The Trend in Fundraising I’m Worried About


I saw a lot of fundraising at year-end.

Halfway through December I began to notice a trend:

Almost none of the year-end fundraising mentioned that any help was needed.

Specifically, I noticed two things:

  • The fundraising did not mention that the organization needed any help. It sounded like the organizations were helping everybody they came across and that everything was going great.
  • The fundraising did not mention that the beneficiaries or cause needed any help. It sounded like everyone was being helped and all the problems had been solved.

I don’t know if that’s a big trend. It’s just what I saw in the fundraising I received from organizations that my wife and I donate to that I’m not connected to.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing direct response fundraising for so long. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched so many organizations start raising more money immediately when they start saying that they need help. Maybe it’s because in all the testing I’ve done or been a part of, “sharing a need that the donor can help meet” is clearly one of the biggest keys to success.

But it just seems deeply weird that, during the biggest season of giving, all these nonprofits are communicating to their donors that everything is going great.

During the time of year when more people are going to read an organization’s fundraising than any other time, the donors are told that everything is going great. It’s implied that the donor’s help isn’t really needed today.

Talk about a missed opportunity!

So, if your organization’s year-end fundraising didn’t raise as much as you would have liked, review your appeals/emails/major donor asks. Check to see if:

  • Your fundraising told the donor that their help is needed?
  • Your fundraising told the donor that your beneficiaries or cause need help?

If neither of those two ideas are present in your year-end fundraising, add them in next year and you’ll raise more money.

And if you want to raise more money all year long, add them any time you’re Asking for support.

Ask Before a Need (not after)

The early bird gets the worm

The the third idea I use to help organizations create fundraising plans that raise more money is this:

Ask before a Need.

(You can find the first two ideas here and here.)

Put another way, you’ll raise more money if you appeal for funds right before your donors understand you have a need for funds.

To illustrate the principle, think of the classic “Back To School” appeal in the Education sector. Schools and Education Foundations routinely send “Back To School” appeals in September, after the students have already gone back to school.

We’ve helped maybe fifty schools and Education Foundations raise more money (with basically the same letters and emails!) simply by moving their Back To School appeals from September to late July or August.

Just by making the ask before a need, rather than after, they raise significantly more money. Usually between 1.5x and 2x more.

Here’s why “asking before a need” works so well. When an organization asks donors to help after you’re already helping your beneficiaries, you’re just asking donors to fund work you’re already doing. That’s not particularly exciting to donors.

When an organization asks donors to help before the Need arrives, you’re asking donors to play a powerful role in meeting the need right as it happens. That’s exciting to donors.

Specific Timing

So, if your beneficiaries or your organization experience a Need, schedule your Asks (appeals, e-appeals) before the Need.

In general, send your appeal letter about 6 weeks before the Need begins. If you’re running an email campaign, start it about 2 weeks before the Need begins. If you’re only doing a couple of emails, start them 2 or 3 days before the Need begins.

If you want to have the largest impact, do all three:

  • Direct mail about 6 weeks before the Need begins
  • An email campaign starting about 2 weeks before the Need begins
  • Multiple emails in the 2 or 3 days before the Need begins

Next Year

As you plan your year, here’s what I want you to do:

  1. Identify the “Needs” faced by your beneficiaries
  2. Schedule your Asks before those needs
  3. Ask your donor to send in a gift to help meet the need

This simple shift will help you raise more money with the exact same number of communications you sent the year before.

Before’s & After’s


Our last post was about how the distance between the “before” and the “after” shows the donor the power of their gift.

Speaking of this, I’ve noticed that there are four different ways organizations tend to handle “before’s and after’s,” and each results in different fundraising results…

Only the “Before”

Organizations that share only the “before” – the need that exists in the world before your organization has helped – will raise a lot of money in the short term.

But these organizations have troubles keeping their donors, because their donors never see or feel what their gift accomplished.

This short-term success can be extended to medium-term and even long-term IF the organization has a fantastic donor acquisition program and works on an issue with broad appeal. But it’s not a good strategy for smaller organizations – and I don’t think it’s particularly honoring to beneficiaries or donors.

Only the “After”

If organizations only share the “after” – the positive state after the organization has done its work – the organization will raise less money than it could be raising.

Some donors are motivated just by hearing the “after.” But a lot more donors are motivated by hearing the “before” and the “after.” When the “before” is never shared, a significant percentage of people don’t give, or give less.

A secondary consequence of only sharing the “after” is that organizations accidentally hide the need faced by their beneficiaries.

No “Before” and No “After”

If you share no “before” and no “after,” you also raise less money. This happens when a nonprofit tells donors that the work is happening now, that the work will continue, and asks the donor to “continue to” support the work. There’s no “before.” There’s no “after.”

