Why Easier to Understand Wins Every Time in Direct Mail Copy


When you’re writing fundraising copy, before you add a sentence, explain more, or tweak what you’ve already written… stop and ask this question.

Does this make it easier to understand or harder to understand?

It can be so tempting to complicate things. Explain the extenuating circumstances. Explore the nuances. Add something interesting but only loosely related.

But then you end up with something that is harder for your donors to understand.

As a professional fundraising copywriter, I ask myself this question all the time. It keeps me focused on what’s important to my reader, not just what’s important to me.

Here’s something you can try that might make it easier to write things for donors to read. Imagine you ARE your donor.

Do you ever wake up and think, “Hey, I’d like to read something really complicated today – where I have to read every sentence three times – and then I’m STILL wondering what’s happening?”

Probably not.

This is especially true if it’s something you don’t have to read.

When it comes to donors who are busy and moving fast, easier to understand wins out over harder to understand every time.

By the way, this also means easier to understand leads to more donations when you ask donors to give. Because donors must understand what you need before they’ll give.

Now we’re talking!

So next time you sit down to write fundraising copy, don’t forget this important question: does this make it easier to understand or harder to understand?

Bonus idea! Easier to understand vs. harder to understand is also important when you’re editing fundraising writing, planning a presentation, or communicating with donors in any way.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Good News and Bad News, Part II

Yin Yang.

Part I was about our belief that nonprofits are called to share the whole situation – the good news caused by their work and the bad news that causes their work to be needed.

But that’s a complex story. And do you think that today’s individual donors – who have shorter attention spans and are bombarded by more messages and information than any time in human history – are going to read and think about your complex story?

No. At least not many.

So here’s the fundraising maxim we live by:

When you only have a few moments of a person’s attention, focus your message on either the good news or the bad news.

Here’s how this works in practice:

  • You put the “bad news” in your appeals and e-appeals. These are your Asks.
  • You put the good news in your Thanks. These are your Thank You/Receipt letters and email receipts.
  • You put more good news in your Reports. These are your Newsletters.

This provides a series of messages that are easy to understand by individual donors who are moving fast. This communicates both the good news and the bad news about what’s going on, rather than hiding the news in communication pieces that attempt to tell the whole story every time.

It will also raise you more money, if the results of our customers are any indication.

And when you have more time with a donor – say at an event, or a coffee with a donor, or a grant application – then you can tell the whole complex story, sharing both the good news and the need for your work.

But in the meantime, focus each message to individual donors on either good news or bad news. By narrowing the focus, more of your message will make it through to donors, and to the world.

What to Do When Things are Uncertain and Donors Aren’t Giving as Much


My colleague Steven Screen said something profound recently:

“When times are good, donors give. When times are bad, donors give. When times are uncertain… donors wait.”

This spring your organization may have experienced donors waiting. Your fundraising results may have been lower than normal, and you may feel a little panicked.

You are NOT alone!

There are times when some donors wait to give, for reasons we can’t control.

This spring there was scary messaging in the US news around the debt ceiling.

We (mostly) suspected it would turn out okay, but if it didn’t, then… Catastrophic global economic consequences! Immediate recession! THINGS WILL BE TERRIBLE!

Those were the types of headlines we were seeing in the US. (Okay, I made up the last one, but that’s what it FELT like…)

I suspect there were donors waiting to see how the debt ceiling situation played out.

When your job is fundraising and donor giving dips, whether that’s major donor fundraising, direct response fundraising, event fundraising – any area, really – here are three things you should do:

  1. Glance at a few headlines. Do your best to understand what your donors might be thinking about, fearing, or uncertain about.

  2. Review your strategy. Are you asking donors to give in a clear, confident, emotional way that has worked in the past? Are you thanking your donors when they give and reporting back on what their gift did?

  3. If the answer to #2 is YES, you may be in a time where donors are waiting. Keep being faithful with the things you can control and don’t stop fundraising. We’ve seen time and time again that donors resume giving after periods of uncertainty. Make sure you are in front of your donors with strong fundraising offers so they resume their giving to YOUR organization.

