donor can do about it” tends to be:

  1. A distraction from what’s going on now, and
  2. Takes up space you could be using talking about what’s going on now

You should mention and focus on the good things that have happened in the past when you are Reporting back to your Reports (usually in your newsletters). Or when you have more time to make the ask, like at an event or in a meeting with a major donor.

But when you’re asking for support in an appeal or e-appeal – when donors are doing more “scanning” than reading – it’s “what’s happening right now that a donor can help with” that is the most likely to cause a donor to give a gift.

Two Futures to Mention

I can think of only two times to mention the future in an appeal.

The first is when you share what the outcome of the donor’s gift will be. Using the examples above, that could look something like this:

  • When you supply the cure, you completely eliminate the disease from a person’s body. They will go on to live a normal, healthy life!
  • The tutoring you make possible will radically improve the students’ understanding of math. They’ll become more likely to graduate, to go to college, and even to get high-paying jobs!
  • For a person with a vestibular disorder, connecting with a physician means they’ll get a proper diagnosis and be on the path to a dizziness-free life and be able to leave the house again.

The second is to share the vision of the organization for the future. That results in examples like this:

  • Your gift will also help eradicate the disease, creating a disease-free world!
  • Our goal is to create a world where every child possesses the math and STEM skills they need to succeed.
  • We believe that every person with a vestibular disorder deserves a good diagnosis, and your gift helps us work towards that future.

But in our experience, focusing on “what’s happening now and what the donor can do about it” is the surest way to a gift in the mail and email.

Start on Common Ground

Brain fog.

If you would like your letters and emails to raise more money, they should begin by talking about something the donor already understands, as opposed to asking the donor to learn something new.

Here’s a made-up example of an appeal that starts by asking the donor to learn new things.

Did you know that 19% of the families in our community have no exposure to the Arts? We call them L.E.A.H.s (Lacking Arts Exposure Households) and a LEAH might be arts-curious, but never had an enjoyable introduction to the Arts that was relevant to their life.

Look at all the work the reader has to do:

  • Understand a statistic
  • Learn a new acronym
  • Learn a new phrase (“arts-curious”)

All that and they haven’t reached the second paragraph!

A Neuroscientist would say, “That paragraph puts a large cognitive load on the reader.” So do you think the reader is more likely to keep reading, or less likely to keep reading, after a paragraph like that?

Now, here’s an alternative approach to the first paragraph, one that begins with what the donor already knows…

A lot of families in our community don’t have the same relationship with the Arts that you and I do. And I know you’d love for everyone to experience the same fulfillment and joy that you feel. But too many people were never introduced to the Arts in a way that was relevant to their life.

In addition to sounding more personal and less like a teacher, that paragraph opens by talking about things the donor already understands and cares about.

A paragraph that speaks to the common ground the organization shares with the donor will create connection with the donor.

The donor is now more likely to keep reading. Which means the donor is now more likely to donate.

Is there ever time for a statistic or bit of education? Sure. But most likely at an event or in some other context (lunch with a major donor, blog post) where both you and the donor have more time.

In a context like the mail or email where donors are moving fast (when was the last time you read a fundraising email top to bottom on your phone?) start with something the donor already knows. Not an education barrier.

What to Do When You Have a Mid-Year Budget Shortfall

fill the gap

I’ve heard something like this at least a half-dozen times this week…

“We used to receive grant funding but that is way down.” Or “We received PPP money and that’s running out.” Or “During and after the pandemic our donors really stepped up, but they aren’t giving like they used to.”

Here’s what’s going on in most cases: most nonprofits set their budget based on giving the previous year.

But we just lived through a three-year period that was anything but normal. So if you based your 2023 budget on 2022 giving, you may find yourself with a funding shortfall the second half of the year begins.

This means you need to do all you can to raise as much money as possible the second half of this year.

Even though you’re faced with this problem, this is actually GOOD news for your fundraising. Why? Your shortfall is a problem donors can solve!

Figure out where your funding gaps are, and ask your donors for help filling them. Major donor development, mass donor appeals and even a special event are all successful tools nonprofits use to erase their shortfalls.

The fundraising shortfall you’re facing is a fundraising opportunity for your donors to step up to help in a big way.

Do not fear! Make the most of this time to be bold and confident in your fundraising outreach. You can do it!

Donors love to feel needed. And I suspect you’ll be surprised and encouraged with the results!

A Little Visual Punch


Last week I wrote about how adding ”handmade” touches to the design of your appeal letter can increase the chances it will connect with a donor.

Here’s another tool you can use: add elements that catch their eye and add impact to your message.

Look at the following table included in a recent successful appeal letter:

This table does a GREAT job communicating the main point of the letter; that the cost of living has dramatically increased for the beneficiaries of this organization.

We created the table and put it in the letter because the paragraphs we’d written about the increased costs just didn’t seem to be making an impact. The letter lacked punch. Something more visual and powerful was needed.

As you think about doing something like this in your fundraising, here are four qualities I’m aiming for as I help create something like this…

Visual Surprise

It’s a visual surprise to see a table like this in the middle of the letter copy. It sticks out, and readers’ eyes are drawn to it. Visual interest at key areas leads to more readers, and more readers leads to more givers.

