Lazy Summer Days – Are You Making the Mistake of Resting Your Donors?

Beach rest vacation.

In these last few summer days, I’m bringing you an important message.

Picture me, sitting in a beach chair. I’m relaxed. I’m on vacation. I am lulled into thinking the whole world is on vacation, including donors. Fundraising? Nah. Not a good time.

Danger! Danger!

This time of year, it can be so tempting to be lulled into the kind of thinking that causes you to raise less money. It’s the lazy last days of summer.

Donors need a rest from fundraising, right?


A couple years ago I was listening to Better Fundraising co-founder Steven Screen as he spoke at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference.

Steven shared this little gem, which has haunted me ever since:

“When you rest your donors, they can forget how to give to your organization.”


Thanks, Steven.

Here’s the reality of these lazy summer days.

SOME of your donors are checked out at the end of summer. But many donors are not checked out!

You have donors in your file right now who are ready to give, if only they knew the problem and how they could make it better. If only you would ask them to give!

And here’s the thing: other organizations are in your donor’s mailbox right now, reminding them how they can help, while you – giving these donors a rest – are slowly fading from their memory. There’s a thought to ruin a lazy beach day.

When you make the decision to rest your donors, you’re taking their choices away from them. You are deciding they won’t give… without even asking them!

Here’s something you can do today.

If your organization has a need… send your donors a fundraising email! And in next year’s calendar, pencil in an August appeal. Do not schedule a rest for your donors.

Repurpose the Proven


In a movie directed by Oliver Stone in the second half of the 1980’s, Charlie Sheen plays a young man who follows a bad father figure, then turns to follow a good father figure. Can you name the movie?

If you said Platoon, you are right. If you said Wall Street, you are right. Both movies told the same story, and both were a huge success. The primary difference was that Platoon took us into the green jungles of Viet Nam circa 1967, and Wall Street took us into the concrete jungles of Manhattan circa 1985.

Here’s my point: Wall Street premiered less than 12 months after Platoon, but no one who saw it complained, “Hey, we were told this story last year!”

That’s a quote from Roy H. Williams, one of my favorite writers. 

It’s one of those quotes that’s not about fundraising, but it’s absolutely about fundraising.

Because if you’re going to get good at fundraising, you’re going to find yourself telling the same “story” over and over again.

The beneficiary will change.  The circumstances and details will change.  But it’ll be the same “story” in the way Platoon and Wall Street are the same story.

Because when you find a particular “story” that elicits the response in your donors that you’re looking for, you want to repeat that “story.”  Again and again and again.

You’ll get tired of it.  But no one will complain and say, “Hey, we were told this story last month.”  Because a vanishingly small number of donors will notice that the “story” was the same. 

There are types of stories that work better than others.  For instance, there’s a type of story that works best for appeals and e-appeals.  There’s a type of story that works best for newsletters and “report backs.” 

Again, you or your organization might get tired of the story types that work best for you.  But don’t let your organization’s boredom with any particular story type get in the way of creating effective communications for your donors.

People Make Donations to Tell Ourselves…


You and I make donations in order to tell ourselves who we are.

Each donation we make is a small step to:

  • Become who we want to be
  • Continue to be who we want to be
  • Remake the world in the way we think it should be

Those are CORE motivations for individual donors.

Does your fundraising to individual donors speak to those core motivations?

Because doesn’t it seem obvious that, if you tap into those motivations, your organization would raise more money?

To tap into those motivations, your fundraising will need to tell donors that they’ll love giving to your organization. Your fundraising will need to tell them that your organization has the same values that your donor has. Your fundraising will need to communicate, “people like you give gifts to this organization.”

And then the donor’s intellect will find the facts it needs to justify the donation.

Fundraising that says those things feels very strange at first, because most organizations are used to talking about themselves, their organization, and what they do.

But it’s always good to remember that ineffective fundraising to individuals is about your organization and the services it provides. Effective fundraising to individuals is about your donor and their life.

Of course your fundraising should mention your organization. And even mention some of what you do. But your fundraising to individuals should not be ABOUT your organization or what it does – big difference.

