Ask Before a Need (not after)

The early bird gets the worm

The the third idea I use to help organizations create fundraising plans that raise more money is this:

Ask before a Need.

(You can find the first two ideas here and here.)

Put another way, you’ll raise more money if you appeal for funds right before your donors understand you have a need for funds.

To illustrate the principle, think of the classic “Back To School” appeal in the Education sector. Schools and Education Foundations routinely send “Back To School” appeals in September, after the students have already gone back to school.

We’ve helped maybe fifty schools and Education Foundations raise more money (with basically the same letters and emails!) simply by moving their Back To School appeals from September to late July or August.

Just by making the ask before a need, rather than after, they raise significantly more money. Usually between 1.5x and 2x more.

Here’s why “asking before a need” works so well. When an organization asks donors to help after you’re already helping your beneficiaries, you’re just asking donors to fund work you’re already doing. That’s not particularly exciting to donors.

When an organization asks donors to help before the Need arrives, you’re asking donors to play a powerful role in meeting the need right as it happens. That’s exciting to donors.

Specific Timing

So, if your beneficiaries or your organization experience a Need, schedule your Asks (appeals, e-appeals) before the Need.

In general, send your appeal letter about 6 weeks before the Need begins. If you’re running an email campaign, start it about 2 weeks before the Need begins. If you’re only doing a couple of emails, start them 2 or 3 days before the Need begins.

If you want to have the largest impact, do all three:

  • Direct mail about 6 weeks before the Need begins
  • An email campaign starting about 2 weeks before the Need begins
  • Multiple emails in the 2 or 3 days before the Need begins

Next Year

As you plan your year, here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Identify the “Needs” faced by your beneficiaries
  2. Schedule your Asks before those needs
  3. Ask your donor to send in a gift to help meet the need

This simple shift will help you raise more money with the exact same number of communications you sent the year before.

Never Go Dark

Dark mode.

This is the second idea I use to help organizations create fundraising plans that raise more money:

Never go dark on your donors.

Fundraising is similar to personal friendships. We all have friends who show up, and we all have friends who go dark.

As a nonprofit, don’t be a friend who goes dark. When you go dark, you have a lower chance of remaining their friend.

Don’t let donors go months – or even weeks – without hearing from you.

The more you are a regular part of your donors’ news feed – their mail, their email, their social – the more you are a part of their lives.

Truth: the amount of donor communications you send is one of the things that communicates whether your cause is important or not. Two appeals a year, a few emails and a bunch of social? That communicates that your work must not be that important. Eight appeals, four newsletters, and thirty emails? That communicates that your work is urgent and important.

(This is unfair to organizations with small staffs, but it’s unfortunately still true.)

Like a good friend, when you show up in your donors’ lives, talk about your donors and not about yourself (your organization). Show up and tell donors what’s happening with the beneficiaries or cause that they care about. Show up and “report back” to donors the amazing things their gift has made possible through your organization.

So as you make your annual plan for next year, look for times of the year when you’ll be going dark on your donors. Then find an easy-to-create donor-centered communication to send your donors at that time.

For many small organizations, it will feel awkward to send out so many donor communications. You need to consciously make the generous choice to show up in your donors’ lives early and often.

Your donor are adults. You can’t scare them away with a few more pieces of fundraising.

And imagine how much your beneficiaries will appreciate knowing that you never go dark on their behalf.

Smeared Ink, Human Connection and Donor Love


Editor’s Note: the following is a guest post from John Lepp of Agents Of Good.  John’s book, Creative Deviations, is a master class in how to *think* about fundraising.  Yes there are lots of tactics and cool ideas to steal.  But if you can start thinking the way John thinks you will unlock your ability to raise money.  ~Steven

I like talking about the 1,000 things you can do in your direct response program because it speaks to the obsessiveness you must have about our craft. It also highlights the humanness of our craft.

Everyone is looking to automate since it is less work, more profitable (HIGHLY debatable) and faster…

BUT: human connection and love are not check boxes, my friends. There are no short cuts, magic bullets or quick ways to build meaningful connections with other people.

