The Core Four

Core four.

“We want to raise more than 1 million dollars each year from our individual donors.  What should we do?”

That, my friend, is a great question that more small nonprofits should be asking. 

We were curious, so we looked at our clients that had broken the “raise $1mm in a year from individual donors” barrier.

This post shares the four strategies that had the largest effect.  And how using all four strategies at the same time had a supercharging effect…

Optimized Events

They professionalized their events by having a tighter schedule, fewer people on stage, a tighter script, and left the “we have to convince people to give” thinking at home.

Perhaps most importantly, they changed their content strategy.  The first thing they did was to figure out what the ask would be for, and then designed the content of the event to make the ask as powerful as possible.

They raised more money at the event, and their donors had a better time.

Strategic Major Donor Systems

They installed a proven system to manage their major donors.

Major donors were identified and ranked, relationships were cultivated, and the right amount of time was spent on the right donors.

The systematic approach retained more major donors year over year, and lifted more major donors to higher levels of giving.

More Donor Communications

They increased the amount of fundraising sent to individual donors beyond what they previously believed was possible

They saw that they were not going to grow into a larger organization until they embraced one of the key behaviors of larger organizations: communicating more often.

And they started raising more money every year.

Segment Appropriate Messaging

They embraced the wisdom that different audiences should be communicated to differently.  So they spoke differently to a Foundation, and differently in an email to individual donors, and differently to a long time major donor.

This caused consternation among staff, but the organizations started raising more money.

The Flywheel

Those four strategies work together like the proverbial “flywheel” to accelerate growth…

  • Because the event is optimized, more people come back the next year, plus more people invite their friends.  So there are more people at the event, and they tend to give more because the event is well constructed…
  • The major donors are identified, and then systematically cultivated, so the organization has a growing major donor file…
  • Because segment-appropriate messaging is used, each piece of fundraising raises more money because it’s relevant to that audience…
  • Because there are more donor communications, the organization raises more and retains more donors…
  • This leads to more donors going to the event… and the circle continues.

To show you what it looks like when it all comes together, here’s the event performance for an organization that we began serving in 2016:

Gross revenue chart.

Impressive, eh?

Virtuous Circle

Those are the “Core Four” strategies that, working together, create a self-reinforcing virtuous circle that helps organizations experience crazy growth.

Which of the Core Four could your organization improve at? If you’d like help, send an email to  Or go here to see how we help organizations like yours!

The Danger of Focusing on One Metric

Secret meeting.

A friend who’s a Fundraiser recently shared a story with me.  It was about a nonprofit who received a pitch from a consultant that he would increase their average gift size.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  What nonprofit wouldn’t want all of their donors giving more?

So the nonprofit hired the consultant.  And their average gift size went up! 

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Too bad what also happened is that their response rates went down.  And their retention rates went down.  So despite the increase in average gift, the organization is raising less total money than they used to be.  And they have fewer donors.

That doesn’t sound great.

This is a great illustration of the danger of focusing too much on one fundraising metric.  All the main metrics are important, but none of them exist in a vacuum.

It’s relatively easy to increase any one metric.  Need higher response rates to your direct mail?  Include a freemium!  (Your response rate will go up… but your package now costs more.)  Want to increase the ROI on your next campaign?  Don’t send direct mail, only send email!  (Your ROI will go up because you’ve lowered costs by so much, but you’ll raise less money overall.)

The trick is understanding the whole system and the tradeoffs made with every tactic.

Any time someone wants to optimize one metric, always be wary.  Ask what the consequences will be to the other metrics.

And always remember: the only metric you can use to pay for programs is Net Revenue.

Direct mail and… Kale?


Direct mail is like kale – nobody likes it the first time they try it.

Kale is a tough, leafy vegetable that tastes like a hedge.

But over time, a person can come to see the benefits of eating kale.  You start to appreciate kale.  And with the right prep and dressings, even enjoy it.

Direct mail is a tough, counter-intuitive, expensive way to raise money.

But over time, an organization can come to see the revenue that direct mail brings in and the relationship it builds.  You start to appreciate direct mail.  And with the right approach and understanding, even enjoy it.

Kale will never be as enjoyable as a cheeseburger.  Direct mail will never be as enjoyable as a great conversation with a major donor, or the emotional high of a beneficiary’s story at an event.

You might not like direct mail or kale.  But both of them are still good for you.

Four Reasons to Have a Direct Response Fundraising Program

Reasons why.

Do you ever wonder why your organization is doing all the dirty work of direct response fundraising – the briar patch that is direct mail letters and emails and landing pages and coding and tracking response rates?

You might especially be wondering this if you’ve done the math and seen that 80% to 90% of your revenue from individual donors comes in from a tiny percentage of your major donors.

