Messaging Mishaps

What not to do.

There’s a difference between the messages most organizations want to send, and the messages that make donors want to give.

This is a Big Idea for organizations who want to grow their fundraising programs. Let me explain…

Most organizations have a way they like to talk about their organization and their work. They create this “way of talking about the organization” by having staff and core stakeholders come together and talk about why they think the organization is so effective and why its work is meaningful. And they talk about why they think people should give gifts.

Those ideas come together to form an organization’s messaging. And in some cases, those ideas are codified into a brand.

There are two important things to note here, and I believe they are the cause of most of the ineffective fundraising that’s out in the world.

First, note that the organization likes this messaging. Remember, the messaging is made up of the reasons staff and stakeholders think the organization is effective & meaningful. The “reasons for support” are the reasons those staff and stakeholders believe are the most important. The organization is sharing the reasons the staff and stakeholders think the donor should give a gift.

Second, most individual donors are markedly different from staff and stakeholders. The vast majority of individual donors – especially if an organization wants to scale past a few hundred donors – know less and care about different things than staff and stakeholders do.

Here’s a thought exercise for you…

If an organization sends out fundraising with messages that would motivate staff and stakeholders to give… but the people who receive the messages know less and care about different things than the staff and stakeholders… how well do you think the fundraising is going to work?

Not very.

The Leap

What happens for organizations that make “the leap” to the next level of fundraising success is that they start making their fundraising more other-centered.

The organization sets aside what staff and stakeholders like about their organization. They set aside why staff and stakeholders think people should support them.

The organization then does the hard work to figure out what donors tend to support. The organization does the hard work to figure out the messaging that causes regular people to respond.

So, are your appeals sending the messages your organization likes sharing? Or, are you sending or the messages that you’ve figured out are more likely to get a response? Because the messages an organization wants to send aren’t likely to be the messages that are most effective at causing individual donors to give.


If you’d like help creating and sending fundraising messages so that your organization makes “the leap” to your next level, get in touch. We stop taking new customers around the end of October because there’s so much to do for year-end, so if you’re interested, I’d encourage you to fill out this form for a free conversation.

What Becker the Yellow Lab Can Teach You about Fundraising Offers

Recently, I came across the strongest, clearest “offer” I’ve ever seen.

This “offer” came from my dog-nephew, Becker. He’s a one-year-old yellow lab.

Becker LOVES when people visit his house. And he presents one clear offer to each visitor:

“Will you play tug with me?”

Becker shares this offer using his warm brown doggie eyes, with a toy in his mouth and FULL confidence that you will say YES!

When you DO say yes, here’s the game:

You hold onto a toy that gets increasingly slimy while Becker tugs and shakes the toy until your teeth rattle. If you let go, he gives you a puzzled look and then gives you a chance to try again.

Taken at face value, this isn’t a game I would choose to play.

But I say yes nearly every time, because Becker presents his offer (play tug with me!) with urgency and contagious excitement (excited eyes and wagging tail). And I know what he wants is for me to grab the toy and hang on for dear life.

If I don’t respond, he is doggedly persistent and keeps nudging me with the toy until I respond.

Becker does all this without saying a word!

YOU can have this kind of success with your fundraising.

You see, Becker’s offer has three key nuggets that also make an effective fundraising offer.

  1. Shows a clear need
  2. Is urgent
  3. Tells the recipient exactly how to respond

When your fundraising offer is that clear, your donor doesn’t have to guess what’s needed right now. Nor does she have to guess what her gift will make happen. She knows exactly what to do!

This means you’re more likely to get a response and raise more money for your cause and your organization.

So next time you’re putting together a fundraising offer — whether it’s for an appeal, email, event, or in-person meeting — make sure you include all three of Becker’s heart-tugging tactics. Be clear with the need. Share the urgency. And make sure your donor knows what to do next with a clear instruction like “send in a gift today using the envelope I’ve enclosed for you.”

Be careful with the phrase, ‘You can help a person like…’


It’s a classic fundraising move.

