Right Value, Wrong Place


Something happened to me in 2002 or 2003 and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It’s foundational to our approach to fundraising.

I was part of a team serving a large, national charity you’ve likely heard of. They focus on hunger here in the US.

This organization did not like to use the word “hungry” to describe their beneficiaries. They preferred the phrase, “food insecure.”

The team I was a part of were pretty sure that asking a donor to “help a child that is food insecure” would raise less money than asking a donor to “help a child that is hungry.”

The organization allowed us to do a head-to-head test. The results came back and what we suspected was true: when the organization asked donors to help a child who is hungry (or “suffering from hunger” or something similar) they raised more money. And when they asked donors to help a child who is food insecure (or “suffering from food insecurity” or something similar) they raised less money.

The results of the test were shared with the higher-ups at the organization. The ruling came back:

“We’re going to stick with using ‘food insecurity.’ It’s more accurate. Please continue to use ‘food insecurity’ moving forward.”

I was outraged at the time. This organization was making a choice that they knew would cause them to raise less money and help fewer people! (I was also pretty young and hadn’t yet experienced that things like this happen all the time.)

Looking back, my impression is that their decision seemed to be driven by two ideas:

  1. They valued sounding professional
  2. They valued being perfectly accurate

While I agree in principle with both of those values, I’ve come to see how much those values applied in the wrong places can cause an organization to raise less and do less than it could.

On Sounding Professional

The most successful fundraising organizations concern themselves with writing and talking in a way that their donors can quickly understand. They value being understood by the audience more than they value sounding professional.

And the most successful organizations differentiate between audiences. They sound professional when they are talking to other professionals, like partner organizations, foundations, etc. And when communicating to individual donors (who aren’t professionals!) organizations make the generous choice to speak in the donor’s language, not professional language.

On Being Perfectly Accurate

The most successful fundraising organizations tell stories and use language that is representative, not perfect. They know that being perfectly accurate is for experts and professionals – and they know that individual donors are not experts or professionals.

It’s true that “food insecurity” is a more accurate description of a host of scenarios that describe the families this organization helps. It’s also true that “hungry” is an accurate description of one of the most common scenarios that describes the families that this organization helps.

“Hungry” is perfectly legitimate. It’s just not as complete as the organization’s experts would like to be.

Their insistence on accuracy over understandability cost them revenue and impact.

Interesting sidenote to writers: the “hungry vs. food insecurity” conflict is an example of the weird instances when being more accurate can make a piece of communication less clear.

Inclusive, Not Exclusive

At Better Fundraising we help organizations see how positive organizational values like “sounding professional” and “accuracy” can accidentally cause them to create fundraising that’s exclusive.

And we work with them to make their fundraising more inclusive.

When an organization makes its fundraising more inclusive it’s often an uncomfortable process. You have to say things differently than you’re used to. You have to say different things altogether. You even format your communications differently!

But when organizations keep their beneficiaries in mind, it’s not a particularly hard process. And it’s incredibly rewarding when more money starts coming in, from a more inclusive group of donors, and more good gets done.

From Higher Ground to Common Ground


Most nonprofits have a “higher ground” understanding of their work and their cause. 

And they should!  They are experts.  They understand the cause they are working on, and they understand the complexities of what needs to be done.  They’ve built programs that are effective.  Their expertise makes them good at what they do. 

But when organizations create fundraising that invites individual donors to join the organization on its higher ground – instead of creating fundraising that meets donors on shared common ground – they put barriers between their donors and giving.

They make their fundraising exclusive.

The hallmarks of higher ground fundraising are things like:

  • Spending more time explaining the process the organization uses (your programs, or a particular approach) instead of the change in the world that the process makes possible…
  • Focusing more on the organization itself, and less on the cause or beneficiaries…
  • Sharing statistics to illustrate the size of the need or the scope of the organization’s work…
  • Educating the donor about everything that the organization does, rather than focusing on what donors tend to be most interested in…
  • All while using the organization or sector’s jargon to sound professional.

It’s like higher ground fundraising requires the donor to know about the organization in order for them to help the beneficiaries.

Two Problems

Higher Ground fundraising causes two problems.

First, it raises less money.  Every one of the bullets above, in our experience, causes individual donors to give less.  Individual donors tend to be more interested in what’s happening with the cause or beneficiaries today, and the change that the donor’s gift will make (or has made).  Individual donors tend to be less interested in the organization itself.

The bulleted points above are highly relevant to staff, organizational partners, grant-funding organizations, etc.  But they aren’t as relevant to individual donors.  Hence the old phrase, “Individual donors give through organizations, not to organizations.”

Second, the “higher ground” approach results in exclusive fundraising.  It creates a filter where the people likely to donate are the people who are willing to put in the time, the people who are willing to learn about the organization’s approach, and the people who are willing to speak the way the organization speaks.

