Turns Out People Don’t Like to Say Hard Things

It’s hard to think, say and write things like:

If Daniel does not receive the cure in time, his eyes will deteriorate, and he will go blind.

Some marine life is dying, at this very moment, from the millions of pounds of plastics in the ocean today.

If Anitha doesn’t go to school this year, she’s likely to become a child bride.

All of those things are true. You might think they are morbid. Or that they shouldn’t be shared.

But it turns out that sharing those truths in your direct response fundraising will help you raise more, and fund more of your organization’s work.

In other words, if you say the hard things, your organization will be able to do more about those hard things.

Your fundraising should not be all about those hard things. But letting donors know what’s at stake gives them a more complete picture of what’s happening, and they react accordingly.

Even though it’s hard, say the hard things.

Closest Available Fundraiser


The most meaningful fundraising in the world is usually created by the “closest available fundraiser.”

Not a professional fundraiser, or even a trained fundraiser. But the person sitting in the fundraising seat at the time.

The closest available fundraiser.

Here’s the thing. There are some people – or a cause – that need help right now and your organization is the only one that can do it.

Maybe you’re the only organization that knows about the need you serve. Or you’re the only organization that is in a position to meet the need soon.

For those people, you’re their shot. There isn’t anyone else right now.

Your beneficiaries or cause don’t need you to be confident or certain or fearless. They just need you to try.

But be heartened – when you create and send out the fundraising for people or a cause that no one else is going to help, you’ve given an incredible gift. You’ve created the best (and only) fundraising in the world for them.

Repurpose the Proven


In a movie directed by Oliver Stone in the second half of the 1980’s, Charlie Sheen plays a young man who follows a bad father figure, then turns to follow a good father figure. Can you name the movie?

If you said Platoon, you are right. If you said Wall Street, you are right. Both movies told the same story, and both were a huge success. The primary difference was that Platoon took us into the green jungles of Viet Nam circa 1967, and Wall Street took us into the concrete jungles of Manhattan circa 1985.

Here’s my point: Wall Street premiered less than 12 months after Platoon, but no one who saw it complained, “Hey, we were told this story last year!”

That’s a quote from Roy H. Williams, one of my favorite writers. 

It’s one of those quotes that’s not about fundraising, but it’s absolutely about fundraising.

Because if you’re going to get good at fundraising, you’re going to find yourself telling the same “story” over and over again.

The beneficiary will change.  The circumstances and details will change.  But it’ll be the same “story” in the way Platoon and Wall Street are the same story.

Because when you find a particular “story” that elicits the response in your donors that you’re looking for, you want to repeat that “story.”  Again and again and again.

You’ll get tired of it.  But no one will complain and say, “Hey, we were told this story last month.”  Because a vanishingly small number of donors will notice that the “story” was the same. 

There are types of stories that work better than others.  For instance, there’s a type of story that works best for appeals and e-appeals.  There’s a type of story that works best for newsletters and “report backs.” 

Again, you or your organization might get tired of the story types that work best for you.  But don’t let your organization’s boredom with any particular story type get in the way of creating effective communications for your donors.

“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.”

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.

A Powerful Fundraising Sentence


Today I’d like to share one of the most powerful fundraising sentences I’ve ever heard. 

I’ll show you why it’s so powerful, and how to apply its lessons to supercharge your organization’s direct response fundraising.

Here we go…

It’s one of the most successful fundraising sentences I’ve ever heard:

“You can cure a major disease like Leprosy for just $250 dollars.”

This sentence has three main elements:

  • The “before” is that a person has leprosy
  • The “after” is that a person will be cured of their leprosy
  • The cost is $250

(If you need a refresher on how we use “before” and “after,” read this post or this post.)

Here’s how those elements work together…

  1. There’s a large contrast between “having leprosy” and “being cured of a dreadful disease.”  That’s a big change in a person’s life! 
  2. The cost to cause that big a change seems pretty minimal.   

Any time you can show a donor that they can make a big change with a gift, and the cost to “cause the change” seems like a good deal, you’re about to raise a lot of money.    

In Your Fundraising

In your fundraising right now, when you tell donors what will happen when they give a gift, does it feel like the donor will cause a big change?

The secret is finding a “before and after” with quite a bit of “distance” between them.

And the good news is that if you describe things well, almost all your “befores and afters” can seem powerful.  Here’s a list of examples off the top of my head:

  • “You can save an heirloom quilt from mold, moths and being forgotten for just $150.”
  • “You can provide a struggling village with a cistern that improves farming results, improves hygiene, lowers sickness and helps a village break the cycle of poverty for just $10,000.”
  • “You can help a child with disabilities go from unable to exercise to skiing with a qualified instructor and adaptive equipment for just $50.” 

Each of these is a fundraising “offer” (and here’s our free eBook on how to make great offers for your organization).