The appeal letter or email tells a story about a person that your organization has already helped. Let’s call her Catherine. At the end of the story, thanks to your organization’s work, Catherine is doing great.

Then the very next paragraph says, “You can help a person like Catherine today with a gift!”

Whenever I see that I wonder to myself…

“Why did they ask me to help a person ‘like Catherine’? Catherine does not need my help! The whole emphasis of the story is that she’s been helped and is doing great – so if the person is ‘like Catherine’ then they don’t need my help!

It doesn’t make sense to ask the donor to help a person who has already been helped… right?!?

Now, you and I both know what’s going on here. The organization is using the phrase “help a person like Catherine” to mean something like, “help a person who today needs the same type of help that Catherine received.”

But here’s the problem. By not clearly saying what they mean, the letter is a) a little harder to understand, and b) hiding the need.

If I’ve learned anything in my fundraising writing career (30 years as of last month!) it’s that clearly saying what you mean will raise more money than kind of hinting at it and hoping that donors will get it. And I’ve learned that saying that “there are people who need help today” will help you raise more money (and help more people) than accidentally hiding the need.

So, I replace “help a person like…” with sentences like

  • “…help a person who is in the same situation today that Catherine was in: [describe the situation Catherine was facing that she needed help with].” An example of this would be, “You can help a person who is in the same situation today that Catherine was in: unable to afford a college education on her own.” This option still links the statement to Catherine, and clearly states the need that exists today.
  • Here’s another option: “…help a person that [state the services you provide and how they meet the needs]…” For example, “You can help a person by providing a scholarship that will enable them to go to college.” This option doesn’t flat out state the need, but it clearly indicates that the need exists.

It’s good to always remember how fast most individual donors are moving when they read fundraising.

So it’s good to review fundraising writing to make sure it means exactly what we are trying to mean. Any time we Fundraisers make the donor have to figure out what we mean, we raise less money.

The Reminder


Before your organization arrived in a donor’s life, their beliefs and values caused them to be generous, to believe in right and wrong, to care for people in their community.

In other words, they put themselves “on the hook.” They decided to take responsibility for some of the ills in the world and donate to help.

So if it ever feels uncomfortable to ask people for money, remember that the people you are asking put themselves on the hook. They are on your donor list or mailing list because they want to help.

So you shouldn’t feel guilty about sending out fundraising. You shouldn’t feel like you’re manipulating people.

Instead, be thankful and joyful they put themselves on the hook. Boldly ask them to put their money where their values are.

Fundraising doesn’t put donors on the hook. Fundraising reminds donors that they put themselves on the hook.

Fundraising is a Gift an Organization Gives


I’d like to interrupt the regularly scheduled blog with a big idea.

We believe that fundraising is a gift that a nonprofit gives its beneficiaries, donors, and community.

Most people don’t believe that fundraising is a gift. They believe that fundraising bothers donors. Or they believe that fundraising is emotionally manipulative. Occasionally they believe they shouldn’t have to fundraise at all.

But having a core understanding that fundraising is a gift leads to a happier fundraising life and to doing more good.

A Gift to Three Groups

It’s easy to see why an organization’s fundraising is a gift to its beneficiaries or cause. The organization generously spends time and money – to multiply that time and money – so that more help can be given to the beneficiaries or cause.

Fundraising is also a gift to donors. Your organization’s donors care about your beneficiaries or cause, but lack the expertise or programs to do very much. So fundraising that gives a donor a chance to do something meaningful for beneficiaries or a cause that they care about. That sounds like a gift to me.

And as Henri Nouwen argues in A Spirituality of Fundraising, fundraising gives donors a chance to “put their money where their values are.” (That’s a gift too, even though it occasionally makes us uncomfortable.)

Finally, fundraising is a gift to the community you live and operate in. More people knowing the truth about what’s going on, and more people taking action to help, is good for everyone. Fundraising is an effective tool to make that happen.

Beliefs Drive Actions

Believing that fundraising is a gift causes reals changes to organizations and Fundraisers…

If an organization believes that their fundraising is a gift, are they fearful when they send it out?


