You Don’t Need to Convince Your Donors


There’s an approach to fundraising that believes that your fundraising must convince the donor that what you’re working on is important before they will read your message or give a gift.

This is happening any time you see an appeal start out with a statistic.  “There are over 14,000 children in the LA area aging out of the foster care system each year” is one example.  “43% of the wetlands in Okanagan are currently unprotected” is another.

These stats are meant to communicate to the donor that what’s being written about is Important, that this is a Big Deal

The organization’s thinking goes something like, “If the donor only realized how important and what a big problem this is, they would give a gift.” 

In my experience, this approach does not work very well.

Here’s an approach that works better: believe that your donor already cares.

After all, each gift to your organization is a sign that the donor cares about the situation you’re working on and/or your organization.  Your donors have already put themselves on the hook for your cause. 

If you believe that your reader already cares, you skip the whole “try to convince them” part.  This leads to appeals that:

  1. Tell the donor what’s happening right now,
  2. Give an example (usually in the form of a story) of how what’s happening right now is affecting a person / the wetland / whatever you work on,
  3. Tells the donor specifically what their gift will do to help.

By skipping the whole “we have to convince them this is important” part, the letter or email is free to get right to what the donor is more likely to be interested in: what’s happening now, and what their gift will do about it.

Moving forward, trust that your donors don’t need to be convinced.  They’ve already told you with their attention and generosity.

Two Audiences = Two Approaches

2 approaches.

There’s a big difference between writing appeal letters and writing grant applications.

When you’re writing a grant application you know that it will be read.  In fact, someone is paid to read it.

When you’re writing an appeal letter (or an e-appeal) you know that it will arrive in a mailbox in competition with everything else the donor is receiving.  No one is paid to read it.

That’s a big difference.

The audiences for grant applications and appeals are completely different.  This explains why the writing style for an appeal is different than the writing style for a grant application. 

If your grant applications and your appeals sound the same, one of them is completely missing the mark.

8.25 Seconds

8 seconds.

Let me share two numbers with you:

  • 8.25 seconds — the average length of time a human can focus on a single task.
  • 3 minutes — how long it takes to read the average appeal letter from a nonprofit.

Makes you realize why most fundraising appeal letters don’t work well, doesn’t it?

(By the way, you may read the “8 seconds” stat and think the same thing I thought: wait a minute, people concentrate for longer than 8 seconds all the time.  You and I have watched movies from beginning to end, and we’ve read entire books.  But movies and books are in a category called “preferred activities” – and it’s hard to argue that “reading an appeal letter” is a preferred activity for a donor with a full mailbox.)

So I’m not here to argue that your appeal letters should be 8 seconds long.  But I will argue that making your appeal letters understandable in 8 seconds makes your fundraising more inclusive and opens your organization up to gifts from far more people.

Here’s how to make your appeals “understandable” in just a few seconds:

  • Get to the point quickly.  Do NOT slowly build your case and then make your point (usually the Ask) at the end of the letter.  Save that approach for grant applications.
  • Use visual emphasis (underlining, bolding, arrows, etc.) to draw attention to the most important information.  The ideas you highlight should summarize the letter.

The most successful appeals are two letters in one: a person can glance through your letter and “get the gist” in just a few seconds, and then get the fuller picture if they choose to read the whole letter. 

Writing and designing your letters (and emails) this way is not what your English teacher taught you.  It’s probably not a style that’s preferred by important people in your organization.

But if you can write and design your appeals to remove the barrier of “a person must read the whole thing to get our point,” then you’ve opened up your organization to a new world full of supporters.

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? 

Three Rules For ‘We’


I read an appeal recently where the first sentence was:

“We’re facing a crisis.”

Think about that sentence with me for a moment. Who does the “we” refer to?

As far as I can tell, the possibilities for the “we” are:

  • The organization itself.
  • The writer and the reader.
  • Everyone on the planet.
  • Everyone who cares about the issue the organization works on.
  • Everyone in the city/region where the organization is based.

For now, let’s set aside how important first sentences are and how it’s not ideal to start an appeal with a sentence with multiple meanings.

Instead, let’s focus on that “we”…

The next time you read a piece of fundraising, I can almost guarantee you that you’ll see a “we” that could refer to at least a couple of groups. I make this error in my own first drafts all the time.

Over time I’ve developed three questions that I ask myself when I see the word “we” (and its close cousin, “us”). These questions are an easy way to make your fundraising writing to individual donors more clear and more impactful.

Can I make it abundantly clear who the “we” refers to?

This results in changes like this:

  • From “We care about the…” to “The staff and I care about the…”
  • From “We need to save the wetland…” to “Everyone who lives in this watershed needs to save the wetland…”

Fundraising that’s crazy easy to understand lowers the cognitive load on the reader. That keeps more people reading, and results in more money being raised. Clarity is good.

You get it. And speaking of “you”…

Can I directly include the donor?

This results in changes like this:

  • From “Together, we can…” to “Together, you and I can…”
  • From “We don’t want to cut back…” to “You and I don’t want to cut back…”

Directly including the donor with the word “you” gets them more emotionally involved, which increases the likelihood of them giving a gift.

And finally…

Can I remove the organization entirely?

Two examples for you:

  • From “We need your help more than ever…” to “Your help is needed more than ever…”
  • From “A gift today helps us make transformations like this possible.” to “A gift today makes transformations like this possible.”

Focusing the donor’s attention on their role, as opposed to the organization’s role, is a surefire way to keep individual donors more engaged in direct mail and email.

Any time you see the word “we” or “us,” ask yourself these three questions. You’ll make your writing more relevant to your readers, which is key to raising more from your readers.

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.