“Trust, then give” or “Give, then trust”?


You know me – I’m always talking about how the “stories an organization tells itself” about fundraising have a lot to do with an organization’s success or failure.

There’s another “story” we should talk about. It’s specifically around acquiring new donors:

“We need a person to know and trust our organization before they will give a gift.”

This is true when organizations are just getting started – maybe up to a couple of hundred donors. And occasionally in the major donor context.

But the problem with that approach is that it doesn’t scale. There aren’t very many people, in the grand scheme of things, that want to take the time to get to know and learn about your organization.

So it turns out that if you want to acquire significantly more donors than you’re acquiring now, it’s a better use of time and money to learn to be effective at “just asking potential donors to give a gift” than it is to “get to know people and then asking them to give a gift.”

Important note: I should mention that this post isn’t just me philosophizing over here. It’s me attempting to summarize what I (and others) have learned watching organizations spend millions of dollars attempting to acquire new donors.

So for smaller organizations who want to acquire more new donors, ask yourself if you have the belief mentioned at the top of this post. If you do, I suggest you replace that “default” belief with this new belief:

At this moment, potential individual donors care more about our cause, and about their ability to make a difference with a gift, than they care about our organization.

So our fundraising materials should spend less time talking about our organization, and more time talking about a) the cause or issue we work on, and b) how a donor’s gift will make a difference.

If you follow this advice when creating your mass, outbound fundraising communications and marketing, you’ll acquire more new donors.

Should you think differently when having lunch with a potential major donor who was introduced to you by your Board Chair? Of course. That’s because you’re a savvy Fundraiser and you differentiate.

If you and your organizations can do the other-centered thing and focus your communications on what individual donors tend to be most interested in (instead of what you and your co-experts are most interested in), you’ll be rewarded with more donors.

And they will come to trust your organization over time.

To scale your organization, it’s not “build trust and then they’ll give.” It’s “get them to give, and then they’ll trust.”

The Fundraising IS the Relationship

Fundraising relationship.

When it comes down to it, fundraising is not that hard.

You treat donors and potential donors with kindness and respect. You try to build relationship with them.

We all “get” the relationship aspect.

But every organization has some donors that you are never going to be in relationship with. These are donors who don’t go to events. They are $25 donors and major donors who you’ve never met and won’t return your calls. They aren’t known by anybody on your staff or board.

But you still want a relationship with them. And believe it or not, it’s possible to have a GREAT relationship with them.

Here’s the secret…

Your Fundraising IS Your Relationship

You’re already in a relationship with them.

The way you communicate with them is you send them fundraising. The way they communicate with you is by giving a gift… or not.

So for your side of the relationship – the fundraising that you send them – the question becomes; “How are you going to show up?”

Take a look at a bunch of standard practices is mass donor fundraising, and think about all of these in the context of relationship:

  • Fundraising that talks mostly about the organization itself, and very little about the donor
  • Only sending out a couple pieces of fundraising a year, and going dark (ghosting) for weeks and months
  • Fundraising that, when sharing success stories made possible by the donor and the organization, focuses almost exclusively on the organization’s role
  • Fundraising that’s written to the organization’s level of expertise, instead of written to the donor’s level of expertise

You’d never put up with those behaviors from another human, would you?

It’s almost like we ignored the basic principles of relationship when we created mass donor fundraising plans and materials, don’t you think?

So is it any surprise those approaches don’t make for effective fundraising?

Your Side of the Relationship

Here’s how to hold up your side of the relationship, how to show up in your donor’s life and be the type of organization that she’d like to be in relationship with:

  • Fundraising that’s mostly about what she cares about (your beneficiaries and what she can do or has done to help), and less about your organization
  • Fundraising that regularly shows up in your donor’s life
  • Fundraising that focuses more on the donor’s role and less on the organization’s role
  • Fundraising that’s written to make it easy for a donor to understand

Follow those principles and you’ll build GREAT relationships with donors you’ve never talked to.

And over time, many of your donors will “upgrade” their relationship with you through attending an event, giving you a major gift, including you in their will, etc.

