One sure way to make your fundraising better

The single best thing you can do to improve your fundraising?

Come to terms with a hard truth: You are not your donors.

They’re probably older than you, for one thing, which means they have a completely different frame of reference, and for another thing, they have a completely different perspective about your organization, because they’re on the outside, not “in the bubble” like you are.

These differences in perspective between you and your donors can cause problems when you’re creating your fundraising appeals.

For example, these differences will influence the photos you use in your direct mail and email appeals, the kinds of stories you tell in your appeals, and how you write and structure your appeals.

And all three of these will have a huge impact on how much money you’ll raise. There’s more to this. Get the whole story here:

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Want more of your regular donors to become monthly donors?

Nonprofits love monthly donors for obvious reasons. Monthly donors give consistently, require less frequent fundraising, and tend to be more loyal.

But to get regular donors to opt into monthly donor status, you have to make this seem like something they would want to do. Which makes this email effort so puzzling. It begins:

I’m deeply grateful for your support as we work together to bring needed resources to our neighbors experiencing homelessness. 

As our partner, you’ve truly provided a lifeline to many local community members, especially with the current high cost of living and the uncertainty that accompanies it. 

That’s the opening. And for these two paragraphs, I’m wondering why they’re writing to me at all, except to express gratitude and suggest that our work is completed, since I’ve apparently already “provided a lifeline.”  I’m thinking “what’s this about? Is it a thank-you email?” It goes on:

Because I know we share the vision of a community without homelessness, I’m inviting you today to join the [monthly donor program name], the [nonprofit’s] monthly giving circle. 

Members of [monthly donor program name] donate monthly to ensure vital services are available all year long. This support is critical in ending the cycle of homelessness. 

Oh, so that’s it. They want me to become a monthly donor. But wait a second, I thought that as an occasional donor I was already ‘sharing the vision’ and ‘ending the cycle of homelessness’ with the gifts I give, at least that’s what they’ve been telling me. It continues:

With your [monthly donor program name] membership, you can help countless neighbors regain self-sufficiency and hope for the future.  

Again, I thought I was already doing this with the gifts I currently give. It continues:

And by signing up online, you can automate monthly gifts, save money on postage, and help reduce administrative costs, too — all while providing access to vital care for community members facing homelessness. 

It’s only at this point, at the end of the email, that I see some reasons why I might actually want to become a monthly donor. But these reasons are only tacked on as an afterthought.

A couple things about this. First, there’s this idea that every communication to a donor has to open with gratitude for their support. Sure, there’s a time for thanking and appreciating donors. But not in every communication. What’s more, by telling me that I’ve already provided a lifeline to community members, they’re suggesting that the job is completed, so what do you need me for as a donor?

Second, if you want me to change my pattern of behavior – like going from an occasional donor to a monthly donor – you better give some pretty good reasons to do it. And those reasons should probably be at or very close to the beginning of the email in order to get my attention.

Even more to the point, those reasons should be compelling. In this email, I’m offered the opportunity to “automate monthly gifts, reduce postage costs, and help reduce administrative costs.” These aren’t exactly barnburners. Not many donors are sitting in front of their computer thinking, “Gee, I’d really like to automate monthly gifts.”

There are good, solid reasons a donor would consider becoming a monthly donor, but you have to lay out those reasons explicitly and do it in a way that’s interesting and advantageous for the donor. You can’t expect donors to fill in the gaps on their own and convince themselves. They won’t. Instead, they’ll just move onto the next email.  

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Why this trait is essential for your fundraising

Curiosity. It’s a trait that virtually all people share, and it’s one that we definitely want to tap into for fundraising.

Arousing curiosity is a tried and true way to get donors to notice your direct mail or email appeal, encourage them to keep reading, and guide them to give a gift.

Of all the techniques we use in direct response fundraising, curiosity is probably one of the most reliable.

But how do you wield it? Three tips:

  • Reveal some information but not all of it. Curiosity lies in the gap between what we know and what we want to know.
  • Talk about the potential for a big reward or a big disaster. Donors will instinctively want to know what might be coming.
  • Shock or provoke your donors a little. You can nudge or even challenge your donors to want to find out more.

