51 Birthday Thoughts on Fundraising


Today is my 51st birthday, and that’s a great excuse to share 51 pieces of advice and observations about the crazy wonderful world of fundraising.

In no particular order…

  1. If you’re not occasionally amazed that you can send out letters and emails to people and they send you money back, you’re not hooked up right.
  2. Pay close attention to all surveys and research on fundraising that are based on donor behavior. Put all surveys and research on fundraising that report on what donors say they will do into your “to read later” pile. 
  3. Every piece of fundraising should have a donor-shaped hole in it. 
  4. Fundraising is harder for younger people because they must create materials for an audience that’s primarily 40 to 50 years older than they are.
  5. The ability to differentiate between different types of fundraising, and different audiences for fundraising, is a sign of fundraising mastery.
  6. The older I get, I see that success in major donor fundraising is more manageable and measurable than I ever suspected.
  7. Large nonprofits don’t send out a lot of appeals and e-appeals because they are big.  They are big because they send out a lot of appeals and e-appeals.
  8. The “stories an organization tells itself” about Fundraising have a greater effect on how much money they raise than the stories they tell their donors.   
  9. Work hard to create repeatable “fundraising assets.”   Create “fundraising art projects” – which will be used once – only when necessary.
  10. Most nonprofits should mail their donors two more times than they did last year.
  11. A nonprofit website is only as effective as the questions asked when work starts.  If you start with the question, “How can we tell people all about our work?” you’ll get one type of website.  If you ask, “How can we make it easy for people to do something?” you’ll get another type of website.
  12. Each time I hear a song by Taylor Swift I think, “She’d make a great direct response fundraising writer.”  I’m aware this is a little weird.
  13. The only good news in appeal letters should be that the donor’s gift will solve the problem.  These are hard words to live by, but incredible for long-term fundraising success.
  14. Nonprofits have egos.  And they do not like to be vulnerable.  But vulnerability is the path to deeper relationship with donors.
  15. In nonprofit fundraising, your brand being relevant to a given situation/context is more important than your brand being consistent across all situations and contexts.
  16. There are some differences between direct mail for mass donors and direct mail for major donors, but not as many as most people believe.
  17. My ability to be compassionate is increasing as I age.
  18. If you’re not regularly getting complaints and unsubscribes, you’re leaving a lot of money on the table.  Complaints are a fee you pay to achieve a goal, not a fine you pay because you’ve done something wrong.
  19. The most effective Fundraisers and fundraising organizations have a tolerance for pain.  They endure the pain of creating messages that internal audiences don’t like, and the pain of sharing real needs, and the difficulty of being other-centered.  Fundraisers endure those pains because they know that they will raise more money for the organization if they do.
  20. Most donors care far more about what their gift did than they care about what your organization has been up to.
  21. Every generation creates a new philosophy for why they shouldn’t share the need.
  22. I believe that most critiques of donor-centricity are actually critiques of “donor centricity taken way too far.”  Donor centricity, when exercised properly, has healthy boundaries.
  23. For many of an organization’s donors, the fundraising you send them IS the relationship.  So how are you going to show up in that relationship?
  24. All strategy is sacrifice.
  25. Fundraising doesn’t create tension in donors, it reveals tension they already hold.
  26. Fundraising is so much better than “news.”  When fundraising reveals tension in a donor between the way the world is and the way they want the world to be, fundraising presents the donor with something impactful they can do right now to help.  News just moves on to the next story.  
  27. Letters that look like personal letters tend to perform better.
  28. When people critique fundraising by saying, “this doesn’t sound like me/us,” I always think, “Well, if ‘sounding like you’ were the key, wouldn’t you be raising a lot more money than you currently are?”
  29. Organizations that are optimistic about fundraising raise more money than organizations that are pessimistic about fundraising.
  30. If you want a donor to do something, ask her to do something that’s actually doable.  You have a greater chance of success asking a donor to “provide one new library book” than you will asking a donor to “provide new library books to local children.” 
  31. Fundraising success is much more a knowledge issue than a talent issue.  This is particularly true in direct response fundraising.
  32. There will always be fewer complaints than the organization fears there will be.  And the complaints that do come in will be less meaningful and impactful than organizations fear they will be.  And about 1/3 of complaints can be turned into donations on the spot if the person hearing the complaint is prepared.
  33. In general, having a ratio of about 2 asks (appeals) for every one report (newsletters) seems to maximize revenue and retention.
  34. I’ve never met a nonprofit whose fundraising failed because they were talking to the wrong people.  But I’ve met lots of nonprofits whose fundraising failed because they were talking to people about the wrong things.
  35. People tend to overvalue the importance of one piece of fundraising, and undervalue the total importance of all their fundraising.
  36. Ineffective fundraising is about the organization and its processes.  Effective fundraising is about the donor and her values.
  37. The ability to get to the point quickly is gold in direct response fundraising.
  38. Most fundraising isn’t written to persuade, it’s written not to offend.
  39. A powerful piece of fundraising causes the recipient to have to choose; am I in right now or am I out?
  40. Donors’ generosity during the pandemic is one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever seen.
  41. An organization handing you the keys to their fundraising is one of the biggest privileges you can be given.
  42. Fundraising, done properly, takes a toll on the Fundraiser.  You have to regularly expose yourself to tragedy and injustice and need, and then you have to share those things with donors.  Thankfully, the consequences of doing so are incredible instances of generosity and goodness.
  43. The first sentence of anything you write is the onramp to the rest of the piece.  If that first sentence is long or complex, fewer people will read.  When fewer people read, fewer people give.
  44. It is so hard to keep the main thing the main thing.
  45. Irony is when a person who is an amateur at fundraising tells me that fundraising I’ve made is “not professional.”
  46. There are no sure things in fundraising.  Everything is a bet.  Some bets are more likely to work than others. 
  47. Using two spaces between sentences is a small, donor-centered bet.  Having two spaces between sentences is quantifiably easier for people to read, and it’s more familiar to older donors.  Regardless of personal preference, if using two spaces between sentences helps more people read your fundraising, isn’t that a bet worth making?
  48. If you want to be effective at fundraising today and in the future, get good at getting attention.  It’s getting harder and harder to get donors’ attention.
  49. In my whole career I’ve seen one instance of the data showing that the organization was asking too often.  One.
  50. Effective direct response fundraising is so hard to create because it’s other-centered: it’s more about the donor and her values, and the beneficiaries, than it is about the organization sending it.
  51. The ability to do fundraising as a career is a gift.

