The Only Rule?


As far as I can tell, there’s only one thing that sets successful fundraisers apart from unsuccessful fundraisers. And that thing is…

The people who are successful don’t care whether they like the fundraising or not.

I’m serious. They just don’t care whether they like it. Or don’t like it.

They just care if it works.

They understand that they are doing direct response fundraising. And that some tactics and messages work better than others. And that the goal of fundraising is to send messages that donors respond to, not the messages the organization prefers to send.

Your Opportunity

If there are voices in your organization saying “I don’t like that” or “I wouldn’t give to that,” you should know that you could be raising more money.

Because basing fundraising decisions on what you like or don’t like stops your organization from discovering what donors like.

And it stops your organization from using best practices discovered by direct response fundraisers who have gone before us.


Here are some examples of things that people don’t like but are proven to work well:

  • Including a reply card with your receipt letter
  • Writing at a lower grade level
  • Using emotion liberally
  • Being repetitive
  • Sharing real needs with donors

Hot Off the Press

We have a client that’s facing this very issue as I write this.

They are doing their first ever Fiscal Year End campaign. They are a little behind budget for the fiscal year, and their letter asks donors to help erase the shortfall with a special gift.

They were a little nervous about doing it. But I convinced them by sharing results from other organizations that had run similar campaigns.

The campaign is working great. It’s one of their most successful appeals of the year. We’re already above goal and the campaign isn’t over yet.

But a couple of board members and major donors have been upset by the campaign. From my experience, I suspect they were upset because they fear that the “shortfall” messaging puts the organization in a bad light, and it will cause donors to give less or stop giving altogether.

My counsel to this organization is based on all sorts of case studies on this exact subject:

  1. Appeals like this resonate with donors (as evidenced by the incredible response to this appeal).
  2. Appeals like this make some internal stakeholders (including some close-in major donors) nervous. They are nervous for the reasons I mentioned above. However, there is no data-based evidence of their fears coming true. And I’ve done this lots of times. (And – true story – those close-in major donors who were nervous end up making an extra gift to the campaign more often than not.)

In other words, the organization might not like this messaging. And there are occasional issues and personal reactions to discuss. But this messaging works great.

And to bring things full circle, the most successful fundraisers don’t care whether they like the fundraising or not.

They only care whether it works.


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

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