Authenticity Isn’t Always Useful


In the nonprofit world we tend to embrace authenticity.

It’s assumed that if we’re authentic, and the fundraising we create is authentic, that we’ll attract more people to our cause. More money will be raised, and we’ll do more good.

But there are clear limits to this line of thinking. 

Say you’re at an organization that has eighteen different programs. But your fundraising is most successful when it focuses on one particular program. Furthermore, that program has a holistic, whole-person approach to caring for people of all ages.  But the fundraising clearly works best when it asks donors to “feed one child.”

In that scenario, any fundraising you create that focuses on “feeding a child” will feel wildly inauthentic to program staff and anyone who understands the depth and breadth of your work.

However, the fundraising you create that focuses on “feeding a child” serves your mission by helping donors understand a powerful part of your organization’s complex approach.

Think of a college professor. Can you imagine how an accomplished astrophysicist – tenured and with a long track record of publishing cutting-edge research – feels when teaching “Astronomy 101” to a bunch of college freshmen (some of whom are hung over)?

Do we think she feels “authentic” giving those lectures when she could be discussing the latest findings with her peers? 

Probably not. She does it because it’s part of the job, and because it’s likely there are some future astrophysicists in her class.  How will they get excited about the subject if she doesn’t show up in an engaging way? Furthermore, she can’t show up in class and talk to the freshmen like she talks to her peers.  She makes the generous choice to speak to them in language they’ll understand.

Fundraising is the same. There are some donor communications we need to make – even if we don’t prefer them – because it’s part of the job. 

And how will the future volunteers / donors / advocates get excited about our work if we don’t show up – speaking to them at their level – in an engaging way?

There’s nothing wrong with communicating authentically. The trap is when “communicating authentically” comes to mean “we talk about our work in one particular way that feels authentic to us.” 

Nonprofits should make the generous choice to talk to different audiences in different ways: we should communicate about our work differently to institutional funders who are experts in our fields differently than we communicate to mass donors.

Our primary focus should not be on being authentic to ourselves, it should be on being relevant to the particular audience being communicated to.

It’s a Trap!


Please please please, do not get stuck in the classic nonprofit trap of thinking, “We want to raise more money but we have to sound like us.”

First, let’s take just a moment to acknowledge the strategic absurdity of expecting to raise meaningfully more money this year but “say the same things we always say in the way we always say them.”

What I want to focus on is this: I know of no nonprofit with a thriving fundraising operation that “sounds like” they sounded when they started. Instead, they experimented with and tailored their message over time, in order to raise more and do the most good.

“Sound like us” or “sound like me” are good values, but should not be the primary values.

An organization’s primary value for their fundraising communications should be something like, “we will continuously evolve our fundraising messaging so we can fund more and more of our mission work.”

(I’m assuming we’re telling the truth, etcetera etcetera.)

What’s more, an organization should “sound” different when communicating with different audiences. You should sound different when talking to an experienced professional at a Foundation partner than you sound in an email asking non-donors to make their first gift.

The primary goal for an organization’s fundraising communications should not be to “sound like us.” The primary goal should be to evolve and improve “what you sound like” over time in order to raise the most money and keep as many donors as possible each year.

Three Reasons You Should Occasionally Let Your Fundraiser Try Something New

Something new.

If you have some control or influence over fundraising at your organization – please take a minute to read this.

Maybe you’re the Executive Director, or a Board member, or the Head of Programs. But you have some “say” over your fundraising strategy, content and language.

Here’s what I want you to do:

Let your Fundraiser try something new every once in a while. Even something you don’t like.

There are three main reasons you want to do this…

  1. No one piece of fundraising is going to make or break your year. So it’s fine if you try something new every once in a while, even if you’re a small organization. Most nonprofits overestimate the importance of any one particular piece of fundraising.
  2. If a smart Fundraiser doesn’t get to try new things every once in a while, they will likely leave. One of the reasons nonprofit fundraising has a massive turnover problem is that Fundraisers are told they will be responsible for the fundraising – and usually told they need to raise more money than last year – but also must take all of the advice from non-Fundraisers. Would you thrive in that environment?
  3. For your organization to raise a different amount of money, you must communicate differently than you have in the past. Put another way, your current communication plan and messaging are perfectly designed to raise the amount of money that you raised last year. If you want to raise meaningfully more, you need to make meaningful changes.

If you don’t accept a little risk by giving your Fundraisers the freedom and leeway they need to make changes, you haven’t given them the freedom and leeway they need to achieve the fundraising goals.

Why “Look Nice and Use Our Brand Colors” Persists

Brand colors.

Our previous post noted that organizations who design all their fundraising pieces to “look nice and use their brand colors” accidentally cause their organization to raise less money.

Yet this approach persists. It’s arguably the most common approach!

