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.

Mistakes in Fundraising that Work Out Well


Cross posted at

What do you think when you see this direct mail fundraising envelope?


A mistake? The handwriting goes across the window… that can’t be on purpose, can it?

Turns out, this was a mistake.  A miscommunication between the designer and the printer.

Big problem?

Nope.  It worked great.

It’s the kind of “mistake” that usually improves fundraising.  An odd, out-of-place, not-the-done-thing that grabs your eye and makes you cringe.

More often than not, this kind of mistake works for you, not against you.

I was once involved in a direct mail piece that included a bounce back paper placemat. Donors were asked to sign the placemat and return it with their donation.  The placemat would be put on the table at a meal the donation helped fund.  It’s a good (and proven) way to increase response to meal-focused offers.

But here’s the error: on the reply coupon, there was a quick reminder about the placemat.  Despite many layers of quality proofreading, the printed final that went to out donors said:

Please sign the enclosed placenta and return it with your donation.

Are you cringing?

Whether you are or not, the piece broke records for response. A few donors wrote to point out the bizarre error – mostly along with their donation.

Why did this mistake seemingly boost response?

Our theory: Errors grab attention. And someone who’s paying attention is likely to read for a few more seconds, and therefore a lot more likely to donate.

So when an error happens, it may not be a problem.  It might even be great!  So great you’d consider making a mistake on purpose.

“What should we avoid in our fundraising?”


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!

Weeds In The Garden (Or, “How I learned to stop worrying and love off-target fundraising”)

Weeds In The Garden (Or, “How I learned to stop worrying and love off-target fundraising”)

Almost no piece of fundraising anyone sends out is ever perfect.

As a Fundraiser, you have to get used to having a few “weeds in your garden.”

Weeds In The Garden

That’s what we call them around here. The little things that creep into fundraising because you’re in a hurry. Or because your approval process is a committee. Or because your ED loves a certain phrase.

They happen to me. They happen to you. They happen to everyone.

But they are just weeds. They don’t destroy the beauty of a garden. You have to pay attention to them, of course. But they are just weeds.

Here are a couple quick examples:

  • The on-point email with the prominent link to an Instagram feed that has no posts that have anything to do with what the email is about.
  • The brochure or letter with the first sentence that states the year the organization was founded. (Really? We only have people’s attention for a few seconds and how long we’ve been incorporated is the first thing we’re going to share?)
  • The letter that’s written in clear, easy-to-read prose with the exception of the one sentence that’s 109 words long with 4 clauses that no one besides the writer’s mom will read.

Here’s the Big Idea I want to share…

Weeds Do Not Doom Fundraising!

I’m writing you today to let you know not to stress too much about weeds.

If you’re writing to your donors about something they care about, a couple of weeds don’t make a measurable difference.

If most of your letter is easy to read, don’t worry about the long paragraph put in there by a Program person.

If your event is mostly about the problem you’re trying to solve, and how the donor’s gift tonight will solve it, you’re fine if some Board Member with 5 minutes to talk drones on for 10 minutes about their childhood.

If you get the main stuff right, you’ll do fine. Do the best you can at having a strong offer. Get to the point quickly. Be repetitive.

But know that donors are overwhelmingly generous. Know that they LOVE giving gifts to your organization.

Want to know why?

Because It’s About HER Garden, Not Yours

Why don’t donors care much about weeds in the fundraising materials you and I make?

Because our donors don’t care that much about OUR gardens. They care about THEIR OWN gardens.

If we write to her about what she cares about, she’ll read our emails and letters. She’ll come to our events. Because every gift she gives you is a rose in her garden. It’s something she’ll celebrate. And every time she hears from you with news about something they helped accomplish, she’ll feel better about your organization and about herself.

This, by the way, is why so many donors still respond to off-target, overly-educated, organizational-centric fundraising. They see through all the poor writing and jargon to the thing they care about. The generosity of donors never ceases to amaze me.

Ultimately, it’s ok that all of us Fundraisers have weeds in our gardens. Because our donors know that life is messy. It’s imperfect.

But if we consistently write to our donors about what our donors care about, weeds don’t matter. They’ll keep us around. Because our fundraising success is much less about how we present what we do, and much more about how good we are at helping donors see that a gift helps her do what she wants to do.