The Regular Kind, or ‘How to Break Through the Noise’

There’s a “regular” kind of fundraising.

You’ve seen it before:

  1. Letters and emails that begin with a thank you, then tell a story of something good that the organization has already done, then a request for support that’s not particularly strong.
  2. The details of what the donor’s gift will help accomplish are often hidden behind abstractions like “you’ll deliver hope” or “please help their dreams come true.”

This “regular” kind of fundraising works OK when there are a lot of people are interested in your cause. Think top-ten subjects like hospitals, cancer, feeding children, higher education, you get it.

But if fewer people are interested in or affected by your cause, “regular” fundraising just doesn’t work that well.

In that situation, if you want to break through, your fundraising must be better. Sharper. Bolder. Clearer.

You’re going to have to make fundraising that leads, fundraising that’s different from the “regular way.”

Here are two pieces of advice to help you create fundraising that breaks through the noise and makes people care more about what you do.

#1 – Figure Out What It Is About Your Cause That Makes People Emotional

Notice I said your cause, not the specifics of your work. What is it about the underlying need for the work you do that makes people emotional? Talk about that when you’re asking for support.

To illustrate, I know of a Men’s Choir that figured this out. They used to do their fundraising the “regular way.” They highlighted how good their singers were, how technical their arrangements were, how impressive they sounded.

They raised a regular amount of money.

But their fundraising took off when they started talking to their donors’ emotions about the music. Turned out that many donors got emotional about preserving and sharing old songs. Other donors got emotional because the music reminded them of their parents.

Can you feel the difference between “Your gift will make the choir’s impressive sound possible” and “Your gift will preserve your musical heritage, and you’ll hear music that will take you right back to listening to it with your parents”?

#2 – Talk About the Consequences of Your Work

What’s the change your work causes that makes people emotional?

When you’re Reporting back to donors on what their gift accomplished, talk about that change. Not about your organization itself, or about what your organization does to make the change.

Your donors care more about the change than they care about how you make it.

When you Report back to donors and share stories that illustrate the change they’ve helped make, your donors will be thrilled they gave and more likely to give again.


The “regular way” doesn’t work very well for small nonprofits.

If few people care about your cause or issue, does it make sense to spend your fundraising talking about the details of your programs? (Think about it – do you want to hear the details about a subject you’re not interested in?)

Instead, find out what makes your current donors emotional about your issue or cause. Get good at talking about that, and you’ll raise more money.

And you’ll have the added benefit of being more attractive to potential donors. Why? Because many of your potential donors have those same emotions that you’ll be talking about. This enables your conversations with potential donors to start on common ground. And that’s a much more inviting place for a donor than having to hear about the details of your programs.

It’s the difference between a potential donor receiving your fundraising and thinking, “I don’t really care about that” and them thinking, “huh, that’s more powerful than I realized.”

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.

Save the Education for Someone Who Needs It

Save the education.

Your individual donors, and the non-donors who have signed up for your email list, already care about your beneficiaries or cause.

They cared enough to give a gift, or to sign up.

So you don’t need to “educate them into giving a gift.” They already care. They don’t need to know more!

This is why donors respond better to “news about what’s going on” than they respond to “data about what’s going on.”

Here’s an example. There’s an organization called Ronald McDonald House that provides a place for families to stay when they’ve traveled to a hospital so that their child can get the care they need. They could begin a letter with the intent to educate donors into understanding how large the problem is, thinking that would result in more gifts…

“I’m writing you today to let you know that 1 in 5 families who have to travel long distances to take their child to a hospital are unable to afford a place to stay for more than two or three days.”

That’s education. Those are data about what is going on.

But what works better is a story like this…

“I’m writing you today because there’s a family in town from out of state so that their child can be cared for at Children’s Hospital. But the family can’t afford a hotel, so they are crashing in their car and couch-surfing with friends when they can.”

That’s news about what’s going on. Because it’s more emotionally engaging, more donors will continue to read. And when more donors continue to read, more donors will give gifts.

So save the education for someone who needs it before they will give, like a foundation, or a local government agency you’re making a case to, or a major donor who is an expert in your category.

Your individual donors are more interested in news about what’s going on and what their gift will do about it.

Good News and Bad News, Part II

Yin Yang.

Part I was about our belief that nonprofits are called to share the whole situation – the good news caused by their work and the bad news that causes their work to be needed.