Greatest Hit: Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Newsletter Article

The following post is one of the most popular posts in the history of this blog.

I’m reposting it because you might be new to the blog, or you might be like me and need to hear a piece of advice more than once before it really sinks in.

This post proved helpful to thousands of people, I hope it’s helpful for you!

The first sentence of every newsletter story is really important.

Don’t do what most nonprofits do. They assume that all donors read to the end of all articles. I routinely review newsletters where the most powerful parts of the stories are in the last paragraphs – where very few people will see it. Because all the eye-tracking studies show that most donors don’t “read” your newsletter. They scan it.

So, you want to work hard on the first sentence of your newsletter articles and stories. If the donor likes your first sentence, she’s more likely to read your second sentence, and so on.

And you don’t have to be a “writer” to make the first sentences of your newsletter sing. But you do have to think about them differently. I have 25 years experience that testifies that the following ‘ways of thinking differently’ about how your start your newsletter articles will help you raise more money.

Keep it simple

Make it short and easy to read. No long sentences. No complex sentences with multiple clauses. Your reader should be halfway into the second sentence before she realizes it.

Now you have momentum. Now you have a greater chance your donor is going to get the message you’re sending her.

Good Example: “Ebola took everything Elisabeth had.”

It’s not about your organization

The first sentence of any newsletter article should never be about your organization or staff.

The most successful newsletters are written with the purpose of showing your donor what her gift accomplished. Not to talk about all of the things you’ve been doing or have coming up. Because more people are reading your newsletter wondering “I wonder if my gift made a difference?” than are wondering “I wonder what the organization has been working on?”