There’s a lot more to each of these three tips – including specific examples – and you can find it here:

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When disaster fundraising works and when it doesn’t

If you haven’t already, you’ll probably soon receive a barrage of emails appealing to you for donations to help the victims of the horrible earthquake in Turkey and Syria. This is of course a worthy cause. The need is overwhelming. And the rest of the world should do everything possible to help.

Which makes this email subject line so puzzling. Here it is:

“How we’re saving lives in Turkey right now.”


Then in the email itself, there’s this headline:

“How we’re saving lives in Turkey right now.”

Double huh.

Imagine you’re a potential donor. What’s your reaction to that line? Mine is that it looks like they’re got everything covered. Time to move onto the next email in the inbox.

With that subject line and headline, I’m left completely out of this as a potential donor. And that’s too bad.

Because the quake zone is total devastation. Tens of thousands killed. Survivors left without shelter, food, sanitation. The risk of cholera and other diseases. It’s destruction on a mass scale.

However much this nonprofit has done, it’s a drop in the bucket. There’s sooooo much more to do. They need my donation. And I want to give it. But they’re not making it easy. They’re not engaging me. In fact, they’re suggesting that I’m not needed.

The text of the email begins by referencing the death and destruction. But in the second paragraph, it reiterates the work that the charity is doing. Again, giving the impression that they’ve got this covered and don’t need my gift.

This is followed by a bulleted list. But it’s not a list of what needs to be done. It’s a list of what they’re already doing. Further on in the email, it says that their teams do whatever it takes.

Granted, there is a donate button with the words “Rush your gift.” But still, the messaging has an inside-our-four-walls, organizational framing, not a donor-centric one. There’s a lot of “we,” “us,” and “look at what we’re doing,” instead of “you” and “here’s how you can help.”

Of course this email will probably raise a lot of money. That’s the thing with disaster fundraising. It often does well even if it’s done badly, because donors are generous people who do want to help. Still, donors want to be involved. They want to feel like their support is needed. So instead of making it about what the nonprofit is already doing, it should be more about how much you, the donor, is urgently needed now to save lives. Messaging along those lines can raise even more revenue. Which would save even more lives.

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How to keep your donors interested in your fundraising appeal

It’s the age-old problem: how to engage the readers of your direct-response fundraising appeal to, first, start reading and then to continue reading.

Luckily, we have some tips from Clarification blog:

  • Talk less about us (the nonprofit) and more about you (the donor).
  • Use shorter paragraphs to make copy more inviting and easier to read.
  • Don’t stop at a compelling headline or subject line. Also consider the subheads, the PS, the salutation, and other components to keep readers engaged.
  • Use a metaphor to paint a picture for your readers.
  • Use quotations but keep them short, so they’re more likely to be read.

These are all good tips.

But there’s one additional aspect to good copywriting to add to this list. It’s vital if you want to keep readers motivated, and that’s using transitions.

Transitions are invaluable if you want to keep your readers moving from one paragraph to the next like a slinky toy going down stairs.

And in linking your paragraphs together, transitions also make a piece of copy seem like a coherent, crafted whole – a good thing.

The transitions to use? There are an infinite number, limited only by your imagination. But some that are frequently used include phrases like “that’s just the beginning,” “and don’t forget this,” “and here’s the point,” “we’re not done yet,” “what does this mean to you?” and many, many others.

Using transitions is one of the best ways to help ensure that your readers take in your complete fundraising message. And that’s your best chance of moving them to give.

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Two ways to begin a fundraising appeal – from Jerry Huntsinger

In Jerry Huntsinger’s “86 Tutorials in Creating Fundraising Letters and Packages,” he makes a point about how to begin a fundraising appeal.

He makes his point with an example. It’s an appeal for a cancer charity. It begins:

“Children shouldn’t have to face the devastation of cancer and death. But they do. Each year, hundreds of children…”

It’s the standard, institutional, boilerplate blah, blah, blah. Jerry notes that where the letter actually begins is in the fifth paragraph, with this:

“Lance was diagnosed with leukemia two days before Christmas. He was 2 years old. ‘Lance was so sick that they flew us to Twin Cities for immediate treatment,’ his mother said. ‘His platelets were so low that his teeth bled through the night.’”