Your donors care about your beneficiaries and/or your cause.  If you can focus their attention on a portion of your work – a “before” and an “after” – that show a big change, and the cost of that change seems like a good deal, you’re on your way to even more fundraising success.  

Before’s & After’s


Our last post was about how the distance between the “before” and the “after” shows the donor the power of their gift.

Speaking of this, I’ve noticed that there are four different ways organizations tend to handle “before’s and after’s,” and each results in different fundraising results…

Only the “Before”

Organizations that share only the “before” – the need that exists in the world before your organization has helped – will raise a lot of money in the short term.

But these organizations have troubles keeping their donors, because their donors never see or feel what their gift accomplished.

This short-term success can be extended to medium-term and even long-term IF the organization has a fantastic donor acquisition program and works on an issue with broad appeal. But it’s not a good strategy for smaller organizations – and I don’t think it’s particularly honoring to beneficiaries or donors.

Only the “After”

If organizations only share the “after” – the positive state after the organization has done its work – the organization will raise less money than it could be raising.

Some donors are motivated just by hearing the “after.” But a lot more donors are motivated by hearing the “before” and the “after.” When the “before” is never shared, a significant percentage of people don’t give, or give less.

A secondary consequence of only sharing the “after” is that organizations accidentally hide the need faced by their beneficiaries.

No “Before” and No “After”

If you share no “before” and no “after,” you also raise less money. This happens when a nonprofit tells donors that the work is happening now, that the work will continue, and asks the donor to “continue to” support the work. There’s no “before.” There’s no “after.”

These organizations accidentally communicate to donors that no change happens when the donor gives – so why should the donor give?

I hope it’s obvious that “why should the donor give?” is a rhetorical question, because the nonprofit is presumably doing good work. This post makes the case for why asking a donor to “continue to” support an organization’s work is one of the least compelling ways to ask for support.

“Before” AND “After”

The organizations where we’ve seen the greatest fundraising success share both the before and the after. They share the bad news and the good news.

When Asking in appeals and e-appeals, they share what’s happening now (the “before”) and what will happen if the donor gives a gift (the “after”).

When Reporting in newsletters, they share what was happening (the “before”) and what’s happening now (the “after”).

The constant contrasting of the “before” and “after” helps a donor see how big an impact their gift to your organization can make, or has made in the past. This is the best strategy, and it provides a strengthening blend of short-term and long-term success.

This strategy honors beneficiaries because it creates awareness of the current situation and of the hopeful future that’s possible. It honors donors by showing them the impact of their generosity.

The Distance

The graphic above is the best way I know to show why it’s so helpful to donors when nonprofits share “before and after’s” in their fundraising.

The distance between – the contrast between – the “before” and the “after” is what shows the donor the power of their gift. 

Here’s how it works…

Appeals & E-appeals

When you’re Asking for a gift in appeals and e-appeals, you want to share the “before and potential after.”  Describe the “before” – what’s happening now that needs to be fixed? Then describe the “potential after” that the donor’s gift will help make possible.

If the distance between the before and the potential after is large, the donor will feel like their gift will make a big difference. And when you make your donor feel like their gift will make a big difference, you’ll get more gifts.


When Reporting back to donors in newsletters, you want to share the “before and after.” Your newsletter story or E.D. letter should describe the “before” (what was happening that help was needed”) and then describe the positive “after” that the donor’s gift made possible.

If the distance between the before and the after is large, the donor will feel like their gift made a big difference. And when you make your donor feel like their gift made a big difference, you’ll get more future gifts.

More Important

When you create a lot of direct response fundraising, you quickly find out that donors care much more about the “before” and the “after” than they care about how your organization made the “after” possible.

So don’t spend time in letters and emails talking about your programs, or about how your programs work.  That’s the “how you made it possible.” Save that info for grant applications and the small group of major donors who love the ins and outs of your programs.

For direct response fundraising, show donors the big distance between the before and the after.  If you can get your donors thinking, “Wow, my gift can make that big a transformation?” or “Wow, my donation made that big a difference?” – they’ll loving giving to your organization because of the impact they can make. 

You Change the World

Change the world.

A bit of encouragement for you today…

Do you want to change the world?

A direct response Fundraiser can change the world just by sending out an email.

By doing something almost everybody does – sending an email, of all things – a Fundraiser can change the world by raising money.

A donor’s money that was going to do something is now doing your thing. Your organization is now going to do more. And your donor loved giving the gift.

Email sent. World changed.

Food for thought: how many people do you think have the skill to send emails – to people they’ve never even met – and have some of those people reply with large amounts of money?

Not very many.

Develop your skills to raise money, in email or direct mail or telemarketing or radio, and you can have a meaningful job for the rest of your life.

People and organizations will value your ability to change the world. They will value your ability to take all the things your nonprofit does and create fundraising that makes your donor want to take action now.

Because while a lot of fundraising just makes a point, you’ll create fundraising that makes a difference.

That sounds like changing the world to me.