Why I’m Bullish About Year-End Fundraising This Year


My mentor once said to me,

“I wish I would have noticed earlier in my career how closely overall fundraising results tend to mirror the economy.”

It’s such a simple idea.  But knowing it helped me be a more effective Fundraiser.

There are four main lessons I took from his remark, and I hope they are helpful to you, too. 

Takeaway #1 – When the Economy Is Good, Be Bullish

This is applicable right now, today.  (As I write this, the S&P is up 19% since the beginning of October.)

“Being bullish” means adding another letter or email in your campaign, or even adding another campaign.  It means expecting slightly higher results.  It means asking Majors for a little more.

Because the economy seems to be rebounding, I am bullish on year-end fundraising this year.

Takeaway #2 – When the Economy Slows, Reset Your Expectations

When the economy slows, campaigns won’t perform quite as well.  Response rates drop a bit, as do average gift sizes.  Majors tend to give smaller gifts.

So when the economy slows, savvy organizations reset their expectations.  If the goal and plan for the year was 5% growth, they think about reducing that to 3%.  They let their Board know the revised expectations, and why.

Takeaway #3 – The World Affects Your Fundraising

If there’s a major natural disaster the week your appeal lands in homes, that appeal most likely isn’t going to do as well.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, we knew two major campaigns that we’d just launched were going to underperform.   A significant portion of Americans’ attention turned to New Orleans… which meant less mail was opened… which meant less money was raised by our campaigns.    

You obviously can’t plan for natural disasters.  But you can plan for times when you know in advance that the world is going to affect your fundraising.  For instance, this coming fall is the 2024 Presidential election in the U.S.  We recommend most organizations not launch an important campaign the week before or after the election.

Takeaway #4 – Always Keep Noticing

My Mentor was in his 70’s when he shared this observation with me.  I love that, even in retirement, he was still noticing things about fundraising.  It’s a good goal for all of us Fundraisers: keep noticing things about fundraising, keep trying to get a little bit better at this craft.  It makes us a little bit more effective helping our beneficiaries, the organizations we serve, and our donors.

What To Do When Your Fundraising Results Are Flat


If the growth of your fundraising has flattened out, it’s most likely a result of a belief that’s holding you back. 

So, if your results are flat, it’s time to take a critical look at your organization’s beliefs about fundraising.

Here’s a list of beliefs that often prevent organizations from reaching the next level:

  • “Our donors can’t give any more”
  • “We don’t work with people or animals, so we can’t raise much”
  • “Not very many people care about our issue”
  • “We can’t ask our donors again this year”
  • “Asking our donors in a different way would cause us to raise less”
  • “We need much younger donors”
  • “[Media channel] would not work for our donors”
  • “No one on that side of the city would care about what we do on this side of the city”
  • “Our work is too complex for us to have many donors”
  • “Our donors wouldn’t like that type of fundraising”
  • “That type of fundraising might be successful in [that] country, but it wouldn’t work in our country.”

Organizations trust their beliefs to be true because believing in them brought the organization the success it currently enjoys.

The problem is that many of these “beliefs” are actually “blind spots.”  (And that’s completely understandable: most people in fundraising positions at smaller nonprofits didn’t receive much training, and most people in leadership positions aren’t that enthusiastic about fundraising in the first place.)

And so we arrive at the problem: to see what’s hiding in our blind spots, we need to alter one of our fundamental beliefs about how the world works.  But our pride causes us to have a deep, natural aversion to learning that our fundamental beliefs have been wrong.

So the question becomes, “Is your organization’s hunger to do more of your mission strong enough to cause you to listen to things you’d rather not hear?”

If your organization’s hunger is strong enough, time to examine your beliefs. Your beliefs got you to where you are, but often won’t take you to the next level.

Which of your beliefs should you examine?  Which of your beliefs should you warmly thank for getting you this far… and then set aside?

The Distance

The graphic above is the best way I know to show why it’s so helpful to donors when nonprofits share “before and after’s” in their fundraising.

The distance between – the contrast between – the “before” and the “after” is what shows the donor the power of their gift. 