Here’s an example:

Your gift to the Hospital Foundation allows us to provide top-notch healthcare to members of our community. Our leading cancer research team is diligently working to discover new treatments.

That’s about the organization.

Your giving to the Hospital Foundation shows that you’re a hometown hero. You care about people fighting cancer and want new treatments available as soon as possible.

That’s about the donor.

Make more of your fundraising to individual donors about the individual, and watch the magic happen.

Four Accidental Barriers to Connection with Your Donors

Traffic cones.

I see four main ways that organizations accidentally place barriers between their organization and their donors…

Design/Type Size

Here’s the situation in a nutshell: if your fundraising materials use small, hard-to-read type, you’re making it harder for older donors to read your fundraising. Fewer people reading your fundraising means you’ll raise less money.


Any time an organization finds itself using words and phrases that it uses when communicating with other professionals in your domain, that’s probably jargon.

Examples include phrases like, “provide quality resources” and “food insecure.” An example of a jargon-filled ask is, “Will you provide transition out of poverty case management support?”

Any time jargon enters your mass donor fundraising, it’s probably causing you to raise a little less money because it asks your readers to figure out exactly what you mean. Asking your readers to figure out what you mean is a sure path to fewer people reading your fundraising.

By the way, using jargon is usually a symptom of not differentiating who the audience is. When you’re submitting a grant application, of course you should use jargon because it’s a shared language with the grantor.

But jargon is not shared with the vast majority of individual donors. Don’t ask them to understand your vocabulary, make the generous act of “crossing the gap” to your readers by using language that they would use.

Too Much Organization

You’ve seen these before: fundraising materials that are overly focused on the organization itself. Organizations are in danger of this any time they talk about what their programs are, how those programs work, and how or what the organization thinks about their work.

But it’s a safe bet that individual donors care far more about what their gift will accomplish – what change will take place if they give – than they care about how the organization will make the change.

This barrier, too, tends to come from a lack of differentiation. Foundations and partner organizations are rightfully interested in programs and exactly how an organization will use their money and/or time. To that audience, content about the organization is appropriate. But individual donors are more interested in the change itself.

Going Conceptual

The final barrier is a sneaky one (even more sneaky than jargon). It’s using a concept or an abstraction as a primary description of what the donor’s gift will do/has done.

Here are some examples:

  • “Will you provide a special day?” instead of, “Will you send a child to summer camp for one day?”
  • “Your gift made Evelyn’s story possible” instead of, “Your gift made Evelyn’s recovery from child abuse possible.”
  • “Jamie found freedom, thanks to you!” instead of, “Jamie’s new wheelchair lets him go anywhere, thanks to you!”

Notice above that I said “primary description.” Concepts like the ones above are fine – helpful, even – when used to give your donor a fuller picture of what their gift will accomplish. But keep the concepts in the body of your fundraising message, and stay specific in places like the emphasized copy, the subject line, the reply card headline, the reply card action copy, and the Johnson box.

This advice is based on sending thousands of appeals, e-appeals and newsletters and noticing that the most effective communications to individual donors tend to have concrete, specific descriptions of what the donor’s gift will do or has done.

What’s Next?

Look through your organization’s fundraising materials to individual donors. Is your organization accidentally put up any barriers?

If you can identify and eliminate barriers like these, our experience is that you’ll immediately begin raising more money and be able to do more of your organization’s important work.

You’ll also know that you’re doing the right thing.

When you make the generous choice to create fundraising that’s more accessible to more people – making it easier to read, easier to understand, about what the donor cares about instead of about what the organization cares about – you’ve made your fundraising communications more inclusive to more people.

What To Do When Your Fundraising Results Are Flat


If the growth of your fundraising has flattened out, it’s most likely a result of a belief that’s holding you back. 

So, if your results are flat, it’s time to take a critical look at your organization’s beliefs about fundraising.

