What 90s TV show ER™ can teach you about fundraising appeals


It’s the worst day.

You get a deep cut on your hand while preparing for a summer barbeque. It looks bad to you. So you head to the emergency room!

But when you get to the ER… some bored receptionist takes your name, gives you a load of paperwork, and tells you to sit down and wait.

So you wait. And wait.

Then the automatic doors BURST open, and they wheel in a guy who’s bleeding and eerily still!

“Fell through a plate glass window! We’re losing his pulse!” a paramedic yells.

They wheel the gurney right past where you’re waiting. And a guy who looks a lot like George Clooney LEAPS into action to try and save his life!

You may think you’re in an episode of ER™ (the early years), but you’re actually… in the fundraising ER.

You see, you ended up in your donor’s waiting room because you forgot the urgency in your fundraising appeal.

When asking your donors to give in your appeal letter, you used phrases like:

“Will you consider making a gift today?” or “Please support our organization.”

Meanwhile, another organization used phrases like:

“”Here’s why your gift is needed TODAY” and “Here’s the [negative consequence] that will happen if this problem isn’t solved.”

Here’s why this matters:

Your donors triage their mail a lot like ER docs triage their patients.

Right now! Stat!
For your donor, these are the personal letters, the mysterious envelopes, and fundraising appeals that share the urgency to give today. In the ER, this is the guy on the gurney.

For your donor, this is bills and other stuff she doesn’t dare throw away yet. It may also be fundraising appeals from organizations she especially cares about. In the ER this would be a kid with the stomach flu.

When we get to it.
For your donor, this is everything else. Junk mail and the fundraising appeals that don’t give a good reason to give a gift today. In the ER, this is you with the cut hand… still waiting.

A lot of organizations make the mistake of hiding the urgency from their donors. And their appeal ends up in the “later” or “when we get to it” pile.

Big mistake.

Here’s where my ER metaphor breaks down.

The ER docs will eventually get to you with your cut hand.

But if your appeal gets put in the “later” or “when we get to it” pile, chances are your donor will never get to it.

She’s busy. And there’s more mail arriving tomorrow. So mail that gets set aside tends to get recycled… it just takes a bit longer to get to the recycling bin.

You must SHARE the urgent reason to give with your donor — quickly! On the outer envelope. Right at the start of your letter. Repeated throughout the letter. In the P.S. On the reply card.

That’s what it takes to get noticed in your donor’s mailbox AND in the ER.

Your cause is important — you wouldn’t be writing to your donor otherwise. Make the urgency crystal clear! And tell the donor exactly how she can help.

Reasons to Give Today

Reasons to Give Today.

Hello from San Diego!

As I post this, I’m presenting at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference. The graphic above is part of my presentation, and I thought you’d find it helpful as you create your next piece of fundraising.

It attempts to illustrate a simple principle: when asking for support, the more reasons you can provide that your donor should give a gift right now, the more likely it is that the donor will make a gift.

If the only reasons your nonprofit provides are that the donor’s gift will support your organization and do good work, you’re less likely to receive a gift. Because every nonprofit can say that every day of their existence. That’s what it is to be a nonprofit.

But if you can give your donor more specific reasons that her gift is needed today, you’ll raise more. Reasons that are proven to work well are things like:

  • Matching funds will double the donor’s gift – this appeals to a donor’s sense of thriftiness
  • That there is some need today, some wrong that can be righted – this appeals to a donor’s moral sense of right and wrong, and her belief that she’s a person who responds when people or causes she cares about are in need
  • That something bad will happen if help is not received – this appeals to donors because humans are motivated to avoid negative things happening

Those aren’t the only reasons; there are lots of others.

But for today’s purposes, think about this the next time you create a piece of fundraising. Don’t just tell your donor that her gift will support your organization and do more good. Any organization can say that. Instead, provide your donor with more specific reasons she should give a gift today. If you do, you’ll receive more gifts.

Keep Up the Urgency

Urgent Alarm

“Urgency” was one of the reasons so many organizations’ direct response fundraising raised so much money during the pandemic.

Fundraising that was urgent tapped into donors’ wishes to do something to help right now.

But sounding urgent all the time is tiring.  Fundraisers are tired of it.

So a lot of nonprofits are dialing back the urgency.

And they are going to raise less money.

This is a plea to keep the urgency in your fundraising work this year.

You Might Be Tired of It, But Donors Aren’t

You might be tired of sounding urgent all the time, but your donors aren’t.

Remember, you and your organization read every word of every thing you send out.  Sometimes you read it twice or three times because you’re involved in creating it.

But most donors read less than half of the things you send out.  And they don’t usually read, they scan.

So they haven’t heard it nearly as many times.  Just because you and other stakeholders are tired of it doesn’t mean donors are tired of it.

Urgency is a Signal

It’s always good to remember just how many appeals your donors see on a daily or weekly basis. 

My sense is that donors use the urgency of a message to help answer the question, “Does this organization really need a gift today?”  If the copy and design are urgent, you have a greater chance to break through the clutter, a greater chance that the donor will pick your organization to support.

Or you can reduce the urgency and blend in with all the other appeals on her desk and in her inbox.

Stop Being Urgent When Urgency Stops Working

Keep using urgency until urgency stops working.  Let your donors decide; don’t make the decisions for them.

And as I mentioned earlier, you’ll get tired of it faster than donors will, because you pay more attention and you see it more often.

