A Note to Leaders

Leader compose letter

This is a note to Leaders of organizations who want to raise more money this year through the mail and email, or who need to raise more money through mail and email because you are still unable to have events and meet with donors. 

You’ll raise more money faster if you can cultivate an attitude that each piece of mail or email your organization sends out is an experiment and an opportunity to get better.

Organizations that get better at direct response quickly do not treat every piece of fundraising as precious.  They look at each piece as:

  • An opportunity to raise money
  • An experiment that might work
  • A data-producing effort that will be learned from
  • A chance to stay “top of mind” with their donor (in contrast to all those organizations that “go dark” for weeks and months at a time)

And here’s what I see in organizations that do not get better quickly:

  • A belief that each piece is something precious.
  • A deep fear of offending anybody, and a belief that any offense would cause outsized negative consequences. 
  • Large approval teams. Everyone who sees it is allowed to make changes.

A Structure for Quick Improvement

It’s probably too much to ask a blog post to change the beliefs an organization has about mail and email fundraising, the “story they tell themselves” about mail and email fundraising.

But here is a structural recommendation for how the fundraising gets created that can help…

  • After a draft of an appeal or e-appeal is created, a very small number of people review it.
  • Reviewers can submit suggested changes, but not make changes.
  • No more than three people are allowed to make changes, and preferably fewer.
  • If a Reviewer’s suggested edits or changes are not accepted, they are told why.
  • After appeals or e-appeals are sent to donors, anyone in the organization can comment on it.  The person in charge of the fundraising decides whether to take the comments into consideration for future fundraising, or not.

Cascading Benefits

This structure has several cascading benefits…

The person or team who creates the fundraising saves time and can focus on their expertise  →  The team then creates more pieces of fundraising  →  This allows more fundraising to be sent to donors  →  This speeds up the pace of learning what works and what doesn’t →  This increases donations →  This increases donor retention. 

Another benefit: this structure will help you attract and retain better fundraising talent.

But you have to trust the structure and the process.  You have to trust the fundraising team.  You have to trust the skills they’ll develop.  

Show me an organization structured like this, with a team that uses data and best practices to make decisions instead of having to make the edits from Bob in Accounting, and I’ll show you an organization primed to learn quickly and raise more money in 2021.

The One Fundraising Principle To Rule Them All

Donors focus on outcomes.

During the fall of 1993 I learned a fundraising principle that became the foundation for my fundraising career. Every other idea and tactic is built on top of this one idea.

Note: This post isn’t going to ‘get to the point’ as quickly as I normally do. That’s because I want to share the story of how I learned the idea that’s so foundational to my success as a fundraiser. The story itself contains a powerful lesson.

Here’s the big idea:

“Donors fund outcomes, not process.”

I was taught this principle while a draft of an appeal letter I’d written was being torn apart and then reassembled into effective fundraising.

My boss was one of the most accomplished fundraising thinkers and strategists of his (or probably any) generation. And when he would review letters and newsletters that copywriters like me had written for our clients, here’s how it would go:

  • We would print out the text and bring it to his office.
  • The first thing he would do – always – was to sharpen his pencil with an electric pencil sharpener. (This was intimidating.)
  • Then he’d read the whole thing. (The silence during this time was nerve-wracking.)
  • Then he’d go to work, in front of me, editing the crap out of the copy I’d worked so hard on.

His editing was a painful experience. There were a LOT of pencil marks on each page. But he always made it better. He always knew exactly what he was trying to accomplish, and he was incredibly disciplined. I learned a career’s worth of fundraising and writing in those sessions. Most of my success can be traced back to his edits and his explanations for why he made them.

Better Fundraising’s clients, to this day, raise more money because of the clear thinking and discipline he taught me.

One day, he had to do a lot of work on one of my letters. (He had to sharpen his pencil a couple of times because he made so many edits.) He finished and slid the paper back across his enormous desk to me. Then he said something I’ll always remember. “Look,” he said, “you have to stop writing about the organization itself because…”

“Donors fund outcomes, not process.”

