The Squiggle


What you’re looking at is called “the squiggle.”  It was created by Damien Newman to describe the product design process.

I think the squiggle pretty well describes most people’s fundraising journey, too.  Moving from left to right, all of us…

            Start our journey careening wildly to figure out how fundraising works…

                        We begin to develop an understanding of how it all works…

                                    We understand and refine our practice.

It’s good to remember that we all go through the beginning chaos. 

For instance, ten years ago we had a client who had met their budget for the year by Thanksgiving.  Their Board asked us, “Since we’ve already met budget, shouldn’t we stop fundraising for the year?  And since we won’t be sending our year-end letter, could we mail it during next summer when we will need the money?”

After some internal snickers… we had a great conversation with the Board.  Because of that conversation, the Board moved to the right on the squiggle.  They’ve continued to learn and have become an incredible fundraising asset to the organization.  (And they are still a client today.) 

They just needed a little help from someone who was farther along on their fundraising journey.

In my own career, I’ve written about when my mentor asked me, “Why are you writing about the organization?”  That was a moment of insight and I moved closer to the clarity and focus I have today.

I mention all this because we’re ALL somewhere on the squiggle.  And the longer I’m on my fundraising journey, the more compassion I have for people at the start of theirs.

So in the spirit of passing it on…

If you’re in the Uncertainty / Patterns / Insights zone, what’s one thing you are doing this year that will help you move forward?

If you’re in the Clarity/Focus zone, what’s one thing you are doing to help another Fundraiser join you out there?

And wherever you are, are you compassionate towards the others on this journey with you?

The “Research,” “Concept” and “Design” labels on the bottom of the original graphic were removed to keep the point as simple as possible.  Thank you to Damien Newman for allowing the graphic to be used on the Creative Commons license.

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.

Fundraising “Disasters” Are Rarely Fatal

Crisis ahead.

Last Thursday’s post about mistakes got me to thinking…

Mistakes and disasters in fundraising are rarely fatal.

I’ve been part of a lot of mistakes and bad breaks over the years. (Which I think is true of anybody who has been in fundraising for any length of time.)

Just look at this partial list:

  • The Anthrax Scare of 2001 – When poisonous anthrax was mailed to random people that October, everyone in America was afraid to open their mail, and donations through the mail just… completely… stopped.
  • The Great Reply Card Swap – An appeal letter was sent out with a reply card for a completely different nonprofit. And that other nonprofit? Their donors received the reply card for the first nonprofit. Good times!
  • Awkward Typos – When tens of thousands of donors were supposed to be asked to help “fill the pantry” at the rescue mission, and instead were asked to “fill the panty.” And as mentioned last week, when donors were supposed to be asked to “sign the enclosed placemat and return it with your gift“ were instead asked to “sign the enclosed placenta and return it with your gift.”
  • The Host Who Eternally Lapsed – When the famous person you’ve hired for $50,000 to host the donor acquisition TV show… unfortunately passes away a couple months after filming. So you have to pull the shows off the air, reschedule the media buys, and reshoot all their portions of the program.
  • The Poorly Timed Acquisition Campaign – When you launch a national donor acquisition campaign with TV spots, direct mail buys and print magazine ads… right as the 2007 great recession/subprime mortgage started.

All of these left a mark… but none were the massive blow that the organization initially feared.

I think the lessons are to control what you can control. Know that mistakes are going to happen. Send out more fundraising (having fewer fundraising pieces is risky because you’re more reliant on the performance of any one piece).

Donors are generous – they want to give. And it’s inspiring to see how nonprofits are resilient on behalf of their beneficiaries or cause.

“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.  

Getting Boundary-Stretching Fundraising Approved

Exceed expectation.

I’m fresh off the plane from last week’s Storytelling Conference, and there’s something I forgot to share.

It’s a simple, story-based tool for anyone who wants to try a fundraising approach that’s new to their organization… and needs to get their boss to approve it.

This tool doesn’t make it easy – a fundraising approach that’s new can challenge beliefs people have about how fundraising works. And beliefs don’t easily change. But it’s a start, so here goes…

Step 1 – Share What You Learned

Share the new strategy, tactic or approach that you learned at the conference.

Step 2 – Tell Your Story

Share how the knowledge of new strategy or tactic changed how you think. Give examples if you can, saying things like, “I used to think that it worked like X, but now I see that it can work like Y.”

Share how you think that the approach could help your organization raise more money and achieve more of your mission.

Step 3 – Share Why You Can’t Believe

Confess that you now wonder if the previous approach you took is really the best approach. You’re not “proclaiming” here – that can put people on the defensive because the meta is that “you’re right and they’re wrong” – and we don’t want that.

Confess that you’re wondering if the current way of doing things is raising less money than you could be and holding your organization back from doing more.

Step 4 – Share Your Conflict

Acknowledge that by sharing this you’re aware that it upsets the status quo, and that you don’t enjoy doing that.

Step 5 – “What Should I Do About This?”

Ask a simple, direct question: “What should I do about this?”

Be a good listener.

You may get shut down. You may find that there’s a possibility of trying the new approach.

Regardless, be solutions-oriented. Offer to look for a low stakes place to try the idea. Perhaps you can try it in an e-appeal during a dead time of the year? If people are worried about the Board’s reaction, take the Board off the send list.

Step 6 – Remember That You Are On The Same Team

If your organization is completely against the new approach, now you know.

But you will have honored the organization by introducing a new idea in a sensitive, thoughtful way. Their reaction is up to them.

What comes next is up to you. Some people in this situation will bring the idea up again a few months later. Some people will leave the organization. Whatever your approach is, remember that you’re on the same team right now.

Step 7 – You Can Always Ask For A Do-Over

If there’s no tolerance for failure, there’s no innovation.

That goes for your organization; if your organization isn’t willing to fail, they won’t be willing to try your idea.

But in this moment it also goes for you – you tried a new approach to get a new idea approved. And kudos to you; you took the vulnerable approach, tried to innovate, and were willing to fail. Good on you.

If it didn’t work, you can thank the person for listening, and in most cases you can ask if you can try again later.

In My Experience…

If you present a challenging idea in a sensitive, thoughtful way, you have a better chance of getting in a conversation about it.

If you get in a conversation about it, you have a better chance of it getting approved.

So whether you’re back from the conference and have a head full of new ideas that conflict with “the stories your organization tells itself about fundraising,” or just read about an idea that you want to try, give this approach a go.

Repeat What Works


After a difficult year, and a not-so-simple start to 2021, we’d be excused for wanting to wipe the slate clean.

But does starting over with a clean sheet of paper work for fundraising?

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?  But it’s usually the wrong thing to do.

The best way to move into 2021 is by looking at what worked best in 2020 and copying it.  Even during the pandemic, many organizations saw better than average results.  Some set records.  So, it would be a shame to not repeat what worked, right?

You can save yourself a LOT of time by doing this, AND you’ll raise more money doing it.  Why?  Because your donors voted with their wallets and told you that some of your fundraising last year was really effective.  It caught and kept their attention.  They wanted to get involved.  And it moved them to action.

If you think of your fundraising as a series of experiments, some of your experiments worked better than others.

So, your fundraising this year should include more of the things that worked well.  Take some time to identify those successes, and repeat them:

  • Copy the offers and creative approaches that worked.
  • Use those offers and creative approaches in other scenarios.
  • Find relevant, real-time opportunities for your donor to give today.

As you move into the new year, spend a couple of minutes brainstorming the reasons your donor gave last year.  And if you give her those same opportunities, she’s likely to help your cause again.