But that’s a complex story. And do you think that today’s individual donors – who have shorter attention spans and are bombarded by more messages and information than any time in human history – are going to read and think about your complex story?

No. At least not many.

So here’s the fundraising maxim we live by:

When you only have a few moments of a person’s attention, focus your message on either the good news or the bad news.

Here’s how this works in practice:

  • You put the “bad news” in your appeals and e-appeals. These are your Asks.
  • You put the good news in your Thanks. These are your Thank You/Receipt letters and email receipts.
  • You put more good news in your Reports. These are your Newsletters.

This provides a series of messages that are easy to understand by individual donors who are moving fast. This communicates both the good news and the bad news about what’s going on, rather than hiding the news in communication pieces that attempt to tell the whole story every time.

It will also raise you more money, if the results of our customers are any indication.

And when you have more time with a donor – say at an event, or a coffee with a donor, or a grant application – then you can tell the whole complex story, sharing both the good news and the need for your work.

But in the meantime, focus each message to individual donors on either good news or bad news. By narrowing the focus, more of your message will make it through to donors, and to the world.

Good News and Bad News, Part I

Yin Yang.

If a nonprofit isn’t sharing the good news caused by their work, the nonprofit is hiding something and isn’t doing all of its job.

And equally true, if a nonprofit isn’t sharing the bad news that causes their work to be needed, the nonprofit is hiding something and isn’t doing all of its job.

You can see both types of nonprofits today. Look around and you’ll see organizations that only use the doom-and-gloom sky-is-always-falling approach that diminishes the progress being made. And you can see organizations that focus completely on success and diminish the situation that causes their work to be needed.

It’s our belief that nonprofits are called to share the whole situation. If only one kind of news is shared, a nonprofit is not giving donors a true picture. Their fundraising becomes just as polarized as a news media outlet that only shares one side of the story.

This is why our fundraising system is built on Ask, Thank, Report. When you Ask donors for support, you share the bad news that causes the work of the nonprofit to be needed. When you Thank, you share the good news that will happen because of their gift and your work. And when you Report back to donors, you share the triumphs and amazing changes that happened.

It’s yin and yang. It’s the good and the bad. It’s the full picture. It has to be a mix of good news and bad news in order to be true.

Stay in the Now

In the now.

When asking for support in an appeal letter or e-appeal, stay in the now.

Don’t talk about what your organization has done in the past. Don’t talk about how many people you’ve helped in the past. Don’t tell a story about someone you’ve helped in the past.

Here’s why…

In our experience, the most successful appeals focus on what is happening now and what the donor can do about it. Here are some examples:

  • There is a person who has a disease, and you can supply the cure.
  • There’s a classroom of kids that’s behind in math. You can provide the tutoring to get them caught up and even testing ahead of grade level.
  • Today there’s a person with a vestibular disorder and she’s dizzy. You can connect her to a trained physician.

You get the idea.

Anything else in the appeal that’s not about “what’s happening right now and what the donor can do about it” tends to be:

  1. A distraction from what’s going on now, and
  2. Takes up space you could be using talking about what’s going on now

You should mention and focus on the good things that have happened in the past when you are Reporting back to your Reports (usually in your newsletters). Or when you have more time to make the ask, like at an event or in a meeting with a major donor.

But when you’re asking for support in an appeal or e-appeal – when donors are doing more “scanning” than reading – it’s “what’s happening right now that a donor can help with” that is the most likely to cause a donor to give a gift.

Two Futures to Mention

I can think of only two times to mention the future in an appeal.

The first is when you share what the outcome of the donor’s gift will be. Using the examples above, that could look something like this:

  • When you supply the cure, you completely eliminate the disease from a person’s body. They will go on to live a normal, healthy life!
  • The tutoring you make possible will radically improve the students’ understanding of math. They’ll become more likely to graduate, to go to college, and even to get high-paying jobs!
  • For a person with a vestibular disorder, connecting with a physician means they’ll get a proper diagnosis and be on the path to a dizziness-free life and be able to leave the house again.

The second is to share the vision of the organization for the future. That results in examples like this:

  • Your gift will also help eradicate the disease, creating a disease-free world!
  • Our goal is to create a world where every child possesses the math and STEM skills they need to succeed.
  • We believe that every person with a vestibular disorder deserves a good diagnosis, and your gift helps us work towards that future.

But in our experience, focusing on “what’s happening now and what the donor can do about it” is the surest way to a gift in the mail and email.