I want to share a few examples with you.

My pal Francesco Ambrogetti (formerly the director of development at UNICEF Italy) created a “Donorlove Department.” He would test all sorts of things to see what would increase a donor’s lifetime value and retention rates.

And he found that he could do that by doing two of the simplest, most human things possible.

He would send a handwritten card within 48 hours of getting a gift. The card simply shared that the donor’s specific gift was received, expressed gratitude and appreciation and reiterated what the gift was used for. He would also call donors on their birthday or the anniversary of their gift. A phone call. To say thank you.

A card. A phone call.

These two things helped him see a 30% increase in retention and 50% increase in the lifetime value.

A card and a phone call. Forget all the shiny objects and gee-whiz factor of technology…

A couple other ones I like to share are things like paperclips. Or stamps. Or smeared ink.

A card or photo or insert paperclipped to your letter sends a signal to your donor that a human was involved – quite simply since machines CANNOT attach paper clips to things.

A stamp (or many, many stamps) on your envelope WILL get looked at and noticed. The more the merrier… especially when placed willy-nilly and on angles. Machines and computers do not do things WILLY NILLY… Humans do!

I am left-handed. So whenever I address an envelope or write in a card, I smear my ink all over the place. Computers don’t do that. They are perfect.

Imperfections make for incredibly effective (and profitable) direct response. They will help you raise a lot more money.

These are just a few quick examples of things I have included in Creative Deviations. You can find it on Amazon or Apple Books around the world.

I would love for you to get yourself a copy, dive in and tell me ( what you think. Unless you hate it.

Editor’s Note: Steven here again. Get John’s book. Really. 

The Fundraising IS the Relationship

Fundraising relationship.

When it comes down to it, fundraising is not that hard.

You treat donors and potential donors with kindness and respect. You try to build relationship with them.

We all “get” the relationship aspect.

But every organization has some donors that you are never going to be in relationship with. These are donors who don’t go to events. They are $25 donors and major donors who you’ve never met and won’t return your calls. They aren’t known by anybody on your staff or board.

But you still want a relationship with them. And believe it or not, it’s possible to have a GREAT relationship with them.

Here’s the secret…

Your Fundraising IS Your Relationship

You’re already in a relationship with them.

The way you communicate with them is you send them fundraising. The way they communicate with you is by giving a gift… or not.

So for your side of the relationship – the fundraising that you send them – the question becomes; “How are you going to show up?”

Take a look at a bunch of standard practices is mass donor fundraising, and think about all of these in the context of relationship:

  • Fundraising that talks mostly about the organization itself, and very little about the donor
  • Only sending out a couple pieces of fundraising a year, and going dark (ghosting) for weeks and months
  • Fundraising that, when sharing success stories made possible by the donor and the organization, focuses almost exclusively on the organization’s role
  • Fundraising that’s written to the organization’s level of expertise, instead of written to the donor’s level of expertise

You’d never put up with those behaviors from another human, would you?

It’s almost like we ignored the basic principles of relationship when we created mass donor fundraising plans and materials, don’t you think?

So is it any surprise those approaches don’t make for effective fundraising?

Your Side of the Relationship

Here’s how to hold up your side of the relationship, how to show up in your donor’s life and be the type of organization that she’d like to be in relationship with:

  • Fundraising that’s mostly about what she cares about (your beneficiaries and what she can do or has done to help), and less about your organization
  • Fundraising that regularly shows up in your donor’s life
  • Fundraising that focuses more on the donor’s role and less on the organization’s role
  • Fundraising that’s written to make it easy for a donor to understand

Follow those principles and you’ll build GREAT relationships with donors you’ve never talked to.

And over time, many of your donors will “upgrade” their relationship with you through attending an event, giving you a major gift, including you in their will, etc.

And it will have happened because you made the generous choice to show up in their lives.

You held up your end of the relationship in a way that made them want to get to know you better.

This post was originally published on October 21, 2021.