BAM – there you are, right in the middle of the drama. Nothing institutional about that. Nothing blah, blah, blah about that. Especially that detail about the boy’s teeth bleeding – that detail gets you.

Sure, starting an appeal with a story is a tried-and-true approach. But here’s the point. The first opening – “Children’s shouldn’t have to face …” – is basic expository prose. It’s simply explaining something. It’s simply conveying a generalization about children and cancer. It’s not trying to involve you. (It’s something you’d get from ChatGPT if you asked it to write an appeal about childhood cancer.)

The second opening – “Lance was diagnosed …” – is meant specifically to involve you. It’s telling you that this letter is about a human drama playing out right before your eyes. It’s one human being talking to another.

As Jerry says, the second opening will raise more money.

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What makes a good offer for a fundraising appeal and what makes a bad one

Why does the offer matter so much in direct mail fundraising? Let’s take a look at an appeal to find out.

This is a fundraising appeal from a military nonprofit, and in the body of the letter, the first ask is this: Please let your service members know you stand with them by sending your most generous donation you can to [charity name] today.

So that’s the call to action – to “stand with” service members. To be honest, that’s a problem. Because “stand with” is vague. It’s a generalization. It’s an abstraction. It’s up in the clouds, instead of being down-on-the-ground concrete.

The donor isn’t being asked to solve a specific problem, help a specific person, or even to fund a specific initiative of this nonprofit. But to stand with service members. That doesn’t give the donor much to go on.

The second ask in the letter doesn’t give much to go on either. It’s this: We rely on the generosity of individual Americans in supporting our military. That is why I am asking you to support our troops and their families by giving whatever you can afford to [charity name]. Your gift of $15, $25, or more will make a real difference in the life of a brave hero who is fighting for every one of us.

A couple things here. The donor shouldn’t be asked to give to a charity. Donors aren’t motivated by giving to a charity. They’re motivated by helping someone or solving a problem or righting a wrong.

But even beyond that, this ask is again general, vague, and nonspecific. The donor is asked to “support our troops,” but there’s no indication of what that means in this context or how giving a gift will accomplish it.

Those two calls to action are in the body of the letter. Let’s take a look at the main call to action in the response device. It says: Please help strengthen our service members by keeping them connected to family, home, and country. Your tax-deductible gift to [charity name] will also provide other much-needed services to our military heroes and their families.

So, first we have “help strengthen our service members,” which is vague. Then we have “keeping them connected to family, home, and country.” Okay, that’s a hint of something. It’s good for service members to be connected to home. But how my gift would do that is not explained. Then there’s this: “…will also provide other much-needed services…” Other much-needed services? Like what?

This offer provides almost nothing for the donor to latch onto. And in doing so, it fails to answer the donor’s most basic questions. Like, How will my gift help? What will it do? What problem will it solve? Who will it help? These are the questions that must be answered for the donor before she’ll even consider giving.

In addition to that, instead of being asked to fund a small, specific part of the nonprofit’s mission, the donor is asked to fund the whole thing. That’s too big. It’s too much. Especially when that mission is something vague like keeping service members connected with family, home, and country.

In direct mail fundraising, with the exception of the list, the offer that you make to donors is probably the most important part of the whole project. In large measure, it’s the offer that determines whether the appeal soars or sinks. Less so for the writing, the graphics, the logo, the size of the envelope, and so on. Those things are important, of course. But ultimately it’s the offer that provides the motivation to give. And if that offer is vague and mushy, then you can expect the response to be too.

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What’s AI got to do with copywriting? Not much …

All the talk about AI for copywriting serves to highlight a basic misunderstanding of what copywriting is and what it isn’t.

What AI bots do is produce content. That’s not copywriting. Copywriting – whether for commercial marketing or fundraising – is NOT about producing content. If it were simply about that, then AI might have a place. But it’s not. And it doesn’t.