And it will have happened because you made the generous choice to show up in their lives.

You held up your end of the relationship in a way that made them want to get to know you better.

The Recipe for Recall


My last post was a formula for how (and why) to get on your donor’s “automatic recall” list.

A formula is a concept – a helpful idea… but it’s not specific and actionable. And our goal here is to be specific and actionable.

So let’s get tactical. Here’s a “recipe” for smaller nonprofits for how to get on your donor’s automatic recall list.

The Classic Recipe

There’s a tried-and-true fundraising communications recipe used by nonprofits for 70 years that really works:

  • Regular relevant appeal letters
  • Regular relevant newsletters

The key here is the “regular” part. I’d say “regular” means at least six mailings over the course of the year, with more appeals than newsletters.

Today, organizations are layering in email fundraising in addition to their direct mail:

  • Regular relevant e-appeals
  • Regular relevant reporting stories

(Notice I’m not mentioning e-news. E-newsletters tend to be organization-focused and, while not negative, tend to be less helpful than Asks and Reports at helping donors reach automatic recall.)

The key, again, is the “regular” part. I’d say “regular” means about eight e-appeals and twelve reporting stories per year.

If you’re at a smaller nonprofit and those numbers seem overwhelming, please don’t worry. You can succeed with fewer communications. Plus, direct mail and email are only a part of your overall fundraising strategy.

That said, those numbers should give you a sense of what’s possible. Larger nonprofits communicate far more often than that, and they:

  • Raise a remarkable amount of money
  • Effectively identify new major donors
  • Experience the opposite of the mythical “donor fatigue” – they see high levels of donor loyalty

Every one of those bullet points is available to your organization. (Your donors aren’t any different from theirs.)

And if you’re sold on the idea of communicating more often, but doing so is a capacity / human resources issue, check out Work Less, Raise More. There are trainings that will help you create effective fundraising in 30 minutes.

Finally, know that the “recipe” mentioned above is a proven system in use today because it’s effective at helping organizations do two things:

  1. Raising money with each mailing (or email) so that you can do more of your mission
  2. Building “automatic recall” over time, which increases revenue over time by increasing your number of major donors and legacy gifts

You can communicate with your donors more than you think you can. It’s a habit you must build.

But it’s a habit you want to build, because donors in motion tend to stay in motion, and donors at rest tend to stay at rest.

Are you on their Automatic Recall list?


I don’t know about you, but I’m always looking for “rules” that help me understand how complex systems work.

So when I saw this recently I knew I had to share it:

Automatic Recall = Relevance x Repetition

In other words, the ability of a donor to immediately recall your organization is a product of the relevance of your messages and the number of times they’ve heard your messages.

That’s a great bon mot to explain why we’re always encouraging you to communicate with your donors more often.

Automatic Recall

To be on a donor’s “automatic recall” list means she can name your organization, without prompting, when she’s asked for the organizations she donates to.

It means that if she suddenly came into some extra funds – an inheritance, a bonus from work, etc. – your organization would be one of the first that come to mind to give a gift to.

It means that if she receives a letter or email from your organization, she’s more likely to open and read it.

Not every organization a donor donates to will make it on her automatic recall list. For example, when your nephew does a peer-to-peer fundraiser and you donate $25, that organization will most likely not be on your automatic recall list.

As fundraisers, one of our goals is to get on the automatic recall list of as many of our donors as possible.

So how do we get on that list?

Relevance of Your Messages

How “relevant” are your fundraising messages to your donors?

Because here are the things your donor cares about, in order of importance:

  1. Themselves — even the most generous among us tend to care more about ourselves, our families, our jobs, whether we’re living up to our ideals, etc.
  2. Your Beneficiaries or your Cause — something about your beneficiaries or cause piqued the interest or passion of your donors, and your donors were interested in your beneficiaries or cause before they ever heard of your organization.
  3. Your organization — your organization is a tool your donor uses to 1) live up to their ideals, and to 2) help the beneficiaries or the cause.

So to be the most relevant, your fundraising messages need to be about the donor reading or hearing it, then about the beneficiaries or the cause, and then about your organization.