So, your first sentence should be about the donor, or about a beneficiary.

(And remember: as your donor is deciding whether to read your story or not, she is in a hurry and has other things asking for her attention. So, if your first sentence is about your organization or staff, she’s just not as likely to keep reading.)

After all, would you be more likely to keep reading if the story was about something amazing you helped do, or something an organization you support is working on?

Bad Example: “After landing in the capital city of Kinshasa, The Democratic Republic of Congo, our team traveled inland to a village outside the town of Kivuvu.” Why would a busy donor keep reading?

Good Example: “Thanks to you, Sarah’s life turned completely around.” Bonus points for including the donor and a beneficiary in the very first sentence!

It’s the start of a summary

I need to do an entire post on writing newsletter stories. But here’s one of my tricks; the first paragraph is often a summary of the whole article.

Why? Because most people are not going to read the whole article, but you still want them to get the message you’re trying to send. So if you summarize the message in a compelling way two great things happen:

  1. More people get the message you’re sending
  2. More people will read the whole thing

Good Example: “Your gift did something simple but life changing for a mother named Teri Maes, and you might have saved the lives of her two sons.” This one is a little long, but it summarizes the whole story AND includes the donor!

Don’t start with a statistic

In a nutshell, experts love statistics. But donor’s don’t.

Experts like you, your staff, and your incredible program people love statistics. Statistics are meaningful to experts because they provide context, show progress, and show expertise.

But that’s not what most donors are looking for. They are looking for a quick, easy way to know whether their gift to your organization made a difference. That’s usually a story of a beneficiary, with a little editorial content for how the donor’s gift helped the beneficiary.

Starting with a statistic immediately reduces the number of people who will keep reading because it asks the donor to understand something new and then understand why it’s important or helpful. That’s a lot to ask of a non-expert donor who is moving fast.

She’d rather read a story, my friend. So start with a story.

Bad Example: “Only one in nine children in our great state will ever go to a symphony.”

Drama! Action! Peril!

I’m going to quote my post on appeal letters on this one:

“Fill it with drama or make it interesting to your donor. Drama and tension are two of the best tools you have for engaging their interest. Or make it something that would be interesting to your donor – which is likely something different than would be interesting to you!”

My best one-liner about this is, “You want to write like the National Inquirer, not National Geographic.” That probably over-dramatizes it, but drama and emotion catch people’s interest. Most nonprofits assume they have their donor’s interest – and that’s a bad assumption.

Bad Example: “Drs. Martha and Robert Bryant strive to use their medical practice to make an impact.” Who are those people? Why should the donor keep reading?

Good Example: “The first night Jacqueline went to community theater, her life changed in the second act.”

So as you go to work on your next newsletter, here’s what I hope you’ll remember:

  1. Very few people will read an entire newsletter article. So get to the point very quickly, summarize it, then tell the full scope of the story.
  2. To increase the chances that your donor will read more, make your first sentence easy to read and interesting to her!

This post was originally published on February 2, 2018.

Top 5 Appeal Tips

Top 5 Appeal Tips.

I’ve reviewed a LOT of appeal letters.

Recently someone thought to ask, “What’s the advice you give most often?”

What a great question! I immediately wanted to know because it seemed like the top 5 pieces of feedback would make a great “checklist” to share with organizations who want their appeals to raise more money. So we did the research.

From hundreds of reviews, here are the Top 5 pieces of advice I give most often when reviewing an appeal or e-appeal…

#5 – Avoid using pronouns in underlined or bolded copy

The main reason to highlight specific sentences and sentence fragments in appeals is to pre-select what you want most people to read.

Here’s what I mean by “pre-select.” Most people will scan, not read, an appeal letter. As they scan, their eyes are most likely to stop on emphasized copy. So by bolding and underlining, you are in effect choosing for the scanner the parts of your appeal they are more likely to read.

And if you’re going to take the time to choose a sentence for a person to read, make sure they can understand that sentence without having read the rest of the letter. Which brings us to underlining pronouns and why not to do it.