Each of these is a barrier that some people will not cross.

From Higher Ground to Common Ground

Do the hard work to make your fundraising simple and inclusive.  Have a good offer.  Create fundraising for individual donors that any person who cares about your beneficiaries, at any level of understanding, at any reading level, will find relevant.

This means consciously deciding to leave the high ground.  It means you’ll have to defend your fundraising from internal audiences who love the high ground and want everyone to join them there.

Here’s why: there are a LOT of people out there who care about your beneficiaries and would like to give a gift to help.  There are far fewer people out there who are willing to wade through an education in your work before they can give a gift.

So if your communication and fundraising are always on the higher ground – and inviting donors to join you there – you will remain smaller than you could be.  You will remain doing less than you could be.

If your communication and fundraising are aimed at the common ground you share with donors, you will raise more money and have a larger impact.

In fundraising, the high ground is lonely.

Free Resource: The GoodNewsletter


OK, it’s time for some good news. (This month we had a loooooong series of posts about complaints. I’m sorry? You’re welcome?)

There’s a free daily email called “GoodNewsletter” that I encourage you to subscribe to.

It has nothing to do with fundraising – it’s a daily email with a couple of stories of good things that have happened in the world.

It’s nice to have a bit of good news in my inbox every morning. Sign up here if you’re interested.

It’s a great reminder that progress is being made.

On a related note, I think the highest form of fundraising program shows donors both the needs for action and progress that’s been made (the good news). It sends out pieces of fundraising that focus on the needs and ask donors to help. It sends out pieces of fundraising that focus on the progress that was made and thanks donors. (This is why there’s both an “Ask” and a “Report” in fundraising’s Virtuous Circle.)

Because seeing only one side has negative consequences. Seeing only good news leads donors to think that the problem your organization works on isn’t particularly big or harmful.* Sounds like things are going great and no help is needed today! And seeing only bad news leads donors to think that the problem is unsolvable. Sounds like things will never get better.

So, share both.

If your organization shares both the needs and the progress, you’ll create donors who both understand the need for action now and know that their gifts (and your organization) have made a difference.

Those are the kind of donors you want. And you can create them with the right mix of messages.

* This does not apply to some organizations where “bad news” of problem they work on personally affects the donor. In other words, the donor doesn’t need to hear the “bad news” from the organization because they are living it. This happens with causes like Cancer – when a loved one has it, you never forget what it was like. Or with the environment – when you live near a place that’s been damaged, you’re constantly reminded of it. I’m convinced that’s why some organizations don’t need to share any bad news in their fundraising, yet they still succeed. And I’m convinced that if you’re at the type of organization whose “bad news” doesn’t affect any of your donors, you should share the “bad news” with them if you’d like to raise more.

So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.


Donors complain for all sorts of reasons.

To illustrate, I’ve compiled a list of complaints that we at Better Fundraising have seen firsthand.

For context, all of these complaints were received by nonprofits that were growing, raising more money, and achieving more of their mission work than ever before.

Let’s get to the list. All of these are real complaints…

  • The donor whose spouse had passed away a couple days before and they couldn’t believe the organization would send them a letter at a time like this.
  • A donor did not like seeing pictures of what a particular disease did to the people who have it.
  • The donor whose name was spelled incorrectly.
  • The non-donor who did not like that the organization had their home address.
  • The donor (and Board member) who didn’t like being asked to provide matching funds.
  • The email subscriber but non-donor who felt the organization talked about the need for funding too often.
  • The female donor who was annoyed that the organization always put her husband’s name first.
  • The donor who received an appeal the day before from a different organization.
  • The longtime donor who didn’t like that the growing organization is doing more fundraising these days.
  • The donor who didn’t like the way the appeal letter made them feel, so they sent in a complaint and included a gift.
  • The donor who wished the organization would emphasize the positive more often.
  • The donor who complained that they receive too much email from all the charities they support
  • The legacy donor who complained that the organization published her name
  • The legacy donor who complained that the organization did not publish their name

This list could be a lot longer. You’ve almost certainly received a complaint of some kind that isn’t on this list.

Some of the complaints are legit. Some are unique to the complainer’s particular situation.

And remember, all these complaints were received by organizations that were applying fundraising’s virtuous circle to ask people for gifts, thank donors, and reporting back to donors on what their gift helped accomplish. Their overall fundraising was going great.

The Lesson

Once you see a list like this, you begin to realize that many of the complaints organizations receive are unique to the person making the complaint at that time and place in their life.

Their particular set of circumstances + that particular moment in time + your fundraising = their complaint.

In other words, the complainer is speaking only for themselves. They are not speaking for anyone else.