Here’s a list of beliefs that often prevent organizations from reaching the next level:

  • “Our donors can’t give any more”
  • “We don’t work with people or animals, so we can’t raise much”
  • “Not very many people care about our issue”
  • “We can’t ask our donors again this year”
  • “Asking our donors in a different way would cause us to raise less”
  • “We need much younger donors”
  • “[Media channel] would not work for our donors”
  • “No one on that side of the city would care about what we do on this side of the city”
  • “Our work is too complex for us to have many donors”
  • “Our donors wouldn’t like that type of fundraising”
  • “That type of fundraising might be successful in [that] country, but it wouldn’t work in our country.”

Organizations trust their beliefs to be true because believing in them brought the organization the success it currently enjoys.

The problem is that many of these “beliefs” are actually “blind spots.”  (And that’s completely understandable: most people in fundraising positions at smaller nonprofits didn’t receive much training, and most people in leadership positions aren’t that enthusiastic about fundraising in the first place.)

And so we arrive at the problem: to see what’s hiding in our blind spots, we need to alter one of our fundamental beliefs about how the world works.  But our pride causes us to have a deep, natural aversion to learning that our fundamental beliefs have been wrong.

So the question becomes, “Is your organization’s hunger to do more of your mission strong enough to cause you to listen to things you’d rather not hear?”

If your organization’s hunger is strong enough, time to examine your beliefs. Your beliefs got you to where you are, but often won’t take you to the next level.

Which of your beliefs should you examine?  Which of your beliefs should you warmly thank for getting you this far… and then set aside?

A Powerful Fundraising Sentence


Today I’d like to share one of the most powerful fundraising sentences I’ve ever heard. 

I’ll show you why it’s so powerful, and how to apply its lessons to supercharge your organization’s direct response fundraising.

Here we go…

It’s one of the most successful fundraising sentences I’ve ever heard:

“You can cure a major disease like Leprosy for just $250 dollars.”

This sentence has three main elements:

  • The “before” is that a person has leprosy
  • The “after” is that a person will be cured of their leprosy
  • The cost is $250

(If you need a refresher on how we use “before” and “after,” read this post or this post.)

Here’s how those elements work together…

  1. There’s a large contrast between “having leprosy” and “being cured of a dreadful disease.”  That’s a big change in a person’s life! 
  2. The cost to cause that big a change seems pretty minimal.   

Any time you can show a donor that they can make a big change with a gift, and the cost to “cause the change” seems like a good deal, you’re about to raise a lot of money.    

In Your Fundraising

In your fundraising right now, when you tell donors what will happen when they give a gift, does it feel like the donor will cause a big change?

The secret is finding a “before and after” with quite a bit of “distance” between them.

And the good news is that if you describe things well, almost all your “befores and afters” can seem powerful.  Here’s a list of examples off the top of my head:

  • “You can save an heirloom quilt from mold, moths and being forgotten for just $150.”
  • “You can provide a struggling village with a cistern that improves farming results, improves hygiene, lowers sickness and helps a village break the cycle of poverty for just $10,000.”
  • “You can help a child with disabilities go from unable to exercise to skiing with a qualified instructor and adaptive equipment for just $50.” 

Each of these is a fundraising “offer” (and here’s our free eBook on how to make great offers for your organization).

Your donors care about your beneficiaries and/or your cause.  If you can focus their attention on a portion of your work – a “before” and an “after” – that show a big change, and the cost of that change seems like a good deal, you’re on your way to even more fundraising success.  

The Distance

The graphic above is the best way I know to show why it’s so helpful to donors when nonprofits share “before and after’s” in their fundraising.

The distance between – the contrast between – the “before” and the “after” is what shows the donor the power of their gift. 

Here’s how it works…

Appeals & E-appeals

When you’re Asking for a gift in appeals and e-appeals, you want to share the “before and potential after.”  Describe the “before” – what’s happening now that needs to be fixed? Then describe the “potential after” that the donor’s gift will help make possible.

If the distance between the before and the potential after is large, the donor will feel like their gift will make a big difference. And when you make your donor feel like their gift will make a big difference, you’ll get more gifts.


When Reporting back to donors in newsletters, you want to share the “before and after.” Your newsletter story or E.D. letter should describe the “before” (what was happening that help was needed”) and then describe the positive “after” that the donor’s gift made possible.

