The Power of ‘A Little Bit More’ Fundraising

A little bit more.

As a fundraiser, it’s tempting to dream about something big and amazing that would change everything for your organization. A surprise million dollar gift. An unexpected bequest. A knockout appeal that shatters previous records.

And, I’ll admit, you can do a lot of good when those big and amazing things happen.

But there’s a simple tactic that nearly every fundraiser can employ that, over time, can be just as powerful. I call it “a little bit more” fundraising.

Here’s the idea:

Whatever you did last year, do a little bit more.

For example, you could do one or more of the following:

  • Add one or two additional e-appeals to your communications schedule.
  • Add one more direct mail appeal to your calendar.
  • Ask your major donors to give a little bit more than their previous gift.
  • Ask a few faithful donors to start giving monthly.

If you do a little bit more each year, you’re doing two important things:

First, you’re giving your donors more opportunities to support your mission.

Then, by using one or more of these tactics, you’re being proactive and taking control of your fundraising, rather than putting your hopes in a big, surprise gift or a knockout appeal.

This summer, give some thought to what adding “a little bit more” to your fundraising would look like for your organization. When you work “a little bit more” fundraising into your plan, you’ll see a lift in results without a lot of additional work.

How to Succeed as a Designer at a Nonprofit

Graphic designer.

Someone recently asked me what advice I’d give to Designers working at and for nonprofits. 

I gave some “big picture” advice – which I’m told was helpful – so I’m sharing it here with you…

Know that different design contexts have different design requirements

One of the things that happens at nonprofits is that they come up with a design approach and they apply that approach regardless of context

For instance, say one of the colors in your logo/brand is a beautiful light green.  In an Annual Report, you can use that green as the color for a headline or a small block of text to make the page more visually interesting.  But in direct mail you should never use a light color for text because it’s so hard to read for older donors, and in direct response fundraising readability is directly correlated with fundraising results

As a Designer, you’ll be more helpful to your organization (and your beneficiaries or cause) if your design is effective for each particular context than if your design is perfectly consistent across all the contexts you have to design for.  

You keep your organization’s design accessible for your donors

The person who wants you to fit a 550-word letter on one page does not know that the resulting “wall of text” won’t be read by anyone but their Mom.  The young person who wants the reply card form to be super-tiny does not know that a 75-year-old donor with a touch of arthritis will never be able to write their credit card number in a space that small. 

It is the Designer’s job to think about these things on behalf of your donors to make it easier for them to understand and support your organization.

And if you keep your organization’s work more accessible, your organization will raise more money.

Be a partner to the writer

The best design in the world cannot compensate for lousy copy.  So if the letter you’re asked to design doesn’t have a good offer, or takes too long to get to the point, or sounds like a Ph.D. dissertation, say something

Speaking as a copywriter, I’ve had hundreds of ideas that sounded great in my head but just didn’t work on the page.  The most helpful Designers told me so, and helped me see why.

Note to anyone working with a Designer: if you don’t treat the Designer as a partner, and give their feedback real consideration, you won’t get to work with that Designer for long.

Design for donors, not yourself

The most effective Designers always keep in mind that the primary audience for their design work has different preferences and needs than the Designer does.

This is hard to do. 

For instance, most Designers at nonprofits are at least 20 years younger than the core audience for their work: the average age of a donor in the U.S. is their late 60’s, and I’d guess that most Designers at nonprofits are younger than 40. 

For a Designer, this means that your donors are more likely to emotionally resonate with a different design approach than you are.  Real life example: most donors at most organizations are more likely to respond to a letter that looks like a telegram than they are to a letter that looks like the cool titles on a hot new Netflix show.

Design for your audience.

Be your own advocate & Ask questions

OK, this is two pieces of advice, but they are related.

The tough thing about working in the nonprofit world, especially at smaller nonprofits, is that there’s little training for Designers.  So in most cases, you are responsible for your own growth.

The best thing you can do to help your mission and your career is to learn about the nuts and bolts of fundraising.  You will have to ask for time and budget to buy books, to take classes, to go to a conference. 

And you can ask questions that your organization likely hasn’t asked before, like “what kind of design will resonate best with our donors?” and “How should our look and copy vary from context to context?”

Ask an experienced nonprofit Designer or Creative Director to be a mentor, whether it’s just for one coffee or it’s monthly for years.  This profession is full of generous people.  Sitting here writing this, I can think of nine people who helped me over the years, and I don’t ever remember being turned down.

If you advocate for yourself, and you’re curious, you’ll cause your organization to raise more money.  Designers who do this are worth their weight in gold. 

What’s your job?

I’ll end with a picture from the cover of my favorite book on design, Type & Layout

The designers who are communicating are gifts to their organization and beneficiaries, and will always have their plates full of interesting work.

Ask Culture vs Guess Culture

Ask culture and guess culture.

Sometimes an idea or perspective from outside the world of Fundraising can help you see the work of Fundraising more clearly. 