These organizations accidentally communicate to donors that no change happens when the donor gives – so why should the donor give?

I hope it’s obvious that “why should the donor give?” is a rhetorical question, because the nonprofit is presumably doing good work. This post makes the case for why asking a donor to “continue to” support an organization’s work is one of the least compelling ways to ask for support.

“Before” AND “After”

The organizations where we’ve seen the greatest fundraising success share both the before and the after. They share the bad news and the good news.

When Asking in appeals and e-appeals, they share what’s happening now (the “before”) and what will happen if the donor gives a gift (the “after”).

When Reporting in newsletters, they share what was happening (the “before”) and what’s happening now (the “after”).

The constant contrasting of the “before” and “after” helps a donor see how big an impact their gift to your organization can make, or has made in the past. This is the best strategy, and it provides a strengthening blend of short-term and long-term success.

This strategy honors beneficiaries because it creates awareness of the current situation and of the hopeful future that’s possible. It honors donors by showing them the impact of their generosity.

Creating Tension or Revealing Tension?


I was speaking with a founder of a nonprofit recently, and she said something that was so good I knew I had to share it with you…

We were talking about sharing the needs of beneficiaries in appeals and e-appeals. I shared that we believed in sharing those needs, even though sometimes doing so made donors uncomfortable. Her reply was fantastic:

She knew those stories sometime caused tension in donors, she said.

Then she continued…

“When we nonprofits tell a story that shares the needs of a beneficiary, we don’t create the tension that the donor feels. The story just reveals the internal tension the donor holds between how the world is and how they believe the world should be.”

I love that! It jives with how I’ve always felt: great-performing appeals remind a donor that “something’s not right in the world, but it could be if you help.”

And it hints at why sharing the need is so effective in appeals and e-appeals: it taps into something the donor already knows and feels.

No education is needed. No programs or processes need to be discussed.

It’s like a shortcut to the donor’s heart. To what she cares about most.

Your donors want to make the world a better place. So share “stories of need” in your appeals and newsletters. (Save your “stories of triumph” for your newsletters and other Reporting tactics.)

Use a story to remind your busy donors that the problem your organization is addressing is affecting people right now, today. And that their gift will make a meaningful difference.

When you do, more donors will exercise their values by giving a gift through your organization.

And later – in separate communications – be sure to remind your donors of the good that their gift and your organization has done. Because if you’re going to reveal the tension, you should also reveal the triumph.

Organizations that only do one or the other aren’t raising as much money and doing as much good as they could be.

How Wildly Successful Appeals Work

wildly successful

This is not a “quick tip.”

But if you’re the type of person who really thinks about your fundraising – what the purpose of each piece is, what makes some approaches work better than others – keep reading…

Because I have a helpful way for you to think about your appeals and e-appeals. And by “helpful” I mean “will help you raise more money with your next one.”

Our “Conceptual Model” for Appeals

Here it is…

  • The purpose of the Appeal is to deliver the Offer.

  • The purpose of the Offer is to illustrate what the donor’s gift will do to meet the Need

  • The purpose of the Need is to help your donor want to do something today

  • The purpose of the Story in your appeal is to illustrate the Need

If you follow that formula, you’ll give yourself your best chance of success.

If you need a refresher on what makes a successful Offer and how to create them for your organization, download our free eBook on Offers here.

Here’s a bit about each step…

The Purpose of the Appeal

The purpose of your appeal letter or e-appeal is to deliver your offer.

There’s a consequence of this approach that is both helpful and hard: you need to remove everything from your appeals that doesn’t help deliver the offer.

Should you mention your upcoming event? Nope. Should you include links to your social accounts? Nope. Should you “tell donors more about what we do”? Nope.

Just deliver your offer.

The Purpose of Your Offer

The purpose of the Offer is to illustrate what the donor’s gift will do to meet the Need.

An easy way to describe “offers” is that they are the promise an appeal makes for what will happen when the donor gives a gift.

“Please support our community theater” is an offer. So is, “Give a gift today to join us in the battle against cancer.” As well as, “$56 provides a night of safety for a family experiencing homelessness.”

When reading your appeals, donors are always asking themselves, “What will my gift do?”

Your offer is the answer.

The Purpose of the Need

The purpose of the Need is to help your donor want to do something today.

We see something again and again: when organizations share Needs with their donors in their appeals and e-appeals, they raise more money.

And conversely, when organizations do not share Needs in their appeals – usually sharing only successes and offering the donors the chance to “continue this amazing work” or “support our ongoing programs” – they raise less money.

In a nutshell, most donors don’t often think about the Needs your organization works on. They don’t remember that someone is hurting right now. They often need to be reminded.

