Making Fundraising is Like Making Pancakes


You know how when you start making pancakes, the first couple of ‘em aren’t quite right?

Either the batter’s too thick, or the pan isn’t hot enough, or that little brown ring around the edge of the pancake that you like doesn’t happen.

The point is, you need to make a couple before you get everything dialed in, and then pancakes come out the way you want.

Your fundraising is the same way.

If you’re only sending a couple pieces of fundraising a year, there’s almost no chance they come out the way you want them to.  It’s been so long since you made the last one that you just don’t have everything dialed in. It’d be like making one pancake every week.

Contrast that to the rhythm of consistently making & sending fundraising.  Plus looking at the results to see what’s working best. And then getting that “sense” of what’s going to work and what isn’t.

Just like with making pancakes, it’s when you get in a rhythm that the magic happens.

Send the Same Thing at the Same Time to Save Time


When you send out a fundraising letter or email that works great, I want you to do something: plan to send out the same message, in the same format, at the same time next year.

Think about how much time you could save!

And wouldn’t you love knowing that what you send next year is going to work great?

If you’re not already using this strategy, here are some examples of letters / emails / campaigns that nonprofits we serve are successfully repeating each year…

  • March “Send a kid to the museum for a day”
  • Late January “Monthly donor recruitment” campaign
  • July “Stop a girl from becoming a child bride”
  • Early August “Back to school”
  • Late October “Thanksgiving meals”
  • Early May “Send a kid to summer camp for a day”
  • Summer “Provide clean water for a family”
  • Early November “Christmas Newsletter”
  • Late October “Fall gift catalog”
  • Early March “Easter appeal”
  • September “Persecuted Church” campaign
  • Early June “Summer Book Drive”
  • Early May “Help a graduating student with disabilities get a job interview”

All of the above letters / emails / campaigns are reliable performers where the nonprofit can count on raising a bunch of money.

They all started when we sent a letter or email, noticed that it did particularly well, and we decided to “do it again next year.”

Specifically, we sent the same message (with the same “offer”), in the same format, at about the same time.  The writing and design was updated only as much as absolutely necessary. 

When you use this strategy, four powerful things happen:

  1. You do less work because it takes less time to “update last year’s letter / email / campaign” than it does to “create a new letter / email / campaign from scratch.”
  2. You have more energy for other projects because of the “lighter lift” required by mail and email fundraising.
  3. Over time, your annual plan fills up with proven winners, so your annual revenue becomes more predictable
  4. You start raising more money every year because you get better and better at knowing what makes each letter / email / campaign work well.

    1. For instance, say you’ve done a “Stop a girl from becoming a child bride” letter for three years in a row.  You notice that one of those three letters raised more than the other two.  You open the PDF of the one that worked best and use it as the “template” for the next “Stop a girl from becoming a child bride” letter.  You’ve learned from your experiments and you’ve leveled up!

So… look at the results of your fundraising pieces from last year.  Did you do anything that you can “do again” this year with minimal updating?

Or if you’ve been “repeating” letters, emails and campaigns for years, what did you learn from last year’s fundraising that you can use to make this year’s fundraising more effective?

Helpful Assumptions for 2024


Let’s make some assumptions about your fundraising in 2024…

  • You can assume that your donors could be giving you more.
  • You can assume that not every donor opens up every piece of communication you send. 
  • You can assume that your communications don’t arrive perfectly timed with when your donors feel like giving gifts.
  • You can assume that your donors are adults and they can handle a little more fundraising from you. 

All reasonable assumptions.

Now, if you assumed all of those things, what would you do?

You’d send more fundraising than you did in 2023.  And you’d raise more money.

Three Easy-to-Understand (but Hard-to-Do) Steps to Better Fundraising

Three Steps.

This post is meant to be a primer for how to use measurement to improve your fundraising. 

The concepts are easy to understand, but it’s real work for smaller nonprofits to install the systems and track the results.

I’m sharing this because, at the beginning of the fundraising journey for a Fundraiser or nonprofit, these things are non-obvious.  When you’re starting off in fundraising, it can feel like a situation where you “send a few things out and see which way the wind blows this year!”

But the more you know, the more you realize this fundraising life is a deeply-understood system.

OK.  There are three main stages to this…

# 1 – Measure the Metrics

You want to measure the performance of each piece of fundraising you send out.  This means tracking metrics like: gross revenue, net revenue, percent response, ROI, click-through rates, conversion rates, etc. 

That list is not meant to be exhaustive.  The idea is that there are standard metrics for email, direct mail, major donor proposals, radiothons, etc., and you want to figure out and track the standard metrics for the types of fundraising you do.    

Organize your results.  (We offer a free spreadsheet to help you get started.)  You’ll quickly see that some fundraising activities are more effective than others. 

#2 – Measure the Results Annually

If you think of each year’s-worth of fundraising as an experiment, you want to know the results of each year’s experiment.

Your results can be measured with metrics like: donor retention rate (overall and by segment), revenue retention rate, the “cost to raise $1” for each of your primary income streams, your total net revenue available for programs, etc. 

Organize your results so you can see year-over-year trends.   

#3 – Learn the Levers

The next step feels like magic: you look at the info from the first two steps and quickly notice which fundraising activities make the biggest difference.

You see things like, “When we do more of X, less money comes in.”  Or, “When we do less Y, we keep more of our donors.”

Let me give you two real-life examples (both of which I’ve seen many times).  I’ll share what the organization noticed when they looked at their results, and then what they found when they looked back at their year:

  1. An organization noticed that they had raised about the same amount over the course of the year with what felt like less effort.  The looked back and noticed that they had cancelled their e-news early in the year.  Previously, they believed their e-news was a necessary part of their fundraising activities.  Today they’ve realized that the time they were spending on their e-news could be better spent in other areas. 

  2. An organization was pleased to find that they had raised more year-over-year, and that their donor retention rate had increased from 55% to 60%.  They looked back and saw that they had sent two more appeal letters, and four more e-appeals, than they’d sent in previous years.  The organization realized they could be asking their donors to help more often, and that doing so would have a positive effect on their fundraising. 

Once you track your fundraising activities, and review the effects of them each year, you see what works and what doesn’t.  Do that for a lot of nonprofits, for a lot of years, and you build a depth of knowledge about what levers work best in different situations.

I realize it’s tough for people at the beginning of their fundraising journey to know what to do, let alone actually find the time to do all of it. 

That’s exactly why this blog exists.  We’re trying to share everything we’ve learned over the years about which levers to pull, and which levers to stop pulling, so that your fundraising journey is a little faster and a little smoother.

(Fun Fact: the original name for Better Fundraising was “Better Fundraising For All.”  That’s because we believe that all of this information should be shared with all the small- and medium-sized nonprofits who can’t afford a big agency, instead of being kept as part of some “secret sauce.”)

For today, figure out which of these three steps your organization should be working on.  And figure out the next actionable step you could take.  Now, we’re all in the middle of year-end fundraising at the moment, so you might not get to it in the next couple of weeks.  But write it down and set aside some time in your calendar to make it part of your plan for 2024. 

Take just a few steps forward, and you’ll be surprised at how much more effective you’ll become.

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.