He explained that most nonprofits tend to write about what they know: their organization, their programs, how they help people. Their “process,” he called it.

He explained that the “process” is the wrong thing to focus on, because the process is not what’s most important to the donor.

He said that the results from his entire career suggested that donors care more about what their gift will do (the outcomes) than they care about the organization itself (the process).

He told me that if I would write about the outcomes of a donor’s gift, why those outcomes were so needed and powerful, and do it in a jargon-free way that any donor could understand quickly, my letters would raise a lot more money.

He was right. I’ve seen it again and again. And here are a couple of examples to make the point:

“Our programs provide a holistic approach to helping people experiencing homelessness” is about process, while, “Your gift will help a person experiencing homelessness have a safe place to stay, and the counseling they need, to never be homeless again” is about the outcomes of the donor’s gift.

“Our school’s vision is an inclusive education for every child, so our teacher-student ratio is half the average of public schools” is about process, while, “Your generosity means a child who is developing differently will be in all the same classes with his typically-developing peers – and all the students will benefit” is about the outcome.

Over my 25 years of fundraising, I’ve developed a few ‘rules’ I follow to keep the fundraising materials we create focused on outcomes, and not process:

  • Have an offer. There’s nothing like a good offer to keep a letter, e-appeal or newsletter focused on why the donor’s gift is needed and what it will accomplish. Having a strong offer is the antidote for having to ask a donor to “support the organization” or (even worse) “will you partner with us?”
  • Be comfortable talking about just a part of what your organization does (not all of what it does). When you talk about all of your organization’s programs, or its mission & vision, you’re talking process. Instead, go into your programs and find one activity that’s easily understandable by your donors. Focus your appeal on the need for that activity, and go deep on the transformation that activity makes. Ask your donor to fund that transformation by paying for that activity. Example: you know all those Rescue Missions who relentlessly fundraise around providing meals even though they have 19 unique programs? They do so because when they talk about “meals” they raise far more money than when they talk about all their programs.
  • Keep the mentions of your organization to an absolute minimum. Most of your donors care far more about the Need your organization meets, and what they can accomplish with their gift, than they care about your organization. (You know all those organizations that used to work in your sector but have closed down? Many of them learned this lesson the hard way.) Almost any time you’re talking about your organization you’re NOT talking about the things that your donor cares about most.

If you follow the ‘rules’ above, an amazing thing happens: your organization becomes beloved. It becomes a part of your donor’s life. That happens because they see how big a difference they can make by giving to you. That happens because your organization consistently talks about the things that are most important to them, instead of talking about your organization.

It’s just like human relationships. You become loved because you help people, not because you tell them how great you are at helping people.

“Donors fund outcomes, not process.” – The Exceptions

Final thought. I’ve only found 3 exceptions to this rule – and they are only partial exceptions:

  1. Some major donors don’t care that much about outcomes. They love your organization, they love your leadership, even some staff. These are the Board Members you’re on a first-name basis with. These are the major donors who drop by the office sometimes. The trick to remember is that these people are in the vast minority of your donors. (The problem is that they are the donors you are most likely to be in contact with, which unfortunately skews perceptions that most donors are like that – which couldn’t be farther from the truth.)
  2. Year-end fundraising. Especially in December, you can talk more about your organization (the “process”) and less about the outcomes. But you absolutely still need to talk about the outcomes.
  3. Fiscal Year-end fundraising. Same as with Calendar Year-end fundraising; talking about the deadline and your organization is more important than the outcomes. But again, the outcomes need to be present.

OK, that’s enough for today. My suggestion: take the phrase “Donors fund outcomes, not processes,” put it on a sticky note, and put it on your computer. Remember it the next time you’re writing to your donors. Write to them about why the outcomes of their gift are so needed and so powerful, and do it in a jargon-free way that any donor can quickly understand. You’ll raise a lot more money!