Unhelpful questions

Bad questions

I get asked questions about appeals ALL THE TIME.

And I believe that all questions are good questions. But not all of the questions are helpful questions.

There are some questions that are signs that a fundraiser or organization is heading down the wrong path.

Think of it this way. Say someone asked you…

“When I’m making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, when do I add the roast beef?”

You’d know that there’s something they don’t quite understand. “There’s nothing wrong with roast beef,” you’d say, “but it’s not a good idea to put it on a PB&J.”

I call questions like that…

Wrong Path Questions

Here’s a small handful of questions where organizations are asking about “when to put the roast beef on their PB&J.”

My reason for doing this is not to poke fun at the silly things nonprofits do (though that’s fun and, let’s admit, there’s a lot of material). My hope is to help Fundraisers like you know how to answer the questions that will invariably come your way from people in your organization who aren’t trained in all this stuff.

“How can we convince people we are effective?”

In a nutshell, you don’t even want to try to convince people that you’re effective in a letter or email. In my experience, doing so will cause your letter or email to raise less money. Donors do care about whether you’re effective, but in your mass donor communications your effectiveness is NOT one of the top reasons they give or don’t give. And in a letter or email, you only have time to talk about the top reasons.

“How can I make this sound like my Executive Director (or ‘our voice’)?”

Making direct mail or email sound like a particular person or “voice” is almost always a mistake. A more helpful goal is to learn the best practices for direct mail and email, then make your materials sound like those best practices. That means short sentences and paragraphs, it means being direct and repetitive. Those approaches are tested and proven to work the best. If “sounding like your voice” means your letter doesn’t sound like effective direct response fundraising, then your voice is hurting your fundraising, not helping.

Marginally effective: direct mail written in your voice.
Effective: direct mail that follows best practices, featuring small elements of your voice

“How can I use emotion without being emotionally manipulative?”

The idea that any of us fundraisers can emotionally manipulate donors is ridiculous. Donors are adults. They can make their own decisions. What you’re trying to do in fundraising is tap into emotions the donor already has.

“We don’t like to share any bad news or Need; how can I Ask effectively?”

You can’t Ask effectively if you don’t share Need. If you don’t like to share bad news or a need, you’ve just removed one of (if not the) most effective tools you have to motivate donors to give. Most donors, most of the time, are motivated to help people (or a cause) in need. Or to avoid the loss of something. If you don’t want to share need, you’ve placed an artificial ceiling on the amount of money you can raise for your beneficiaries or cause.

“We aren’t simple like those big organizations. How can we describe everything we do?”

Those big organizations aren’t simple. They are more complex than you know. But they are incredibly disciplined with their fundraising. They only talk about the parts of their organization that raise the most money. Your job is to find out the parts of your work that donors respond most to, then be disciplined and only talk about those parts. You’ll raise more money that way.

“I don’t like the way fundraising letters look; what else can I use that’s effective?”

Professional fundraising letters look the way they look because that “look” has been proven to work best. They key here is to set aside personal preferences and trust the testing that’s been done over the last 70 years of sending mail to people and analyzing the results.

The Challenge

The challenge for smaller-shop fundraisers is to make sure the “wrong path” questions don’t take your fundraising further down the wrong path.

That’s hard work. Because at small shops there are often multiple people with no direct response fundraising training, and they’re asking questions based on their opinions, not on the science of fundraising.

I hope this helps you face your challenges – at least with these particular questions!


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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