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!

The Only Rule?


As far as I can tell, there’s only one thing that sets successful fundraisers apart from unsuccessful fundraisers. And that thing is…

The people who are successful don’t care whether they like the fundraising or not.

I’m serious. They just don’t care whether they like it. Or don’t like it.

They just care if it works.

They understand that they are doing direct response fundraising. And that some tactics and messages work better than others. And that the goal of fundraising is to send messages that donors respond to, not the messages the organization prefers to send.

Your Opportunity

If there are voices in your organization saying “I don’t like that” or “I wouldn’t give to that,” you should know that you could be raising more money.

Because basing fundraising decisions on what you like or don’t like stops your organization from discovering what donors like.

And it stops your organization from using best practices discovered by direct response fundraisers who have gone before us.


Here are some examples of things that people don’t like but are proven to work well:

  • Including a reply card with your receipt letter
  • Writing at a lower grade level
  • Using emotion liberally
  • Being repetitive
  • Sharing real needs with donors

Hot Off the Press

We have a client that’s facing this very issue as I write this.

They are doing their first ever Fiscal Year End campaign. They are a little behind budget for the fiscal year, and their letter asks donors to help erase the shortfall with a special gift.

They were a little nervous about doing it. But I convinced them by sharing results from other organizations that had run similar campaigns.

The campaign is working great. It’s one of their most successful appeals of the year. We’re already above goal and the campaign isn’t over yet.

But a couple of board members and major donors have been upset by the campaign. From my experience, I suspect they were upset because they fear that the “shortfall” messaging puts the organization in a bad light, and it will cause donors to give less or stop giving altogether.

My counsel to this organization is based on all sorts of case studies on this exact subject:

  1. Appeals like this resonate with donors (as evidenced by the incredible response to this appeal).
  2. Appeals like this make some internal stakeholders (including some close-in major donors) nervous. They are nervous for the reasons I mentioned above. However, there is no data-based evidence of their fears coming true. And I’ve done this lots of times. (And – true story – those close-in major donors who were nervous end up making an extra gift to the campaign more often than not.)

In other words, the organization might not like this messaging. And there are occasional issues and personal reactions to discuss. But this messaging works great.

And to bring things full circle, the most successful fundraisers don’t care whether they like the fundraising or not.

They only care whether it works.

Direct Response Fundraising

Direct response.

This is for all the smaller nonprofits out there.

When you’re sending letters and emails to your donors, you’re doing something called “direct response” fundraising.

It is fundraising, but it’s a very specific type of fundraising.

It’s not 1-to-1 major donor fundraising.

It’s not grant writing.

And to be effective with your appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, radiothons, etc. – it’s actually more important to understand “direct response” than it is to understand fundraising.

Direct Response

Direct Response is a discipline where the inputs and outputs are rigorously measured. It became a discipline in marketing long before nonprofits started using it to raise money.

The reason I mention this is because I’m convinced that most nonprofits would immediately start getting more effective at fundraising as soon as they realize they’re doing direct response marketing. And that direct response marketing has a bunch of proven rules and best practices.

How to Raise More

Two relatively easy ways to raise more money:

  1. Make sure your organization knows that – in your appeals, e-appeals, and newsletters – you’re doing direct response fundraising. This means that when creating and evaluating your mass donor fundraising, your organization needs to be asking “What will work best in direct response” instead of asking “What do I like?” or “What do I think will work?”

    You know how at too many organizations, Fundraisers are stymied by Bosses who won’t approve good fundraising? I imagine a day where a Fundraiser can say to her boss, “Remember how we talked about how our appeals are direct response fundraising pieces? The changes you want to make to this piece go against the best practices of direct response.” And the boss says, “You’re right. I don’t like it. But if this is what works best, we need to do it.”
  2. Learn more about direct response by reading about it. I’m reading Overdeliver by Brian Kurtz. His stories and advice about direct response have already made me a more effective fundraiser. The book isn’t technically about fundraising. But it’s about direct response marketing – and getting good at direct response marketing will immediately make you a more effective mass donor fundraiser.

Nobody talks about this at smaller nonprofits. But once your organization knows it’s doing direct response fundraising, you have a much better chance at being successful at it!