I think there are two reasons it persists, and each of them is a good lesson for all of us Fundraisers to remember:

Lack Of Differentiation

At the vast majority of nonprofits, people aren’t taught that the design considerations for designing appeal letters are different than the consideration when designing a brochure or an annual report.

In direct response fundraising, there are some design approaches that are proven to work better than others.

It’s not your fault because you weren’t trained how to do this stuff.

And the first step towards an organization’s design helping them raise more money instead of less is the ability to differentiate between different types of fundraising.

Misplaced Branding Principles

There are many product- and corporate-branding principles that have been widely misapplied to the nonprofit world.

Here’s a summary of the resulting approach: “If our fundraising stays on brand all the time, that is good for our brand and will cause more people to give money over time.”

That’s true IF (and only if) your brand is effective in all the contexts in which you fundraise.

For instance, say one of a nonprofit’s brand colors is cyan (light blue) or something similar. And in order to stay on brand, the nonprofit uses cyan for some of the text in its newsletter.

Cyan, because it is so low contrast, is almost impossible to read by most people. Look at what using cyan (compared to black) does for reading comprehension:

(Data from Type & Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes by Colin Whelldon.)

While this color can be very effective in creating a feeling as part of a brand’s palette, it’s ineffective when used as a text color.

So the brand is effective in one context, but not in others.

In that case, ‘staying on brand all the time’ absolutely does not help the organization raise more money now, or in the future.

The lesson here is that brand consistency (looking and feeling the same in all contexts) matters less than brand relevancy (being relevant and effective in whatever context you’re working in at the moment).

The next time you’re asked to design a piece of fundraising – or you ask someone to design a piece of fundraising for you – ask these two questions:

  1. What type of fundraising are we creating here?
  2. What are the hallmarks of effective design in this context?

The ability to differentiate, and then to know what effective design looks like in different contexts, will help an organization achieve more of its mission than an over-devotion to using its brand colors.

Should You Sponsor or Start a Podcast?


I’ve been asked some form of the following question three times in the last week:

“We want to get new donors, and we’re thinking about sponsoring a podcast.  What do you think?”

Spoiler alert: the short answer is “probably not.”   

There’s nothing wrong with sponsoring or even starting a podcast. However, it’s likely that the cost for each donor you acquire via a podcast will likely be higher than the cost to acquire a donor through more traditional methods.

In short, there are three main reasons why…

#1 – Most Donors Are Old, Most Podcast Listeners Are Young

The most recent Blackbaud study shared that the average age of a donor in the United States is 67 years old.  (It’s good to recognize that this means half of the donors are older than 67.)

And according to, only 22% of podcast listeners are over 55.

Right there we have an immediate mismatch. Generally speaking, nonprofits generally want older donors because older donors tend to give more, and tend to be donors for longer lengths of time. But the audience for podcasts is younger donors – who tend to give less, and for shorter lengths of time.

Is there anything wrong with this? No. But targeting younger people tends to be a less efficient use of resources.

#2 – But Steven, We Need Younger Donors, This Is Great!

The “but we need younger donors!” argument was part of all three conversations I had.

But it doesn’t hold much water.

For most organizations, the average length of time a donor will give to the organization is about 5 years.

So, say you sponsor a podcast and you’re acquiring donors who average about 35 years old.

Most of those donors will have left your organization by the time they are about 40 years old.  That’s roughly 25 years before they enter their prime giving years. 

Is there anything wrong with this?  No.  Will you have raised some money and acquired some “younger donors?”  Sure. 

But if you have limited resources, wouldn’t you rather acquire 60-year-old donors who would give more and for longer periods? 

#3 – Donating Is A Little Harder

In the context of listening to a podcast, there’s a little bit more “friction” between a person and their donation than there is compared to traditional fundraising channels.

For instance:

  • When a person reading your letter wants to give a gift, the reply card and reply envelope are right there
  • When a person reading your email wants to give a gift, they click on a link
  • When a person listening to a podcast wants to donate, they have to press “stop” on the podcast, then they have to search for the link to your donation page.  This assumes that the link is in the show notes and that the notes are included in the app the person is using to listen to the podcast. 

Is there anything wrong with this? No, it can still work. But always pay attention to friction – it matters far more than most people think.

There Are Exceptions

It’s easy to think of two exceptions to this advice:

  • Organizations whose donor base is overwhelmingly younger, like many social justice organizations.  If the average age of your donors is 35, then a channel that reaches that audience makes sense.
  • Organizations that have already maximized the ROI from traditional donor acquisition channels, but still require more new donors to meet organizational goals, so are willing to expand outside of the “tried and true.”

I’m sure there are more exceptions.

If you’re considering getting in the podcast game, those two exceptions are probably good “starting filters” to see if it makes sense for your organization.

