The One Exception

Be the exception.

Last week I wrote about “Ask Culture versus Guess Culture” in major gifts fundraising, and how Ask Culture results in raising more money and keeping more of your donors.

But after hitting publish I remembered something…

I know of one major gifts program that never asks donors to give but raises tons of money and has a high major donor retention rate.

Here’s how that program does it:

  • Every single conversation and communication contains a clear reminder of “the need” that the organization exists to serve.
    • The only exception is when a donor is being Thanked for a gift they just made.  Those calls / handwritten notes / receipt letters are full of thankfulness. 
  • The organization absolutely “reports back” to donors on successes…
  • And they always mention what they think is needed next: from “serve the people who will need help next month” to “serve the people they haven’t reached yet” or “expand the successful program” or “start a new program.”

In a nutshell, the organization is so focused on “the situation” they exist to serve that they can’t help but mention that situation and the people they haven’t been able to help yet.

The consequence is the following three things are always being reinforced:

  1. The need exists right now, today
  2. What the organization would like to do about it next
  3. That funding for “what’s next” is needed

(By the way, notice the contrast between that approach and the standard approach that focuses almost entirely on people they’ve already helped / things they’ve already done, and how they are helping today.) 

To me, there’s something very pure about this organization’s approach to major donors.  They do the “relational” parts of fundraising very well: they thank donors with real gratitude, they report back on progress made.  They are personal and build strong relationships with donors…   

But the organization always makes sure their donors are aware of the need for their work.  They don’t make the foundational mistake of believing that making donors aware of their work will inspire significant giving.

This approach isn’t for everybody – in my experience it takes incredible emotional strength to be thinking about & sharing the need so constantly.

But this case shows that donors can handle it.  And that you can succeed in major gifts fundraising without asking often or directly.  But only if you have made the need abundantly clear and that funding is needed to meet it.

Good News and Bad News, Part II

Yin Yang.

Part I was about our belief that nonprofits are called to share the whole situation – the good news caused by their work and the bad news that causes their work to be needed.

But that’s a complex story. And do you think that today’s individual donors – who have shorter attention spans and are bombarded by more messages and information than any time in human history – are going to read and think about your complex story?

No. At least not many.

So here’s the fundraising maxim we live by:

When you only have a few moments of a person’s attention, focus your message on either the good news or the bad news.

Here’s how this works in practice:

  • You put the “bad news” in your appeals and e-appeals. These are your Asks.
  • You put the good news in your Thanks. These are your Thank You/Receipt letters and email receipts.
  • You put more good news in your Reports. These are your Newsletters.

This provides a series of messages that are easy to understand by individual donors who are moving fast. This communicates both the good news and the bad news about what’s going on, rather than hiding the news in communication pieces that attempt to tell the whole story every time.

It will also raise you more money, if the results of our customers are any indication.

And when you have more time with a donor – say at an event, or a coffee with a donor, or a grant application – then you can tell the whole complex story, sharing both the good news and the need for your work.

But in the meantime, focus each message to individual donors on either good news or bad news. By narrowing the focus, more of your message will make it through to donors, and to the world.

Good News and Bad News, Part I

Yin Yang.

If a nonprofit isn’t sharing the good news caused by their work, the nonprofit is hiding something and isn’t doing all of its job.

And equally true, if a nonprofit isn’t sharing the bad news that causes their work to be needed, the nonprofit is hiding something and isn’t doing all of its job.

You can see both types of nonprofits today. Look around and you’ll see organizations that only use the doom-and-gloom sky-is-always-falling approach that diminishes the progress being made. And you can see organizations that focus completely on success and diminish the situation that causes their work to be needed.

It’s our belief that nonprofits are called to share the whole situation. If only one kind of news is shared, a nonprofit is not giving donors a true picture. Their fundraising becomes just as polarized as a news media outlet that only shares one side of the story.

This is why our fundraising system is built on Ask, Thank, Report. When you Ask donors for support, you share the bad news that causes the work of the nonprofit to be needed. When you Thank, you share the good news that will happen because of their gift and your work. And when you Report back to donors, you share the triumphs and amazing changes that happened.

It’s yin and yang. It’s the good and the bad. It’s the full picture. It has to be a mix of good news and bad news in order to be true.

Be careful with the phrase, ‘You can help a person like…’


It’s a classic fundraising move.

The appeal letter or email tells a story about a person that your organization has already helped. Let’s call her Catherine. At the end of the story, thanks to your organization’s work, Catherine is doing great.

Then the very next paragraph says, “You can help a person like Catherine today with a gift!”

Whenever I see that I wonder to myself…

“Why did they ask me to help a person ‘like Catherine’? Catherine does not need my help! The whole emphasis of the story is that she’s been helped and is doing great – so if the person is ‘like Catherine’ then they don’t need my help!

It doesn’t make sense to ask the donor to help a person who has already been helped… right?!?

Now, you and I both know what’s going on here. The organization is using the phrase “help a person like Catherine” to mean something like, “help a person who today needs the same type of help that Catherine received.”

But here’s the problem. By not clearly saying what they mean, the letter is a) a little harder to understand, and b) hiding the need.

If I’ve learned anything in my fundraising writing career (30 years as of last month!) it’s that clearly saying what you mean will raise more money than kind of hinting at it and hoping that donors will get it. And I’ve learned that saying that “there are people who need help today” will help you raise more money (and help more people) than accidentally hiding the need.

So, I replace “help a person like…” with sentences like

  • “…help a person who is in the same situation today that Catherine was in: [describe the situation Catherine was facing that she needed help with].” An example of this would be, “You can help a person who is in the same situation today that Catherine was in: unable to afford a college education on her own.” This option still links the statement to Catherine, and clearly states the need that exists today.
  • Here’s another option: “…help a person that [state the services you provide and how they meet the needs]…” For example, “You can help a person by providing a scholarship that will enable them to go to college.” This option doesn’t flat out state the need, but it clearly indicates that the need exists.

It’s good to always remember how fast most individual donors are moving when they read fundraising.

So it’s good to review fundraising writing to make sure it means exactly what we are trying to mean. Any time we Fundraisers make the donor have to figure out what we mean, we raise less money.

How to Change the World


In a post called “How to change the world,” Seth Godin recently said,

All successful cultural change (books, movies, public health), has a super-simple two-step loop:


It’s easy to focus on awareness. Get the word out. Hype. Promo.

I think that’s a mistake.

Because awareness without tension is useless.

The tension is like pulling back a rubber band.

WHY would someone who becomes aware take action?

Here’s how that works in nonprofit fundraising:

  • Awareness – the nonprofit creates this.  Nonprofits make donors aware of the problem that needs to be solved, of the need that needs to be met. 
  • Tension – the donor feels this.  They feel the tension between the way the world is today and how they wish the world would be. 

Seth asks, “WHY would someone who becomes aware take action?” 

Here’s our answer for fundraising: a donor will take action when the internal tension they feel is strong enough, and when the nonprofit makes it easy for the donor to see that their gift will make a meaningful difference.

This is the successful recipe for an appeal: show the donor what’s happening in the world, and show the donor what their gift will do to solve the problem.

The nonprofit provides the awareness of the problem.  The donor provides the tension.  The result is a gift.  And the partnership between the nonprofit and the donor changes the world.

There are other pieces of communication necessary, of course.  Nonprofits should Thank their donors, and Report back to them on what their gifts accomplished.

But – importantly – do any of your fundraising pieces create awareness of the need, let the donor experience tension, and then make it easy for the donor to see the change in the world that their gift will make?

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.