Easy to Understand

Even though there are a lot of numbers, the chart is easy to understand.

The items in the left column are something every donor understands. The “% INCREASE” header of the right-hand column is bold and makes it easy to know what the table is about. And the percentages in the right column are also easy to understand.

Easy to Understand FAST

Most readers will read the upper left corner (“RICE IN HAITI”) and then blip right over to “% INCREASE” and “40.07%.” I suspect most people then immediately a) understood the point the table was communicating, b) immediately knew that the rest of the table just gave them more examples, and then c) moved on to the rest of the letter without reading anything else in the table.

For something like this to be successful, the reader should not have to read the whole thing.

Higher Impact

The size and type in the table communicate importance. The table made the point more strongly than a sentence like, “prices are rising dramatically, as much as 40% in Haiti for rice and 140% of potatoes in India.”

As you create your fundraising, always be on the lookout for ways you can spice up your letter by communicating information in ways other than words. Get good at it and your fundraising will have higher impact, higher engagement, and higher revenue.

Ask Before a Need (not after)

The early bird gets the worm

The the third idea I use to help organizations create fundraising plans that raise more money is this:

Ask before a Need.

(You can find the first two ideas here and here.)

Put another way, you’ll raise more money if you appeal for funds right before your donors understand you have a need for funds.

To illustrate the principle, think of the classic “Back To School” appeal in the Education sector. Schools and Education Foundations routinely send “Back To School” appeals in September, after the students have already gone back to school.

We’ve helped maybe fifty schools and Education Foundations raise more money (with basically the same letters and emails!) simply by moving their Back To School appeals from September to late July or August.

Just by making the ask before a need, rather than after, they raise significantly more money. Usually between 1.5x and 2x more.

Here’s why “asking before a need” works so well. When an organization asks donors to help after you’re already helping your beneficiaries, you’re just asking donors to fund work you’re already doing. That’s not particularly exciting to donors.

When an organization asks donors to help before the Need arrives, you’re asking donors to play a powerful role in meeting the need right as it happens. That’s exciting to donors.

Specific Timing

So, if your beneficiaries or your organization experience a Need, schedule your Asks (appeals, e-appeals) before the Need.

In general, send your appeal letter about 6 weeks before the Need begins. If you’re running an email campaign, start it about 2 weeks before the Need begins. If you’re only doing a couple of emails, start them 2 or 3 days before the Need begins.

If you want to have the largest impact, do all three:

  • Direct mail about 6 weeks before the Need begins
  • An email campaign starting about 2 weeks before the Need begins
  • Multiple emails in the 2 or 3 days before the Need begins

Next Year

As you plan your year, here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Identify the “Needs” faced by your beneficiaries
  2. Schedule your Asks before those needs
  3. Ask your donor to send in a gift to help meet the need

This simple shift will help you raise more money with the exact same number of communications you sent the year before.

Why your direct response fundraising should be like a Hallmark Christmas movie…


Something strange happens to me at the end of October.

I’m a smart, logical, educated person who appreciates arts and culture.

But at the end of October when Hallmark Christmas movies start playing 24/7, I turn into… someone else. Someone who will watch movie after movie with essentially the same characters and the same plot. Someone who tears up at the end of the movie when the lovers FINALLY kiss and then a gentle snow begins to fall.

Sigh. It’s so sappy.

But I’m a direct response fundraiser, so I notice something else.

A Hallmark Christmas movie reminds me of effective direct response fundraising. It’s formulaic. You know what’s coming next. The plot is easy to follow. And you may tear up because, gosh dang it, it’s emotional!

And it works.

Every year, they make more of these movies because people – like me – are watching them!

Sometimes we try to make our direct mail fundraising appeals into something more like a Cannes Film Festival entry. Complex. Ironic. Edgy. Different.

But that just doesn’t work as well.

If you want to appeal to the highest number of donors, your direct mail fundraising should be more like a Hallmark Christmas movie.

Here’s the basic formula:

  • Tell them why you’re writing to them
  • Share the problem that needs to be solved
  • Tell how the problem could be solved
  • Ask the donor to give a gift to solve the problem
  • Go into more detail about the problem and solution
  • Include a story that illustrates the problem (optional)
  • Ask them to give again
  • Signature and title
  • P.S. Ask them to give again and include the deadline.

Listen. I get it. Near the end of every single Hallmark Christmas movie, I grumble and complain and wonder why I watch these silly movies.

Then the snow starts to fall and there’s a magical kiss and I’m a puddle on the floor.

There’s something about that feeling…

The direct response formula isn’t a secret. Simple. Easy to follow. Emotional. Maybe a little bit of magic… These things help donors get to the point where they will write a check to make something good happen.

Follow the formula with your next direct response fundraising appeal or email and let me know how it goes!

Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

How to Avoid the “What does that mean?” Offramp

Off ramp.

I have a rule I follow when creating fundraising:

Avoid any statements that could cause a reader to think, “What does that mean?”