Be “Platform Agnostic”

The three hard-won lessons I’m trying to share really have nothing to do with podcasts:

  1. There are lots of ways to acquire new donors
  2. Each one has a different audience and a different return on investment
  3. When our resources are limited, it’s our job to figure out how to get the best return

Be “platform agnostic.” It doesn’t matter which platform or media channel you or your friends prefer, or what would be “cool” to do. What matters is looking at all the available choices and making the best choice for your organization.

Sometimes that means making unsexy choices. Sometimes that means alienating younger members of the fundraising team. Sometimes it means pissing off the spouse of the board member who has strong feelings.

It means looking at all the options. Estimating the ROI of your possible choices. And then achieving as much of your mission and vision as you can.

How to Avoid the “What does that mean?” Offramp

Off ramp.

I have a rule I follow when creating fundraising:

Avoid any statements that could cause a reader to think, “What does that mean?”

It seems like a simple rule, no? But it gets broken all the time – and most damagingly in a specific, important part of fundraising: phrases or sentences that are emphasized with underlining or bolding.

Here are several real-life examples of emphasized copy that have come across my desk in the last couple of weeks.

All of these were the first sentence in the appeal that was emphasized. Because most readers scan before they read, that means that for a large percentage of readers, these sentences were the first thing donors read in the letter.

Ask yourself as you read these: did this immediately make sense to the donor?

“One thing led to another… but you took care of that!”

“Your investment will make a real, lasting impact in the lives of those who are struggling in silence.”

“I wish for a good night’s sleep.”

“That is why I’m reaching out to you for a donation today.”

None of those sentences are easy to understand without additional context.

Which means that each of them was an “offramp” – an opportunity for the reader to delete or put down the appeal.

Good Examples

If you visually emphasize any words in your appeals, make sure they can be easily understood on their own. Here are some examples of first emphasized sentences that were effective:

“Today kicks off [ORGANIZATION NAME]’s fundraising campaign to launch our Comedy Bootcamp classes in San Diego and Indianapolis later this year.”

“The seal pup has several stingray barbs lodged in its face.”

“You can follow in the footsteps of your faith and feed needy children and their families by making a gift today.”

“There is still a $14,000 shortfall to reach our fiscal year fundraising goal.”

Each of those sentences is easy to understand. If a donor wants to know more, they can keep reading.

But they don’t need to read more to understand.

Here’s What to Do

If this is a new idea for your organization, here’s a roadmap for what to do:

  1. Create your direct response fundraising with the assumption that donors will scan your fundraising, not read it.
  2. Think of your emphasized copy as the parts of your letter or email that people are likely to read.
  3. Make sure that everything that’s emphasized is understandable on its own.
  4. Taken together, all the emphasized words and phrases should provide a summary of the piece of fundraising.

Follow that roadmap and you’ll create what we call “two letters in one.” Your letter will be effective both for people who are moving fast, and for people who read every word.

And that, my friend, is effective direct response fundraising!

Four Accidental Barriers to Connection with Your Donors

Traffic cones.

I see four main ways that organizations accidentally place barriers between their organization and their donors…

Design/Type Size

Here’s the situation in a nutshell: if your fundraising materials use small, hard-to-read type, you’re making it harder for older donors to read your fundraising. Fewer people reading your fundraising means you’ll raise less money.


Any time an organization finds itself using words and phrases that it uses when communicating with other professionals in your domain, that’s probably jargon.

Examples include phrases like, “provide quality resources” and “food insecure.” An example of a jargon-filled ask is, “Will you provide transition out of poverty case management support?”

Any time jargon enters your mass donor fundraising, it’s probably causing you to raise a little less money because it asks your readers to figure out exactly what you mean. Asking your readers to figure out what you mean is a sure path to fewer people reading your fundraising.

By the way, using jargon is usually a symptom of not differentiating who the audience is. When you’re submitting a grant application, of course you should use jargon because it’s a shared language with the grantor.

But jargon is not shared with the vast majority of individual donors. Don’t ask them to understand your vocabulary, make the generous act of “crossing the gap” to your readers by using language that they would use.

Too Much Organization

You’ve seen these before: fundraising materials that are overly focused on the organization itself. Organizations are in danger of this any time they talk about what their programs are, how those programs work, and how or what the organization thinks about their work.

But it’s a safe bet that individual donors care far more about what their gift will accomplish – what change will take place if they give – than they care about how the organization will make the change.

This barrier, too, tends to come from a lack of differentiation. Foundations and partner organizations are rightfully interested in programs and exactly how an organization will use their money and/or time. To that audience, content about the organization is appropriate. But individual donors are more interested in the change itself.

Going Conceptual

The final barrier is a sneaky one (even more sneaky than jargon). It’s using a concept or an abstraction as a primary description of what the donor’s gift will do/has done.

