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.

The Power of a Belief


Here’s a quick story about how an organization’s beliefs about donors unknowingly drove their fundraising strategy…

We serve an organization that has a large number of monthly donors. 

I asked them if they had ever asked their monthly donors to give a little more each month.  “No,” came the answer, “we’ve never done that.”

I suggested we run a short campaign to their monthly donors asking them if they’d like to upgrade their giving.  It’s my belief that almost every organization has a lot of donors that are willing and able to give more.

But some folks around the table were nervous – they had a different belief.  They agreed that some small number of their monthly donors would and could give more.  But they believed that a greater number of their monthly donors would complain or completely cancel. 

In other words, they believed that their monthly donors (as a group) were giving as much as they were willing and/or able to give. 

I shared a couple of stories of campaigns like this I’d successfully run in the past.  And we decided to go ahead with the campaign.

The results were spectacular.  A thrilling number of monthly donors chose to give more each month.  Plus, those donors increased their monthly gift by even more than we thought they would.

As far as I know, there were zero cancellations.

And the impact?  The organization started raising an additional $60,000 every single month.

Lesson #1

An organization’s beliefs about donors drive its strategy, its annual plan, and even its copywriting. 

If you believe your donors are willing and able to give more, you do things like ask monthly donors if they would give a little more each month.  You send more appeals and e-appeals, and you ask major donors to give larger amounts. 

If you believe your donors are willing and able to give more, you write things like, “Will you please send in a gift today” instead of the equivocating, “Will you please consider sending in a gift today?”

Should you be smart about which donors you include when you do this?  Of course.  If you have a monthly donor who has told you that she’s on a fixed income and can’t give any more each month, don’t ask her to upgrade.  If you have major donor who has told you that they aren’t going to give any more this year, then don’t ask them.

Your organization has a set of beliefs about donors, and fundraising, and money.  Often those beliefs are unstated.  But they are driving your strategy, your annual plan, and even your copywriting.

Do you believe that your donors are willing and able to give more?

Lesson #2

There are real costs to believing your donors can’t or won’t give any more.

The organization above could have been raising that additional $60,000 every month the previous year.  And the year before that.  Think of the impact that was missed!

My goal in pointing this out is not to make all of us (myself included) feel bad for all the opportunities we’ve missed over the years.

My goal in pointing this out is for all of us to realize that our beliefs about donors and fundraising have real-world consequences. 

In my experience, believing that “many of our donors are willing and able to give more” will have positive real-world consequences.  Believing that “our donors are giving as much as they are willing and able” will have negative real-world consequences.

Try It On

So here’s what I want you to do.  I want you, just for a moment, to “try on” the belief that your donors are willing and able to give more.  Name one thing you would do differently.

Now, make a plan to do that thing.  Your organization (and the additional people you’ll help) will be thankful that you did.

Bittersweet Moments of Clarity

Clear thinking.

When you get better at something, there’s that bittersweet moment where you’re thinking two things almost simultaneously:

  • Oh man, I’ve been doing it wrong all along… and
  • Hey, I know how to do that better now!

In those moments, it’s as if you see the world a little more clearly than you did before. You understand how things work a little better than you did a moment before.

I had one of those “moments of clarity” recently, thanks to the impressive and irrepressible Jen Love.

We were on a panel at the Storytelling conference talking about direct response fundraising. I shared one of my writing tools: starting the first draft of every appeal and e-appeal with the sentence, “I’m writing to you today because….”

(I’ve written about why that’s an effective tool here and here.)

Jen then said something like, “Yeah, I love that. I’ve taken it a little further and what I use is, ‘You’re hearing from me today because…’.”

Cue my moment of increased clarity.

Her version is better than mine! It starts with the magical word, “you.” It places the donor in a more active role with more control. It leads to more writing about the donor and what they care about, and less about the organization.

I share this with you today because… You’re reading this today because you know that the more moments of clarity you can have, the more effective a fundraiser you’ll be.

But there are Fundraisers and organizations who don’t really want those moments of clarity. They like their way of doing things. Or they can’t believe that your moment of clarity could apply to them, their communications, or their donors. For those organizations, getting better at fundraising is a challenge.

But if you seek out those moments – if you’re eager to find out that what you’ve been doing is a little wrong, and that there’s a better way to do it – getting better at fundraising and raising more money is delightful.

In my experience, the most effective fundraisers are having “moments of clarity” all the time. Because of those moments, they see the world a little more clearly. And they create fundraising that’s more effective.

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.