If you underline a sentence that reads, “He needs it today” the person scanning your letter does not know who “he” is and doesn’t know what “it” is. The person’s limited attention has just been taken by something they can’t understand. Not good.

Whatever you highlight in your letter should be able to be easily understood without the context provided by the rest of the letter. It needs to make sense if it’s the only thing the person reads.

#4 – Ask donors to help one beneficiary, not to help all the beneficiaries

Appeals and e-appeals tend to work better when the donor is asked to help one person – one beneficiary – instead of asked to help all the beneficiaries.

To give you an example, a foundation that supports a hospital would likely write, “Your gift today will help cancer patients.” But the appeal or e-appeal would raise more money if the ask was, “Your gift today will help a cancer patient.”

Why? Because when a donor is asked to help just one beneficiary, it’s easier for her to say “yes” then when she’s asked to help an unknown, larger number of beneficiaries.

Additionally, it’s more believable. Say I’m a $1,000 donor to an organization that helps kids. Do I really believe them when they say, “Your gift will help all the children we serve”? I know the organization helps thousands of children, and I’m pretty sure my gift isn’t going to help all of them.

There’s a rule I have in mind as I create or review any piece of fundraising: I need to convince the donor to help one person before they will be interested in helping more than one person.

#3 – Include no more than 1 or 2 numbers in an appeal

Most numbers in appeals need context and thought before the donor recognizes why those numbers are important.

But because most donors don’t have the context, and are unlikely to put in the thought, the numbers become a part of the appeal that the donor doesn’t really understand.

Think about that for a second; the organization is using numbers to establish credibility and expertise… but is pushing donors away. The numbers have the opposite effect than the organization intends.

The numbers can be GREAT for Foundations, Partner organizations, Government grants, etc. But not for mass donor appeal letters and e-appeals.

And of course there are some numbers that are good to have in your appeals – you can read about those here.

#2 – Avoid “we” and “our” language

Your fundraising appeals and e-appeals should sound as if they were written by one person, for one person.

It should not sound as if an organization is writing a donor. It should sound as if a person is writing a donor.

Are there times with the editorial “we” makes sense? Sure. Some parts of annual reports come to mind. Your website. Blog posts, too.

But in your direct response fundraising, sounding 1-to1 is the way to go.

#1 – The only good news in an appeal should be that the donor’s gift today will help

Here’s something we see again and again – it’s like clockwork.

We’ll start working with an organization. Their previous approach to appeals was to “share a story of something they’ve already done, then ask the donor to do more of that thing.”

We change their approach to appeals that “share what’s needed today and how the donor can help.”

Their appeals begin to raise more money immediately.

Note: you should absolutely share past successes. That’s how your donors see that their gift to your organization was a good decision. But share the successes in separate publications; your newsletters, your blog posts, stories on your website, in e-stories, and your annual report.

Focus your appeals on something the donor cares about but that needs help, and the fantastic news that she can make a difference with her gift today.

This is hard because it’s counter-intuitive. But it works like crazy.

Seven Tips for Writing Your Next Appeal


What follows is a short list of quick tips for writing your next appeal letter or e-appeal.

It’s a short list because exhaustive lists can be … exhausting.

But what happens if you’re just trying to get a little better each time you Ask? What if you don’t want to reinvent your fundraising, but just to do this e-appeal better than the last e-appeal?

Then this list is for you.

Think of these as the 20% of tips that get 80% of results. The next time you write, do as many of these as you can. More of your donors will get your main message – and you’ll raise more money!

