How ‘Tactic Stacking’ Helps You Raise More Money


My last post was an introduction to the idea that donors often make decisions to give (or not to give) based on information that has nothing to do with the organization or its programs. 

When an organization first makes this realization, a whole new world is opened up.

They see that, instead of just looking for new inspirational ways to describe their work, they start using the tactics and approaches that the “Fundraisers who came before us” discovered were effective.

Examples include:

  • Matching funds – “matching funds will double your impact!”
  • A deadline – “Please send your gift by June 30th”
  • Highlighting a need that’s happening soon – “The kids start arriving at camp in just a couple weeks!”
  • A limited time opportunity – “If we don’t buy this piece of property for our new building, it’ll go up for public sale.”

The magic really starts to happen (and the money really starts to roll in) when you do what’s called “tactic stacking” – using multiple tactics at the same time.

Take a look at this paragraph, which “stacks” all four of the tactics mentioned above:

The kids will be arriving at our summer camp at the end of the month!  [NEED THAT’S HAPPENING SOON] And I’m thrilled to tell you that matching funds will double your gift – you can help send two children to camp instead of one!  [MATCHING FUNDS]  This is the only chance to send a kid to camp this year.  [LIMITED TIME OPPORTUNITY]  So please send your gift before June 30th! [DEADLINE].

See how all those tactics work together to create a compelling argument for a donor to send in a gift today?

And that’s just the copy.  Here are some of the Design tactics we could “stack on” to make this appeal even more compelling:

  • Use illustrations of kids doing fun camp activities
  • Have the reply device be designed to look like a “certificate” that’s “good for a day at camp for a child”
  • An insert that lists the daily schedule at camp, where a child has written in all the activities they are excited to do

Once you start to learn all the tactics, creating fundraising becomes an endlessly fun, creative endeavor.  You’re no longer constrained to just talking about the programs and outcomes of your organization; you’re unleashed to use human psychology and behavior science to build compelling cases for your organization.

Today, your organization is somewhere on the continuum between “we just describe our work and ask for support” and “using all the tactics all the time.”

So I’ll just ask you a simple question: what tactic or tactics could you apply to your next piece of fundraising?

Make Your Appeal Letters Accessible

Accessible typewriter.

We want to help you create appeal letters that are accessible for your donors.

You may have heard that the average donor is a 65-year-old woman.  She receives a LOT of mail.  To get through it all, she’s scanning and in a hurry.  But that doesn’t change the fact that she wants to make a difference.

The easier it is for a donor to read and understand your appeals, the more accessible your appeals are, and the more likely your donors are to give.

Here are some ways to make your appeals more accessible for your donors:

  • Use font size 12 and up.
  • Indent the beginning of each paragraph.
  • Write in high-contrast colors (black text on white paper).
  • Write at a middle-school grade level.
  • Use underlines and bolded sentences to show donors the most important sentences.  Each emphasized phrase should be understandable without reading the whole letter in case the highlighted sentences are the only ones she has time to read.
  • Use a double-space after a period.  It will be slightly easier for her to separate your sentences.

Writing accessible appeal letters will help more of your appeals get read, and show your donor the incredible difference she can make for your beneficiaries.  But your donor won’t know the difference she can make if the appeal is written in small text she can’t read, or if it uses colors she can’t see clearly.

It’s little changes like this that will make your appeal letters accessible, and help you raise more money!

Could Your Fundraising Be More Accessible?


Here’s a goal for your fundraising in 2024 – make it more accessible.

The ethical reasons are clear: we should not make unnecessary design and language choices that make it harder for people to see, read and understand.

Additionally, the financial reasons are clear:

  • When more people can easily read your fundraising, more of your fundraising will be consumed, and you’ll raise more money.
  • When more people can quickly understand your fundraising, more people will keep reading, and you’ll raise more money.