Copywriting is about persuasion. And because of that, it relies heavily on the rhetorical triangle. Yes, Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle.

He tells us that persuasion consists of three basic things:

Ethos – this is about the writer and his or her credibility — which is essential for your prospect to accept and believe your argument.

Pathos – this is the emotional aspect and how you tap into your prospect’s feelings.

Logos – this is the logical argument, the left-brain part.

The secret to the rhetorical triangle is how you use it. Depending on you, your purpose, and your audience, you could use just one part of the triangle (say, pathos), you could use two parts (say, pathos and ethos), or you could use all three.

Or you could use two and emphasize one over the other in your copy. You could use all three and emphasize two of the three over the third. You get the idea. Point is, there are lots of variations here.

And that IS the point. Because there are lots of variations, creativity is involved. Creativity in which of the rhetorical aspects you use in a given project. Creativity in how you choose to express ethos, pathos, or logos (lots and lots of options here). Creativity in how you put all of it together. And creativity in how you craft it into a cohesive whole.

Copywriting is made up of the many, many decisions the writer makes with regard to all this. Some of these decisions are based on education, experience, and training. Some are based on intuition. Some are based on esthetic sense. Some are done consciously and some subconsciously. All these considerations come into play and combine to make up an effective piece of copywriting.

No, copywriting isn’t about producing content. That’s because an effective piece of copywriting isn’t just content. It’s one human being who is appealing to and connecting emotionally with another human being. No bot, regardless of how sophisticated, can do that.

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The envelope teaser

The burning question in direct mail fundraising?

Should you use a teaser for the outside envelope of your next appeal, or not?

Some say the plain, blank envelope is the best ‘teaser,’ a no-teaser kind of teaser.

But if you use a blank envelope to ‘trick’ people into opening it, and if the appeal isn’t something the donor wants or cares about, and they just toss it, then what have you really gained?

That’s why the opposing camp suggests using a teaser in order to set the stage for the donor and get her interested in what the appeal is all about, so that when she opens the envelope, she’s ready for something that’s relevant and interesting.

Along those lines, there are three basic types of teasers that work.

There’s the offer teaser.

There’s the benefit teaser.

And there’s the curiosity teaser.

To get the whole story – including specific examples for each kind of teaser – visit

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8 questions to ask to get inside your donor’s head

The better you know your donor, the better your appeal is going to be. That’s obvious. The problem is your donor is probably coming from a completely different experiential background. How do you get inside that person’s head?

Luckily, the answer comes by way of a book on screenwriting: The Protagonist’s Journey by Scott Myers. In his book, he lays out eight questions that a screenwriter needs to ask in order to understand the protagonist of the story and get into the protagonist’s head.

Here, those questions are adapted for direct response fundraising. I go into each of these questions in detail in my article in Nonprofit Pro. See it here: 8 Questions to Ask to Get Inside Your Donor’s Head (

But here’s the 50,000-foot view.

1. Who Is the Donor?

To create an effective appeal, you can’t think of your donors as a mass of people. You have to think of one person.

2. What Does the Donor Want?

Your donor gives for her own reasons, not because your charity needs funds. So your appeal has to align with what your donor wants.

3. What Does the Donor Need?

What your donor needs and what your donor wants aren’t necessarily the same thing.

4. What Is the Eventual Resolution of the Donor’s Want and Need?

The eventual resolution isn’t necessarily giving a donation, although that’s certainly part of it. 

5. What Is at Stake for the Donor?

Your donor sees that there are things at stake, both for her and for the people around her.

6. Who or What Opposes the Donor From Getting What She Wants and Needs?

Maybe she discovered a new charity that has her attention. Maybe she just doesn’t feel like giving right now.

7. What Does the Donor Fear the Most?

Sometimes what your donor fears the most is only partially related to your cause.

8. Why Does This Donor Need to Give at This Time?

There are lots of reasons your donor would decide to give to your nonprofit. It’s important to pick the best one. 

This is just a summary. To get the whole story, take a look at my full article on Nonprofit Pro at 8 Questions to Ask to Get Inside Your Donor’s Head (

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