How you can use the 80/20 rule to raise more money

80/20 rule

At Better Fundraising we see a LOT of examples of the 80/20 principle in fundraising. 

Shoot, they even use an example from fundraising as the graphic on the Wikipedia page!  (A great summary of the 80/20 principle is to say that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.)

A couple of common examples:

  • 80% of a company’s sales usually come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of a country’s land is often owned by 20% of its people

What follows are three examples of this principle in fundraising, along with how you can use them to raise more money for your organization.

The 80/20 Rule in Major Donor Fundraising

About 80% of your individual donor revenue will come from 20% of those donors.  (And in recent years it’s been closer to 90% of revenue coming from 10% of donors).

The organizations that make the most of this reality (especially this year) are the ones who intentionally prioritize those donors with how they spend their fundraising time and budget. 

The 80/20 Rule in Direct Mail

If you look at eye-tracking studies, you’ll notice donors only read about 20% of appeals or newsletters. 

To be great at raising money through the mail, you need to know what portions of your letters or newsletters are most likely to be read.  Then you put the content that’s most likely to drive action in those locations.

The 80/20 Rule for Small Shops

For organizations that only send out a couple of fundraising pieces a year, 20% of their communications typically raise 80% of their individual donations.

In our experience, those organizations can always raise more money immediately.  All they must do is isolate the types of communications that raise the most money, send out more of those, and send out fewer of the type that raise less money.

That’s such a radically simple idea that most small shops believe it can’t be true.  But it IS true.  We’ve done it so many times I can give three examples off the top of my head:

  • Annual reports
  • Most e-news
  • Appeals that are general calls for support

We cancelled those by the bushel and never – not once – saw a drop in revenue. 

The Double Benefit

Here’s the great thing about applying the 80/20 rule: you get a double benefit.  You save the time and money from not doing an inefficient activity.  And you get that time and money to do more of an efficient activity.

The Questions for You

Look at your organization’s fundraising activities.  What activities don’t produce measurable results, and you should cancel them?

What activities drive the most revenue, so you should do more of those with your freed-up time and budget?

In your mailed communications, are you putting the most important content in the 20% of your letter your donors are likely to read?  

Savvy organizations are constantly measuring their fundraising results, so they know what should be jettisoned and what should be done more often.  Because there’s always a way to raise more by doing less.

This post was originally published on September 29, 2020.

Natural, But Not Productive


It’s good to recognize that it’s natural to focus on complaints.

Unfortunately, it’s also natural to focus too much on complaints.

Here’s a story I just heard that illustrates this perfectly.

A famous person went to a basketball game in New York. They were shown on the jumbotron and the arena erupted in applause.

And as they were leaving the game, a heckler let them have it for a few seconds.

This person spent the entire limo ride home talking about the heckler and reliving those few seconds. The applause was never mentioned.

The famous person forgot about the avalanche of positive feedback and focused on the one negative.

A lot of nonprofits have the same reaction to a complaint; they forget about all the gifts that came in, and they focus on the one negative. (Funny thought: if the famous person were a smaller nonprofit, couldn’t you see one of their Board Members saying, “Well, you certainly can’t ever go to a basketball game again”?!?)

It’s part of the human condition to put more attention to negative information than positive information. It’s natural, but not productive.

As people who are fundraising on behalf of beneficiaries and causes, our reaction to a complaint must be more emotionally sophisticated than, “Well, we need to make sure that never happens again.”

In the same way you & I know that the person at the game shouldn’t let one heckler be more important than an arena full of people applauding… we also know that we shouldn’t let one complaint be more important than 100 gifts. Or 10. Or even 1.

Read the series:

  1. Getting Used to Complaints
  2. Outline for How to Respond to a Complaint
  3. Not All Complaints are Equal
  4. Natural, But Not Productive (this post)
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints
  6. So. Many. Reasons. To. Complain.
  7. The Harmful Big Assumption
  8. Turning Complaints into Gifts
  9. “Friendly Fire” — Complaints from Internal Audiences
  10. Our Final Thoughts on Complaints

How to make your emails more relevant to your donors


I wrote the following earlier this year, but it was hidden at the bottom of a long post…

More relevant emails → higher open rates

Higher open rates → more people reading your fundraising

More people reading your fundraising → more people giving

More people giving → more mission work done!

So what does “more relevant” mean?

In general, here’s what we’ve found:

  • More relevant = emails about a beneficiary, or about the donor (either what their past giving has done or their future giving will do)
  • Less relevant = emails about your organization (your programs / process / staff / partners / organizational calendar)

Of course there are edge cases. And of course you can (and should) send out emails about upcoming events and big announcements.

But it all comes back to this truth. There are three “characters” in every piece of fundraising you ever send out:

  • The organization
  • The beneficiaries or cause
  • The donor

Your donors, in the context of direct response fundraising, tend to be much more interested in beneficiaries / the cause and in themselves than they are in your organization.

So if your email open rates aren’t what you think they should be, focus more of your emails (the subject lines, the content, the calls to action) on your donors and beneficiaries.