The Long Cut


“Ship your work. Get feedback. Improve it. Repeat.”

This lesson comes from the Tech and Art worlds, but it applies perfectly to fundraising.

Every time you send out a piece of fundraising, you’ve shipped your work. Celebrate it.

Then you get feedback in opens, click-throughs, # of gifts, response rate, etc. Measure it.

Then you ask, “What could we do to get more opens, click-throughs, etc.?” Improve it.

Then you keep it up. Because when you repeat the cycle, you get the “compound interest” of ever-improving results.

Ship your work. Get feedback. Improve it. Repeat.

It’s not sexy. But it’s a priceless way to serve your beneficiaries or cause.

“It’s Too Easy to Read!” The One Complaint I’ve Never Heard from a Donor

In my 20 years of nonprofit work, there’s one complaint I have NEVER heard from a donor.

I’ve never heard a donor complain that something is too easy to read and understand.

But interestingly enough… that IS something a lot of organizations worry about.

The worry goes something like this:

  • “We don’t want donors to think we’re talking down to them!”
  • “That doesn’t sound like our executive director!”
  • “Our donors are different… they are educated!”

There’s a Steven Screen saying that I have on a sticky note next to my computer screen: “Nobody has to read your fundraising.”

Painful… but true!

If you don’t make your fundraising easy to read, most donors will stop trying.

That’s why you need to do the work to make your fundraising communications easy to read.

When you make your fundraising communications easy to read and understand, more donors will read. And that will lead to you raising more money.

Here are three simple things you can do to make your communications easier to read.

  • Use short sentences.
  • Use words that are easy to understand (and limit organizational jargon!).
  • Don’t be afraid of sentence fragments or starting a sentence with And or But.

Here’s the thing…

This has nothing to do with how smart your donors are. Your donors ARE smart – I get it! But your donors are busy, and they have a bunch of things competing for their attention at any given moment.

So… you must do the hard work to make things simple and easy to understand.

It’s worth it – I promise!

Before I go, I want to share a free resource you can use to help you make your fundraising communications easy to understand. I use it all the time!

Copy and paste your text and Hemingway will assign a reading level and highlight complex sentences. Aim for a 6th – 7th grade reading level.

When you do the hard work to make your fundraising communications easy to read and understand, your donors are more likely to give. It’s that simple! Give it a try and let me know how it goes. Find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

Use your Social Posts to Build Better Donor Relationships


Fundraising is as much about building relationships with your donors as it is about raising money for your cause.

This is especially true for your mass donors, who because of their sheer numbers often don’t receive the face-to-face attention that your mid-level and major donors would. And it’s because of this, that frequent communication to your mass donors becomes more important.

Think about it this way…

Every appeal letter, newsletter, email, phone call, and social post from your organization is building an important relationship with your donor.

And one of the easiest, and most cost-effective ways to build that relationship is through social media. It may not yield the same number of gifts as your appeal letters, but social media can be an engaging way to interact, often in real-time, with your donors… if it’s done right.

There are lots of social media tips and tactics for fundraisers out there, but sometimes it’s worthwhile to remember the simple things.

1. Keep the post focused on one idea

Try not to muddy the waters by including multiple messages in your social post. Many organizations make this mistake and lose the donor’s interest in the process. Tell a story, promote an event, ask for help, but try not to do everything all at once. Remember, you only have a few precious seconds to grab and keep your donor’s attention, so keep focused on idea.

2. Make sure the image or video you use is relevant

It might sound obvious, but if you’re planning on including an image or a video in your social post, make sure it’s relevant to your headline and content. If you’re talking about Thanksgiving, for example, consider using images that best illustrate this holiday.

3. Make sure your landing page links work

Every clicked on a URL only to be directed to a random page? Or none at all? Before scheduling your social post, be sure to check the URL you’re using and that the content in your post matches the content on the landing page.

4. Keep your message donor-focused

Your social posts can absolutely be an extension of your fundraising, so just as we recommend doing with your appeal letters and newsletters, write your social posts with your donor in mind. Talk about the impact of their gift, how they helped solve a problem, or the difference they can make.