That’s what happened when I heard about “Ask Culture vs Guess Culture.”

Here’s a quote from when this idea first appeared online

In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer.

When an organization is operating in Guess Culture, here are three of the behaviors you see:

  • Over-stewarding of donors
  • Never asking, or Asks that aren’t direct or clear
    • Perfect example: I did a “creative review” for an organization where I looked at twelve pieces of their fundraising.  In all those pieces they never actually asked the donor to give a gift. 
  • Under-communicating out of a fear of “donor fatigue”

You’re also seeing Guess Culture at work any time you hear a Major Gifts Officer say something like, “If you do a great job of stewarding a donor, you won’t even have to ask.”

Guess Culture and Fundraising

I think the unique demands of nonprofit fundraising cause people and organizations to operate in Guess Culture more than they normally would. 

Asking for money is a vulnerable experience, and it’s hard to be vulnerable.  Many times, for many reasons, it’s emotionally easier to shower donors with stewardship and give them the occasional “opportunity” to give… instead of boldly preparing a specific offer and asking the donor to make a gift.

And of course the Guess Culture approach works sometimes.  Because donors are generous, any approach will work sometimes.

But looking at the performance of the nonprofits we’ve worked with over the years, an Ask Culture approach to major gifts fundraising (and to direct response fundraising) works better.  It results in raising more money and keeping more donors year-over-year.

Ask Culture major gifts fundraising looks like:

  • When setting up a conversation or meeting, telling the donor in advance whether you’re going to ask for money or not
  • Being willing to ask major donors for more than one gift a year
  • Asking for a specific amount
  • Asking directly with phrases like, “…so I’m asking if you’ll give a gift of $10,000”
  • After the ask is made, being silent and letting the donor speak next

Of course there will be a few “no”s.  Of course there will occasionally be an uncomfortable silence.

But you’ll get a lot more “yes”es and you’ll raise more money for your cause.

Change the Recipe, Change the Results


When a nonprofit is first founded, its fundraising letters / emails / personal asks tend to have high response rates and high average gifts.   

But in my experience, the response rates and average gifts tend to go down as the organization grows. 

Here’s my theory to explain this…

The recipe for fundraising right after an organization is founded is remarkably simple and goes like this:

  • The founder talks about whatever “the situation” is that caused him/her to start the organization
  • They describe what needs to be done to help, and how it will help
  • They ask the donor to give a gift to fund what needs to be done

Works like crazy.

But as a nonprofit ages and expands, it develops its own programs, approach, and expertise.  It develops an organizational ego.

In a nutshell, this results in fundraising that talks more about the organization itself than it used to.  The recipe changes to:

  • They talk about the work they are already doing
  • They describe how they do that work
  • They ask the donor to give a gift to fund their ongoing work

This fundraising recipe does not raise as much money.  It lowers donors’ awareness about whatever “need” the organization exists to serve because “the situation” is rarely mentioned.  And it lowers response rates and average gifts because the fundraising is mainly focused on work that has already been completed – most of the compelling reason to give a gift today has disappeared.

I don’t enjoy this truth, but it’s still true: fundraising to individual donors that talks about “powerful work that’s already done” will cause less money to come in than talking about “powerful work that needs to be done now that the donor can help make happen.”

Organizations that stick to the original recipe will grow faster.

Individual donors tend to give because there’s work that needs to be done.  Not because the organization is already doing the work.



Quick story.

A few years ago I wrote a letter for a large, national organization you know the name of.

The letter was a huge success – it doubled the number of gifts they projected, and the average gift was higher than expected, too.

The President of the organization was pleased with the letter’s performance… and thought it would have raised even more if it was more in his voice.  So he wrote the letter the following year. 

His letter brought in half the number of gifts. 

The president is a very smart person and a great public speaker.  But his communication style – his “voice” – was not effective in direct mail.

There’s no judgment here; there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his voice.  But no one voice is always the best voice for all contexts. 

Quick common example: an organization decides that as part of their voice they will always describe their beneficiaries with one particular phrase, and that phrase is highly academic.  That phrase is perfectly appropriate in a grant application to a foundation with subject-matter expertise.  However, in a fundraising email to individual donors who don’t immediately know what the phrase means, the phrase will usually cause the organization to raise less money.

A nonprofit’s “voice” needs to be flexible enough to be modified for whatever context it’s communicating in.  To be most effective, a speech to a state legislature should sound a little different than a direct mail letter to individual donors, which in turn should sound a little different than a grant application.

If your Executive’s voice, or your brand voice, isn’t flexible enough to be adapted to meet the requirements for success in whatever context you’re communicating in, slavishly following any voice is costing you more than it’s helping you.

If you use the appropriate voice for each context, instead of using the same voice in every context, you will raise more money.

Fundraising in the 2024 Election Year – The Year-End Rally

Year-end 2024.

We’ve talked about what to do The Noisy Spring, The Summer Slump, and The Election Storm.