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.

People Make Donations to Tell Ourselves…


You and I make donations in order to tell ourselves who we are.

Each donation we make is a small step to:

  • Become who we want to be
  • Continue to be who we want to be
  • Remake the world in the way we think it should be

Those are CORE motivations for individual donors.

Does your fundraising to individual donors speak to those core motivations?

Because doesn’t it seem obvious that, if you tap into those motivations, your organization would raise more money?

To tap into those motivations, your fundraising will need to tell donors that they’ll love giving to your organization. Your fundraising will need to tell them that your organization has the same values that your donor has. Your fundraising will need to communicate, “people like you give gifts to this organization.”

And then the donor’s intellect will find the facts it needs to justify the donation.

Fundraising that says those things feels very strange at first, because most organizations are used to talking about themselves, their organization, and what they do.

But it’s always good to remember that ineffective fundraising to individuals is about your organization and the services it provides. Effective fundraising to individuals is about your donor and their life.

Of course your fundraising should mention your organization. And even mention some of what you do. But your fundraising to individuals should not be ABOUT your organization or what it does – big difference.

Here’s an example:

Your gift to the Hospital Foundation allows us to provide top-notch healthcare to members of our community. Our leading cancer research team is diligently working to discover new treatments.

That’s about the organization.

Your giving to the Hospital Foundation shows that you’re a hometown hero. You care about people fighting cancer and want new treatments available as soon as possible.

That’s about the donor.

Make more of your fundraising to individual donors about the individual, and watch the magic happen.

How to Thank Your Donor So She Actually Feels Thanked

Thank You.

The goal of your Thank You and/or Receipt package is not just to acknowledge your donor’s donation.

Any organization can do that.

Any autoreply or receipt letter can do that.

Your goal should be to make your donor feel thanked, appreciated and important.


When you thank her for helping your organization do its work, you’ve made it about you, about your organization.

What you want to do is make it about her. So, thank her for her generosity. Tell her what her gift is going to do (instead of saying what your organization is going to do). Tell her how important she is to your organization.

When you do that, you’ll find that most of your Thank You/Receipt copy is about her. And less of it is about your organization.

Less about You, More about Her

Donors are inundated with requests for support. In the United States, there’s one nonprofit for every 200 people. And almost all of those organizations talk about themselves. Endlessly.

But a very few of them have learned the secret: your donors are more interested in themselves – their lives, their values, their impact – than they are in your organization.

So if you talk to donors about their lives, their values and their impact, they will finally feel like a nonprofit “gets” them. They’ll feel that there’s a nonprofit that’s working on their behalf – trying to help them do what they want to do – instead of just another nonprofit trying to sound great to get their next donation.

Do you feel the fundamental difference? The posture of gratitude for what the donor did, not for what she helped your organization do?

If you can embrace that fundamental difference, and start communicating to your donors that way, you’ll begin to build a tribe of loyal donors who will give you more gifts, larger gifts, and will give to you for longer.

This post was originally published on May 21, 2019.

How to Write As If You’re Talking to One Person


Experienced copywriters say things like this all the time:

“The best fundraising sounds like it’s from one person to one person.”

But how do you write fundraising and make it sound like you’re talking to one person?

Here’s how. The following are the ideas I have in my head as I create fundraising materials. One or all of them should help you!

Have One Person in Mind

Most of your donors will have several common traits. You can create a fictional person, imbue them with the traits your donors have, and write your letters/emails/newsletters to that person.

At my first fundraising job, there was a cardboard cutout of an older woman right inside the front door. We were instructed to write all our letters to her.

The fancy marketing word for this is “persona.” Large nonprofits with lots of donors have multiple personas; personas for online donors, personas for major donors, personas for event participants, etc.

The point is the same: visualize who you are writing to and then write to that one person.

Watch Your Plurals

If you’re writing to one person, you don’t use the plural to refer to him or her.

So don’t use plurals like these in your fundraising writing:

  • “Dear Friends,”
  • “All of your gifts…” (which doesn’t make sense for a donor who has only given one gift)
  • “Thank you to everyone who…”

What you want to watch out for is anything that makes the reader think, “Oh, I thought this thing I’m reading was to me, but it turns out it’s to everybody.”

Use the Donor’s Name

Merge in the donor’s name. It’s commonplace to merge the donor’s name in the salutation, and it’s a pro move to merge their name in the letter itself.

For instance, if there’s a paragraph I particularly want the donor to read, I often use the donor’s name as the first word in a paragraph.

People are trained from birth to pay attention to what’s said immediately after their name. Use that to your advantage!

Use the Word ‘You’

This is the obvious one. Second only to a person’s name, the word “you” gets people’s attention.

But there’s another reason “you” is so helpful: it transforms a truth about your organization into a personal truth for the donor.

You can FEEL the emotional difference between, “A gift to our organization will fight cancer” and, “your gift will fight cancer.”