If your fundraising is mostly about your organization – or if most things in your fundraising are shared in the context of your organization – you’re not scoring well on “relevance.”

Which means you’re not on your way to getting on many people’s “automatic recall” list.

But if you ARE crafting your fundraising messages to be mostly about your donors and the beneficiaries or cause, you’re halfway to breakthrough success…

Repetition of Your Message

Do your donors see your messages often enough to remember them?

The more times your donor sees a relevant message from you, the more she is likely to have a favorable impression of your organization.

That’s not going to happen with two or three appeals a year, plus a handful of emails.

And remember, you can always communicate with your donors more than you think you can.

Do You Want to Grow?

Most everybody already has a few donors that would put your organization on their automatic recall list.

In most cases, those folks have you on automatic recall because of proximity; they tend to be family members, or that group of initial donors who helped the organization get started, or friends of the founders or staff, or longtime community members.

But if you want to scale your organization or ministry, you need to increase the relevance and repetition of your fundraising communications.

Doing so will result in raising more money right away, and in the long run. It’s win-win.

Donor Acquisition Explained

Donor Acquisition.

Conventional Nonprofit Donor Acquisition “Wisdom”

Work to “build awareness” for your organization.

Always be sharing success stories.

Tell people how effective your organization is.

People will flock to your organization.

You’ll raise lots of money.

How It Actually Works

Work to create a great fundraising offer .

Identify groups of people who are likely to become donors.

Put your offer in front of those people.

Small (but knowable) percentages of those people will become donors.

Your organization will lose money on the front end. But if you get good at it, you’ll raise a LOT of money over time.

“They are not your donors, you are one of their charities”

One of their charities.

While at the AFP International conference in New Orleans last month, I heard a quote from Mark Phillips of Bluefrog that stopped me in my tracks.

“They are not your donors; you are one of their charities.”

I wish more organizations would hear this and take it to heart. Because if they were to do this, their fundraising would get better immediately. Here’s how…

You realize that your nonprofit is in a constant battle with other nonprofits for the attention of your donor.

I find that most nonprofits act as if they are the only organization soliciting their particular donors. They assume they don’t need to attract each donor’s attention. They assume the donor will read everything they write. None of those assumptions are good ones.

Nonprofits need to realize that they are constantly competing for the attention (and dollars) of their donors. They need to work harder to get donors’ attention.

For example, this is why organizations that send out 8 appeals and 4 donor-focused newsletters are more likely to raise more than organizations who send out 4 appeals and 12 e-newsletters: the organization that communicates more relevant information more often is likely to get more attention and more donations from their donors.

So, are you communicating relevant information to your donors often enough? Are your email subject lines good? Is the envelope for your appeal mysterious? Is your writing interesting and clear? Are you actively trying to earn their attention … or just sending stuff out?

You realize you have to earn repeat donations from your donors

Your donor is hearing from a LOT of nonprofits she loves, about causes she loves. What are you saying to her to earn her next donation?

First of all, have you told her powerful stories about the impact she’s made, so that she knows her previous gift made a difference? Do you have a newsletter that regularly shares those stories?

And when you Ask, are you making a weak appeal for her to “partner” with your organization or to “become a supporter”? Or are you asking powerfully for a current need and positioning her (not your organization) as the hero?

You relentlessly focus on donor retention

Now that you know your donors “like to give around,” you become focused on keeping as many of them and their donations as you can.

So you measure donor retention to figure out what percentage of your donors you keep each year – and then you try to keep more the next year.

Why? Because “donor retention” is pretty much the same thing as “donor satisfaction.” And satisfied donors are more likely to give to your organization next year, and give more the following year, and put you in their will, etc.

Are you measuring donor retention? And are you trying to improve it?

Now it’s Your Turn

What can you do, today, that will help you keep your donors?

Is there a major donor you can call? Is there a newsletter you can start? Is there an appeal you can make stronger?

I promise you that if you work like crazy to get the attention of your donors, if you earn their repeat donations, and if you measure and focus on how many of your donors you keep, you’ll be raising more money in no time. And for a long time!