Happy Fourth!


This Independence Day we’re reminded of the line, “toward a more perfect union.”

Not perfect, but trying to get better every year.

Just like fundraising.

Happy Fourth!



I have a message for all the young Fundraisers and smaller organizations out there.

Nobody gets their fundraising right the first time.

I say that because it’s easy to get discouraged.

As you start – as an organization starts – there is SO MUCH that you’re having to figure out. Not to mention, nobody got into this business because they desperately wanted to send letters and emails to people. 🙂

So, please know three powerful things…

  1. You’ve begun! That’s a LOT farther than most people get. Maybe they look the other way. Maybe they refuse. Who knows. But you started. From my perspective 30 years in, that’s a bigger deal than you think it is.
  2. Becoming effective is an iterative process. You start. You pay attention. You add another skill. You get better. You notice something else. You get a little better every month. That too is a bigger deal than you think it is.
  3. The whole way, you’re helping your cause and you’re helping your donors. You’re helping the cause by raising awareness, and raising money, so that more good gets done. You’re helping donors because they care – but they don’t have programs like you do, so they can’t do much by themselves.

That’s a lot of good. You could be spending your time marketing bags of chips. Instead you’re helping make change.

It’s not easy. (If it were easy, we’d all be raising tens of millions of dollars and have six-pack abs.)

So keep going. Keep iterating. Keep practicing.

And thanks for being a Fundraiser!

The Habit


There’s a habit your organization can develop that will result in raising more money and keeping more of your donors each year.

It’s the habit of regularly using the mail and email to stay in relationship with your donors.

Here’s why the habit of regularly sending mail and email to your donors is so powerful…

The habit of regularly Asking your donors to do meaningful, powerful things with a gift through your organization results in more gifts. Donors in motion tend to stay in motion. Donors at rest tend to stay at rest.

The habit of regularly Reporting to your donors shows and tells them that their gifts make a difference. Donors who know their previous gift made a meaningful difference are more likely to give to you again than donors who don’t.

The habit of regularly contacting your donors always works better than “going dark” for weeks or months at a time.

The habit of regularly contacting your donors via letters and emails is more effective than Social.

The habit of regularly contacting your donors always works better than sending nothing.

Getting in the habit of regularly sending out mail and email, paying attention to the results, always works better than any other approach.

It’s a habit you must develop

First, you must get past the idea that mailing your donors more than a couple times a year will somehow result in the mythical “donor fatigue.” If you need help with that, look here. Or here.

Then you have to realize that each piece you send out is not precious. Each piece you send out is an overwhelmingly positive incident that raises money, keeps you in touch with your donors, and is a learning opportunity.

Then you just have to practice. You need repetition. Sending out mail and email is like any other skill; you get better with practice.

Show me an organization that has developed a habit of regularly mailing and emailing its donors and I’ll show you an organization that has deeper relationships with its donors and keeps more of its donors every year.

This post was originally published on January 7, 2021.

Practice On Your Non-Donors


Want to become a more effective Fundraiser but your organization won’t allow you to send out enough fundraising to really improve your craft?

Practice on your non-donors.

Get permission to send more fundraising to the non-donors on your email list.

After all, you have nothing to lose with those folks, right? And the purpose of your email list is for members of the list to be turned into donors, right?

If people in your organization question you, focus their attention on how the organization has said that you need more new donors, and that’s exactly what you are trying to do.

The side benefit is that you and your organization will be more effective fundraisers because of it.

If your CRM setup means you don’t know which of the email addresses on your list are donors or non-donors, you have an extra step to take. Create an email list for your test sends, and from that list remove any addresses that look like they might be for your major donors, board members, staff and foundations.

Then start to try stuff. Send an e-appeal that tries a new approach. Try sending a “breathless dispatch from the front line” instead of the “standard sanitized perfectly-proofed update.” Send two e-appeals in a week. Send out a survey designed to get legacy giving leads.

It might be a bit messy. But it’s all practice that will make you more effective.

Organizations that want to get more effective at Fundraising allow little “messes” like these in order to learn and grow. As I said last week, “Ship your work. Get feedback. Improve it. Repeat.”

If you’re not regularly practicing, chances are you’re not getting more effective.

Confidence Not Needed


This post is for people who are worried about their fundraising work this fall because they aren’t confident that they really know what they’re doing. 

To quote the writer Chuck Wendig,

“The work doesn’t need your confidence. 
The work just needs the work.”

The same is true for fundraising: the fundraising you create doesn’t need your confidence. It just needs your work. 