Here are some examples:

  • “Will you provide a special day?” instead of, “Will you send a child to summer camp for one day?”
  • “Your gift made Evelyn’s story possible” instead of, “Your gift made Evelyn’s recovery from child abuse possible.”
  • “Jamie found freedom, thanks to you!” instead of, “Jamie’s new wheelchair lets him go anywhere, thanks to you!”

Notice above that I said “primary description.” Concepts like the ones above are fine – helpful, even – when used to give your donor a fuller picture of what their gift will accomplish. But keep the concepts in the body of your fundraising message, and stay specific in places like the emphasized copy, the subject line, the reply card headline, the reply card action copy, and the Johnson box.

This advice is based on sending thousands of appeals, e-appeals and newsletters and noticing that the most effective communications to individual donors tend to have concrete, specific descriptions of what the donor’s gift will do or has done.

What’s Next?

Look through your organization’s fundraising materials to individual donors. Is your organization accidentally put up any barriers?

If you can identify and eliminate barriers like these, our experience is that you’ll immediately begin raising more money and be able to do more of your organization’s important work.

You’ll also know that you’re doing the right thing.

When you make the generous choice to create fundraising that’s more accessible to more people – making it easier to read, easier to understand, about what the donor cares about instead of about what the organization cares about – you’ve made your fundraising communications more inclusive to more people.

Not All Good, Not All Bad


Fundraising shouldn’t be all good news, and it shouldn’t be all bad news.

Your stream of fundraising communications should feature both.

Asking for gifts (appeals, e-appeals) works best when it shares the bad news: the problem or negative situation that your organization works on. That truth about what’s happening reveals the tension donors hold between what the world is like today and what they want the world to be. 

That tension causes a lot of people to donate.

Reporting (newsletters) works best when it shares the good news: examples of how your organization made a difference.  It brings real joy to donors to see the triumphs that their gift made possible – and many will want to give again to do more good and feel more joy. 

Those triumphs will also cause people to donate.

Rules To Live By

Here’s what we’ve noticed…

If you share only bad news, you’ll raise less than you could raise. When we serve organizations who previously only shared the bad news, they raise more money when they incorporate Reports that share the good news.

If you share only good news, you’ll raise less than you could raise. When we serve organizations who previously only shared the good news, they raise more money when their appeals and e-appeals share the problem or negative situation their organization works on.

Finally, in the context of direct response fundraising, each piece of communication should focus on only one type of news. When we’ve served organizations who previously “mixed together” the good news and bad news in each piece of fundraising, they raise more money when their appeals and e-appeals share the bad news, and their newsletters share the good news.

We wish it weren’t that way, because it means that organizations must share tough needs and tough stories. And they must be disciplined about what they put in each piece of communication. But this approach helps the organizations we serve to raise a great deal more money. 

Give Complaints the Attention They Deserve


I’d like to suggest a process for how to give complaints the attention they deserve.

I suggest this because complaints, at smaller organizations, tend to be given outsized attention. And that outsized attention almost always guarantees that the organization won’t grow as fast as it could, and won’t achieve as much of its mission as it could.

In my experience, here’s how complaints are usually handled:

  • Vague information.  No numbers are used, it’s always phrases like “so many” and “the front desk was bombarded with calls today” and “we had a scary number of unsubscribes.”
  • Super-emotional delivery.  Complaints are reported breathlessly, or with trepidation. 
  • Immediate escalation to leadership.  Complaints don’t get reported through normal channels and departments, they are immediately shared far and wide.

Please don’t get me wrong: I think these responses to complaints are normal and understandable. Asking for money is hard, awkward work. It takes vulnerability. And vulnerability opens us up to being wounded by complaints. 

All that said, these responses to complaints are unhelpful.

Here are my proposed guidelines for how smaller organizations handle complaints:

No vagueness allowed. Only hard numbers and actual counts, please. When someone says, “OMG so many complaints!” the appropriate response is, “Thank you, please tell me exactly how many, over what time period, and what they said.  Then we’ll figure out how to respond.”

Share context about the Complainer. Are they a donor or non-donor? A major donor? A board member who we already know doesn’t like fundraising?  Context matters; a complaint from a major donor is significantly different than a complaint from a non-donor who is on your email list.

Share context about the Campaign. When talking about complaints, the fundraising results of the piece of fundraising should also be shared. The complaint(s) and money raised are results of the same thing, and both need to be evaluated to understand the whole picture.  If you’re told that 5 complaints came in, that sounds awful. If you’re told that the 5 complaints came in along with 500 gifts, the “5 complaints” is a completely different story.

Escalate appropriately. Complaints are reported to the Fundraising department or appropriate staff person – and no one else. Then trust the process from there. 

Complaints are a fact of life for growing nonprofits as they communicate with more and more people.  Complaints are a fee, not a fine

Treat them appropriately and they come to be seen and felt as an unfortunate fee you have to pay – but a fee you willingly pay because the organization is raising so much more money and achieving more of its mission.