Why your direct response fundraising should be like a Hallmark Christmas movie…


Something strange happens to me at the end of October.

I’m a smart, logical, educated person who appreciates arts and culture.

But at the end of October when Hallmark Christmas movies start playing 24/7, I turn into… someone else. Someone who will watch movie after movie with essentially the same characters and the same plot. Someone who tears up at the end of the movie when the lovers FINALLY kiss and then a gentle snow begins to fall.

Sigh. It’s so sappy.

But I’m a direct response fundraiser, so I notice something else.

A Hallmark Christmas movie reminds me of effective direct response fundraising. It’s formulaic. You know what’s coming next. The plot is easy to follow. And you may tear up because, gosh dang it, it’s emotional!

And it works.

Every year, they make more of these movies because people – like me – are watching them!

Sometimes we try to make our direct mail fundraising appeals into something more like a Cannes Film Festival entry. Complex. Ironic. Edgy. Different.

But that just doesn’t work as well.

If you want to appeal to the highest number of donors, your direct mail fundraising should be more like a Hallmark Christmas movie.

Here’s the basic formula:

  • Tell them why you’re writing to them
  • Share the problem that needs to be solved
  • Tell how the problem could be solved
  • Ask the donor to give a gift to solve the problem
  • Go into more detail about the problem and solution
  • Include a story that illustrates the problem (optional)
  • Ask them to give again
  • Signature and title
  • P.S. Ask them to give again and include the deadline.

Listen. I get it. Near the end of every single Hallmark Christmas movie, I grumble and complain and wonder why I watch these silly movies.

Then the snow starts to fall and there’s a magical kiss and I’m a puddle on the floor.

There’s something about that feeling…

The direct response formula isn’t a secret. Simple. Easy to follow. Emotional. Maybe a little bit of magic… These things help donors get to the point where they will write a check to make something good happen.

Follow the formula with your next direct response fundraising appeal or email and let me know how it goes!

Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

For People Who Approve Fundraising

Direct response fundraising.

This post is for people who approve fundraising for their organization.

The biggest thing I want you to know is that direct response fundraising is different than other types of fundraising.

I see and work with lots of organizations that have great programs, that make a meaningful difference in the world, and have generous donors.

But they raise far less money than they should because the people approving the fundraising don’t know that direct response fundraising – appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, etc. – is different from other types of fundraising.

There’s no blame here: it’s not your fault. Nobody teaches this at nonprofits. But it’s true.

There are two main differences you should know about…

The Need For Speed

In direct response fundraising you have very little time – just a few seconds – to catch and keep a reader’s attention.

This means appeals, e-appeals and newsletters need to get to the point very quickly, and be very direct.

In a person-to-person conversation, being so direct so quickly would be off-putting. But in the context of a letter or email that most donors will only spend less than 10 seconds with, being so direct so quickly is helpful.

So your appeals, e-appeals and newsletters should sound a little different than your organization usually sounds in a conversation, or at an event, or in a grant application.

If your appeals, e-appeals and newsletters do not sound different, then there’s a significant portion of your donors that your message isn’t reaching. And you’re raising less money than you could be.

Emotions, Not Logic

In direct response fundraising, it does not work well to ‘reason’ a person into giving.

How effective your programs are, how many people you helped last year, and how your organization approaches the problem you work on . . . none of these are in the “Top 5” reasons that would cause a donor to give a gift today.

What works better is to appeal to their emotions about your beneficiaries or cause.

This means appeals, e-appeals and newsletters should be written to tap into donors’ emotions. That means the appeals, e-appeals and newsletters will sound different than a grant application, or a conversation with a partner organization, or even a conversation among staff.

Embrace The Differences

You might not like these two differences. You might not prefer the type of writing and design that results from them.

But the differences are real.

Embrace the differences as a way of helping your beneficiaries or cause.

Because if you don’t pay attention to these two differences – in other words, if your organization doesn’t create and evaluate direct response fundraising like it’s different from other types of fundraising – you will raise less money than you could be.

And you will do less of your mission work than you could be.

Embrace these differences, and the consequences they have for your appeals, e-appeals and newsletters. Doing so is a gift you can give your beneficiaries and cause.

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!