Maybe a little nervous to see how it does? Sure. Maybe a little worried about a complaint? That’s only human. But the removal of fear from an organization’s fundraising life is a massive improvement.

If an organization believes that their fundraising is a gift, do they only ask donors to help a couple of times a year?


Because they aren’t afraid, and they know that donors love to help, they give donors more chances throughout the year.

If an organization believes that their fundraising is a gift, do they enjoy their fundraising life more?


Imagine never thinking you’re bothering or somehow manipulating donors. Imagine fundraising bosses saying, “Yes, let’s try that new idea of yours.” Imagine celebrating the gifts that come in and brushing away the complaints like you shoo a housefly.

Imagine your shoulders, but lowered. Imagine your breathing, but deeper.

And here’s the kicker: if an organization believes that their fundraising is a gift, do they raise more and do more good?

Yes! Because as they create their annual plans, and as they create each piece of fundraising through the year, they make a hundred little generous decisions from a position of strength. Those decisions give their donors more chances to say “yes.” Those decisions make each individual piece of fundraising more engaging for donors. So they raise more money and do more good.

When we work with a nonprofit and they immediately start raising more money, it can look like the tactics were the cause of the success.

But when we help organizations turn around their fundraising, or make “the leap” to their next level of income, it’s because we approach their fundraising with a different set of beliefs.

Because if you believe that fundraising is a gift – that the act of fundraising is a generous act – the fundraising you create will be more powerful than if you believe something else about fundraising.

Interestingly, in our daily lives everybody knows that if you’re more generous, people will be more generous with you in turn.

Turns out the same thing is true in fundraising.

Maybe the Donor Said “No” Because…

Maybe the donor said no because it’s finally a nice day, so they went outside instead.

Maybe the donor said no because their spouse had already recycled the mail that day.

Maybe the donor said no because their taxes were a little higher than expected last month.

Maybe the donor said no because their passions are elsewhere right now.

Maybe the donor said no because they also received an unexpected bill that day.

Maybe the donor said no because they are on vacation and haven’t looked at email in a week.


You already know I’m a big believer in taking extreme responsibility for the success or failure of any piece of fundraising. But I also believe there’s a LOT that’s out of the Fundraiser’s control.

So… pay close attention… but don’t take the “no’s” personally.

How to Ask for a Major Gift


A Beginner’s Guide to Major Donor Fundraising Success: Step #3, How to Ask for a Major Gift

When it’s time to ask for a major gift from a donor, it helps to have a simple game plan.

First, set up a time to meet in person. This can be the hardest part! Donors are busy.

Start by giving them a call on the phone. Tell them why you’d like to meet (don’t leave them guessing!) and suggest a time and a place that’s convenient for them.

It may take a few phone calls, texts, emails, (carrier pigeons). That’s normal. Keep at it! If you can secure a meeting, you’re halfway there.

Once you have your meeting set, here’s your meeting game plan:

  1. Social time (5 minutes). Order coffee, ask about their family, be warm, friendly, and LISTEN.

  2. Deliver the fundraising offer (3 – 5 minutes). Share the problem, the solution, and how you’d like them to help. Ask if they’d be willing to give a specific amount. Aim for a higher amount than you think you can get.

  3. Sit quietly and wait for their response (as long as it takes!). Don’t talk. Wait for THEM to talk. Let the donor sit with the request and consider it. If it feels awkward, that’s okay. Take a sip of coffee.

  4. Listen to what they say and respond appropriately (5-ish minutes). Answer any questions they have. Address concerns. Listen for what’s important to them.

    If the answer is yes, thank them warmly and share any details needed for them to make their gift.

    If the answer is maybe, let them know when and how you will follow up with them.

    If the answer is “not right now,” see if you can find out more. Is it a timing thing? Have their interests shifted? You could try asking for their opinion on something related to your campaign or mission. This is a good way to keep the communication open and let the donor know you value them, even if they can’t give financially this time.

  5. End the meeting on time. Thank them, shake hands, then go to your car or back to your office and jot down any helpful notes from your meeting.