Yes, there’s lots to learn about fundraising. But always remember that your donors want to help. You are communicating to donors who are friendly to your fundraising. 

So if you aren’t confident in the fundraising you create, I want you to internalize these three truths:

  • Donors care about your beneficiaries.
  • Donors will often give you the benefit of the doubt.
  • Your donors WANT to do good.  They are LOOKING for ways to give away their money to help the world become a better place.

You can raise lots of money without doing “great” fundraising. Your donors want to help!

Make your fundraising, put it in front of your donors, and pay attention to the results.

Do “the work” this year, and by December 31st you’ll have raised money and helped your beneficiaries.  Your confidence is not needed, but your work is.

Recipe for a Successful Direct Response Fundraising Career


Here’s my recipe for how to succeed in direct response fundraising.

FYI: anybody worth their salt is endlessly repeating steps 3 through 5.  And they’ve used their learning to get better at all types of fundraising – not just direct response.

Step #1

Develop a point of view that’s based on the best data you have available, or based on data from someone with market experience, at scale, that you trust.

This is hard for Fundraisers starting at smaller shops.  But there’s more good info available today than at any point in fundraising history.  There are quite a few people working to share the data and “point of view” that used to be available to only a privileged few.  Erica WassdorpJeff Brooks, Lisa Sargent, Tom Ahern, Mike Duerkson and Jen Love and John Lepp immediately spring to mind.

To give you an example of how much this has changed, I asked my mentor many times why he didn’t write a book to share all that he knew.  His response was always, “Why in the world would I give to my competitors all of the knowledge we worked so hard to learn?”

My attitude is that it’s the right thing to do to make this information more available to smaller nonprofits, and that it’s not a zero-sum game.

Step #2

Apply your point of view in your fundraising practice.  If your results consistently outperform previous results for your organization, your point of view is more accurate than the point of view that was previously used.

This means you have to practice for a while.  And you have to track results.  You build and test your point of view over time.

And some points of view absolutely work better than others.

Step #3

If you get new data that seems to contradict your point of view, investigate that data to see if a) it applies to your situation, and b) stands up to scrutiny.

Things go sideways on this step all the time. 

First, you must actively be looking for or testing for new data.  No “leaning back” here; you have to lean in.

Second, when new data arrives, you must always ask whether the new data applies to your situation/context and is a good next step.  In my experience, this often goes awry when smaller orgs apply learnings from bigger orgs that don’t apply to them.  For instance, Bill Jacobs at Analytical Ones helps medium and large nonprofits create “statistical models” that help the nonprofit know who to mail each appeal letter to.  It’s an incredible tool, but the “appropriate next step” for most small organizations is probably to start using standard RFM segmentation instead of “mailing every name in our database.” 

Third, does the “data” stand up to scrutiny?  A lot of studies get published in our industry that report what donors say they are going to do.  I pay almost no attention to what donors say they are going to do because there’s often a huge difference between what they say they will do and what they actually do.  Humans’ predictions of what they think they will do in the future are not nearly as helpful as data about what they’ve actually done in the past.

Step #4

If needed, update your point of view.

If the contradicting data applies to your situation/context, and the data stands up to scrutiny, then you need to update your point of view.

Step #5

Stay on the lookout for new data.

This is hard for people who don’t work at a fundraising agency, or don’t work at a nonprofit that runs tests.  Thankfully, there’s more information publicly available than ever before.  Here’s what I recommend to get some of it:

  • Subscribe to blogs that are data-based and share test results
  • Cultivate friendships with people who do testing
  • Get on mailing lists where testing results are occasionally shared, like SOFII
  • Pay attention to other fields, like psychology and behavioral economics – for instance, I’ve learned a lot about fundraising from Brené Brown, and Annie Duke’s Thinking In Bets, and Seth Godin’s The Practice – even though none of those books are about fundraising

As I said earlier, the professionals I respect are always on the lookout for new data.  I’d describe myself as a person who “lives in fear of finding out that there’s a better way to do something than what I currently recommend.”

Data that proves you wrong just shows you that there’s a stronger, more complete point of view out there for you to develop.

As you build and refine your point of view, do it consciously.  Take notice when you’re wrong.  Take notice when you’re right.

And then magically, after years of practicing, you’ll be able to help nonprofits of all kinds do even more of their world-changing work.

The Olympics and Year-end appeals


I watched a little of the Olympics last week and noticed how the champions at the Olympics have a lot in common with the champions of year-end fundraising.