Our next three blog posts will be full of tips for how you can make your fundraising more accessible.  All of the tactics we’ll share, as well as the overall idea, are part of the Universal Design movement.  (But we just call it smart fundraising 🙂 )

In the meantime, take a look at your fundraising and ask yourself:

  • Is the text easy for an older person to read?
  • Is the design easy for a “scanner” to quickly know what’s most important?
  • Is the copy written so that the reader needs a college education to understand it, or is it accessible to people with less education?

It’s emotionally stretching for an organization to make their fundraising more accessible.  But you’ll be doing the right thing.  And in my experience, you’ll also raise more money.

There Is No Secret Meeting

Secret meeting.

For small nonprofits that are struggling to raise money, it’s tempting to imagine that there’s a secret meeting.

You know, the meeting where all the donors from your town get together on Zoom and decide not support your organization.

If your fundraising life feels that way, you might consider asking yourself a couple of questions. 

  • Does your fundraising make it clear what will happen when the donor gives a gift, stated in concrete (not conceptual) language?
  • Have you told people how a gift to your organization will improve a situation that they care about?
  • If donating to your organization might feel risky to donors, what can you do to make it feel less risky?
  • When donors have given to your organization in the past, did your organization take the credit (“Look at what our team accomplished!”) or did you give the credit away to donors (“Look at what you and your generosity accomplished!”)?
  • Does your fundraising make it clear that you need their help?  If not, are you able to boldly and vulnerably ask for support?

When a nonprofit feels like the biggest secret in town, it’s usually something about their fundraising that’s keeping it that way.

You Don’t Need to Convince Your Donors


There’s an approach to fundraising that believes that your fundraising must convince the donor that what you’re working on is important before they will read your message or give a gift.

This is happening any time you see an appeal start out with a statistic.  “There are over 14,000 children in the LA area aging out of the foster care system each year” is one example.  “43% of the wetlands in Okanagan are currently unprotected” is another.

These stats are meant to communicate to the donor that what’s being written about is Important, that this is a Big Deal

The organization’s thinking goes something like, “If the donor only realized how important and what a big problem this is, they would give a gift.” 

In my experience, this approach does not work very well.

Here’s an approach that works better: believe that your donor already cares.

After all, each gift to your organization is a sign that the donor cares about the situation you’re working on and/or your organization.  Your donors have already put themselves on the hook for your cause. 

If you believe that your reader already cares, you skip the whole “try to convince them” part.  This leads to appeals that:

  1. Tell the donor what’s happening right now,
  2. Give an example (usually in the form of a story) of how what’s happening right now is affecting a person / the wetland / whatever you work on,
  3. Tells the donor specifically what their gift will do to help.

By skipping the whole “we have to convince them this is important” part, the letter or email is free to get right to what the donor is more likely to be interested in: what’s happening now, and what their gift will do about it.

Moving forward, trust that your donors don’t need to be convinced.  They’ve already told you with their attention and generosity.

Two Audiences = Two Approaches

2 approaches.

There’s a big difference between writing appeal letters and writing grant applications.

When you’re writing a grant application you know that it will be read.  In fact, someone is paid to read it.

When you’re writing an appeal letter (or an e-appeal) you know that it will arrive in a mailbox in competition with everything else the donor is receiving.  No one is paid to read it.

That’s a big difference.

The audiences for grant applications and appeals are completely different.  This explains why the writing style for an appeal is different than the writing style for a grant application. 

If your grant applications and your appeals sound the same, one of them is completely missing the mark.

8.25 Seconds

8 seconds.

Let me share two numbers with you:

  • 8.25 seconds — the average length of time a human can focus on a single task.
  • 3 minutes — how long it takes to read the average appeal letter from a nonprofit.

Makes you realize why most fundraising appeal letters don’t work well, doesn’t it?

(By the way, you may read the “8 seconds” stat and think the same thing I thought: wait a minute, people concentrate for longer than 8 seconds all the time.  You and I have watched movies from beginning to end, and we’ve read entire books.  But movies and books are in a category called “preferred activities” – and it’s hard to argue that “reading an appeal letter” is a preferred activity for a donor with a full mailbox.)