  1. Be able to summarize the problem that you’re writing about, and what the donor’s gift will do to fight that problem, in no more than two jargon-free sentences.
    • Your letter could be about the problem your organization is facing right now (e.g., ‘School is out, low-income kids won’t get enough to eat this summer…’) or the bigger/long-term problem your organization was created to help solve (e.g., ‘Our Jewish culture is dying out in the Chicago area…’)
  2. Say why you’re writing to the donor in the first two or three paragraphs.
    • The phrase “I’m writing to you today because…” is magic. Use it!
  3. Directly ask your donor to send in a gift somewhere in the first three paragraphs, and somewhere in the last three paragraphs.
  4. This often works perfectly with the “I’m writing to you today because…” phrase. High-performing letters often have couplets like this at the beginning of the letter:
    • “I’m writing to you today because many low-income kids are about to spend summer at home without enough to eat. Will you please send in a gift today to provide supplemental food for at least one child this summer?”
  5. Remember that most donors aren’t reading your Ask; they are scanning it. Two of the places they are most likely to actually read are the beginning and the end. So put your main message in both places to increase the chance your main message will be seen.
  6. Avoid the dreaded Wall of Text – the long paragraphs and long sentences that make up long sections that all run together. Instead, write in short sentences and short paragraphs.
  7. Use the word “you” a lot. I mean a LOT. Your donor should feel like the letter is to her, about something she cares about, and about what she can do about it. There should be at least twice as many uses of “you” as there are mentions of the letter writer and the organization.

Now, go get ‘em! Make your next Ask a little better than the one before. If you do that a few times in a row, you’ll be amazed by how much money you raise and how many more donors you retain!

This post is excerpted from the Better Fundraising e-book “Asks that Make Your Donor Take Action.” Download it for free, here.

The Three Things to Become Great At

three things to get good at

I love getting into the tactics and details of fundraising. Things like “5 Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter” and “How to Choose What to Underline and Why.”

Those tips really help people. They make a meaningful difference in fundraising results.

But tactics and details are not the most important things small and medium nonprofits can do to raise more money.

Keep It Simple

I’m a big fan of keeping things simple. Here’s a quote that perfectly describes fundraising success:

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior.” Dee Hock, Founder of VISA

So for the small nonprofits out there (and for new fundraisers), I propose three “simple, clear purposes” that create fundraising success…

#1 – Become great at Asking people to make donations

Your ability to know what your donors care about, and then Ask them in a way that makes them more likely to take action, is core to successful fundraising.

Super Simple Rules:

  • Ask with vulnerability, as if you actually need help today.
  • Be honest and clear about the bad thing that’s happening in the world today that your donor can help fix.
  • Show your donor how their gift will make a difference.
  • Even Harvard Business Review agrees: keep it simple.

#2 – Become great at Thanking a person who makes a donation

Making a donor feel your gratitude and appreciation is the key to Thanking – and keeping – your donors.

No donor has ever given a donation and thought, “Gosh, I hope this organization sends me an impersonal, boring letter to ‘acknowledge’ my gift and tell me more about the organization!”

But that’s what organizations do ALL THE TIME in their receipt letters and Thank You notes.

Here are my Super Simple Guidelines for Thanking:

  • Make sure the letter in your receipt or thank-you feels like it is about the donor who gave the gift, not about the organization.
  • No matter what vehicle you use to thank her (card, phone, in person, etc.)…
    • Make sure she knows that her gift was needed.
    • Make sure she knows that her gift was appreciated.
    • Tell her how her gift is going to help (not what your organization has already done).

People! A great Thank You is about what the person did, not about what your organization is doing and how you do it!

#3 – Become great at Reporting to your donors on the impact of their gifts

Each donor gives a gift to you in faith that you are going to use it to make the world a better place.

Are you going to show her that she helped make the world a better place? Doesn’t she deserve that? Or are you going to just keep Asking her for more gifts?

Take off your ‘fundraising hat’ for a second and put on your ‘donor hat.’ How would it feel to you if the organizations you support never took the time to show you what your gifts helped accomplish?

Listen, if you want to increase the chances your donor will give you another gift, you need to powerfully show her how her first gift made a difference. Make her feel it.

After all, if she never feels like her gift made a difference, what do you think her likelihood is of giving again?

My Super Simple Rules for Reporting:

  • Have a printed newsletter.
  • Do it at least four times per year.
  • Tell your donor what she did, not what your organization did
  • Show her impact by using stories of beneficiaries.
    (Keep statistics in your top desk drawer for when foundations and high Organizational-IQ major donors come to visit.)

