Bittersweet Moments of Clarity

Clear thinking.

When you get better at something, there’s that bittersweet moment where you’re thinking two things almost simultaneously:

  • Oh man, I’ve been doing it wrong all along… and
  • Hey, I know how to do that better now!

In those moments, it’s as if you see the world a little more clearly than you did before. You understand how things work a little better than you did a moment before.

I had one of those “moments of clarity” recently, thanks to the impressive and irrepressible Jen Love.

We were on a panel at the Storytelling conference talking about direct response fundraising. I shared one of my writing tools: starting the first draft of every appeal and e-appeal with the sentence, “I’m writing to you today because….”

(I’ve written about why that’s an effective tool here and here.)

Jen then said something like, “Yeah, I love that. I’ve taken it a little further and what I use is, ‘You’re hearing from me today because…’.”

Cue my moment of increased clarity.

Her version is better than mine! It starts with the magical word, “you.” It places the donor in a more active role with more control. It leads to more writing about the donor and what they care about, and less about the organization.

I share this with you today because… You’re reading this today because you know that the more moments of clarity you can have, the more effective a fundraiser you’ll be.

But there are Fundraisers and organizations who don’t really want those moments of clarity. They like their way of doing things. Or they can’t believe that your moment of clarity could apply to them, their communications, or their donors. For those organizations, getting better at fundraising is a challenge.

But if you seek out those moments – if you’re eager to find out that what you’ve been doing is a little wrong, and that there’s a better way to do it – getting better at fundraising and raising more money is delightful.

In my experience, the most effective fundraisers are having “moments of clarity” all the time. Because of those moments, they see the world a little more clearly. And they create fundraising that’s more effective.

The Easy Thing


Measuring the easy thing is the easy thing.

It’s easy to measure how we feel about an appeal. It’s easy to measure whether any complaints came in. It’s easy to measure whether someone made a typo in the mailing.

It’s harder to measure things like the cost per piece, the gross yield per thousand, or your retention rate for major donors.

Ultimately, everything you send out in the mail or email is fundraising. Measuring the effectiveness is the hard thing, and the important thing.

It’s easy to measure whether an organization sent out an e-news or not. It’s more important and more difficult to measure whether the e-news helped.

Our Final Thoughts on Complaints


I had three main goals when putting this series together. I want organizations to:

  1. Not fear complaints
  2. Know how to respond to the complainer
  3. Have a right-sized internal reaction to complaints

But that’s not easy. Complaints are a scary subject for many organizations.

An organization doesn’t usually just “flip a switch” and become comfortable with complaints. It’s a journey with a handful of ideas on the way:

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not saying you should attempt to get complaints. It’s just that, in my experience, every organization that’s reliant on individual donors is going to get a complaint now and again.

So it’s better to have an understanding of what causes complaints, and to know how sophisticated organizations deal with complainers and their complaints.

Furthermore, as organizations grow they begin to see that the better an appeal does, the more likely it is to also generate complaints.

That’s because a great appeal or e-appeal tends to tap into peoples’ emotions. Most people will respond by sending in a gift. But the more people whose emotions you stir, the more likely you are to receive a complaint.

My hope is that organizations will realize that complaints are a cost of doing business for a growing organization. And that receiving the occasional complaint (or even five complaints) is worth it in exchange for raising more money, retaining more donors, and doing more good.

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
  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 (this post)

The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints


There are two times smaller organizations get more complaints:

  • When they start to send out more fundraising. For instance, the organization sends out 4 appeals instead of their usual 2.
  • When their fundraising starts to include more details about what life is like for the people they serve. For instance, the organization includes a description of how a person suffers before the organization helps them.

What makes this situation emotionally complex is that – in both these cases – the organization also raises more money.

When organizations send out more fundraising, they receive more complaints and they raise more money.

When organizations send out fundraising that clearly shares the “need” that the organization serves, they receive more complaints and they raise more money.

This is when organizations realize that “receiving more complaints” and “raising more money” are correlated. They almost always happen at the same time. There’s something about powerful fundraising that causes both more complaints and more gifts.

Then the organization realizes it has a choice. It can raise a lot more money (and do more of its mission work) and, in return, handle a complaint now and again.

Or it can change its fundraising so that no complaints are generated, and raise less money (and do less of its mission work).

Each organization gets to make its own choice.