So I’m not here to argue that your appeal letters should be 8 seconds long.  But I will argue that making your appeal letters understandable in 8 seconds makes your fundraising more inclusive and opens your organization up to gifts from far more people.

Here’s how to make your appeals “understandable” in just a few seconds:

  • Get to the point quickly.  Do NOT slowly build your case and then make your point (usually the Ask) at the end of the letter.  Save that approach for grant applications.
  • Use visual emphasis (underlining, bolding, arrows, etc.) to draw attention to the most important information.  The ideas you highlight should summarize the letter.

The most successful appeals are two letters in one: a person can glance through your letter and “get the gist” in just a few seconds, and then get the fuller picture if they choose to read the whole letter. 

Writing and designing your letters (and emails) this way is not what your English teacher taught you.  It’s probably not a style that’s preferred by important people in your organization.

But if you can write and design your appeals to remove the barrier of “a person must read the whole thing to get our point,” then you’ve opened up your organization to a new world full of supporters.

Three Rules For ‘We’


I read an appeal recently where the first sentence was:

“We’re facing a crisis.”

Think about that sentence with me for a moment. Who does the “we” refer to?

As far as I can tell, the possibilities for the “we” are:

  • The organization itself.
  • The writer and the reader.
  • Everyone on the planet.
  • Everyone who cares about the issue the organization works on.
  • Everyone in the city/region where the organization is based.

For now, let’s set aside how important first sentences are and how it’s not ideal to start an appeal with a sentence with multiple meanings.

Instead, let’s focus on that “we”…

The next time you read a piece of fundraising, I can almost guarantee you that you’ll see a “we” that could refer to at least a couple of groups. I make this error in my own first drafts all the time.

Over time I’ve developed three questions that I ask myself when I see the word “we” (and its close cousin, “us”). These questions are an easy way to make your fundraising writing to individual donors more clear and more impactful.

Can I make it abundantly clear who the “we” refers to?

This results in changes like this:

  • From “We care about the…” to “The staff and I care about the…”
  • From “We need to save the wetland…” to “Everyone who lives in this watershed needs to save the wetland…”

Fundraising that’s crazy easy to understand lowers the cognitive load on the reader. That keeps more people reading, and results in more money being raised. Clarity is good.

You get it. And speaking of “you”…

Can I directly include the donor?

This results in changes like this:

  • From “Together, we can…” to “Together, you and I can…”
  • From “We don’t want to cut back…” to “You and I don’t want to cut back…”

Directly including the donor with the word “you” gets them more emotionally involved, which increases the likelihood of them giving a gift.

And finally…

Can I remove the organization entirely?

Two examples for you:

  • From “We need your help more than ever…” to “Your help is needed more than ever…”
  • From “A gift today helps us make transformations like this possible.” to “A gift today makes transformations like this possible.”

Focusing the donor’s attention on their role, as opposed to the organization’s role, is a surefire way to keep individual donors more engaged in direct mail and email.

Any time you see the word “we” or “us,” ask yourself these three questions. You’ll make your writing more relevant to your readers, which is key to raising more from your readers.

Three Lessons from Writing Fundraising with Chat GPT

Writing robot.

I recently had an experience with AI that opened my eyes to a couple things that I think you’ll benefit from knowing. Here’s the story…

At Better Fundraising we have a letter that asks donors to consider leaving an organization in their will. We create versions of this letter for our customers, and it’s quite successful.

But we want to make it easy for all our customers to create their own version of the letter.

So, I pasted the letter into ChatGPT and asked ChatGPT to “anonymize” it. My goal was to keep the letter the same, but take out the organization it was written for, resulting in something like a template.