Here’s how it works…

Appeals & E-appeals

When you’re Asking for a gift in appeals and e-appeals, you want to share the “before and potential after.”  Describe the “before” – what’s happening now that needs to be fixed? Then describe the “potential after” that the donor’s gift will help make possible.

If the distance between the before and the potential after is large, the donor will feel like their gift will make a big difference. And when you make your donor feel like their gift will make a big difference, you’ll get more gifts.


When Reporting back to donors in newsletters, you want to share the “before and after.” Your newsletter story or E.D. letter should describe the “before” (what was happening that help was needed”) and then describe the positive “after” that the donor’s gift made possible.

If the distance between the before and the after is large, the donor will feel like their gift made a big difference. And when you make your donor feel like their gift made a big difference, you’ll get more future gifts.

More Important

When you create a lot of direct response fundraising, you quickly find out that donors care much more about the “before” and the “after” than they care about how your organization made the “after” possible.

So don’t spend time in letters and emails talking about your programs, or about how your programs work.  That’s the “how you made it possible.” Save that info for grant applications and the small group of major donors who love the ins and outs of your programs.

For direct response fundraising, show donors the big distance between the before and the after.  If you can get your donors thinking, “Wow, my gift can make that big a transformation?” or “Wow, my donation made that big a difference?” – they’ll loving giving to your organization because of the impact they can make. 

James Bond Without a Villain


I saw an appeal recently and a thought that popped into my head:

“This is like a James Bond movie without a villain. Everything looks really good, but there’s not anything interesting happening.”

I had that reaction because the appeal I was looking at had no conflict.

Everything was going great for the organization. They’d helped a lot of people.

It’s good to remember that conflict is one of the main things that causes humans to engage. There are no successful movies without conflict. There are no successful stories without conflict.

And I’d argue that almost no fundraising reaches its potential without conflict.

Think about the James Bond movies: when the villain is evil and interesting, James Bond looks extraordinarily capable and successful. When the villain is uninteresting and poorly-drawn, James Bond looks more like a fashion model.

The Bond movies that do poorly at the box office tend to be movies where the villain isn’t particularly interesting. They still make money, but not as much.

And that’s just a movie – which doesn’t compare to the real-life situations that beneficiaries and nonprofit organizations face every day.

What does this mean for your next appeal?

If you want to raise more money, you should tell your donor what their gift will accomplish and also tell them the “enemy” their gift will defeat.

You’ve seen this before:

  • “Send in a gift to fight cancer!”
  • “Your gift will help stop the [opposing candidate] from being elected!”
  • “You’ll strike a blow against the system that holds our kids back.”

Adding the idea that “the donor’s gift will defeat or fight back against an enemy” is a tried-and-true way to increase how much money you raise because:

  • Your appeals are already engaging for people who are inspired by your organization’s work
  • Now your appeals will additionally engage people who are moved by “need” in the world

Think of it like a two-fer for the donor: their gift will do good and help defeat an enemy.

And when you engage more of your donors, and you provide additional reasons to give, you’ll raise more money!

Fundraising is a Pie-Eating Contest

Pie eating.

It’s the best line I’ve ever heard about fundraising:

Fundraising is a pie-eating contest and the prize for the winner is… more pie!

Feels true, doesn’t it? You have a great fundraising year, and the result is that you’re asked to raise 7% more the next year.

It’s a great, crazy job we have.

My hope for you is that you ate a lot of pie this year, and you get a few days off to enjoy it.

Enjoy your holidays… more pie awaits!

Bragging is not Reporting (example)


In our experience, most organizations don’t Report enough (especially to major donors). And when they do, they focus on what the organization did, on the organization’s role in the story.

We call that bragging. As in, “Our programs provided holistic care to 345 people…”

That leads to “Ask, Thank, Brag, Repeat” instead of the far more successful “Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat.” Remember … focus on your donor’s role in the story, not your organization’s!

Example Time

Here’s part of a newsletter story – a Report – that a client of ours sent to donors a couple months prior to working with us. Notice the bragging.

  • Our Dentists on the Road Program provides free, urgent dental care to low-income children and adults who lack insurance or a realistic way to pay for treatment. The service is provided in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. Our fleet of dental vans provides up to 30 clinics per week.

    Last year with the help of dedicated volunteers, we provided approximately $5 worth of care to patients for every $1 invested in the program.