By the way, if the answer to #2 is NO, the lack of giving may have more to do with your Asks than your donors. Review your communications with a more critical eye. Sometimes in the day-to-day shuffle – especially when times are weird – messages that are off-topic to donors creep in and cause fundraising to underperform.

Whether times are good or times are bad, donors want to help a cause they care about. Keep asking! Keep thanking! Keep reporting back so they see the good they’re doing!

By the way, once the uncertainty has passed you may have a gap in funding. Tell your donors about it and ask them to help!

Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter


People ask me all the time,

“How do you start your appeals? I have the hardest time with that.”

If starting appeals or e-appeals is something you can have trouble with, check out Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter.

The tips are easy to follow. And they make beginning your next appeal or email a snap.

By the way, I think first sentences, subject lines and teasers are becoming more important in our work as Fundraisers. Getting and keeping people’s attention is harder than it’s ever been.

The people and organizations who can reliably create great first sentences are going to have a larger impact.

Two Groups of Fundraisers

Two groups.

Some people think all fundraising looks and sounds the same.

You’ve met and worked with these folks. They get kind of annoyed with fundraising materials because – to them – the letters and emails all seem to blend together. Ugh.

On the other hand…

There’s a second group of people who see and appreciate the differences in each piece of fundraising. They appreciate that no two pieces of fundraising are the same.

The people in the second group enjoy the details. The people in the second group have more fun.

By the way, it’s people in that second group who you want creating and evaluating your fundraising.

A Little Visual Punch


Last week I wrote about how adding ”handmade” touches to the design of your appeal letter can increase the chances it will connect with a donor.

Here’s another tool you can use: add elements that catch their eye and add impact to your message.

Look at the following table included in a recent successful appeal letter:

This table does a GREAT job communicating the main point of the letter; that the cost of living has dramatically increased for the beneficiaries of this organization.

We created the table and put it in the letter because the paragraphs we’d written about the increased costs just didn’t seem to be making an impact. The letter lacked punch. Something more visual and powerful was needed.

As you think about doing something like this in your fundraising, here are four qualities I’m aiming for as I help create something like this…

Visual Surprise

It’s a visual surprise to see a table like this in the middle of the letter copy. It sticks out, and readers’ eyes are drawn to it. Visual interest at key areas leads to more readers, and more readers leads to more givers.

Easy to Understand

Even though there are a lot of numbers, the chart is easy to understand.

The items in the left column are something every donor understands. The “% INCREASE” header of the right-hand column is bold and makes it easy to know what the table is about. And the percentages in the right column are also easy to understand.

Easy to Understand FAST

Most readers will read the upper left corner (“RICE IN HAITI”) and then blip right over to “% INCREASE” and “40.07%.” I suspect most people then immediately a) understood the point the table was communicating, b) immediately knew that the rest of the table just gave them more examples, and then c) moved on to the rest of the letter without reading anything else in the table.

For something like this to be successful, the reader should not have to read the whole thing.

Higher Impact

The size and type in the table communicate importance. The table made the point more strongly than a sentence like, “prices are rising dramatically, as much as 40% in Haiti for rice and 140% of potatoes in India.”

As you create your fundraising, always be on the lookout for ways you can spice up your letter by communicating information in ways other than words. Get good at it and your fundraising will have higher impact, higher engagement, and higher revenue.

BONUS: A Simple Strategy to Build Major Donor Relationships Immediately


A Beginner’s Guide to Major Donor Fundraising Success: BONUS Simple Strategy to Build Relationships Immediately

I’ve been sharing some of my tips and tricks for getting started with major donor fundraising.

Today, I’m going to share a strategy a client and fundraising friend of mine came up with that is so simple (and easy to remember!) that I can’t keep it to myself.

It’s called 3 – 4 – 5.

3 days a week, call 4 major donors to say thank you or report back, at 5pm.

That’s it. That’s the strategy.

Even if you can’t start a full-blown major donor program, see if you can try THIS.

Make this part of your week (every week!) and you will start building stronger relationships with your major donors immediately!

It’s as simple as 3 – 4 – 5!

Next time: how to ask for a major gift from the donors in your portfolio.