What do they have in common?  The “champions” practice and compete all year long – not just when the spotlight is shining on them

There are a lot of nonprofits that send out a year-end appeal – and maybe one other appeal during the year.

That would be like the South Korean archery team just picking up their bows a couple times a year.  They’ll never reach their potential.

Instead, the archers practice all the time.  They enter several smaller competitions.  All building towards the Olympics.

Similarly, the nonprofits who want to “reach their fundraising potential” when the spotlight shines on them at year-end practice all year long.  They work on perfecting their Spring Appeal.  They sweat over every word of the Ask at their event.  They send out one e-appeal a month, track the results, and see what their donors are most likely to respond to.

They practice.  Because how do they expect to get better at something they only do once or twice a year? 

And because they’ve been practicing the whole year, they SHINE when the spotlight hits them.

They raise record-breaking amounts of money at year end.

You know those swimmers who break the world record as they win the gold medal?  That could be your nonprofit with your year-end fundraising – but you have to put in the practice.

If you haven’t been practicing this year, I suggest you start.  You’ll raise money this fall, and you’ll raise more money at year-end because of it.

And if you or anyone on your staff is worried that you’ll be asking too much, read this.

One More Thing…

You know how you probably won’t think about archery again until the next Olympics?  And how you probably won’t even think about archery in the meantime?

The archers don’t have a choice about that.  They don’t control what’s on the viewers screens.

But your nonprofit has a choice

If you choose to send more letters, and send more emails, you’ll be on your viewers’ screens a lot more often.

And then you won’t be forgotten.  Your donors will get to know you better.  You’ll build relationship.  And because of that you’ll raise more money and do more good.

Everything You Send Makes You More Effective


All your bad appeals and e-appeals are useful and essential steps on the journey to great appeals and great donor communications.

No small nonprofit arrives on the scene sending out fantastic fundraising.

Nobody starts a nonprofit or ministry because they want to send out mail and email.

So you have to believe that a) “each piece of mail or email your organization sends out is an experiment and an opportunity to get better” and b) you’ll engage your donors and raise some money, too.

That’s a pretty good 2-for-1, no?

What simple email could you send out this afternoon that would be another “step on your journey” to great appeals and great donor communications?

How to Make Good “Fundraising Bets”


At the beginning of your fundraising career – or when you start doing more direct response fundraising than you have in the past – you need to make “bets” on what you think your donors will be most likely to fund.

You’re writing an e-appeal and wondering, “Should I talk about this program, or that program?”

You’re writing an appeal letter and wondering, “Should I ask donors to fund this, or to fund that?”

Each decision is a bet.

The more bets you make, if you pay attention to the results, the better you’ll get at making bets. And ultimately, the better you get at making bets, the more money your e-appeals, appeals, newsletters, and events will raise.

The way to get better at this is for your organization is to practice. 

Let me give you an example.  It’s an outlier for most of us, but it makes the point.

My mentor spent his career doing direct response fundraising for some of the biggest nonprofits in the country in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, including most of the national Christian nonprofits.

True story: by the end of his career, he had sent so many pieces of direct mail, to so many of the lists available, that he could make accurate predictions for how each letter would perform.

He would hold the mockup of the letter in his hand, look at the offer, and look at the writing and the design.  Then he would look at the mailing list that it was being mailed to.  Cultivation, acquisition, didn’t matter – he could tell you with relative certainty how many people would respond, what the average gift would be, etc.

I walked into his office once and he was concentrating so hard he didn’t notice me for a couple minutes.  He was as “in the zone” as it’s possible to be.  I watched him write some numbers in the margins of a printed-out spreadsheet, then I asked him what he was doing.

He said, “I’m writing down my predictions for how each letter to each mailing list is going to perform.” 

Here’s the amazing thing: he was usually correct to within a 10th of a percentage point on response rate, and within a dollar or two on average gift size.

It was remarkable.  It was otherworldly.

He was able to do it because he had done it so many times before.  He was very, very good at making “bets” for what an organization should talk about, how they should talk about it, and who they should talk about it to.

And when he was wrong – when one of his predictions didn’t match up with what actually happened, he would say, “Huh, I wonder what I missed?”  And then he’d look at the letter and the list to figure out where he had gone wrong, so that his next bet was more accurate.  So that his next bet raised more money for whatever nonprofit he was serving.

You and your organization can get great at knowing what to talk about, how to talk about it, and who to talk about it to. 

But you have to practice.  A lot.

It’s not a gift, not a talent, not an ability.  It’s an acquired skill.