Reporting is the least-understood part of effective long-term fundraising. And believe it or not, it can be done so well that your donors will send in money in response to your newsletters. The manual for this is Tom Ahern’s book. Or watch this free webinar.

Fundraising’s Virtuous Circle

If your organization does those three things well – Asking, Thanking and Reporting – all kinds of good things happen.

Revenue goes up. Donor retention goes up. You “close the loop” on fundraising’s Virtuous Circle.

Of Course There Are Other Things

Things like segmentation, your online fundraising strategy, donor surveys, donor engagement, etc.

But in my experience, doing your Asking, Thanking and Reporting well are the main things that make the biggest difference. So focus on becoming great at those things first.

For instance, if your organization doesn’t know how to Ask well, having a great online fundraising strategy is expensive and inefficient. If you can get 500 people in the ballroom for your event, great. But if you don’t know how to Ask well, you’ll raise far less than you could.

As an organization, make sure your organization is good at Asking, Thanking and Reporting, because you’ll raise more money and be able to help more people.

And as a Fundraiser, make sure you are good at Asking, Thanking and Reporting. Because if you can do those three things well you will rise in the nonprofit sector and make an even bigger difference than you’re making now.

Resources For You

We have a free eBook to help nonprofits get better at Asking. It’s free, go download it.

You’ll probably also want to check out another eBook, Storytelling For Action, which is also a free download. It has the helpful “Story Type Matrix” that shows the research-based guidelines for what types of stories you should tell, and when you should tell them.

My friend, becoming great at Asking, Thanking and Reporting is a knowledge issue, not a talent issue. You can learn this stuff, raise more money, be more confident that your fundraising is going to be successful, and help more people!

This post was originally published on October 11, 2018.

Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter


Right now, I’m noticing that many organizations are saying similar things about coronavirus, and the impact it’s having on their mission. So how do you rise above the chatter and capture your donor’s attention?

You make a great first impression. 

Steven coaches that when writing your appeals and e-appeals, an eye-popping first sentence will pique your donors interest much more than something like: “Recently we held a staff leadership seminar.”  

Be relevant. Be vulnerable. And if your coronavirus message is sounding repetitive, try applying Steven’s 5 tips to help make the start of your next appeal stand out from the crowd.

– Jonathan

The first sentence of your next appeal letter is really important.

Most readers will use it to decide whether to keep reading… or start thinking about whether to recycle or delete your message.

So yeah, it’s important. We’ve written hundreds of appeals and e-appeals over the years, and studied the results. Here are five tips to make your first sentence GREAT:

1. Short and Sweet

Your first sentence should be short and easy to understand. If your first sentence is long, complex, has lots of commas and clauses, and maybe a statistic or two, would you want to keep wading through? Remember, your reader is using it to decide whether to keep reading… or not.

2. Drama, Drama, Drama

Fill it with drama or make it interesting to your donor. Drama and tension are two of the best tools you have for engaging their interest. Or make it something that would be interesting to your donor – which is likely something different than would be interesting to you!

The worst example of this I ever saw was a first sentence that said, “Recently we hosted a staff leadership seminar.” Ouch.

3. What’s The Point?

One of the best first sentences is, “I’m writing to you today because…” That sentence forces you to get right to the point – which donors really appreciate. You want to know why so few donors actually read fundraising letters? It’s because they know how long it takes most nonprofits to get to the point! So if you and your organization get to the point quickly, your donor will be far more likely to read more.

4. Who Cares?

Another great tactic is to make the first sentence about the donor. Think “I know you care about Koala bears” or “You are one of our most generous donors, so I think you’ll want to know…” Listen, most of the other organizations she donates to wax poetic about totally unrelated things or about how great they are. When you write her and talk about her, she’ll love it!

5. Less is More

After you’ve written the first draft of your appeal, you can often delete your first couple of sentences or paragraphs. This happens to me all the time in my own writing, and in appeal letters that I edit for clients. In the first draft, the first couple sentences or paragraphs are often just warmup. They can be deleted and your letter will be stronger because now it gets right to the point.