Be Urgent Even If It Doesn’t Feel Urgent to You

Some organizations are so used to their work – are so used to the new world we live in – that their work doesn’t seem that urgent any longer.

But I bet what happens today and tomorrow is urgent to your beneficiaries. 

And I bet it feels urgent to the vast majority of your donors, too.

Don’t Hide the Need Behind Boilerplate Copy and Pastel Design

If your organization or beneficiaries have a need, don’t hide that need from your donors.

Your organization exists in part to share the need – to make more people aware of the need so that more people are motivated to meet the need.

The urgency of the last year helped a lot of organizations stop hiding the need behind boilerplate industry jargon and lovely pastel design.  They were clear about the needs facing their beneficiaries.  They used urgent oranges and klaxon reds.

And it worked like crazy.

If your beneficiaries or cause are facing needs right now, don’t let up.  Especially because after a year of this, the edges are fraying and the seams are showing for a lot of children … and families … and organizations.

So now, as even the media is moving on from the pandemic and won’t be reinforcing your fundraising messages, baking urgency into your fundraising is more important than ever.

It’s urgent that you do.

How and Why to Give Your Donors a Reason to Give Today

Brain and Heart.

This is the sixth post in a series designed to help you create powerful fundraising offers.

And for a refresher, here’s my definition of an offer: the main thing that you say will happen when the person gives a gift.

The Four Main Ingredients

The most successful fundraising offers tend to have 4 elements:

  1. A solvable problem that’s easy to understand
  2. A solution to that problem that’s easy to understand
  3. The cost of the solution seems like a good deal
  4. There’s urgency to solve the problem NOW

Today, we’re going to break down element #4, “there’s urgency to solve the problem NOW.”

There’s Urgency to Solve the Problem NOW

There are two main ideas here…

There’s urgency

I cannot emphasize this enough: the more urgently your donor’s gift is needed, the more likely you are to receive a gift.

And let’s take care of an objection to this right off the bat. Immediately upon reading the previous paragraph, some people will say that using urgency too often will wear out donors, cause donor fatigue, and your donors will stop giving to you.

They will not test this approach. They will simply “know” that always using urgency will drive donors away.

This is not true.

Remember, your donors do not open every piece of mail. They open 3 out of 10 emails (if you’re good). So a pattern that seems to you like never-ending urgency can seem to donors like you’re asking for an appropriate amount of help – help that is needed for the important cause you’re working on.

The success of my career is due largely to knowing that mass-donor fundraising can be more urgent, more often than people think. And it will have almost zero negative consequences. (Because of course you’ll get a complaint or two – but when you compare those one or two complaints against the hundreds of gifts you receive, the complaints feel like a small hurdle.)

So let’s agree that urgency works. Here’s what you want to do…

Solve the Problem NOW

Here’s what you want to do: every email, letter, newsletter and event should give people multiple reasons to give a gift today.

You want to create urgency in any fundraising piece by highlighting reasons your donor should give a gift today. Here’s a brief list of reasons you can use in your own fundraising:

  1. A deadline. This can be a real deadline (“Our fiscal year ends June 30th”) or an artificial deadline (“Please send your gift by the first day of school”) – they both work like crazy.
  2. What will happen if your organization doesn’t do its work. This is making clear what will happen to your beneficiaries or cause if your organization is not able to help; “If we don’t help the middle-schooler learn to read, she’ll enter high-school at a massive disadvantage” and “If we don’t cure this person in time, they will lose their eyesight” and “If this program is not funded, children in our town will have nowhere to learn about the Arts.”

    a. Many organizations don’t like to share this information. But it’s a fact! It’s the reason your organization exists! In my view, those organizations are hiding the truth from their donors. They aren’t treating their donors like adults. Trust me; your donors can handle it. And sharing what could happen if your organization doesn’t help reminds donors what’s at stake – it reminds donors why they gave a gift in the first place.

  3. Social Proof. If you can show donors that “people like them are making donations like this” you will raise more money. Here’s a phrase that has helped our smaller clients have a lot of success: “[DonorName], compassionate people all over [LocalArea] are pitching in to help [Beneficiaries/Cause] – please do your part today by sending in a gift!”

Remember: LOTS of charities are asking your donors for gifts. Most of them are using the, “Hey, we’re helping a lot of people, would you partner with us?” approach. And that will cause some gifts to come in. But if you really want to stand out in your donors’ mailbox and inbox, you need to give her reasons to give a gift to you today.

You do that well, and you’ll get more gifts.

Next Up…

The next post will show you why some people in your organization won’t like a strong fundraising offer (something I suspect you already know is going to happen).

And I’ll show you how I convince people to try an offer for the first time. Because after they try it – and don’t see the massive number of complaints and donor exodus they fear – you’re on your way to using offers and raising more money!

Read the entire series:

  1. How to Create a Great Fundraising Offer: What’s an Offer?
  2. Why a Good Fundraising Offer Works So Well
  3. The Ingredients in Successful Offers
  4. How to Describe the “Solution” Your Organization Provides
  5. How to Raise More Money by Asking for the Right Amount
  6. How and Why to Give Your Donors a Reason to Give Today
  7. What About Internal Experts Who Don’t Like Fundraising Offers?
  8. How to Make Sure a Low-Priced Offer Does NOT Produce Small Gifts
  9. Half As Important
  10. Offers for Major Donors
  11. Summarizing and Closing This Chapter on Fundraising Offers