Today we’ll show you how to have a strong year-end AFTER the election dust settles (mid-November – December).

The Year-End Rally

A few days after the election, donors will be ready to refocus their attention and their philanthropic priorities.

There will be a rally.

But you need to be ready to hit the ground running.  The election will have taken almost the entire fall.  And Thanksgiving is late this year, which means there’s a week less of the prime giving season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. So the Saturday or Sunday after Election Day is GO TIME.

Here’s your “after election” game plan to have a successful year-end campaign:

  1. Launch targeted year-end campaigns that tap into your donors’ desire to make the world a better place with their year-end giving.
  2. Your campaign will work best if you use themes and emotions that are likely to resonate with donors post-election (unity, hope, the importance of your mission) AND make it clear that there’s work to be done and the donor’s help is needed.
  3. For major donors, talk about the transformational impact of their gift. They’ve spent the last few months hearing a lot of negative political discourse – counter that by asking them to make big, positive change in the lives of your beneficiaries or in the communities you work with.
  4. Consider adding a gift catalog to your year-end fundraising campaign. Donors love gift catalogs because they don’t feel like fundraising. If you do international or mission work, a gift catalog is as close to a slam dunk as there is in fundraising. Because they’re somewhat time-intensive to create, use the quieter summer months to create one.

The 2024 election year poses real challenges for nonprofit fundraising.

But with every challenge comes an opportunity. And the nonprofits that have a strong fundraising year will be the ones that are nimble, who adapt their plans to the four phases of the election cycle.

Resist the urge to communicate less with your donors this year. In a year of increased competition for your donors’ attention, you need to keep communicating, keep telling great stories, and keep focusing on the change your donor’s generosity will make.

The fundraisers and organizations that get creative, adapt, and stay committed to their donors (and the cause) during the election year will be in a great spot. Be one of those fundraisers — and you’ll be able to reach your fundraising goals and keep making a real difference in your community.

Click here to download the FREE whitepaper, Fundraising in the 2024 Election Year. You can also watch a video of Jim Shapiro presenting – and answering questions about – this helpful information.

Read this series of blog posts:


Band practice.

When you’re in a band, it’s much more enjoyable to walk onstage when you know how to put on a good show. 

But when your band performs its first shows, you don’t know yet how to put on a good show.  You need to perform a lot of shows before you get good, before you have that “earned confidence” when you walk out in front of a crowd.

It’s the same thing with your fundraising materials; it’s much more enjoyable to send out a letter when you know it’s a good appeal.

But when you send your first appeals, you don’t know yet how to write or design a good appeal.  You need to send a lot of appeals before you get good, before you have that earned confidence that “this appeal is going to raise a lot of money for us.”

Just like with the band, you have to practice before you get good. 

The incredible thing is that in fundraising, you don’t need confidence when you start!  Your audience is friendly to your fundraising.  Your donors care about the cause you’re working on, and they want to help!

It is on you to get started, though.

Yesterday’s Successes, Today’s Truths, Tomorrow’s Hopeful Futures

Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow.

I just noticed that almost all of the fundraising our team helped create last year can be divided into three groups:

  • Yesterday’s Success.  These are stories of people who have already been helped, and of things the organization has already accomplished. 
  • Today’s Uncomfortable Truth.  These are stories of what’s happening today, right now, that causes the work of the organization to be needed.
  • Tomorrow’s Hopeful Future.  These are stories of what will happen if a donor gives a gift.  For instance, “If you give a gift today, 1 square meter of wetland will be preserved from development” is a story about the positive future that will be created if a donor gives a gift.

Organizational insiders tend to think that sharing Yesterday’s Successes will motivate donors to give today.  And it will, to a limited extent.

But consistently telling donors about things that happened yesterday means you’re not telling donors what’s happening today.  And in our experience, the best way to motivate donors to give today is to talk about what’s happening today

The fundraising programs that we see succeed wildly are programs that intentionally share what happened yesterday, and what’s happening today, and what could happen tomorrow with the donor’s support.

When you give your donors the full picture, they’re more likely to give you their full support.

Fundraising to Individual Donors at Its Simplest

Keep it simple.

In our experience, effective fundraising to individual donors comes down to two things:

#1 — Sharing why the work of your organization is needed.  What is it that’s going on in the world today that needs to be fixed?  Who is hurting that needs help?  What could we be doing better if only there were more support?

Share this and donors remember why your work is so important.

#2 — Sharing with donors the impact of their previous giving.  What change did the donor help make?  What’s better now because of their giving?

Do this and donors feel like their gift to your organization made a difference.

When an E.D. wonders why the fundraising isn’t working so well, the first thing to do is look to see whether the fundraising comms are effectively communicating these two ideas.

When a fundraising plan or fundraising communications are not working well, it’s usually because these two ideas have been crowded out by information about the organization itself.

But if you build your communications plan to share these ideas, multiple times per year, you’ll raise more money than you would ever expect.

The success of the simplicity will astound you.