If that’s you, here are four reasons smart nonprofits of all sizes still do this type of fundraising today…

Major Donor Identification System

Sending mail and email – and watching the results carefully – is one of the main ways organizations reliably identify new potential major donors.

That’s because many major donors will begin their relationship with you by making a small gift. 

Organizations then use their direct response fundraising program to identify those potential major donors.  They set up systems to:

  • Notice when gifts above a certain size come in
  • Use wealth-screening software (and occasionally good old-fashioned Google research) to determine which of their smaller donors has the capacity to give larger gifts

There are “hidden major donors” on your file right now, today.  Are you using the mail and email to find them?


One of the goals of mature nonprofits is to have multiple revenue streams.  In other words, they don’t want their lifeblood coming from just events, or just grants, or just major donors, or just earned-revenue.

Because if you have just one main revenue stream, the organization is fragile.

A few months into the pandemic I talked to a national organization that was $15,000,000 (!!) behind their budget for the year.  Their fundraising was overwhelmingly based on regular, small events with wealthy donors. 

Because they had not developed a direct response fundraising program (they told me they thought fundraising through the mail was “icky”), they did not have a way to stay in relationship with their donors when they couldn’t meet in-person.  Unfortunately, they and their beneficiaries suffered because of it. 

The more income streams you have, the less fragile you are, and the more prepared you are to fundraise in uncertain times. 

Stay In Touch

Most people reading this blog will have major donors that you’re not in relationship with.  They make a gift or two every year, but they’ve resisted your attemps to build a personal relationship with them.

And you have people who receive your mail and email… but you’ve never met them.

Your direct response fundraising program is how you build relationship with those donors. 

This becomes more important as you grow.  If you have 500 donors, you likely know 30%-50% of them.  But if you have 5,000 donors, you likely only know 10%-15% of them.  That means your direct response fundraising IS the relationship for a large percentage of your donors.

Unless you’re an organization that has a natural source of publicity and a cause that people regularly think about, it’s extremely difficult to grow your donor file without a direct response fundraising program.

And Hey, You Can Raise Real Money!

Many of Better Fundraising’s clients raise the majority of their revenue through the mail and email.  Maybe they haven’t spun up a grants department yet, or their major donor program is just getting off the ground.

But they are raising between $4 and $10 for every $1 they spend in the mail.  

In addition to the three reasons above, they are raising serious revenue to power their nonprofit or ministry. 

The Goal

The goal with your direct response fundraising program is to establish a system where your organization stays in relationship with donors as you grow… and identifies & cultivates more major donors… and becomes less fragile… and raises money while doing it.

That right there is why savvy organizations are investing in their direct response fundraising programs.  And it’s why Better Fundraising loves helping organizations build the systems and repeatable processes that help them be successful in the mail and email.

Almost Done, My Friends

Almost there.

This is just a note of encouragement that you’re almost done with year-end fundraising. 

All the sweat, and stress, and extra hours… they are almost over.

And they were worth it.

You created fundraising that inspired and encouraged your donors to give gifts.  They did so joyfully.  Your beneficiaries will be helped, your donors will feel more connected.

You didn’t manipulate anybody, you didn’t twist anybody’s arm.

Every gift that came in was an act of generosity.  Some of them were acts of sacrifice.

And they all happened because you created and sent out your fundraising.

Well done, and good luck the next couple of weeks!

Got Shame?


Many Fundraisers and organizations feel shame about fundraising.

If you’re afraid to send out fundraising, or afraid to do too much fundraising, or afraid to ask too boldly, you might have shame around fundraising.

If that’s you or somebody in your organization, there are two ideas I want you to lean into…

1 – Fundraising Helps Donors

Remember that your organization’s fundraising gives people a chance to do something good about something they care about.

Donors already care about your beneficiaries or cause. (If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be on your mailing list.) But donors don’t have any programs or expertise!

Each time you ask donors to help, you’re giving them a chance to do something good that they would like to do but can’t do by themselves.

Are they going to say yes every time? Of course not. But are they going to say yes more than you think, if you give them more opportunities? Yes.

2 – Don’t Ask Donors to Help Your Organization, Ask Donors to Help Beneficiaries

Many organizations ask donors to support the organization. You see evidence of this approach any time you see phrases like “please support us” or “support our good work” or “partner with us” or “please give us a gift so that we can…”

In a nutshell, there’s an “us” or “our” any time the organization asks for a gift because the organization is asking for money for itself.

This exposes organizations and Fundraisers to shame, because when they receive a “no” it feels like the organization or the Fundraiser is being rejected.

Instead, ask donors to help your beneficiaries. You see evidence of this approach any time you see phrases like “please help a [beneficiary] with a gift today” or “you’ll provide X for a [beneficiary].” There’s no “us” and no “our.”

