“What should we avoid in our fundraising?”

Avoid.

Remember the Founder I told you about last Thursday?

The one who said that his organization exists “so that donors can help these girls”?

He also asked a question that I wish more non-profits would ask themselves:

“What should we avoid in our fundraising?”

When was the last time you heard a non-profit ask that question?

There are LOTS of things to avoid in your fundraising, like the non-obvious mistakes that cost so much money, of course.

But mostly I liked that he asked it because it’s such a good question.

Two challenges for you:

  1. Quickly jot down a list of all the things your organization currently avoids in your appeals and newsletters. It’s likely to be an interesting list because most organizations have a set of unwritten rules for what they can and cannot talk about.

a. I can almost guarantee you that there are some things on that list that you should be including, not avoiding. For instance, if “Avoid telling stories where the person still needs help” is on your list, you should take it off.

b. Follow-up question: are there some things you should avoid for some segments of your audience, but not others? For instance, there are some things you should avoid doing in grant applications. But if you avoid them in your direct response appeal letters, you’re raising a lot less money than you could be.

  1. Sign up for Free Review Fridays. At 10:00 AM Pacific each Friday, I review appeals, e-appeals, and newsletters submitted by your fellow Fundraisers (and you can submit yours, too). Watch a few examples, and you’ll quickly see what to include – and what to avoid – with your appeals and newsletters!

The Non-Obvious Mistakes that Cost You Money

Mistakes.

This post is a list of what I call “non-obvious mistakes.”

No one in your organization will ever notice them.

But they cost you thousands of dollars every time you send out an appeal.

Because these mistakes are the difference between an appeal that raises $40,000 instead of the $68,000 it could have raised. These are the difference between an appeal that raises $2,500 instead of $8,000.

Regardless of how big or small your organization is, these non-obvious mistakes are expensive:

  • Lack of clarity about what the donor’s gift will do. Saying things like “Please send a gift today to provide hope” are not clear descriptions of what a donor’s gift will accomplish. As Brené Brown puts it, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” (Want to know how to be clear? Have a great offer.)
  • Not printing your donor’s name, address, and suggested gift amounts on their reply card. The tests are clear: customized reply cards with customized gift asks will increase the number of people who respond, and increase the size of gifts they give.
  • Mailing too many people. You’re sending your mailing to all your past donors, even the ones who haven’t given in several years.
  • Making your appeal hard to read. These are things like type that’s below 13pt, too many words per page, too-small margins, too much reverse-type, etc.
  • Not including clear reasons why the donor should give a gift right now, today. Most nonprofit appeals and e-appeals share what’s happening at the organization and ask for support. But they don’t include any reasons that the donor should give a gift right now – and then are weirdly surprised when very few donors give a gift today.
    How many of those mistakes is your organization making on a regular basis?

These get missed because – somewhat rightly – we’re usually focused on the obvious mistakes that everyone knows about:

  • Messing up donor data. Like addressing mail to me as “Dear Seven” instead of “Dear Steven” and doing it for years. (True story.)
  • Print shop foul-ups. Things like half of your donors getting a reply card for a different nonprofit. (Another true story. Super fun!)
  • Lousy Links. When the links and buttons in your email don’t lead donors to the right place.

Everybody who has done direct response fundraising for any length of time has a couple of these under their belt. Things happen. But you can build systems and processes to eliminate most of these obvious mistakes, most of the time.

But it’s the other kind of mistakes that kill you.

It’s the non-obvious mistakes that stop organizations from “making the leap” to the next level.

It’s the non-obvious mistakes that keep organizations from ever reaching the scale they need to make a big difference.

The best thing you can do is learn. Read this blog. Follow people who have done this stuff at scale. For instance, follow Lisa Sargent on Twitter – she’s rocking it lately with great advice. As much as possible, do what experienced people recommend, not what know-nothing opinion-havers in your organization say they like.

And for those of you who can’t do what experienced people recommend because people in your organization won’t let you – hold tight. I’m working on something I’m calling the Convince Your Boss Kit. Stay tuned. And for now, do as much as you can!

The Choreography of Donor Attention

Donor Attention.

Superfast, three-part tip to help you raise more money with your appeal letters.

Part 1 – Here’s How Your Donors “Read”

This is what’s called a “heat map” – it shows where donors’ eyes go as they look at your direct mail letters.Heatmap.Your donors will scan your letter to decide IF they will read your letter.

And not everyone will decide to read your letter.

But you still want everyone to receive the message you’re sending, right?

Part 2 – So, You Need To…

Knowing where your donors are likely to look, you need to “choreograph” your letter to put the most important information in the places where a donor is most likely to see it.