Of course, all complaints should be responded to warmly, and with the right “internal level of reaction.” And of course you want to fix data errors, use people’s preferred salutation, etc.

But too often organizations will receive a complaint, not ask any questions to learn more, and assume, “well if this person complained there must be loads of others who feel the same way.”

If your fundraising is going well, that’s a massive assumption.

Our advice: assume that a complainer is only speaking for themselves until proven otherwise.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal
  4. Natural, But Not Productive
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain. (this post)
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints

The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints


There are two times smaller organizations get more complaints:

  • When they start to send out more fundraising. For instance, the organization sends out 4 appeals instead of their usual 2.
  • When their fundraising starts to include more details about what life is like for the people they serve. For instance, the organization includes a description of how a person suffers before the organization helps them.

What makes this situation emotionally complex is that – in both these cases – the organization also raises more money.

When organizations send out more fundraising, they receive more complaints and they raise more money.

When organizations send out fundraising that clearly shares the “need” that the organization serves, they receive more complaints and they raise more money.

This is when organizations realize that “receiving more complaints” and “raising more money” are correlated. They almost always happen at the same time. There’s something about powerful fundraising that causes both more complaints and more gifts.

Then the organization realizes it has a choice. It can raise a lot more money (and do more of its mission work) and, in return, handle a complaint now and again.

Or it can change its fundraising so that no complaints are generated, and raise less money (and do less of its mission work).

Each organization gets to make its own choice.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal
  4. Natural, But Not Productive
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints (this post)
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints

Natural, But Not Productive


It’s good to recognize that it’s natural to focus on complaints.

Unfortunately, it’s also natural to focus too much on complaints.

Here’s a story I just heard that illustrates this perfectly.

A famous person went to a basketball game in New York. They were shown on the jumbotron and the arena erupted in applause.

And as they were leaving the game, a heckler let them have it for a few seconds.

This person spent the entire limo ride home talking about the heckler and reliving those few seconds. The applause was never mentioned.

The famous person forgot about the avalanche of positive feedback and focused on the one negative.

A lot of nonprofits have the same reaction to a complaint; they forget about all the gifts that came in, and they focus on the one negative. (Funny thought: if the famous person were a smaller nonprofit, couldn’t you see one of their Board Members saying, “Well, you certainly can’t ever go to a basketball game again”?!?)

It’s part of the human condition to put more attention to negative information than positive information. It’s natural, but not productive.

As people who are fundraising on behalf of beneficiaries and causes, our reaction to a complaint must be more emotionally sophisticated than, “Well, we need to make sure that never happens again.”

In the same way you & I know that the person at the game shouldn’t let one heckler be more important than an arena full of people applauding… we also know that we shouldn’t let one complaint be more important than 100 gifts. Or 10. Or even 1.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal
  4. Natural, But Not Productive (this post)
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints

Not All Complaints are Equal

Not all complaints are equal. 

For instance, a complaint from a non-donor who is subscribed to your email newsletter should be given less time and attention than a complaint from a beneficiary or staff member.

So, a smart organization responds differently to different complaints.

As an organization responds to a complaint, there are three main “variables”:

  • Change the level of energy put into the response
  • Change the fundraising the complainer receives in the future
  • Change the fundraising all donors receive in the future

Change the Level of Energy

You can vary how much energy you respond to a complaint with.

For instance, the complainer can receive a pre-written email that acknowledges their complaint and thanks them for submitting it… or be met for coffee and an hour-long conversation… or anywhere in between.

Don’t spend more energy than needed when responding to complaints.

Note: this principle also applies to an organization’s internal response to complaints.  A complaint can kick-start worried discussions and hijack future meetings… or it can be quickly submitted into a system and handled professionally.

Change What the Complainer Receives

You can vary the amount or selection of fundraising you send to the person who complains. 

Perhaps they only want to receive a certain type of your fundraising impacts, like your newsletters but not your appeals.  Or they’d like to receive fewer overall pieces.

Code that person’s record in your CRM appropriately and/or make notes to future list pulls, and move along.

Change What Everyone Receives

You can change all of your fundraising that every donor receives.

This is making changes like, “We can’t ever use that phrase again” or “Let’s reduce the number of mail pieces and emails we send.”

This is the most drastic approach.  It’s the approach that smaller nonprofits tend to gravitate towards because of fears that the complainer is speaking for untold numbers of people.  But it’s the approach least used by larger organizations, because they know that one complainer does not speak for anyone but themselves.

Right-Sized Response

The trick is to right-size your response. 

Our advice is to always value complaints and the person making them.  It’s important to respond warmly  because when a person complains, the response or interaction they have with the organization is often the only customized, personal interaction they’ve ever had with the organization.  The person will form a lot of their opinion about the organization based on this interaction.

