Connect With What Your Donors ALREADY Feel


When organizations create their fundraising for individual donors, they usually have a goal that goes something like this:

Get donors emotionally connected to our work.

That’s a good goal – but it’s almost impossible to achieve in a letter or an email.

So I’d like to suggest a different goal for your mail and email:

Connect with the emotions that donors already feel.

Here’s why…

It’s easy to tap into a donor’s existing emotions. On the other hand, it’s hard work to teach donors about your work and then convince them to emotionally connect with it.

That’s too much to ask of a letter or email that most people will only spend a few seconds with.

So, construct your next letter or email to tap into the emotions about your beneficiaries or cause that you know your donors already have. You might know that they are angry about the injustice. Or that they are compassionate about the pain. Or that they get joy out of making the world a better place.

Whatever the emotions of your donors, name them for yourself and your team. Then build your fundraising to tap into them.

The result will be more engagement and more giving.

It’s the engagement and giving that will, over the years, result in your donors emotionally connecting with your work.



Your donors (and people in general) are looking for connection.

They tend to be more interested in hearing from a human, and less interested in hearing from an organization.

So make your fundraising look like it was made by a human, not an organization.

You can add hand-written copy at the top of your letter, like this…

Put hand-drawn brackets at the edges of an important paragraph, like so…

Or even something slightly silly – but thematically on target – like this…

You can jot a note next to the P.S., like this…

These human design touches can cause discomfort for people who prioritize “looking professional.”

But your mass donors are not deciding whether to give a gift based on how professional a letter looks. If our experience is any indication, the donors on your mailing list are deciding based on whether they connect with the letter. And little human, hand-drawn touches like these make your letter feel like it was made by a human. They increase your chances of connecting.

The Magic of an Evergreen Fundraising Offer


As organizations begin to fundraise more, we advise them to develop what we call an “evergreen offer.”

That’s an offer that is:

  • Easy for donors and non-donors to understand,
  • Closely aligned to your main mission, and importantly…
  • Can be “seasonalized” to work during different times of the year

Here’s an example of what this looks like for an organization we’ve served for almost a decade:

$33 provides a night of safety and care for a mom and her kids

What makes this offer so helpful for the organization is that it can be made to work during every season…

In the summer: “No Mom and her children should have to live and sleep outside during this dangerous heatwave. Your $33 provides a night of safety and care to help…”

In the winter: “It’s dangerous for a mother and her children to sleep outside or in their car during our freezing nights. Your $33 provides a night of safety and care to help…”

For Thanksgiving: “Mothers and their children should not have to be homeless at Thanksgiving! You can provide a night of safety and care – plus a Thanksgiving feast – for just $33…”

Evergreen Offers usually involve a program or service that your organization runs all year long. The trick is to break up seasons into “slices” and talk about the reason the program or service is needed during that season.

Then you’re always giving donors a reason to give now – which is one of the keys to raising money in email and the mail.

Evergreen offers also allow you to raise more money with less work. The “more money” part comes from growing more and more effective at delivering the offer. You quickly get better at knowing what to mention, and what not to mention.

The “less work” part comes from your spending less time inventing new things to talk about. And you spend less time creating each piece because you’ve already created something similar and successful in the past. You have a “model” to follow that makes all subsequent fundraising easier.

If you haven’t already, brainstorm ideas for your organization’s evergreen offer. Try them in email to see which one works the best. Then try it in the mail. You, and your donors, will love what happens!

Your Organization’s Habits – Are They Good?


Every nonprofit’s fundraising plan is a bundle of habits.

  • Some organizations habitually send out 4 appeals, 1 per quarter.
  • Some organizations habitually call all new donors.
  • Some organizations habitually send out a Christmas card to all donors. 

Think for a second about your organization’s habits. 

The big question is whether an organization has data to tell them whether their habits are helpful… or not.

Quick example.  I once served an organization that habitually sent Christmas cards to all their donors.  They were certain the cards helped with their year-end fundraising, but they had no data to back that up.  And they’d done it for so many years that no one around the table remembered a time when they didn’t send the cards.

So we divided their donors into two random-but-equal groups.  One group received the Christmas cards and the year-end campaign.  The other group did not receive cards, and only received the year-end campaign. 

In January we looked at the results.  The response rate, average gift size, and net revenue from each group was essentially the same. 

They discovered that their habit of sending Christmas cards did not increase how much money they raised.  But it did increase expenses. 

So the following year they dropped the habit. 

Please take a quick look at your organization’s habits.  Make a list of habits that have been directed by data.  By that I mean you’ve tried at least one alternative and the alternative was measurably worse. 

Then make a list of the habits where your organization has little to no information about how an alternate approach might work.  These are the habits that are likely to be personal preferences, or passion projects of an important stakeholder, or traditions that have been handed down from the past. 

The longer the list of habits without information, the more fundraising opportunity you have.

Writing Tip: Put the Most Important Information First


There’s a writing principle you should live by:

Put the most important information first

Here’s what I mean.  Here’s a sentence from an e-appeal I edited recently:

Industrial, resource-heavy growth threatens Maryland’s fragile wetlands.

This sentence does what we were taught to do in school: explain and provide context, then make the point. 

Let’s look at it again, this time with a simple sentence diagram (apologies if you get flashbacks to middle school):

Industrial, resource-heavy growth
<           explains the context            > 

threatens Maryland’s fragile wetlands.
  <  idea that matters most to the donor  >

The problem is that in the mail and email, the end of a long sentence is less likely to be read than the beginning of a sentence.  (Look at a heat map and you’ll see how little most people read when they first look at your fundraising.)

So you want to put the most important information first, and then explain.

