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

Last week we released our brand new eBook to help nonprofits get better at Asking. It’s free, go download it.

Our previous eBook, Storytelling For Action, 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!


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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