    In 2017, our 12 Nebraska Dentists on the Road vans treated more than 17,000 people. These people are no longer battling the intense pain and preventing future systemic complications associated with advanced dental diseases as well as socio-economic challenges associated with severe dental problems.

    Children from lower-income families are almost twice as likely to have decay as those from higher-income families, yet they face disproportionately high barriers to receiving care. While in theory all Nebraska children are covered by Healthy Kids insurance, there are many reasons why they may be having trouble accessing it, such as difficulty finding providers that will accept it.

Notice how:

  • The donor is never mentioned?
  • There’s a lot of numbers, medical jargon and education?
  • Notice that when you run into all that detail you start to skip ahead? So do your donors.

Now look at the next time we talked about this program. We told the story of one person who had been helped, we prominently mentioned the donor’s role, and we gave the donor the credit:

  • Emergency Root Canal Saved Schoolgirl’s Tooth!

    Your kind gift helped save the smile of 14-year-old Cecelia who needed urgent dental work.

    When Cecelia bumped her tooth, it seemed like a harmless accident.

    Her mother thought the soreness and swelling would go away, but the pain went from bad to worse and Cecelia begged to stay home from school.

    But thanks to your gift, Cecelia was able to be helped by the Dentists on the Road program.

    It turned out that Cecelia had nerve damage and an infection in one of…

There are a handful of things to notice here, all of which work together to make this an effective Report. This story:

  • Focuses on a person, not a program.
  • Quickly summarizes the need, then showed the donor how they helped meet that need.
    • We do this because eye-tracking studies show that most donors don’t read the whole story.
  • Directly credits the donor for causing the transformation.
  • The language and paragraphs are simpler and easier to read quickly.

Now your donor knows – at a glance – that her gift made a difference. And she is more likely to give to your organization again.

Prior to working with us, this organization didn’t keep performance results for each newsletter. So, we don’t know exactly how much the new version outperformed the old.


…after applying these guidelines for 6 months their net fundraising revenue was up 53%!

This post is excerpted from the Better Fundraising e-book “Storytelling for Action.” Download it for free, here

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.

Every* Client Raised More

Allow me to share some news we’re proud of: every client we worked with raised more money at year-end than they had the previous year.

The fundraising industry is reporting that a lot of organizations saw decreases at the end of the year. “Overall the shortfall may be as much as 25% for some organizations” said The Agitator.

So we’re thrilled that our clients did so well.

The organizations with the best performance applied our Ask, Thank, Report, Repeat system throughout the year.

But even the clients who hired us just for year-end raised more than they did the year before. (Even the ones who were worried they wouldn’t get invited to parties!)

The EASY System

The year-end system we’ve developed really works. We leaned on it more heavily this year, for more clients than we’ve ever worked with before, and it worked better than ever.

What I enjoy the most is how EASY the system makes it for most of our clients. It’s not color-by-numbers . . . but it’s close.

It’s all part of our efforts to help nonprofits work less while raising more. Because there’s more good you could be doing if only you had time to do it.

The Reason for the *

There was one client that raised less. Sort of.

Our one client who raised less at year’s end is the one client that did not ask us to help with their year-end fundraising.

As you can imagine, when they asked us how our other clients did, it was a little awkward.


If you’d like to see exceptional growth in 2019 (or if you just want to make sure your organization is prepared in case the economy turns), get in touch.

And if you’re not ready to hire us, No problem. Keep reading the blog. Download our free eBook on Storytelling. And our free eBook on Asking. Get on our mailing list for the free resources.

In case you’ve never heard me say it before: Better Fundraising’s mission is to increase the fundraising capacity of small- to medium-sized nonprofits. So we give away as much of our field-tested experience and knowledge as possible.

There’s no secret special sauce we keep just for our clients. We try to put every approach, every piece of testing knowledge we can on the blog and into our resources.

And for the organizations that want to go deeper, we relish the chance to work with you on your fundraising.

Regardless, our hope is to be helpful. And our clients’ results at year-end prove that our approach is working.

We’re bullish on fundraising in 2019. Follow-best practices, stay centered on your donors, and you can raise a lot of money to do a lot of good!