Don’t Hide Behind Polish

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Many smaller organizations have a very hard time increasing the number of communications they send to their donors. 

It’s a human resources question/issue.  There’s only so much time.

However, many of those organizations are… self-sabotaging.

It’s not their fault, either.  Somewhere in the nonprofit-o-sphere we were all taught that our donor communications need to reach a certain level of fit & finish or they’re not going to work at all.

That single belief has resulted in an astonishing amount of money NOT raised.

Today, hundreds of thousands of smaller organizations desire for their fundraising to look and sound as professional as organizations 100 times their size.  So it takes them far longer than it should to create and send their fundraising communications. 

And so they send fewer communications than they should.

But here’s the thing: their donors know that they’re small.  The donors’ expectations for small organizations’ fundraising are different. 

So my advice to smaller nonprofits is to embrace your smallness.  Don’t prioritize looking like one of those massive organizations with perfect email templates and a fancy website.

Instead, just write.  Just send it.  

Send one email a week that’s 250 words that shares a quick detail of some good thing that happened that week.  Give the donor the credit.  Doesn’t have to be anything close to perfect.  Typos are fine.  Do that every week for a year and you’ll have an expanding tribe of devoted followers and incredible donor retention.

When some acute need or surprise expense happens, dash off an email to your email list. Provide a couple links for them to click on that go directly through your donation form, tell them that their gift will help with that acute need or a special expense and support the work of your whole organization.  Now your funds are undesignated.  Do that 12 or 15 times a year and you’ll raise more money than you expect and have a higher donor retention rate.  And you’ll have a higher engagement rate.

For smaller organizations, getting good at communicating more often and direct response basics (things like effective landing pages and reply cards) is so much more important than perfectly written and designed donor communications.

Don’t try to be perfect.  Your goal should be to create breathless dispatches from the field, not fundraising emails and communications that look like they went through the standard nonprofit pastel-colored hope machine.

And always remember, you learn more about what works by doing more and paying attention to the results.  You learn less by trying to be perfect and doing less.

  • Your donor values knowing the problems in the world that you’re working on more than she values perfect, professional communications.
  • Your donor values reading a story about how her gift made a difference in the life of one person more than she cares about perfect, professional communications.
  • Your donor values having a one-to-one relationship with a human who is working like crazy to make the world a better place more than she values perfect, professional communications.

In your donor communications, do not hide behind a need to appear professional.  

There’s nothing in that hiding spot that helps you help more people.

Answer Her Three Questions

Answer her questions.

Here’s a little checklist I use to create powerful receipt packages, autoreplies and thank you letters.

I make an assumption that after a donor makes a gift to a nonprofit, at some level she’s asking herself three questions:

  1. Did you receive my gift?
  2. Did you appreciate my gift?
  3. Are you going to do what you said you were going to do when you asked for my gift?

When writing and designing receipts and thank yous, I make sure the answers to those questions are the very first things communicated.

It’s a simple strategy, I admit. But it works for organizations that are trying to make the shift from organizational-centric communications to donor-centric communications, because it helps them avoid the common mistakes.

Notice What’s Not There

Notice something powerful…

Her questions are not about your organization. Her questions are not about your programs, your mission and vision, or your effectiveness.

Her first questions are about her and her gift.

Is there anything inherently wrong about talking about your programs, your vision and mission, or your effectiveness?

No. Of course not. But I would talk about those things after you’ve answered her primary questions.

“Did you receive my gift?”

This is more important than you think.

And if you think that most donors aren’t worried whether their gifts were received or not, I encourage you to go talk to lots of older donors who give through the mail. They often wonder this, especially when it takes more than a couple days for them to receive a receipt.

“Did you appreciate my gift?”

Donors want to feel appreciated. Valued. Meaningful. Very few nonprofits ever tell their donors that.

If you communicate to your donor that she’s appreciated, valued and meaningful – don’t you think there’s a much better chance that your donor will give you another gift down the road?

“Are you going to do what you said you were going to do when you asked for my gift?”

Most organizations make asks of their donors in specific situations: “please help us raise $400,000 at the event tonight” or “please give a gift to support the annual fund” or “your $25 gift today will introduce a local child to the opera.”

But then those organizations send boilerplate thank-yous that don’t acknowledge the specific ask. They ask you to “introduce a local child to the opera” and then send a thank you letter that says, “Your gift is supporting our 11 programs to support the arts in our county.”

To a donor, this causes disconnect. She wonders, “Hey, did the organization not know that I was giving to introduce a kid to the opera?”

You don’t want your donor wondering things like that!

It leaves the impression that a) the organization doesn’t have its act together, or b) it’s cavalier with donors’ gifts.


You don’t want to leave that impression. Especially if it’s the first thank you/receipt a donor receives.

The solution: customized thank you copy for each specific ask/event/offer you put in front of your donors.

My Suggestion

Answer her three questions first. Then the rest of what you put in there is up to you.

If your organization is exceptionally effective at using her gift, that’s of value to her. If you know she supports the same vision you do, that’s of value to her, too.

Just start by answering the questions she’s asking. That strategy will rarely lead you astray.

Fundraising ADDS value to your donors’ lives

Add value.

A bit of encouragement to Fundraisers…

I hope you see your work as adding incredible value to the lives of your donors.

Too many people look at fundraising and think they are subtracting. They look at fundraising as ‘taking money from donors in order to do something worthy and great.’ They think they are bothering donors with mailings. Or twisting their donors’ arms to make donors give.

But from the donor’s point of view, it’s not subtraction. Great fundraising adds to a donor’s life by connecting their money to their good intentions. Fundraising helps donors put their values into action.

Over our two decades of fundraising, we’ve realized that our jobs are not that much about the money we help raise. It’s really about helping organizations translate how they talk about themselves into fundraising communications – letters and emails and calls that help donors see how a gift puts their values into actions.

Being a great fundraiser is not about being persuasive, or even persuading donors to support an organization.

Being a great fundraiser is really two things:

  1. Knowing what donors value, and
  2. Helping an organization communicate about itself in ways that help donors to see how a gift to the organization helps put the donors’ values into action.

For instance, most donors value ‘doing a lot for a little.’ Lo and behold, matching grants and offers with multipliers that allow donors to ‘do a lot for a little’ work like crazy.

Most donors value hearing about the impact their gift had. Lo and behold, when organizations Report back to their donors about the effects of their gifts, they keep their donors for longer, and they upgrade more of their donors.

So now it’s your turn. Take what you know about donors and use that to change the ways your organization currently talks about itself – translate that into fundraising communications that let donors see how their gifts put their values into action!

And don’t look at your work as subtraction. Look at it as adding real value to the lives of your donors. You’ll connect good people with your good work to make the world a better place for all of us!