Part 3 – And You’ll Raise More If…

So you might ask, “What’s the most important information I can share with my donor?”

Here’s what our experience says. The most important information to share quickly with a donor in an appeal is:

  • Why their gift is needed today
  • What their gift will accomplish

Note: this is just one of the reasons why having a great fundraising offer, and knowing how to Ask powerfully, are vital to success. Great offers communicate very quickly why a donor’s gift is needed, and what it will accomplish.

Once you know all this, you’ll make different choices about what you say in your letters, and where you say it. You move away from the demonstrably poor-performing “share a story of success and ask for support” approach, and toward a direct mail approach that raises lots of money.

More Good Reasons to Give Now = More Donations

Give Now.

I’m calling this a “quick tip.”

But in truth it’s a massive, foundational idea for fundraising success:

The more good reasons you can give your donor to give a gift TODAY, the more likely she is to give a gift.

I’ve included a list of “good reasons” below.

But in a nutshell:

“Your help is needed today and here’s why”

Will raise more than…

“Our programs are making a difference – please give to help continue this good work.”

I know it might feel weird. But it works.

And remember, I’m talking about direct response fundraising here. That’s your letters, your newsletters, your emails. I’m not talking about grant proposals or conversations with Foundations. This idea can be helpful in those contexts, too, but it’s not as necessary for success.

Good Reasons to Give Now

Here’s a list of “reasons” that are proven to increase the chances that your donor will respond to your direct response fundraising:

  • Any “multiplier” (like a matching grant)
  • Any beneficiary that faces a need right now (this can be starting to be helped by your organization, or the next step in their process with you)
  • A deadline
  • A budget shortfall
  • Any acute need like “14 new people will enter our shelter this month” or “There are 35 people on our waiting list”
    It’s a learned behavior to begin to focus your fundraising on “reasons to give a gift today” instead of focusing your fundraising on your organization, your programs, your successes, etc.

To help you make the transition to this new way of thinking, here’s some evidence that this works from last week’s GivingTuesday.

I’ve been helping an organization add “reasons to give today” to all their fundraising. Here’s the report I received for how GivingTuesday went: “The team and I have really been trying to focus on the reasons to give NOW. Wonder where I learned that? We smashed through the goal, so I’m thrilled!”

For your next piece of fundraising – maybe your year-end emails?! – be sure to include reasons to give today. You’ll raise more money!

Do NOT Start Your E-Appeals with a Thank You

Thank donors.

We ran a test that you should know about.

We randomly divided a nonprofit’s email file into two groups. We sent both groups the same year-end email with just one difference: the first sentence of one group’s email thanked the donor for their previous support.

The version that began with the Thank You raised significantly less money.

The Lesson: don’t start your appeals or e-appeals by thanking your donor for their previous giving

It seems like the right thing to do – but it raises less money.

So we now have a policy: do not start appeals or e-appeals with a Thank You for the donor’s previous giving.

My Attempt to Explain the Results

Always remember that most donors don’t read the whole thing.

Remember the “heat map”? The eye-tracking studies that prove most donors jump around, don’t read things from top-to-bottom, and certainly don’t read the whole thing?

Here’s my explanation: a number of your donors will read the first line of your emails. And if that line is Thanking them for their previous giving, they appreciate being thanked and then delete your message because they think nothing is being asked of them.

Another thing to remember: at year-end, your donors are moving even faster than normal. They have parties to go to, presents to wrap, etc.

And if a significant amount of your donors stop reading after the first sentence, you are going to raise less money.

So for your December and year-end fundraising emails this year, don’t succumb to the temptation of Thanking your donors right off the bat. It feels like it’s the right thing to do. But you’ll raise less money!

TOP 10 list of design mistakes I see in direct response over and over again

John Lepp is a fundraiser you should pay attention to. And he has a blog you should subscribe to.

His bio says he’s a long-time marketer, designer, and ranter. All those things are true.

John gets righteously fired up about the design of your fundraising. And here’s a fantastic guest post from him on the design mistakes we all make (I’m guilty of #3).

I’m proud to point out that I’ve been a student of direct response and direct marketing for more than 20 years. That’s a lot of ideas, testing, concepts, tactics, tricks, tips, nerd knowledge, and history packed into this tiny brain of mine.

As a designer and communicator, I understand my job is to make sure something gets:
– seen
– understood
– acted upon
– results

My job isn’t to make something pretty. My job is to make sure something works. That’s what a designer does.

I go through my mother-in-law’s (your donor) mail quite regularly and see the same “design” errors over and over again. And knowing how much we all love a SOLID TOP 10 list, here’s my TOP 10 list of design mistakes I see in direct response over and over again.