Read the series:

  1. A Beginner’s Guide to Major Donor Fundraising Success: Step #1, Build Your Portfolio
  2. A Beginner’s Guide to Major Donor Fundraising Success: Step #2, The Plan to Build Meaningful Relationships
  3. A Beginner’s Guide to Major Donor Fundraising Success: BONUS Simple Strategy to Build Relationships Immediately (This post)
  4. A Beginner’s Guide to Major Donor Fundraising Success: Step #3, How to Ask for a Major Gift

Writing Tip: Put the Most Important Information First


There’s a writing principle you should live by:

Put the most important information first

Here’s what I mean.  Here’s a sentence from an e-appeal I edited recently:

Industrial, resource-heavy growth threatens Maryland’s fragile wetlands.

This sentence does what we were taught to do in school: explain and provide context, then make the point. 

Let’s look at it again, this time with a simple sentence diagram (apologies if you get flashbacks to middle school):

Industrial, resource-heavy growth
<           explains the context            > 

threatens Maryland’s fragile wetlands.
  <  idea that matters most to the donor  >

The problem is that in the mail and email, the end of a long sentence is less likely to be read than the beginning of a sentence.  (Look at a heat map and you’ll see how little most people read when they first look at your fundraising.)

So you want to put the most important information first, and then explain.

So how should you write the sentence above if you assume that many readers are only going to read the beginning of a sentence?  You’d write something like this:

Maryland’s fragile wetlands are threatened
  <  idea that matters most to the donor  >

by industrial, resource-heavy growth.
<           explains the context            > 

Writing in this way is one of the reasons that effective fundraising in email and the mail feels different from what your English teacher taught you. 

Additionally, this approach occasionally results in using the passive voice. This bothers people sometimes because the rule they live by is to ’never use the passive voice.’ The rule *I* live by is that, on behalf of beneficiaries, I’ll break any grammar rule I need to in order to create more effective communication.

Because beginning with the idea that matters most to the donor will make a few more people “get the message” your fundraising is sending.  That causes a few more people to give, which causes your organization to do more good.

It’s a great, free way to get a little more out of each appeal and e-appeal!

Real Connection Goes Both Ways


When you’re at a nonprofit, there’s a joyous connection that happens when you feel like donors really “get” your organization and what you’re doing.

You feel seen.  You feel affirmed.

And here’s the thing: there’s also a joyous connection for a donor when they feel like an organization really “gets” them.

Does your organization’s fundraising make your donors feel like you really “get” them?


When you’re in a personal relationship with a donor, it’s not that hard to make a donor feel like you really “get” them.  You can ask them questions about their story and about why they donate.  You can create a fundraising ask or offer just for them that shows them you understand what they care about and why they give.

It’s harder to do in a piece of direct mail that goes to all donors who have given a gift in the last 18 months.  It’s harder still in an email that goes to everyone.

But it’s possible. 

Here’s How

In prominent locations in your fundraising, include sentences that attribute to the reader what you know about people who are likely to donate. 

Here are some examples:

  • In an appeal – “I know you care about classical music.”
  • In an automated Thank You email – “You just saw a situation that touched your heart and you did something about it.  Thank you!”
  • In a newsletter – “You know that someone in Gary’s situation is in real danger, and that’s why I’m so excited to tell you what your generosity helped make possible for him.”

You get the idea.

And you also see that this isn’t just the “window dressing” of including the word “you” a lot.  It’s actively thinking about what donors care about.  It’s thinking through a donor’s personal experience with your cause and/or beneficiaries.  It’s thinking through the emotions a donor experiences as they give a gift.  And then, on behalf of your beneficiaries, mirroring those thoughts and experiences back to donors.

It’s not a magic bullet.  And there are tons of other things you have to do well to succeed. 

But when your fundraising consistently includes these little hints that you understand your reader, you create a two-way connection.

That’s more powerful than the one-way connection donors are used to.  It’s similar to moving from “like” to “love.”

So put yourself in the following situation: it’s right before dinner.  Your donor is quickly processing their mail.  They have two envelopes in front of them, but only have time to open one.  Your donor must make a quick, subconscious decision.

Which letter do you think the donor is more likely to open?  The one from “one of those organizations that I like” … or the letter from “that one organization that gets me”?