In that scenario, a “no” means the donor is saying “no” to helping a beneficiary today, not saying “no” to your organization. For the emotional well-being of the organization and Fundraiser, that’s a big difference.


Shame about fundraising holds Fundraisers and Organizations back from creating more powerful fundraising, from raising more money, and from achieving more of their mission.

Embrace these two ideas. Not only will you enjoy your fundraising life more, you’ll raise more money and do more good.

New Competition from For-Profit Companies?!?


Last week after the fires in Hawaii I received four emails raising money to help. Two of the four emails were from for-profit companies.

One was from an outdoor clothing brand with ties to Hawaii. The other was from an eyeglass company that, as far as I can tell, has no strong connection to Hawaii.

Both brands have values that caused them to want to help. Both were clear that the money raised would be routed to foundations assisting in the recovery from the fires.

As more companies begin to figure out what you and I have known all along – that donors like to donate and they feel good when doing so – more and more companies are going to fundraise. Companies are going to see fundraising as a tool to exercise their values and create deeper connections with their customers.

I believe this is great for donors, but bad news for smaller nonprofits.

It’s great news for donors because they are going to be given more opportunities to support causes they believe in and beneficiaries they care about. And the emails from for-profit companies are going to raise awareness for whatever issue is being talked about. These are both good, and will cause an overall increase in giving; more people are going to donate, and it’s going to increase the number of younger donors.

To put it another way, the size of the pie is going to increase.

That said, there’s more competition for the pie. This is bad news for smaller nonprofits because they are now in competition with these companies:

  • People’s inboxes are going to be full of more options to give
  • Some of these companies have teams to create and send emails – they are going to send more emails faster than a one-person fundraising shop can.

The good news for smaller nonprofits is that these companies are going to quickly return to selling shirts (or whatever). They probably aren’t going to “Report back” on the difference the donor’s gift helped make. And their fundraising will most likely focus on big, disaster/systemic issues, and less on local issues.

The other good news is that you can build trust in your organization by talking all year long about your cause and your donors – not just when there’s a disaster.

But it’s good to know that an era of increased competition in donors’ inboxes is arriving.



I have a message for all the young Fundraisers and smaller organizations out there.

Nobody gets their fundraising right the first time.

I say that because it’s easy to get discouraged.

As you start – as an organization starts – there is SO MUCH that you’re having to figure out. Not to mention, nobody got into this business because they desperately wanted to send letters and emails to people. 🙂

So, please know three powerful things…

  1. You’ve begun! That’s a LOT farther than most people get. Maybe they look the other way. Maybe they refuse. Who knows. But you started. From my perspective 30 years in, that’s a bigger deal than you think it is.
  2. Becoming effective is an iterative process. You start. You pay attention. You add another skill. You get better. You notice something else. You get a little better every month. That too is a bigger deal than you think it is.
  3. The whole way, you’re helping your cause and you’re helping your donors. You’re helping the cause by raising awareness, and raising money, so that more good gets done. You’re helping donors because they care – but they don’t have programs like you do, so they can’t do much by themselves.

That’s a lot of good. You could be spending your time marketing bags of chips. Instead you’re helping make change.

It’s not easy. (If it were easy, we’d all be raising tens of millions of dollars and have six-pack abs.)

So keep going. Keep iterating. Keep practicing.

And thanks for being a Fundraiser!

It’s a Gift to Be a Fundraiser

It’s a Gift to Be a Fundraiser

Today’s the last day of sharing the stories behind my fundraising posts that got the most reactions on social media.

Here’s #7, #6, #5, #4, #3 and #2.

And #1 is…

The ability to do fundraising as a career is a gift.

I was gratified to see that this was the most liked tweet in my “51 fundraising lessons on my 51st birthday” thread.

Because if you’re like me, sometimes you find fundraising infuriating. It’s emotionally hard work, there are more tactics to know than ever before, sometimes organizational stakeholders have no idea what they are talking about but are still given equal voice, etc.

There’s a lot of complaining in the world of fundraising. Some of it certainly from me.

And yet! At some level I think most of us know how rewarding our work is.

Fundraisers get to help organizations do the work they were founded to do. Fundraisers get to help donors do good and powerful things.

All of us reading this blog could be in the “sales” business – chasing attention and profit. We could be in the “news” business – chasing attention and profit.

Instead, we’re in the Fundraising business. We’re certainly still chasing attention, but there’s a purpose behind our work that’s deeper and more valuable than pure profit.

This holiday season, I hope you’re thankful for your job in fundraising. I hope you’re thankful for the role you play in the life of your organization, your beneficiaries, and your donors.

In this season of giving, we remember that it’s a gift to do fundraising – we thank you for being a Fundraiser!