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
  5. The Two Times Smaller Orgs Get More Complaints (this post)
  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

Practice On Your Non-Donors


Want to become a more effective Fundraiser but your organization won’t allow you to send out enough fundraising to really improve your craft?

Practice on your non-donors.

Get permission to send more fundraising to the non-donors on your email list.

After all, you have nothing to lose with those folks, right? And the purpose of your email list is for members of the list to be turned into donors, right?

If people in your organization question you, focus their attention on how the organization has said that you need more new donors, and that’s exactly what you are trying to do.

The side benefit is that you and your organization will be more effective fundraisers because of it.

If your CRM setup means you don’t know which of the email addresses on your list are donors or non-donors, you have an extra step to take. Create an email list for your test sends, and from that list remove any addresses that look like they might be for your major donors, board members, staff and foundations.

Then start to try stuff. Send an e-appeal that tries a new approach. Try sending a “breathless dispatch from the front line” instead of the “standard sanitized perfectly-proofed update.” Send two e-appeals in a week. Send out a survey designed to get legacy giving leads.

It might be a bit messy. But it’s all practice that will make you more effective.

Organizations that want to get more effective at Fundraising allow little “messes” like these in order to learn and grow. As I said last week, “Ship your work. Get feedback. Improve it. Repeat.”

If you’re not regularly practicing, chances are you’re not getting more effective.

The Long Cut


“Ship your work. Get feedback. Improve it. Repeat.”

This lesson comes from the Tech and Art worlds, but it applies perfectly to fundraising.

Every time you send out a piece of fundraising, you’ve shipped your work. Celebrate it.

Then you get feedback in opens, click-throughs, # of gifts, response rate, etc. Measure it.

Then you ask, “What could we do to get more opens, click-throughs, etc.?” Improve it.

Then you keep it up. Because when you repeat the cycle, you get the “compound interest” of ever-improving results.

Ship your work. Get feedback. Improve it. Repeat.

It’s not sexy. But it’s a priceless way to serve your beneficiaries or cause.

Three Easy Ways to Boost Performance on Your Next Appeal


What I’m about to tell you is not something new.  Yet the importance of these simple fundraising tactics is often overlooked when we’re planning our direct mail appeals.

I’m talking about emails, phone calls, and social posts.

Each of these fundraising tactics can radically boost the performance your direct mail appeal, so here’s a reminder, and few reasons, to why you should add them to your next appeal.


There are two types of fundraising emails you should send with your next appeal. 

The first is the email chaser. This email is ideally sent on or after the donor has received the direct mail letter. The email chaser should briefly outline the problem, solution, and hopeful future the donor’s gift will provide.  Often times you can use the copy that was used for the direct mail letter.

The Better Fundraising Company also recommends to send two, three, or more additional emails to your donors throughout the campaign.  You can exclude folks that have already made a gift, but the idea here is to be present, push the urgency or deadline, and provide donors with a visual reminder that their gift is needed.

Phone Calls

Communicating with your donors on the phone is personal, incredibly cost-effective, and a great way to build goodwill and relationships. 

So, for your next campaign, and if your resources allow, why not make a commitment to call every new donor who gave to your campaign? Or get in touch with your mid-level and major donors?  Just be sure to mention the same messaging or offer you included in the direct mail appeal.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s from you, a board member, or a volunteer, a simple phone call will make the donor feel special, and increase the likelihood of future gifts.

Social Posts

Another way to help your direct mail appeals raise more money is to reinforce the appeals message on social media.

Regardless of how many followers you have, your social media platforms can provide donors with real-time reasons why their gift is needed.

A few short lines reminding donors of a match, the problem and solution, the campaign image, or an urgent deadline are simple messages that can be used to remind donors that they can make a difference.

And similar to resourcing your phone calls, consider getting your board or other staff involved to spread the campaign message in their own circles of influence.

More than likely you are already doing some, or all of these activities to supplement your direct mail appeals.  But if you’re not, consider adding some emails, phone calls, and social posts to your next appeal letter.

Recipe for a Successful Direct Response Fundraising Career


Here’s my recipe for how to succeed in direct response fundraising.

FYI: anybody worth their salt is endlessly repeating steps 3 through 5.  And they’ve used their learning to get better at all types of fundraising – not just direct response.

Step #1

Develop a point of view that’s based on the best data you have available, or based on data from someone with market experience, at scale, that you trust.