I have a general rule of thumb for when I edit fundraising: whenever I see the organization’s name, I try to delete it and replace it with the word “you.” It’s not the right thing to do in all cases, but it’s the right thing to do in most cases.

Use the Language a Donor Would Use

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who has a stellar vocabulary and kind of shows it off? Or talked to a person who’s an expert in their field and is constantly using jargon and you’re not quite sure what it means?

What’s the result when people like that talk to you? It makes you feel like the person isn’t really talking to you. It makes you feel like they are kind of talking to themselves and people “just like them.”

By using language that insiders value and appreciate, a lot of nonprofits accidentally make their donors feel like outsiders.

But using language that a donor would use crosses the gap to donors, instead of widening the gap.

Think of It This Way

Donors are looking for organizations that make it easy for them to understand what’s going on in the world and how their gift will help.

If you follow these rules, you’ll create fundraising that makes each of your donors think, “Hey, this organization is writing to me.” She’s more likely to feel known, and you’ll make it easy for her to understand what you’re writing about.

And you’ll notice that your fundraising results will tick up meaningfully.

How to Write a Successful Appeal for Ongoing Programs


I get asked some form of this question all the time:

“How do I do an effective appeal letter for a program that runs all year long? We’re not one of those organizations that has One Big Need, like ‘meals on Thanksgiving’ or ‘summer camp’ or a new art exhibit. We do the same thing all year long…”

The answer is pretty simple: narrow your focus on what’s happening at your organization about 6 weeks after you mail your appeal.

Let me give you two examples of how this works…

Ongoing Program #1

Say you’re a children’s museum that fosters kids’ interest in the arts. And every month, local schools send their kids to the museum for field trips.

Narrow your focus and think about what will be needed about 6 weeks after you send your appeal. You can then send an appeal in January that says something like this:

“Your gift today will introduce a child to the arts! This March we have several bus-loads of children coming from local schools. Will you send a gift today to introduce one child to the arts by funding their visit to the museum?”

By narrowing the focus of the appeal onto a specific period, you’ve made it easier for the donor to understand and visualize how her gift will help. And any time you do that, you tend to raise more money.

Ongoing Program #2

Say you provide food and shelter for refugees fleeing violence. Narrow your focus and think about what aid you’ll be providing about 6 weeks after you send your appeal.

Your January appeal could say something like:

“Your help is needed to provide food and shelter for refugees in March. Shelter is so important during the rainy season. Will you send a gift today to provide food and shelter for one family?”

Again, by narrowing the focus you’ve made it easier for your donor to understand what’s happening at the nonprofit. Additionally, you’ve also added a dose of urgency to the appeal. In a clear, non-alarmist way, you’ve made it clear to your donor that these expenses are real and they are coming.

You’ll be thrilled with how your donors respond.

For the fundraising nerds, there are two fundraising principles at work here:

  1. Break your work into smaller chunks. In your direct response fundraising (appeals, e-appeals, newsletters), you’ll raise more money if you ask donors to help fund small, specific parts of your work instead of asking them to fund all your work.
  2. Ask before the need happens. You’ll raise more money if you ask donors to help before something happens, as opposed to asking them to help you “continue to” provide your services.

If raising funds for an ongoing program or service is something your organization struggles with, narrow your focus. Don’t ask donors to fund the whole program. Ask them to fund what’s happening a little more than a month from when you send your letter.

You’ll have made your appeal more timely, relevant, and easy to understand – all of which are keys to successful appeal letters.

Offers are Twice as Important as Delivery


In your mass donor fundraising, how you deliver your fundraising offer is half as important as what your fundraising offer is.

How do we know that those things are about half as important? Here’s how…

The 40 / 40 / 20 Rule

You may have heard about the 40-40-20 rule. It’s one of the most valuable pieces of information we can provide you:

  • 40% of the success of any fundraising is who you are talking to.

    For instance, if you’re talking to major donors, you can expect to raise more money than if you’re talking to non-donors.
  • 40% of the success of any fundraising is the Offer.

    The “offer” of any fundraising piece (letter, email, newsletter, etc.) is what you promise will happen when a donor gives a gift. The better your offer, the more money you’ll raise.
  • 20% of the success of any fundraising is the “creative” – how you deliver your offer.

    This is the writing style, whether you’re donor-centric or not, the typeface you use, the header on your email, etc.

Here’s What You Should Do

Any time you’re creating a fundraising piece that’s going to all your donors, be more concerned with what your offer is than with how the piece delivers the offer.

In other words, spend more time thinking about how you’re going to describe what will happen when a donor gives a gift. Spend less time trying to sound like your Executive Director, or with getting your grammar just right.

Because most organizations spend most of their time on how they write. On “getting their voice right.” Or on using brand colors. But, those things matter only half as much as what you promise will happen when your donor gives a gift.

Spend more time on the portion of your communications that makes the most difference. Spend less time on the portion of your communications that makes the least difference.

This post is excerpted from the Better Fundraising e-book “Fundraising Offers.” Download it for free, here.