1. Too much clutter in pursuit of “interesting” design
Through the years, I’ve heard that my design solution is too boring, too plain, or too simple. I’ve been told to make it more interesting, to SEXIFY it, to add, you know, something to make it “STAND OUT” – mostly uttered by people who have no idea what good and effective design is.

I see a lot of mail that is WAY over-designed.

In testing, I’ve seen over and over that, a simple, larger envelope with just a logo and return address will beat almost ANYTHING else.

A letter that looks like a personal letter from you to me is far more effective and gets better results.

At the end of the day, THE BEST, THE MOST EFFECTIVE direct response looks like a personal piece of communication from you to me.

Leave the Starbursts to the candy manufacturer.

2. A total lack of understanding of what makes an effective tagline or image on your outer envelope
A great and effective tagline can be one or maybe a couple of different things. It should provoke the donor to take action (hopefully by opening the envelope, obviously). It can ask a provocative question, it can make the pack seem mysterious, it can be the phrase from a commonly known song, or it can tell the donor that there’s something unique inside just for them.

Tagline writing is an art form. Even the absolute best direct response folks know at the end of the day it had better be perfect, or you might be better off sending an envelope without one altogether (to my point above).

Using a perfect image can instantly stop your donor in their tracks and get them to consider and open your pack. Images with great eye contact and large enough to be seen from a distance are a great starting point.

Abstract images or photos with a hundred people in them printed at 1.5”x 1.5” are not great starting points.

3. Using a white #10 envelope
As I’ve already covered, in testing, almost ANYTHING other than a white #10 envelope will win in testing. Why? Because 75-90% of the mail your donor gets arrives in a white #10 envelope. No rocket science needed here, folks. Just the knowledge that there are visual things you can do to stand out from the crowd.

4. Direct response that looks too design-y or computer manufactured
The best design tool I ever held in my hand was an HP Pencil. Sharpened and ready for action. The pencil, like my hand, are imperfect. The smudges, the changes in character size, the squiggles, the changes in density all tell you that a human wrote or created this thing.

When you go to your mailbox at the end of the day – what do you look at first?

Everything in our world is perfect. Everything lines up, everything looks good, and everything is glossy. These days, the more your work isn’t that, the more noticeable it is.

Designers who don’t know what they’re doing go out of their way to make everything look perfect, but that doesn’t equate into effective.

5. Using tiny, left-justified, sans serif type
In your letters, newsletters, magazines, and brochures!

But hey! At least it adheres to your soul-destroying graphic standards produced by a commercial design study that wouldn’t know a donor even if they walked up and asked to give you some money to make it all go away.

Look around. Almost everyone over the age of 40 has some type of visual impairment. There is a reason why there’s a large print version of Readers Digest.

Not a single direct mail letter we send out is printed at anything less than a 14-point indented serif font. Our donors thank us by reading it and responding to it.

Ask your designer what their favorite typeface is. If they respond: COURIER – hire them. They likely know what they’re doing. (If you don’t know why this is the correct answer, just ask me.)

6. Reversed out type
Sure it looks pretty. But as you’ve figured out by now, a lot of donors find reversed out type extremely difficult to read. JUST DON’T DO IT. All type should be 100% black on 100% white, which will result in 100% readability.

7. A total lack of understanding on how donors are reading your letter
Ask your designer who Siegfried Vögele is. I’ll wait…

Ok, there’s this book called the Handbook of Direct Mail (I’ll make you a deal on my copy), written by a fellow named Siegfried Vögele back in 1984. In German. But there are English versions! I haven’t read it cover to cover, but I’ve read enough to understand the concept of eye movement.

The Coles Notes version of this is, your donor looks at their name and address at the top, their eye falls down and to the right as they scan the letter, turn it over, and read the P.S.

Some donors, right then, decide to give or not to give.

So let your ‘P.S.’ hating Executive Director know why you need one that clearly states what you’re asking your donor for.

Then, you have the skimmers.

They look at their name and address, and as their eyes fall down and to the right, they linger on things that arrest the eyes. Emphasis of any kind. Bolding, underlining, hand-drawn stars, larger type, etc.

I always ensure that if this is all that the donor reads, they will know what I’m asking them for and that I recognize them for being someone who does good things (in other words, anywhere the magical “YOU” is utilized.).

The first rule of design is: READ THE LETTER FIRST! Everything should be designed around that.

8. Using those crappy little boxes on the donor reply form for credit card numbers
When you consider that close to 40% of people have arthritis, (higher the older you go up), forcing donors to somehow squiggle their handwriting into those tiny little boxes on their reply is almost downright cruelty.