So next time you’re writing, pay special attention to your first sentence. Keep it short and easy to read. Fill it with drama if you can. And when more people read your writing, more people will donate!

Things an Old Fundraiser Knows

Things an Old Fundraiser Knows

At the beginning of last year, Steven wrote one of his most popular blogs. It came after he’d just finished writing his 25th year-end campaign. The thoughts he jotted down are timeless, and not surprisingly, are super-helpful right now.

In his post, Steven lists off 6 things that he’s discovered on his fundraising journey. I particularly like the last one.

So, in this crazy time, I hope you can take a moment and learn from this old fundraiser. He’s still young at heart, though.

– Jonathan

I just completed my 25th year-end fundraising campaign.

It made me think about the lessons I’ve learned over the years communicating to donors en masse. Not the ‘one major donor who likes this’ or ‘the foundation that likes that,’ but when nonprofits are communicating to everyone on their file.

So in hopes that this is helpful, here are a handful of big-picture things that this Fundraiser has come to realize are enduring truths…

It’s harder than ever to get and keep attention

Get great at getting your donor’s attention. And keeping it. This means more drama and less process. More National Enquirer and less National Geographic. This means louder, bolder, redder, and not that fricking shade of light blue that no older donor can see or read.

Mostly it means not assuming that your donor is going to read anything you send them, let alone the whole thing.

You have to earn their attention, my friend.

The way your organization does its work is rarely important

And I mean rarely.

Most organizations, most of the time, should be talking about the outcomes their work creates. They should not be talking about how the organization creates those outcomes.

So if you find yourself talking about your process, the names of your programs, the features of your programs … rethink what you’re talking to donors about.

The best-performing fundraising is usually about something the donor cares about, at the level at which they understand it, and about what their gift will do about it.

This is a hard truth. It saddens me to say that most small nonprofits never embrace this, and they stay small because of it.

Most small nonprofits have ‘untapped giving’ of 15% to 25% of their total revenue

This is based on applying best practices to a LOT of smaller nonprofits. They simply have a lot of donors who would like to give more money if they are Asked well and then cultivated correctly.

It’s a thrill to get to work with those organizations because the increase is real and immediate.

Most of the barriers to raising more money are self-imposed

The things that are holding back small- to medium-sized nonprofits are almost always fear-based barriers:

  • “We can’t talk to our donors more, we’ll wear them out”
  • “We have to share everything that we do, and that we are good at it”
  • “We can’t be so forward, we need to engage our donors/potential donors more before…”

If you’re willing to do things differently, an experienced fundraiser can help you start raising more money immediately.

Successful fundraising is a knowledge issue, not a talent issue

One of the biggest joys of my life is watching fundraisers become Fundraisers. And it almost always happens when they internalize an idea – like the ones I mention above – rather than learning a new tactic.

Donor generosity is amazing

Donors continue to surprise me, even after 25 years. Their generosity is astounding. They want to make the world a better place. They are looking for opportunities to do so.

And we get to tap into that. For a living.

Fundraisers have the best job in the world.

12 Tips for Fundraising Right Now


Last Friday, I streamed a free two-hour session reviewing Coronavirus fundraising – (mostly emails) and answering specific questions about fundraising during this crazy time.

I’d like to publicly thank Marc Pitman for gathering all the advice dispensed during those two hours and putting it in a super-helpful blog post. Read it here.

And here’s what Marc summarized:

One of the phrases Steven keeps using is encouraging us to “lean into donor generosity.” I love his constant reminder that nonprofits are needed now more than ever. Donors get that. And are currently giving to it. That giving will slow but right now is a time to be asking.