If the distance between the before and the after is large, the donor will feel like their gift made a big difference. And when you make your donor feel like their gift made a big difference, you’ll get more future gifts.

More Important

When you create a lot of direct response fundraising, you quickly find out that donors care much more about the “before” and the “after” than they care about how your organization made the “after” possible.

So don’t spend time in letters and emails talking about your programs, or about how your programs work.  That’s the “how you made it possible.” Save that info for grant applications and the small group of major donors who love the ins and outs of your programs.

For direct response fundraising, show donors the big distance between the before and the after.  If you can get your donors thinking, “Wow, my gift can make that big a transformation?” or “Wow, my donation made that big a difference?” – they’ll loving giving to your organization because of the impact they can make. 

Two-Minute Survey


Hey, would you do me a favor?

Would you please take this two-minute survey?

Your answers will be completely anonymous.

I’m trying to figure something out. So that more organizations can raise more money. And you can help.

The survey is about appeals. You know, those letters and emails that raise tons of money but “nobody likes”? Yeah, those. I’m trying to figure out why fundraisers like you, and organizations like yours, don’t send more appeals.

Because sending a couple more appeals is the single easiest way to raise more money – especially for smaller organizations.

If you’ll share your thoughts with me, that would really help us as we work to increase the fundraising capacity of small-to medium-sized organizations.

And again, your answers will be completely anonymous. You can be as blunt and as honest as you’d like.

Please take the survey, and thank you so much!

How (and Why) an Organization Goes from 3 Appeals to 9 Appeals


Organizations that send out nine appeals a year weren’t born that way. 

They started with one appeal per year, and grew from there.

Organizations that grow in this way tend to follow a process. I’ve put the following graphic together to help illustrate the process, and I’ll put the lessons from each year below the graphic.

Click on the image to see a larger version

Year 1

This nonprofit has three different programs. Each appeal talks about all three of their programs.   

Year 2

The organization decides to focus their appeals more, so each appeal focuses only on one program.  And they make the changes in wording needed so that the funds raised from each appeal are undesignated.

They notice that the appeal about one of the programs raises more money than any appeal they’ve ever sent.  And they notice that, in total, they raise more through the mail than ever before.

Year 3

They replace the worst-performing appeal with a new version of their best-performing appeal.    

Internal stakeholders are concerned that one program is no longer mentioned, and one program has two appeals about it.  However, the organization raises more through the mail than ever before.

Year 4

Emboldened by how much money they are raising, they add two new appeals. One is focused on the program that raises the most, and one appeal is focused on the program that raises the second-most.

Internal stakeholders are convinced that “donor fatigue” is imminent.  However, all appeals continue to do very well.  The organization raises more through the mail than ever before, and notice that their overall donor retention rate has increased.

Year 5

They add two more appeals, for a total of seven. 

They notice, for the first time, that one of the appeals for their most popular program did not raise as much as it had in previous years.

The organization is concerned about that particular appeal, but they are not concerned about their overall program because they are raising more than they ever have before, and donor retention continues to improve.

Year 6

They add two more appeals, for a total of nine appeals. Of the two new appeals, one is a completely new appeal and one is about their second-most popular program.

Additionally, they pay particular attention to the appeal that didn’t work well the previous year. They find that its message veered off-topic, so they revise it for this year and it works great again.

The Process

Going from one appeal to nine appeals is a process. The same is true for fundraising emails.

And of course, as an organization goes through this process it should also be Reporting to its donors, use segmentation, have a Major Donor program, etc.

And the organization itself changes – the Development Department gets bigger, maybe an agency gets hired. 

But it’s just step-by-step growth. This is a well-known, proven path

And the results are clear.  Look at how many more dollar signs there are in Year 6 than in Year 1. That organization has meaningfully increased how much good it can do.

It’s also made the organization safer; if one appeal doesn’t work well, it’s insulated by several other appeals.

And it made the organization stronger – the increased volume of communication led to increased donor retention. They keep more of their donors year-over-year than they used to.

I’d call that a big win!