ChatGPT successfully anonymized the letter… but without being asked added a mass of nonprofit-ese. It took short, simple sentences and made them longer & more complex. It took casual language and made it formal. It took personal writing and made it corporate. Ugh.

Lesson #1: Chat GPT does not naturally differentiate between the types of writing needed for different types of fundraising. AI lumps “grant applications” and “direct response e-appeals” and “brochure copy” all under “fundraising.” In a nutshell, the letter it wrote for me “had too much grant application in a direct response fundraising appeal.” The writing for those two types of fundraising should be significantly different – but AI doesn’t know that.

Lesson #2: The dataset that AIs are based on is full of fundraising writing that’s overly formal, lacks specificity, and is difficult to read. This is a “garbage in, garbage out” situation – if most of the writing that ChatGPT used to create its understanding of fundraising is poor, then the writing that ChatGPT creates is going to be poor.

So, to be more specific and teach ChatGPT what I was looking for, I went ahead and wrote the anonymized letter/template myself. Then I pasted my version into Chat GPT and told it that my letter was they style I was looking for.

For fun, I asked it to analyze the letter and describe what was different about my version.

Here’s how ChatGPT replied…

Let’s analyze the differences between the two versions.

  1. Directness: Your version gets straight to the point, with a direct appeal right from the start. My initial version began by establishing context, potentially adding unnecessary fluff.
  2. Specificity: While my version aimed to generalize various aspects, your version maintained specificity in areas crucial to the appeal’s emotional resonance, like discussing the importance of the work done by the organization.
  3. Language: Your language is more personal and direct. For example, “You didn’t have to donate, but you did.” is a straightforward acknowledgment of the donor’s choice to give.
  4. Structure and Flow: Your version flows more like a conversation, emphasizing gratitude and then transitioning to the ask. It feels more personal and less formal.
  5. Reference to Beneficiaries: Your letter consistently references the beneficiaries of the work, focusing on the impact the donations have. My version was slightly more focused on the organizational aspect.
  6. Narrative: Your letter includes a personal story about revising wills, making the ask more relatable. While my version had this as well, the context and personal touch felt stronger in your version.
  7. Call to Action: Your version includes a clearer call to action, specifically about using the enclosed card for notifying about the bequest. It gives readers a tangible next step.

In summary, while both versions aimed to maintain the letter’s integrity and goal, your version manages to be personal, direct, and emotionally compelling.

Color me impressed with how well ChatGPT defined the differences between our approaches. And I couldn’t help feeling that the AI had given me a compliment, which was weirdly satisfying.

Those seven principles above are GREAT advice for writing effective direct response fundraising. When you are creating appeals, newsletters, e-appeals, etc., follow those tips and you’ll immediately be a more effective Fundraiser. I bet you could paste any piece of individual donor fundraising into ChatGPT or any other AI, then ask the AI to modify it by applying the 7 principles above, and the fundraising would be more effective.

Lesson #3: AI looks at all fundraising writing as equal – it doesn’t know how each piece performed, so it doesn’t know which approaches and types of stories raise more. At Better Fundraising know from experience & data that “personal, direct, and emotionally compelling” fundraising writing will tend to raise more money. But ChatGPT doesn’t know that because it doesn’t see results!

ChatGPT does not know that one appeal letter got a 2% response rate and another one got a 5% response rate. So when ChatGPT creates fundraising, it’s pulling from “everything it’s seen, regardless of how it worked.” When Better Fundraising creates fundraising, we’re pulling from “everything we’ve seen that we know worked great.” There’s a big difference.

ChatGPT is an incredible tool. But, at least for now, there’s no danger that it’s going to replace an experienced Fundraiser.

PS — If you’re interested in learning more about creating fundraising with AI, there’s a popular video of me using Chat GPT to write an appeal on the fly for an organization that I’d never spoken to before. People like it because you’ll quickly see all the strengths and negatives of using AI to write fundraising for individual donors. You’ll be able to decide whether it’s a good tool for your workflow or not. You can watch the video here.