Some other nuggets he says are:

    • Your donors are amazing, and they want to help.
    • Let them decide what is relevant and important to them.
    • Crisis giving spikes, and then slows. The slowing isn’t about donor fatigue. It’s about donor inattention and about the nonprofit’s fundraising irrelevance.
    • Now is not the time to fundraise for the future. Fundraise for the crisis now.
    • Your job is to clearly state how your beneficiaries, or your organization are being impacted by this situation. And how the donor can help.
    • If your most pressing issue is a shortfall in fundraising, tell the donor.
    • Send the emergency email. Resend it to people who didn’t open it. Send it again. Send it every other day.
    • Keep asking until the data tells you to stop. NOT until your feelings tell you. When the appeals stop working, that’s the data telling you to stop.
    • There are still LOTS of older people who haven’t given because they don’t give to emails. If you can get a letter out this week, do it.
    • $25 is a low ask in an email. Average online gifts for many nonprofits is $80, $90, or even $100.
    • Don’t let your unease with asking take away from a donor the chance to make an impact.
    • Now is NOT the time to send an “update on how we’re responding to Covid-19.” That is irrelevant to donors. Share a current need that they can act on.

And one of my favorites: in crisis moments like we’re in right now, “pretty good and fast” will raise more money than “perfect and a couple days later.” Reaching donors now is far better than waiting until things have calmed down. And even better than waiting until you get the wording 100% perfect.

I stand by every one of those.

And I’ll be doing another free review this Friday – you can sign up and submit your materials here.

If you want more guidance right now, here’s a post from last week with the four main ideas that will help you the most right now.

Good luck out there! And stay tuned, we’ll be posting helpful advice every day for the foreseeable future.

The Non-Obvious Mistakes that Cost You Money


This post is a list of what I call “non-obvious mistakes.”

No one in your organization will ever notice them.

But they cost you thousands of dollars every time you send out an appeal.

Because these mistakes are the difference between an appeal that raises $40,000 instead of the $68,000 it could have raised. These are the difference between an appeal that raises $2,500 instead of $8,000.

Regardless of how big or small your organization is, these non-obvious mistakes are expensive:

  • Lack of clarity about what the donor’s gift will do. Saying things like “Please send a gift today to provide hope” are not clear descriptions of what a donor’s gift will accomplish. As Brené Brown puts it, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” (Want to know how to be clear? Have a great offer.)
  • Not printing your donor’s name, address, and suggested gift amounts on their reply card. The tests are clear: customized reply cards with customized gift asks will increase the number of people who respond, and increase the size of gifts they give.
  • Mailing too many people. You’re sending your mailing to all your past donors, even the ones who haven’t given in several years.
  • Making your appeal hard to read. These are things like type that’s below 13pt, too many words per page, too-small margins, too much reverse-type, etc.
  • Not including clear reasons why the donor should give a gift right now, today. Most nonprofit appeals and e-appeals share what’s happening at the organization and ask for support. But they don’t include any reasons that the donor should give a gift right now – and then are weirdly surprised when very few donors give a gift today.
    How many of those mistakes is your organization making on a regular basis?

These get missed because – somewhat rightly – we’re usually focused on the obvious mistakes that everyone knows about:

  • Messing up donor data. Like addressing mail to me as “Dear Seven” instead of “Dear Steven” and doing it for years. (True story.)
  • Print shop foul-ups. Things like half of your donors getting a reply card for a different nonprofit. (Another true story. Super fun!)
  • Lousy Links. When the links and buttons in your email don’t lead donors to the right place.

Everybody who has done direct response fundraising for any length of time has a couple of these under their belt. Things happen. But you can build systems and processes to eliminate most of these obvious mistakes, most of the time.

But it’s the other kind of mistakes that kill you.

It’s the non-obvious mistakes that stop organizations from “making the leap” to the next level.

It’s the non-obvious mistakes that keep organizations from ever reaching the scale they need to make a big difference.

The best thing you can do is learn. Read this blog. Follow people who have done this stuff at scale. For instance, follow Lisa Sargent on Twitter – she’s rocking it lately with great advice. As much as possible, do what experienced people recommend, not what know-nothing opinion-havers in your organization say they like.

And for those of you who can’t do what experienced people recommend because people in your organization won’t let you – hold tight. I’m working on something I’m calling the Convince Your Boss Kit. Stay tuned. And for now, do as much as you can!