And at the same time, respond to each complaint with the right amount of energy and the right level of response. Over-reaction gives recipients more power than they deserve.

In a nutshell, one person’s fundraising preferences should not drive your organization’s fundraising strategy.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal (this post)
  4. Natural, But Not Productive
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints

Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint

Receive complaint.

Here’s a handy outline for how to handle a complaint in person or on the phone.

You’re welcome to modify the outline as needed for your organization – there isn’t any magic in any one particular step. But there is magic in the overall approach, which I’ll describe below.

This approach assumes that the person complaining is reacting to the content or strategy of your fundraising, as opposed to an error the organization made, like mailing a donor who has asked not to be mailed, or calling a donor by the wrong name, etc.

Here’s the outline:

  • Thank the person for getting in touch.
  • Ask them to tell you what’s bothering them.
  • When they are finished, ask, “Is there anything else?”
  • Thank them for reading and responding to your fundraising.
  • Tell them that you appreciate them because most people a) don’t pay as close attention as they do, and b) don’t get in touch when they have a problem.
  • Tell them that you’re sorry they don’t like the [INSERT REASON FOR COMPLAINT], but that your organization a) does this because it causes the most engagement with donors, which b) causes the most gifts to come in, so that c) your organization can help your beneficiaries or cause as much as possible.
  • Tell them that your organization realizes that not every donor is going to like every piece of fundraising, that you wish that weren’t the case, but “the occasional staff or donor not liking the occasional piece of fundraising” is a small price to pay in order to help more beneficiaries.
    • NOTE: you can even say, “I don’t really care for [INSERT REASON FOR COMPLAINT] either, but I know it works great and because of it we’re having more of an impact than ever.”
  • Ask the person if they would like to be communicated with differently (e.g., “removed from appeal letters,” or “receive fewer communications”).
    • Repeat their preferences back to them, and ensure your organization has a system in place to execute their preferences.
  • Thank them again for getting in touch, and for giving you the chance to tell them why your organization does fundraising the way it does. Then tell them that you so appreciate the person getting in touch so you can communicate with them in the way they want to be communicated with.

The Big Idea

The “magic” of this approach is the belief (and attitude) that your organization has done nothing wrong.

Most organizations respond to complaints and complainers out of fear. The whole conversation with a complainer is filled with fear-based worries like, “Are we going to lose this donor?” and “So many other donors must feel this way.”

And after a conversation with a Complainer, there’s often an immediate push to change an organization’s fundraising approach – regardless of whether the approach is successfully raising money.

Don’t use that fear-based response. Instead, believe that your organization has done nothing wrong and confidently follow this outline.

Because complaints are going to happen to any organization that’s raising more and acquiring more individual donors. The trick is to learn to accept complaints as a “cost of doing business” instead of managing the organization to remain small enough so that you rarely get them.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint (this post)
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal
  4. Natural, But Not Productive
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints

There’s a Scientific Case for Two Spaces After Sentences


This year for the holidays I’m sharing the thinking and stories behind my fundraising posts that got the most reactions on social media.

Here’s #7, #6 and #5.

For today, here’s #4…

Using two spaces between sentences is a small, donor-centered bet; it’s quantifiably easier for people to read & more familiar to older donors. Regardless of personal preference, if using two spaces helps more people read your fundraising, isn’t that a bet worth making?

I don’t share this thought because I’m pedantic about punctuation. (I’m agnostic on this issue.)

The latest study I’m aware of showed a mild 3% increase in reading speed when there were two spaces after sentences opposed to one space. It wasn’t a big study. And it used a mono-spaced font (which slightly muddies the water, in my view).

My point is to call attention to the way we Fundraisers make decisions about the fundraising we produce.

The most effective direct response fundraising tends to be made for our donors, not for internal audiences. It needs to attract their attention, not ours. It works best if it’s in their language, and doesn’t use our professional phrasing and jargon. It needs to focus on the “mission match” between the donor and the organization, not on the organization itself.

So. If most donors are old (the average age of a donor in the U.S. is about 65)… and most donors grew up on text that had two spaces between sentences… and there’s data that says that having two spaces between sentences will help a donor read a little faster… and reading more of your fundraising results in more people giving… doesn’t it seem like a good little bet to put two spaces between sentences in our fundraising letters?

Will it make a massive difference? Almost certainly not.

And 20 years from now, when today’s younger donors enter their prime giving years, I bet it will be a good little bet to have one space between sentences.

The Big Idea is that Fundraisers make a hundred little decisions each time they create a piece of fundraising.

And if you get in the habit of making each of those little decisions with donors in mind, you create fundraising that’s more relevant to donors and you absolutely raise more money.