So how should you write the sentence above if you assume that many readers are only going to read the beginning of a sentence?  You’d write something like this:

Maryland’s fragile wetlands are threatened
  <  idea that matters most to the donor  >

by industrial, resource-heavy growth.
<           explains the context            > 

Writing in this way is one of the reasons that effective fundraising in email and the mail feels different from what your English teacher taught you. 

Additionally, this approach occasionally results in using the passive voice. This bothers people sometimes because the rule they live by is to ’never use the passive voice.’ The rule *I* live by is that, on behalf of beneficiaries, I’ll break any grammar rule I need to in order to create more effective communication.

Because beginning with the idea that matters most to the donor will make a few more people “get the message” your fundraising is sending.  That causes a few more people to give, which causes your organization to do more good.

It’s a great, free way to get a little more out of each appeal and e-appeal!

The Need Never Ends


There’s an idea I recommend removing from your fundraising (if you use it):

Telling people that “the need never ends.

I’m sharing this because last week I saw a text-driven billboard from an organization I support. The billboard said:


I have no testing data on this particular idea or phrase. But even though the idea is 100% true, I suggest that it’s not a good idea to highlight to donors.

A core motivator for individual donors is to make a change happen. By saying that the need never ends, this organization is also guiding people’s attention on the fact that their contributions will never solve the problem – that the situation will never change.

Not exactly motivating, eh? Anyone want to make T-shirts with “Donors are Sysiphus”?!?

By focusing their donors’ attention on something that donors cannot change, the organization removes a core motivation to give.

Some gifts will come in, of course. All it takes for some people to donate is to be made aware of what’s happening. But more gifts tend to come in when fundraising gives donors reasons to give today – and “the need never ends” is not a reason to give today.

It’s important to note that there are people who are motivated by the need never ending. For instance, “subject matter experts” who think at the level of the cause yet also know that something still needs to be done today. Executive Directors and Directors of Development who know that they need to raise money every single year.

But 99% of the people driving by the billboard (or on your mailing list) don’t think like that.

So Instead…

For individual donors, use your fundraising to focus their attention onto something they can help change.

Share a need that’s happening right now, or 4 weeks from now.

This usually means narrowing the focus of the fundraising from the Cause or the Big Picture to the personal and relatable. Share a story of a person or thing that needs a little help right now. Or talk about the help that is needed over the next month.

The next time you find your fundraising talking about how big a problem is, I advise you to narrow the focus.

Donors don’t give because a problem is big; they give because a problem is solvable.

Tips on Verb Tenses in Fundraising


There’s a little thing I do when writing fundraising that people have found helpful. 

It’s about which verb tenses to use, and when to use them.  I use it to avoid the “eternal now-ness” of fundraising speak where the donor’s support has always been happening, yet is also always needed, and of course always accomplishing great things – all at the same time. 

You can learn it in a free video that Chris Davenport and I made over at the Storytelling Conference website.

It’s less than three minutes.  And really it’s less than that because the last 20 seconds or so is me making a pitch for the Storytelling Conference because there’s a sale on right now.  

But it’s a simple little trick that, whenever I share this at a conference, people grab their pens and write it down. 


Mistakes in Fundraising that Work Out Well


Cross posted at

What do you think when you see this direct mail fundraising envelope?


A mistake? The handwriting goes across the window… that can’t be on purpose, can it?

Turns out, this was a mistake.  A miscommunication between the designer and the printer.

Big problem?

Nope.  It worked great.

It’s the kind of “mistake” that usually improves fundraising.  An odd, out-of-place, not-the-done-thing that grabs your eye and makes you cringe.

More often than not, this kind of mistake works for you, not against you.

I was once involved in a direct mail piece that included a bounce back paper placemat. Donors were asked to sign the placemat and return it with their donation.  The placemat would be put on the table at a meal the donation helped fund.  It’s a good (and proven) way to increase response to meal-focused offers.

But here’s the error: on the reply coupon, there was a quick reminder about the placemat.  Despite many layers of quality proofreading, the printed final that went to out donors said:

Please sign the enclosed placenta and return it with your donation.

Are you cringing?

Whether you are or not, the piece broke records for response. A few donors wrote to point out the bizarre error – mostly along with their donation.

Why did this mistake seemingly boost response?

Our theory: Errors grab attention. And someone who’s paying attention is likely to read for a few more seconds, and therefore a lot more likely to donate.

So when an error happens, it may not be a problem.  It might even be great!  So great you’d consider making a mistake on purpose.

Our Final Thoughts on Complaints


I had three main goals when putting this series together. I want organizations to:

  1. Not fear complaints
  2. Know how to respond to the complainer
  3. Have a right-sized internal reaction to complaints

But that’s not easy. Complaints are a scary subject for many organizations.

An organization doesn’t usually just “flip a switch” and become comfortable with complaints. It’s a journey with a handful of ideas on the way:

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not saying you should attempt to get complaints. It’s just that, in my experience, every organization that’s reliant on individual donors is going to get a complaint now and again.

So it’s better to have an understanding of what causes complaints, and to know how sophisticated organizations deal with complainers and their complaints.

Furthermore, as organizations grow they begin to see that the better an appeal does, the more likely it is to also generate complaints.

That’s because a great appeal or e-appeal tends to tap into peoples’ emotions. Most people will respond by sending in a gift. But the more people whose emotions you stir, the more likely you are to receive a complaint.

My hope is that organizations will realize that complaints are a cost of doing business for a growing organization. And that receiving the occasional complaint (or even five complaints) is worth it in exchange for raising more money, retaining more donors, and doing more good.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal
  4. Natural, But Not Productive
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints (this post)