‘That one really stuck out’


We created our first appeal for a client a couple of months ago.  It was a success, and here’s what one member of their team said as we talked about how the appeal performed:

“It really stuck out.  It was different.”

I thought, “Great!”

Because the best-performing fundraising sticks out from:

  • The other fundraising in a donor’s mailbox and inbox that day, and
  • From the organization’s own fundraising

Why you want your letter to stand out in your donor’s mailbox is obvious: your letter is in competition with everything else your donor receives that day.

But why you want to occasionally stand out from your own fundraising is more subtle. 

Here’s what can happen: when an organization sends out fundraising that always looks the same, donors begin to identify it as “fundraising” and don’t open it.  (This is the explanation we came up with at the agency I was working for 20 years ago when we noticed that organizations that used similar outer envelopes multiple times in a row tended to raise less and less money.)

Here’s a quick example: in the 80’s or 90’s an organization figured out they could use small brown paper lunch bags as envelopes.  They would put the appeal/reply card/reply envelope in the bag, seal the bag, stamp and address it, and send it out.  Those appeals raised far more money than usual. 

For a while.

Within a year or two, those packages started raising less and less money.  Pretty soon they started performing like appeals sent in a regular (and less expensive!) #10 envelope.

Why?  People figured it out.  They knew what it was.  They didn’t open the bags more than they opened anything else.  They lost interest.

All this tells us is that it’s good to stand out… and that sooner or later you’re going to need to change again.

This is why organizations will use a mix of different types of envelopes and colors over the years.  And will use different messages over the course of a year.  (This is just one of the reasons for the approach of Asking strongly in appeal letters, then Reporting back to donors in newsletters that look and sound different; the packages and messages you send to donors regularly look and sound different.)

You can and should create “fundraising assets” that you can use again and again.  For instance, you might send a “gift catalog” every October that you only tweak slightly from year to year.  But you shouldn’t send the same type of message, on the same type of letterhead, in the same type of envelope again and again and again.

Show me an organization whose mail all looks basically the same, with the same type of messaging, and I’ll show you an organization that’s leaving a lot of money on the table.

Attention Deficit

Grab attention.

When you’re starting out, you don’t have anyone’s attention.

That’s true whether you’re starting a nonprofit, starting a food truck, or starting a political career.

But when you’re starting a business or a YouTube channel or an advocacy campaign, you work hard to get people’s attention.  Those folks wave their arms around.  They say edgy things.

One of their driving principles is ”Without anyone’s attention, this venture will not succeed.”’  So they make a ruckus.

Why don’t more nonprofits make a ruckus like that?  Why don’t more nonprofits say and do edgy things?

I think it’s because so many of us are nice.  We want to be warm to people.  We don’t want to make people uncomfortable.  We want to convince people of our competency. 

One of our driving principles is ”We want the power of our work to inspire people to give.”  And that’s not even a principle – it’s just a desire.

But can’t we remain “nice” while making it a priority to earn more attention for our cause

And as nonprofits, don’t we have the ultimate motivating reason to generate more attention?  We know that that the more attention we earn, the more donors we’ll acquire, and the more of our mission we’ll accomplish.

The standard nonprofit toolkit does not have “generate a ton of attention” in it.

But shouldn’t it?

And as you look at your plan for this year, are you intentionally making at least one concerted effort to get more people to pay attention to what’s going on with your cause? 

You Must Earn Your Donors’ Attention (they don’t read the whole thing)

Attention Span

Most nonprofits, without realizing it, make a big assumption when they write their fundraising.

They assume their donors will read the whole thing. The whole email. The whole letter.

That’s a really unhelpful assumption.

Here’s a heatmap of a 1-page direct mail letter. It shows what a donor’s eyes tend to look at, and in what order it happens:

Click image to see a larger version.

We could spend a lot of time talking about what this means for your fundraising writing and design. But there’s one main lesson I want you to take away…

You Have to Earn and Keep a Donor’s Attention

You cannot assume your donor will read the whole thing.

Well, you can. But you’ll raise a lot less money.

So first you have to earn your donor’s attention. That’s having a great teaser on your envelope. Or a catchy subject line for your email. You need to get good at those things.

For your mass donor fundraising to excel, you need to be better at earning attention than you need to be at describing your organization or your programs.

That might feel like a “sad truth.” But it’s a really helpful truth if you want to raise more money and do more good.

How to Earn Donor Attention

There are three main ways to earn donor attention. You need to make your fundraising:

  1. Interesting to donors. This almost always means talking about your beneficiaries and your cause more than your organization and your programs. Remember: your donor first got involved because of your beneficiaries or cause, not because of your programs.
  2. Emotional. Emotions are what keep us reading. You want to constantly be using the emotional triggers: Anger, Exclusivity, Fear, Flattery, Greed, Guilt, Salvation.
  3. Dramatic. You want your fundraising to be full of drama and conflict.

Here’s an example. You already know that your first sentence of any fundraising appeal is super important. Take a look at these two:

“[NAME] Theatre is dedicated to producing high-quality, daring productions that take on challenging topics.”


“I’m writing you today about something you care about – and it’s in danger.”

I can basically guarantee you that more people are going to keep reading the second example. It’s written directly to the donor, it’s about something she cares about; it’s emotional, and it’s dramatic.

The first example – from a real letter from my files – is a classic example of telling the donor something the donor probably already knows and doesn’t really care about.

Note: Arts organizations often say that their fundraising can’t be emotional or dramatic because they don’t have babies or puppies to raise money for. I think the first example above shows that Arts organizations can absolutely be dramatic and emotional in their fundraising – they just need to think about it differently. After all, if a Theatre can’t get dramatic, it’s probably not that great a Theatre!

The Big Lesson

Your donors are moving fast. They don’t read the whole thing, watch the whole thing, or listen to the whole thing.

You need to get great at getting and keeping their attention. Study it. Know what your donors care about and then borrow tactics from advertising and social media to get your donor’s attention. And remember; we have 70 years of best-practices for earning and keeping donor attention. Smart fundraisers have learned a LOT over the years. Tap into it!

Because if you can earn your donors’ attention, they are more likely to keep reading.

And if you can keep your donors’ attention, they are more likely to give you a gift.