This is hard for Fundraisers starting at smaller shops.  But there’s more good info available today than at any point in fundraising history.  There are quite a few people working to share the data and “point of view” that used to be available to only a privileged few.  Erica WassdorpJeff Brooks, Lisa Sargent, Tom Ahern, Mike Duerkson and Jen Love and John Lepp immediately spring to mind.

To give you an example of how much this has changed, I asked my mentor many times why he didn’t write a book to share all that he knew.  His response was always, “Why in the world would I give to my competitors all of the knowledge we worked so hard to learn?”

My attitude is that it’s the right thing to do to make this information more available to smaller nonprofits, and that it’s not a zero-sum game.

Step #2

Apply your point of view in your fundraising practice.  If your results consistently outperform previous results for your organization, your point of view is more accurate than the point of view that was previously used.

This means you have to practice for a while.  And you have to track results.  You build and test your point of view over time.

And some points of view absolutely work better than others.

Step #3

If you get new data that seems to contradict your point of view, investigate that data to see if a) it applies to your situation, and b) stands up to scrutiny.

Things go sideways on this step all the time. 

First, you must actively be looking for or testing for new data.  No “leaning back” here; you have to lean in.

Second, when new data arrives, you must always ask whether the new data applies to your situation/context and is a good next step.  In my experience, this often goes awry when smaller orgs apply learnings from bigger orgs that don’t apply to them.  For instance, Bill Jacobs at Analytical Ones helps medium and large nonprofits create “statistical models” that help the nonprofit know who to mail each appeal letter to.  It’s an incredible tool, but the “appropriate next step” for most small organizations is probably to start using standard RFM segmentation instead of “mailing every name in our database.” 

Third, does the “data” stand up to scrutiny?  A lot of studies get published in our industry that report what donors say they are going to do.  I pay almost no attention to what donors say they are going to do because there’s often a huge difference between what they say they will do and what they actually do.  Humans’ predictions of what they think they will do in the future are not nearly as helpful as data about what they’ve actually done in the past.

Step #4

If needed, update your point of view.

If the contradicting data applies to your situation/context, and the data stands up to scrutiny, then you need to update your point of view.

Step #5

Stay on the lookout for new data.

This is hard for people who don’t work at a fundraising agency, or don’t work at a nonprofit that runs tests.  Thankfully, there’s more information publicly available than ever before.  Here’s what I recommend to get some of it:

  • Subscribe to blogs that are data-based and share test results
  • Cultivate friendships with people who do testing
  • Get on mailing lists where testing results are occasionally shared, like SOFII
  • Pay attention to other fields, like psychology and behavioral economics – for instance, I’ve learned a lot about fundraising from Brené Brown, and Annie Duke’s Thinking In Bets, and Seth Godin’s The Practice – even though none of those books are about fundraising

As I said earlier, the professionals I respect are always on the lookout for new data.  I’d describe myself as a person who “lives in fear of finding out that there’s a better way to do something than what I currently recommend.”

Data that proves you wrong just shows you that there’s a stronger, more complete point of view out there for you to develop.

As you build and refine your point of view, do it consciously.  Take notice when you’re wrong.  Take notice when you’re right.

And then magically, after years of practicing, you’ll be able to help nonprofits of all kinds do even more of their world-changing work.

“Donor Pointer”

Someone called me a “donor-whisperer” last week.

While I was complimented, that term has always felt a little… off… and I finally figured out why. 

A “whisperer” sounds like it’s an innate skill.  It sounds like a talent that a person was born with, that they probably can’t teach, for something that very few people can do. 

Being a “whisperer” also seems a little manipulative, like you’re using a talent to make people do something they didn’t want to do.

None of those things are true.

What I do in fundraising is teachable, and almost anyone can do it.

Instead of “whisperer,” the term I’d use is “pointer.” 

Because what I do is point out things and let donors react.

I help organizations point out things that are happening in the world. I help organizations point out the concrete ways a donor can change the world by giving to them. I help organizations point out the concrete ways the donor has changed the world by giving to them. 

There’s no manipulation.  Everything is true.  There’s no secret skill.  It’s just a series of choices for what to point at.

Your fundraising can point at what donors are most interested in… or not. How donors react is up to them. (Because remember: fundraising doesn’t create tension in donors, it reveals tension they already hold.)

Ultimately, every post on this blog is an attempt to share what we’ve learned about what to point your donors’ attention towards if you’d like to raise more money and do more good. It’s a learnable skill and you can do it.