Aiming at Different Targets


Every piece of fundraising has a purpose. Think of it as a target the organization is trying to hit.

For instance, one organization aims their appeals at “convincing donors that the organization really knows what it’s doing.”

Another organization aims their appeals at “inspiring donors.”

While another aims at “sharing what’s happening and what the donor’s gift will do about it.”

Each target results in a completely different letter.

Has your organization chosen which target your appeals shoot at, or was your target inherited or assumed? Oftentimes organizations have a target – or “internal rules” around what their appeals will and won’t talk about – without ever having realized it.

If your organization is aware that there are other targets, have you tried any of them?

Sometimes the most impressive increases in fundraising come from simply switching which target you’re aiming for.

Top Ideas of 2022: Number 7


For the holidays this year, I’m going to share my fundraising ideas that got the most reactions on social media, and the story behind each idea.   

Starting with #7…

Effective direct response fundraising is so hard to create because it’s other-centered: it’s more about the donor and her values, and about the beneficiaries/cause, than it is about the organization sending it.

It is SO HARD for humans to realize that other people are different than us, and that they know and care about different things than we do.

Take a look at the worksheet below.  It attempts to show the differences between the people who make & approve fundraising, and the mass donors who receive the fundraising.

Click here to view a larger version of this chart.

Just look at that last line, the part of the “story” that a person is interested in. There’s a huge difference between what Insiders tend to be interested in, and what mass donors tend to be interested in.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s so hard for Insiders to create effective direct response fundraising – they care about different things than their donors care about.

Let’s quickly look at the steps an Insider needs to go through to make effective fundraising for mass donors:

  1. Insiders first need to embrace that most donors are different than them.
  2. Then Insiders need to embrace that it’s OK for themselves to speak differently.
    • Note that this is where protestations about “but that’s not our voice!” always come up. But the strict adherence to a particular voice almost always means the organization will be ineffective communicating with people who think differently than Insiders – which is almost all individual donors.
  3. Then Insiders need to be confident enough that this new type of fundraising will work, that they will actually send it out.

So it’s a lot of emotional work for Insiders to be other-centered enough to send out fundraising that’s prepared for group of people who are different than themselves.

But for the Insiders and organizations that do it, the fundraising rewards are huge.

What We Have Got Here is a Failure to Differentiate


With apologies to the famous line from Cool Hand Luke, I’d like to talk about differentiation.

Savvy Fundraisers are constantly differentiating as they create an organization’s fundraising.

As you create your organization’s fundraising in 2022, you’ll raise more money and keep more of your donors if you differentiate each piece of fundraising based on:

  • How you’re communicating with your audience
  • Who you’re communicating to
  • What you’re trying to achieve

Let’s look at each…

HOW You’re Communicating

How you communicate with a donor (or potential donor) affects what you can say and how you can say it.

Everyone knows that what you’d say in a long lunch with a donor is different than what you’d say in a two-page direct mail letter.

How you’re communicating in those two contexts is completely different.

But let’s take that even farther: what you’d say in a grant application is different than what you’d say in a two-page direct mail letter.

Even though both are examples of written communication, they are clearly different.  Grant applications are more likely to be pored over, while direct mail letters are more likely to be scanned.

Therefore, a grant application should be written entirely differently than a direct mail letter. 

The form that the communication takes place in should affect what you say and how you say it.

WHO You’re Communicating To

Everyone knows that you would say different things to a person who has a Ph.D. in whatever your organization does, than you would say to a person who knows next to nothing about your field.

We all know that we’d say different things to an involved Major Donor than we would to a person who has made their very first gift.

Who you are talking to should affect what you say and how you say it.

WHAT You’re Trying To Achieve

Everyone knows that you would say different things to a person depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

If you want to ask someone for a favor, you’d say different things than if you were praising them for a job well done.

What you’re hoping to achieve with a piece of communication should affect what you say and how you say it.