With and For

with and for

The work of a Fundraiser requires you to be in two different contexts at once.

You must be “with and for” your beneficiaries.  To know what’s going on with them.  To know the needs.  To know the stories.  To know the triumphs and progress.

And you must be “with and for” your donors.  To know what they’re thinking about.  To want them to have a good experience giving to your organization.

It’s easy to set up camp in just one place.  To be so donor-focused that boundaries are crossed and donors are given too much power.  Or to make overly beneficiary-focused or organization-focused fundraising that largely ignores donors’ wants and desires.

Setting up camp in one place can even feel like you’re taking the high road. 

But the most effective fundraising – for revenue & retention & beneficiaries & donors & the world – is “with and for both.”

What 90s TV show ER™ can teach you about fundraising appeals


It’s the worst day.

You get a deep cut on your hand while preparing for a summer barbeque. It looks bad to you. So you head to the emergency room!

But when you get to the ER… some bored receptionist takes your name, gives you a load of paperwork, and tells you to sit down and wait.

So you wait. And wait.

Then the automatic doors BURST open, and they wheel in a guy who’s bleeding and eerily still!

“Fell through a plate glass window! We’re losing his pulse!” a paramedic yells.

They wheel the gurney right past where you’re waiting. And a guy who looks a lot like George Clooney LEAPS into action to try and save his life!

You may think you’re in an episode of ER™ (the early years), but you’re actually… in the fundraising ER.

You see, you ended up in your donor’s waiting room because you forgot the urgency in your fundraising appeal.

When asking your donors to give in your appeal letter, you used phrases like:

“Will you consider making a gift today?” or “Please support our organization.”

Meanwhile, another organization used phrases like:

“”Here’s why your gift is needed TODAY” and “Here’s the [negative consequence] that will happen if this problem isn’t solved.”

Here’s why this matters:

Your donors triage their mail a lot like ER docs triage their patients.

Right now! Stat!
For your donor, these are the personal letters, the mysterious envelopes, and fundraising appeals that share the urgency to give today. In the ER, this is the guy on the gurney.

For your donor, this is bills and other stuff she doesn’t dare throw away yet. It may also be fundraising appeals from organizations she especially cares about. In the ER this would be a kid with the stomach flu.

When we get to it.
For your donor, this is everything else. Junk mail and the fundraising appeals that don’t give a good reason to give a gift today. In the ER, this is you with the cut hand… still waiting.

A lot of organizations make the mistake of hiding the urgency from their donors. And their appeal ends up in the “later” or “when we get to it” pile.

Big mistake.

Here’s where my ER metaphor breaks down.

The ER docs will eventually get to you with your cut hand.

But if your appeal gets put in the “later” or “when we get to it” pile, chances are your donor will never get to it.

She’s busy. And there’s more mail arriving tomorrow. So mail that gets set aside tends to get recycled… it just takes a bit longer to get to the recycling bin.

You must SHARE the urgent reason to give with your donor — quickly! On the outer envelope. Right at the start of your letter. Repeated throughout the letter. In the P.S. On the reply card.

That’s what it takes to get noticed in your donor’s mailbox AND in the ER.

Your cause is important — you wouldn’t be writing to your donor otherwise. Make the urgency crystal clear! And tell the donor exactly how she can help.

What to Do When You Have a Mid-Year Budget Shortfall

fill the gap

I’ve heard something like this at least a half-dozen times this week…

“We used to receive grant funding but that is way down.” Or “We received PPP money and that’s running out.” Or “During and after the pandemic our donors really stepped up, but they aren’t giving like they used to.”

Here’s what’s going on in most cases: most nonprofits set their budget based on giving the previous year.

But we just lived through a three-year period that was anything but normal. So if you based your 2023 budget on 2022 giving, you may find yourself with a funding shortfall the second half of the year begins.

This means you need to do all you can to raise as much money as possible the second half of this year.

Even though you’re faced with this problem, this is actually GOOD news for your fundraising. Why? Your shortfall is a problem donors can solve!

Figure out where your funding gaps are, and ask your donors for help filling them. Major donor development, mass donor appeals and even a special event are all successful tools nonprofits use to erase their shortfalls.

The fundraising shortfall you’re facing is a fundraising opportunity for your donors to step up to help in a big way.

Do not fear! Make the most of this time to be bold and confident in your fundraising outreach. You can do it!

Donors love to feel needed. And I suspect you’ll be surprised and encouraged with the results!