And when they’re reminded, they give more often and give higher amounts.

The Purpose of the Story

The purpose of the Story in your appeal is to illustrate the Need.

We tell stories of individual people (when possible) in appeals because they illustrate the Need to donors far more effectively than dry statistics and large numbers.

But perhaps more importantly, stories are used because they’re more likely to touch a donor’s heart. Because when you’ve touched a donor’s heart, you’re already three quarters of the way to them making a gift. All you need then is a great offer to turn your donor’s intention into action.

Now What?

I realize this is conceptual.

But what I want you to realize is that this model is powerful and effective.

It works again and again and again. It’s the “default setting” for every appeal we consult on, write, and review.

And it makes creating appeals a LOT easier. You don’t have to come up with a new approach each time. You have a model that works, and you simply “paint by numbers” for each appeal.

My advice to you: try it. And if you’ve already tried it, try it again but work to do it even better. Make sure the Story perfectly illustrates the Need, and that the Need is perfectly met by the Offer.

You (and your organization) can learn to create appeals like this. You’ll love how much money comes in and how much more engaged your donors are!

What would you rather?


I want you to remove your fundraiser hat for a moment, and put on your donor hat.

Okay. Now, I want to ask you a question. Would you rather:

  • Give to help an organization continue its work?

  • OR

  • Give to solve a compelling, immediate problem?

This question sits at the heart of why some organizations raise more money than others.

You see, organizations that regularly see poor fundraising results tend to make the same mistakes when speaking to their donors. They tell fundraising stories of people who have already been helped, and/or ask they donors to help the organization do more good work.

This kind of messaging in your appeals will consistently raise you less money because your donor isn’t solving an immediate problem – and the donor isn’t the hero of the story.

Conversely, organizations that consistently tell fundraising stories of acute, current needs will raise more money.

If you ask a donor to meet an urgent need, she is more likely to stop what she’s doing and make a gift.

Here are two quick examples. With your donor hat still on, would you rather give to this:

  • “Emma was hungry and alone when she arrived at our homeless shelter. We gave her a warm meal, and a bed, and she is now feeling better and getting back on her feet. Will you help us support more people like Emma?”

See how Emma’s problem is already solved? See how the donor doesn’t have a role to play other than helping the organization do more work?

Or, would you rather give to this:

  • “I have an urgent need to share with you. Emma just arrived at our homeless shelter. She is hungry, and she’s been sleeping on the streets. Please send a gift of $35 and give a woman like Emma a warm meal and a safe place to stay.”

See how there is a clear need to be met? And how there’s a specific way the donor’s gift will help?

In your appeals and e-appeals, make sure to give your donors an important, impactful role to play. When a donor gives, she’ll feel like a hero.

And when you make her feel like a hero, she’s more likely to give to you again in the future.

Now you’ve got the Holy Grail of fundraising: donors who love giving to you now (so you raise more money now) and donors who are more likely to continue giving to you in the future (so you raise even more money over time)!

The Lesson from a Nonprofit that Shut its Doors

out of business

A nonprofit I’ve supported off and on for a few years just went under.

My heart goes out to the staff and to the people they serve.

I’m sharing this with you because what they did over the last couple of months is an object lesson in how to fail.

The Lesson For You

Don’t hide your needs.

If you have a need right now, please share it with your donors.

Seriously, if you have a big need and haven’t put it in front of your donors, stop reading this and go write an e-appeal.

Let your donors decide whether to meet that need or not. Don’t take the decision out of their hands.

What the (Former) Organization Did

They hid the need.

I looked back at all the emails I received from them over the past two months.

In the two months before they went under, their fundraising shared nothing but success stories.

Which, unsurprisingly, made me think that nothing was wrong.

How was I supposed to know that my help was urgently needed?

How were donors supposed to know that they could play a meaningful part in helping the organization survive?

Courage & Vulnerability

This organization did not have the courage to share the real situation with their donors.

This organization did not have the vulnerability to really tell donors what was going on and ask their donors to help.

To the end, the organization wanted to keep their fundraising completely positive. They did. And they ended.

So to you I say…

Be Courageous and Vulnerable.

Be courageous and communicate with your donors more during the next few months, not less.

Be vulnerable and share the needs your organization and your beneficiaries are facing, then ask donors to meet those needs with a gift today.

Since receiving this news, I’ve had meetings with two organizations we’re working with. The smaller organization has raised twice as much money thus far this year as they normally do.

The larger organization is ahead of where they were last year, and was up 30% in April.

Just trying to make my final point for today:

Donors will do their part to help the charities, causes and beneficiary groups that they love.

If we let them know that help is needed, that is.