These four reminders are basic, and may be second nature, but if you’re tentatively dipping your toes in the social media water, and need some lane ropes, then we hope these suggestions help you build better relationships with your donors.

Upgrade your mid-level communications today using these 3 tips!


While we might wish that each of our communications could be perfectly personalized for each donor, this often isn’t the reality.

It can take way too much time. We often don’t have all the accurate data needed. And frankly, the donors don’t give at a level that warrants that kind of attention to detail… yet.

So, for this group of “mid-level” donors who aren’t quite in a gift officer’s portfolio, but give at a higher level than many of your annual or mass donors, here are three ways you can easily personalize your communications without taking too much time:

  1. A Cover Letter with personalized program or campaign information
    • Try sorting your mailing list by the last fund or campaign that your mid-level donors gave to. Group them by that fund or campaign and merge a sentence or two about that program into a personalized cover letter to accompany your communication.
  2. Post-it notes
    • Did you know you can print on post-it notes at your office? Add a personalized thank you to any generic letter for your donors. Depending on the size of your mailing list, you can type out each one in Excel and merge, or type directly into Word, letting your donor know how special they are. Here’s a link with step-by-step instructions!
  3. Send a hand-written thank you
    • Gather a couple staff members and have a half-hour “thank you card party” every week. Imagine: Thank You Thursdays! Prioritize your list of donations by amount, from high to low. For the donors you don’t have time to make a thank you call, send a short hand-written note. Be sure to include the personal contact information of the signee in case the donor would like to call you back!

Even if you try just one of these three tips in your next mailing, you are improving your donor’s experience by making them feel truly appreciated. The chances one of your mid-level donors upgrading to a major donor just increased!

“Why are you writing about the organization?”

Thinking writing.

This is the second post in our series on donor-centered print newsletters. The kind of newsletters that delight donors and raise more money for your nonprofit.

The first post was about the purpose of your newsletter. This post is the second and final Big Idea you need to succeed.

And after this – I promise – the posts will get tactical.

But if you don’t know this one idea, all the tactics in the world won’t help very much.

A Powerful, Unexpected Question

It’s 1994. I’m less than a year out of college working at a fundraising agency that specializes in helping large nonprofits raise money. And I’m writing my first newsletter.

I handed my draft to my boss – an accomplished, brilliant fundraiser.

He read the first story, scanned the rest of the stories, and handed the stack of paper back to me.

Then he asked me a powerful but unexpected question:

“Why Are You Writing About the Organization?”

I didn’t know it at the moment, but that was one of the most powerful lessons I ever learned about effective fundraising.

At the time all I could do was say, “What do you mean? It’s … the organization’s newsletter.”

“Sure.” My boss said, “but most donors aren’t reading a newsletter to find out anything about the organization. They are reading it to find out if their gift made a difference.

“The most effective newsletters are written to show donors what their gift accomplished. And the best way to do that is through stories about beneficiaries.

“So stop writing about the organization and its programs. Start writing about the donor and telling her stories about lives that have been changed because of her kindness. Then she’ll think it was a great idea to give to the organization, and be more likely to give again.”

So … I went back to my office to do a complete rewrite.

But I was a far more effective fundraiser from that moment forward.

Your Newsletter

As you create your newsletter, you will be tempted to “write about your organization.”

People in your organization will even push you to write about your organization.

They’ll say things like, “But we have to tell people about everything we do and tell them that we’re good at it!”

No. You don’t. In fact, when you do, fewer donors will read your newsletter. Because hearing about your organization is not why they are reading. They are reading because they are hoping to hear about themselves. Whether and how their gift made a difference. Whether they are a valuable part of your organization.

Keep this idea in mind as you read this series. Then all the tactics – the writing style, the headlines, the picture captions – will make sense.

You’ll start keeping your donors for longer. And your newsletter will become a major revenue source!

This post was originally published on February 25, 2020. Get a free downloadable “e-book” of this whole series here.