  6. Follow up as agreed. Be sure to thank and report back if they gave.

Once you get a few of these meetings under your belt it will start to feel natural — then you won’t have to think about the structure much. But as you get started… having a game plan can help you feel more comfortable and confident asking for a major gift.

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

Read the series:

  1. A Beginner’s Guide to Major Donor Fundraising Success: Step #1, Build Your Portfolio
  2. A Beginner’s Guide to Major Donor Fundraising Success: Step #2, The Plan to Build Meaningful Relationships
  3. A Beginner’s Guide to Major Donor Fundraising Success: BONUS Simple Strategy to Build Relationships Immediately
  4. A Beginner’s Guide to Major Donor Fundraising Success: Step #3, How to Ask for a Major Gift (This post)

Direct Mail Strategy at Events?!?


When Jim and I started Better Fundraising and the organizations we served started raising more money, they began to ask us to help with their gala fundraising events.

We had them apply four principles from direct response fundraising.  The results were a resounding success, and here they are in case they’re helpful to you:

  • Figure out the Ask first.  The first thing that most successful events do is to figure out exactly what the Ask is going to be.  Then they structure the event/run of show so that the entire event delivers the Ask with as much power as possible.  It’s the same in direct response: figure out the ask or the offer, then write and design the letter/email to deliver it as powerfully as possible. 
  • Don’t just Ask for support, use an Offer.  An event will raise more money if it asks donors to fund something specific, as opposed to just “supporting” the organization. 
  • Be comfortable sharing a need.  Most of the events we worked on used to share nothing but good news.  It sounded like everyone had been helped, and that things were going great.  We encouraged them to mention (but not dwell in) that people or the cause need help today, and to be specific about the help that’s needed.  Their donors – now that they had a fuller understanding of the situation – gave more.
  • Echo & Reinforce.  If the event features a reply card where the donor either fills in their info or grabs the QR code/giving URL, make sure the headline and ask on the reply card echoes and reinforces the wording of the Ask from stage.  A direct mail reply card that doesn’t match the letter will lower response, and an event reply card that doesn’t reinforce what’s said from stage will also lower response.

There are of course some ways that event fundraising is different than direct response.  For instance, you have people’s attention for so much longer that you can go deeper into the issues and make a more thorough case.  You don’t have to get to the point so quickly.  You can tell longer stories.  You can even use a little jargon.

But in our experience, borrowing these four principles from direct mail fundraising will help your event raise more money.

The Trend in Fundraising I’m Worried About


I saw a lot of fundraising at year-end.

Halfway through December I began to notice a trend:

Almost none of the year-end fundraising mentioned that any help was needed.

Specifically, I noticed two things:

  • The fundraising did not mention that the organization needed any help. It sounded like the organizations were helping everybody they came across and that everything was going great.
  • The fundraising did not mention that the beneficiaries or cause needed any help. It sounded like everyone was being helped and all the problems had been solved.

I don’t know if that’s a big trend. It’s just what I saw in the fundraising I received from organizations that my wife and I donate to that I’m not connected to.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing direct response fundraising for so long. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched so many organizations start raising more money immediately when they start saying that they need help. Maybe it’s because in all the testing I’ve done or been a part of, “sharing a need that the donor can help meet” is clearly one of the biggest keys to success.

But it just seems deeply weird that, during the biggest season of giving, all these nonprofits are communicating to their donors that everything is going great.

During the time of year when more people are going to read an organization’s fundraising than any other time, the donors are told that everything is going great. It’s implied that the donor’s help isn’t really needed today.

Talk about a missed opportunity!

So, if your organization’s year-end fundraising didn’t raise as much as you would have liked, review your appeals/emails/major donor asks. Check to see if:

  • Your fundraising told the donor that their help is needed?
  • Your fundraising told the donor that your beneficiaries or cause need help?

If neither of those two ideas are present in your year-end fundraising, add them in next year and you’ll raise more money.

And if you want to raise more money all year long, add them any time you’re Asking for support.