You’re literally hurting your donors.

And a lot just won’t bother. So you won’t get the gift.

Those little boxes sure look neat and tidy, but they are a visual and physical hell to certain donors.

Hey, the more you know…

So – nicely tell your designers – just a simple line with about 0.5” space at least above it will be great, thanks.

9. A total lack of understanding of good typography principles and practices
When I first started, I worked with this amazing English art director named Richard. With a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, he would snatch the loupe out of my hand and implore and show me how I needed to get right up close to the type to UNDERSTAND IT! Look at the characteristics, the nuances, the swoops, and empty spaces. Is it angry or hopeful? Is it showing off and chest-thumping or understated and shy? Female or male or something else altogether? How much leading (no, not ‘letting’) does it properly need? How and why do you baseline type? What types of face go together? What makes a font a classic?

I see appeals that use six different sorts of typefaces, even on the outer envelope. I see random bolding, underlining, or switches in face that make absolutely zero sense.

What I see are designers who are eagerly trying to “design” but obviously have no idea (back to point 5) why “Courier,” to most really good direct response designers, is easily the MOST beautiful font in the world. (Again, if you’re still scratching your head, just holler.)
And lastly,

10. Random formatting, placement of design elements, boxes, circles, swooshes, and blobs
Yes, I know who you are.

And yes, I know why you’re doing it.

I think we overcomplicate things when we actually don’t really know what we are doing. This doesn’t go just for design – I see it over and over again in our sector.

The more we over-design (or overcomplicate) something, it only does one thing – it decreases the likelihood of someone taking the action you want them to take because it’s just too much.

Every single design element you or your designer add to something must be very carefully considered. Will adding it increase the response rate or decrease it?

If the answer is “I don’t know” – then either test it or leave it.

And if your designer really knows their stuff, they will know. Or just ask me.

May I Have Your Attention, Please?

Attention

Adding emphasis in your fundraising letters is very important.

No donor wants to read a giant block of text. Too much text too close together is far from compelling. It’s difficult for older eyes to look at.

All the great things you’re trying to tell them get lost.

A much better practice is to emphasize the text that you want them to read.

If you bold, underline, circle, or highlight the right words and phrases in your letters, and do it in the right places, you’ll raise more money.

Let’s think about why…

We know that when a donor receives your fundraising letter, they’re most likely to skim their eyes over the page. This is where it’s important to realize that you will read the letter differently than most donors will. You’ll read it word for word, from top to bottom. But donors will skip around as they read.

And you have to design your letter for the way donors read, not for the way you read.

First, remember that your donors are busy. So as they scan your letter, they’ll generally start at the top left (to make sure the letter is addressed to them), and then move down the page, stopping ever so briefly at certain points.

It’s these “certain points” that you need to emphasize by using techniques like bolding and underlining. Think of it as telling a story within a story. A great way to test this in your next fundraising letter is to ask yourself… if my donor reads nothing but the bold and underlined text:

Do they know what the problem is?
Do they know how they can solve it?
Do they know what they’re being asked to do?

Like most styles of writing, underlining text shows that it is important. We all did this when we were at school, right? My textbooks were always filled with highlighted words. It told me to stop and pay attention. The same is true for your donor.

For example, you should consider underlining the copy telling the donor what the problem is. What is the real need? Is it that a family is sleeping in their car tonight? Is an animal being abused or neglected?

Then go ahead and underline, or even bold the copy that shows the donor how their gift is going to solve the problem. This is generally the offer in your letter. Give a homeless family a night of shelter for $49. Rescue a frightened, abused animal for $19.

Lastly, you should also think about adding a bold or underline treatment to your call to action and deadline (the date you want the donor to respond).

Emphasizing the right text by using techniques like underlining and bold will pull your donors in. It will get their attention and get them reading. And if you can do that, then you’ll increase your chance of receiving a donation.

How to Repeat Yourself (because you’ll raise more money) and NOT sound like a glitchy robot

Reuse heart.

Today we have an appeal letter from a small organization that shows how to repeat the main message – and do so without sounding repetitive.

I’m highlighting this because the main pushback I receive when teaching nonprofits that their fundraising should be “more repetitive” goes something like, “We can’t do that; we will sound ridiculous.”

Here’s a simple rule for how you can be repetitive but not sound ridiculous: each time you repeat what your donor’s gift will do, add another reason to give today.

The letter below – written by a non-professional with our coaching – does a great job of it. Let’s take a look… (click the image to see a larger version in PDF format)Direct Mailing Campaign.