What To Look Out For

When I review pieces of fundraising that didn’t work well, I almost always spot a lack of differentiation:

  • The How: a direct mail letter that sounds like a grant application
  • The Who: a newsletter that was written assuming that audience is made up of Ph.D.’s
  • The What: a Thank You email that thanks me for my first gift to an organization and then (in the second paragraph!) asks me to give more and join a high-priced giving circle.

This failure to differentiate costs nonprofits millions of dollars a year.

The causes are pretty simple.  There are inexperienced fundraisers and organizations.  They just don’t know, and you can’t hold it against them because everyone was inexperienced at one point.

And there are people who prefer a specific type or style of communication and refuse to differentiate, using that type or style regardless of context. 

This post is an attempt to help both groups see how they are causing their organization to engage their donors less, and to raise less money.

Does Your Organization Need to Differentiate?

The more you can differentiate, the more money you’ll raise.

For organizations that need to differentiate, one question should become forbidden for anyone to ask.  That question is, “Do we like this piece of fundraising?”

Because liking a piece of fundraising is usually a function of it being the type or style that’s preferred – and isn’t an indication of whether it will work well, or not.

And then one question becomes mandatory – “What would work best in this situation?”

This leads to specific questions like:

  • Who is this piece talking to, and what do they know?
  • What form of communication are we using, and how should that effect what we’re saying?
  • What’s the purpose of this particular piece of communication, and is everything in it working to achieve that one purpose?

Ask questions that help you differentiate, and you’ll create fundraising that engages your donors and raises more money.

Your internal audiences might not prefer your new fundraising as much. But your fundraising should be judged more on how much it raises as opposed to whether internal audiences prefer it. 

Two Letters in One

Write a letter.

The previous post introduced readers to a big idea:

Successful direct mail appeals tend to be written to communicate the main message in a) just the areas a donor is likely to see as they glance at your letter, and b) in the letter as a whole.

Why? Because a large percentage of your donors will just glance at your letter and make a decision for whether to give – or not. And you want your letter to be effective for both “Glancers” and for people who read the whole thing.

So how do you write a letter that works for Glancers and Readers?

It looks something like this:

  • The top-center or top-right corner of the letter contains a short blurb about the Need or about what the donor’s gift will do to help.
  • The first three-ish paragraphs tend to summarize the whole letter. They share why the donor’s gift is needed, what the donor’s gift will accomplish, and ask the reader to send in a gift today.
  • The middle section of the letter tends to go more in-depth. It shares more details about why the letter is being written, perhaps shares a story that illustrates the need for the donor to take action, and shares a bit more about what the organization does in situations like this.
  • The last couple of paragraphs tend to repeat what was said in the first three paraphs.

The Result

This results in a letter that “makes the whole case” in just the first few paragraphs. This ensures that almost anyone who picks up the letter will know what it’s about – which results in more gifts. Think of it as making half of your donors understand more about what their gifts help do – who wouldn’t want to make that improvement?!?

This results in a letter that can sound repetitive to internal audiences because it repeats the main ideas in a couple places. But the vast majority of donors (the audience for the letter!) don’t experience the letter this way. To donors, it sounds like a focused letter about something they care about.

This results in a letter that doesn’t “sound like us” – because if you’re going to summarize the whole case in three short paragraphs you don’t have time to talk the way the experts in your organization normally talk. But remember, if your letter doesn’t “sound like you” I think you should experience “not sounding like you” as a positive, not a negative.

Your Next Letter

The next time you write and design a letter, first go look at the heat map. Remind yourself (and anyone involved with approving the letter) that you’re writing two letters in one.

If you can make your letter work for both Glancers and Readers, you’ve done a great service to your organization and beneficiaries.

How? Because you’ve lowered the barrier to giving a gift. Instead of requiring a person to read the whole letter to know what you’re writing about, you’ve made it possible for Glancers to know – in just a heartbeat or two – why you’re writing them today and what they can do about it.

Do that and a surprising number of Glancers will send you a gift.

And your regular Readers will still send you their gifts.

You will raise more money and do more good.

You will have sent 2 letters in 1.