It seems like a simple rule, no? But it gets broken all the time – and most damagingly in a specific, important part of fundraising: phrases or sentences that are emphasized with underlining or bolding.

Here are several real-life examples of emphasized copy that have come across my desk in the last couple of weeks.

All of these were the first sentence in the appeal that was emphasized. Because most readers scan before they read, that means that for a large percentage of readers, these sentences were the first thing donors read in the letter.

Ask yourself as you read these: did this immediately make sense to the donor?

“One thing led to another… but you took care of that!”

“Your investment will make a real, lasting impact in the lives of those who are struggling in silence.”

“I wish for a good night’s sleep.”

“That is why I’m reaching out to you for a donation today.”

None of those sentences are easy to understand without additional context.

Which means that each of them was an “offramp” – an opportunity for the reader to delete or put down the appeal.

Good Examples

If you visually emphasize any words in your appeals, make sure they can be easily understood on their own. Here are some examples of first emphasized sentences that were effective:

“Today kicks off [ORGANIZATION NAME]’s fundraising campaign to launch our Comedy Bootcamp classes in San Diego and Indianapolis later this year.”

“The seal pup has several stingray barbs lodged in its face.”

“You can follow in the footsteps of your faith and feed needy children and their families by making a gift today.”

“There is still a $14,000 shortfall to reach our fiscal year fundraising goal.”

Each of those sentences is easy to understand. If a donor wants to know more, they can keep reading.

But they don’t need to read more to understand.

Here’s What to Do

If this is a new idea for your organization, here’s a roadmap for what to do:

  1. Create your direct response fundraising with the assumption that donors will scan your fundraising, not read it.
  2. Think of your emphasized copy as the parts of your letter or email that people are likely to read.
  3. Make sure that everything that’s emphasized is understandable on its own.
  4. Taken together, all the emphasized words and phrases should provide a summary of the piece of fundraising.

Follow that roadmap and you’ll create what we call “two letters in one.” Your letter will be effective both for people who are moving fast, and for people who read every word.

And that, my friend, is effective direct response fundraising!

How to Write As If You’re Talking to One Person


Experienced copywriters say things like this all the time:

“The best fundraising sounds like it’s from one person to one person.”

But how do you write fundraising and make it sound like you’re talking to one person?

Here’s how. The following are the ideas I have in my head as I create fundraising materials. One or all of them should help you!

Have One Person in Mind

Most of your donors will have several common traits. You can create a fictional person, imbue them with the traits your donors have, and write your letters/emails/newsletters to that person.

At my first fundraising job, there was a cardboard cutout of an older woman right inside the front door. We were instructed to write all our letters to her.

The fancy marketing word for this is “persona.” Large nonprofits with lots of donors have multiple personas; personas for online donors, personas for major donors, personas for event participants, etc.

The point is the same: visualize who you are writing to and then write to that one person.

Watch Your Plurals

If you’re writing to one person, you don’t use the plural to refer to him or her.

So don’t use plurals like these in your fundraising writing:

  • “Dear Friends,”
  • “All of your gifts…” (which doesn’t make sense for a donor who has only given one gift)
  • “Thank you to everyone who…”

What you want to watch out for is anything that makes the reader think, “Oh, I thought this thing I’m reading was to me, but it turns out it’s to everybody.”

Use the Donor’s Name

Merge in the donor’s name. It’s commonplace to merge the donor’s name in the salutation, and it’s a pro move to merge their name in the letter itself.

For instance, if there’s a paragraph I particularly want the donor to read, I often use the donor’s name as the first word in a paragraph.

People are trained from birth to pay attention to what’s said immediately after their name. Use that to your advantage!

Use the Word ‘You’

This is the obvious one. Second only to a person’s name, the word “you” gets people’s attention.

But there’s another reason “you” is so helpful: it transforms a truth about your organization into a personal truth for the donor.

You can FEEL the emotional difference between, “A gift to our organization will fight cancer” and, “your gift will fight cancer.”

I have a general rule of thumb for when I edit fundraising: whenever I see the organization’s name, I try to delete it and replace it with the word “you.” It’s not the right thing to do in all cases, but it’s the right thing to do in most cases.

Use the Language a Donor Would Use

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who has a stellar vocabulary and kind of shows it off? Or talked to a person who’s an expert in their field and is constantly using jargon and you’re not quite sure what it means?

What’s the result when people like that talk to you? It makes you feel like the person isn’t really talking to you. It makes you feel like they are kind of talking to themselves and people “just like them.”

By using language that insiders value and appreciate, a lot of nonprofits accidentally make their donors feel like outsiders.

But using language that a donor would use crosses the gap to donors, instead of widening the gap.

Think of It This Way

Donors are looking for organizations that make it easy for them to understand what’s going on in the world and how their gift will help.

If you follow these rules, you’ll create fundraising that makes each of your donors think, “Hey, this organization is writing to me.” She’s more likely to feel known, and you’ll make it easy for her to understand what you’re writing about.

And you’ll notice that your fundraising results will tick up meaningfully.