I want you to notice two things. First, look at how many times the main message of “you can feed one person for $12.50 a month” is repeated. I count five places in the letter itself, one in the headline of the reply card, and one in each of the gift ask amounts.

Then notice how the idea is repeated, but the phrasing is a little different almost every time, to keep it interesting. That’s the secret!

The Same, But Different

Let’s break down each mention to see how they say the same thing – but with different emphasis and different spicing:

  1. In the large copy at the top of the page: “See how YOU can feed one person for $12.50 a month!” That lets the donor know, clearly and immediately, what their gift today will do.
  2. 5th paragraph: “Your generous donation of $12.50 will help begin the Thompson’s journey back to financial stability and security with one box of food.” That adds a reason to give: the donor’s gift provides a whole box of food, and that one box starts the beneficiary’s journey. That’s a great deal for $12.50!
  3. Blue call-out copy: “What I got was so much more than a box of food.” That helps the donor know that the organization does so much more than just provide a box of food.
  4. 9th paragraph (in blue): “Your generous donation of $12.50 by July 15th will provide one person with 4 boxes of food this month.” The donor hears two more reasons to give here: that their gift provides not just one, but four boxes of food, and that there is a deadline by which they need to respond.
  5. In the P.S.: “Just $12.50 provides 4 boxes of food to someone in your community who just needs a helping hand to get back on their feet!” This reinforces what the donor’s gift will do, and frames it as a way to “give a helping hand to help a person get back on their feet again.”

What the donor’s gift will do is clearly described in the beginning of the letter. Then each subsequent time it is repeated, another reason to give today is added.

>>>  What could have felt repetitive instead feels really helpful to a donor.  <<<

This is a perfect example of a principle we teach all the time: your fundraising will be more successful if you go deep on one specific part of what your organization does (in this case the power of a box of food) instead of listing all of the things your organization does.

From the Donor’s Point of View

Here’s the thing: to your donor, a letter like this feels like your organization is focused. To your donor, this feels like you are showing her exactly what she can do to have the largest, most powerful impact.

To your donor, that’s really attractive.

Sure, it might still feel a bit repetitive to you. It might even feel a skosh repetitive to a donor who reads the whole thing – but remember that most donors won’t read the whole thing!

Can We Help You?

Want to learn how to think and write like this – and start raising more money with your next appeal or email? Because you don’t have to be a professional writer to raise lots of money. Get in touch!

The Two Reasons Effective Fundraising Writing is Repetitive

Short post today.

A little brevity seemed in order after posting mini-manifestos on how to save time and raise more by “repeating” and a list of what to repeat and even on follow-up mailings.

So. There are two reasons effective fundraising writing is so repetitive:

#1 – The more people read and hear something, the more likely they are to think it’s true and important.

So when you repeat words/phrases/ideas like “your help is needed today” and “your gift made a big difference” in your fundraising, your donor is more likely to believe them. And then she’s more likely to take action.

Here’s the science:

Repeated statements are perceived as more valid than novel ones, termed the illusion of truth effect, presumably because repetition imbues the statement with familiarity. In 3 studies … participants with low or high motivation to process information were presented persuasive arguments seen once or twice. In all 3 studies, repetition increased the persuasiveness of weak and strong arguments when little processing of message content occurred.

— From the Abstract to “The impact of repetition-induced familiarity on agreement with weak and strong arguments.” By Moons WG, Mackie DM, and Garcia-Marques T.

#2 — Most people don’t read the whole thing.

Most donors quickly scan your letter or email; they don’t read all of it.

So the savvy fundraising writers and creators make their fundraising more repetitive to increase the chance that your scanning donor sees it.

Take a look at this heatmap of a direct mail letter. The green shows the locations that the readers spent time on:

Heat map.
Now does it make sense that pro writers repeat the main message at the beginnings and ends of their letters and emails?

And does it make sense that the classic nonprofit letter – a letter that buries the Ask about 2/3 of the way through the letter – doesn’t work as well? Many of your donors never even see it!

Taking My Own Medicine

I’ve been writing about the power of “repeating” and being repetitive all month.

It’s beginning to feel repetitive…

But I’m taking my own medicine. I know that when something feels repetitive to me, that means it’s just starting to get through to my readers.

That’s the same advice I give to nonprofits every week: “I know it feels repetitive to you, and that means it’s getting through to your donors. Because it’s your donors’ reaction to your fundraising that matters most, not yours!”

Please do read our posts this month on “repeating.” Especially if you’re with a small- to medium-sized nonprofit. It’s not sexy, but the idea of repeating your best content, repeating your best tactics, and repeating your best messages is a powerful key to raising more money!