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Seven Proven Response Boosters for Fundraising

In this FREE GUIDE, discover the secrets behind the fundraising appeals that engage donors and get results.

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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 (nonprofitpro.com).

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 (nonprofitpro.com).

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How to begin a fundraising appeal

What should come first in a fundraising appeal? It’s an important question. Maybe even the most important question. Because if you fail to capture your donor’s attention at the start, there’s not much chance she’s going read the rest of your letter or email.

So those first couple of lines had better be good. Which is why this example is so puzzling. It starts like this:

Dear Friend,

Tonight, millions of children in this country and around the world will go to bed with empty stomachs and troubled minds because they did not get enough to eat today.

But their hunger is not inevitable. It is a choice. Not their choice. Ours.

We make that choice every time we allow our nation’s leaders to decide there’s enough money to increase spending on national defense and cut taxes for corporations … but not enough for programs that reduce hunger and give children the nutrition they need to grow up healthy and reach their full potential.

As the world struggles to contain the coronavirus, those who were already hungry are suffering even more. Even before the pandemic, 1 in 3 children under age 5 suffered from malnutrition. Now, as hunger is surging around the world, even more children will die because of acute malnutrition.

Okay, that’s the setup. Up to this point, the appeal is pretty much a meditation on childhood hunger. Which is important as a topic, of course, except that this copy is certainly not you-focused. It’s not really engaging the donor. It’s describing the problem but not inviting the donor into it. Which, again, is puzzling. Because what comes next is this:

If your faith moves you to action to help people suffering from hunger, please sign and return the enclosed Citizen Petition.

It’s not clear why we moved from children going hungry to people going hungry, but leave that aside.

The question is, Why isn’t this line about the petition at the very beginning of the appeal? If your donor-involvement device is the petition – which it clearly is in this appeal – then there’s no reason to bury it under four paragraphs of text that simply describes the problem but doesn’t give the donor anything to do.

Instead, lead off with the reference to the petition, and engage the donor in a specific action right from the start. This is one way to do it.

Dear Friend,

If your faith moves you to take action to help children who are going hungry, please sign and return the Citizen Petition I’ve enclosed for you.

Here’s why.

We let our nation’s leaders decide there’s enough money to spend billions on national defense and cutting corporate taxes … but not enough to help innocent children who aren’t getting enough to eat.

This has to stop. It’s time for caring people like you to take a stand.

Because tonight children across our country will go to bed hungry. That little girl saying her prayers before bedtime – she’s going to get under the covers with her stomach growling and her eyes filling up with tears.

How can she grow up healthy like that? How can she learn in school? How can she be happy?

She can’t. Unless you help.

So please, sign the Citizen Petition I’ve enclosed for you, and return it with your gift of $20 … $25 … or even $50.

Often in appeal letters, the first several paragraphs are used just to warm up to the actual point. That pretty much never works.

It’s vital to get to the point fast. Then, there’s a much greater likelihood that your donor will absorb the essence of the message.

Getting to the point also shows donors that your messaging is important and relevant. It shows donors that you respect them and their time. And it shows donors that there’s a specific action they can take to help solve a problem.

That’s one way to move your donors from an “uh, maybe later” response to the response you want: “I need to give now!”  

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What’s wrong with thanking donors?

I just got an email with the subject line “I’m so grateful.” Let’s see what this is all about.

Turns out it’s from a rescue mission, an organization that I love and support.

Here’s the text of the email:

Dear George,

What a wonderful day! And you helped make it happen.

I cannot thank you enough for your support of our #GiveFromHomeDay.

Your generosity makes a life-changing difference for the people we serve — homeless men, women and children who are desperately in need of hope.

As we do everything we can to reach our most vulnerable neighbors, your support is what makes our work possible.

On behalf of all of us here, and especially on behalf of the families we serve, I hope you know just how appreciated you are.

Sincerely,

Okay, an important point here. “You helped make it happen”? Uh, no, I didn’t. I have supported this organization in the past, but I didn’t give to this specific campaign. Soooo … why are they thanking me?

Are they trying to guilt me into giving now? Is that why they’re thanking me for something I didn’t do?

Or do they not know that I didn’t give? And they’re just sending the thank you out to everyone on the email list for some reason?

Either way, this email is not giving me warm fuzzies as a supporter. And that’s too bad, because this email could have been written in such a way as to thank donors who did give, present the opportunity for those who didn’t give yet to give now, and still be able to send the email out to the entire list.

But all of that notwithstanding, the bigger issue is this notion of thanking donors – reflexively and constantly – in every communication, no matter what. There’s this idea that we have to be thanking donors all the time, and that this is some kind of expression of “donor love” or donor centricity.

There’s a time and a place to thank donors – like in a thank you email sent in response to a donation, in a newsletter where you’re emphasizing positive outcomes, and so on. Because then you’re thanking donors for doing something good and positive – something, in other words, that they’d expect to be thanked for.

Acknowledging and appreciating your supporters doesn’t mean you have to begin every appeal letter or email with a thank you, or that the purpose of an appeal is to stroke the donor’s ego instead of presenting a compelling offer, or that you just send out blanket thank yous to an entire donor list for no reason.

When you do that, donors see it as the smokescreen that it so obviously is.

Plus, it’s patronizing. Most donors are people in the 60s, 70s, and beyond. They know BS when they read it. They also know it’s not endearing to be thanked for something unnecessarily.

So by thanking donors when it’s not warranted or in communications where it doesn’t fit, you’re not bringing your donors closer. You’re reinforcing the negative impression that most donor communications are just a lot of hot air that really shouldn’t be believed or taken seriously. And all that does is undermine your fundraising.

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Your fundraising appeals – too much emotion? Or not enough?

In your fundraising appeals, is it better to use facts or feelings? Logic or emotion? Before you answer, let’s take a look at an example, and you can judge based on your own reaction.

It’s an appeal from a conservation nonprofit, and it begins like this:

“You know what just staggers me?”

That’s a terrific opening – so good in fact that you naturally want to find out what comes next.

“It amazes me that a broad-tailed hummingbird can migrate over 2,000 miles between central Mexico to as far north as British Columbia, Canada, on wings that aren’t quite two-and-a-half inches long each. The bird itself is only four inches.”

It goes on in this way.

“When it’s migrating, a hummingbird’s heart can beat up to 1,260 times a minute, and those tiny wings flap 15 to 80 times a second.”

More facts follow. “With all that energy being expended, a hummingbird is generally just hours away from starvation; they need to sip flower nectar almost all the time just to survive. Now think again about the more than 2,000 miles a broad-tailed hummingbird might fly each spring…”

It continues with more information about the hummingbird, its habitat, and so on. Before long, all these facts, one after another, for five paragraphs, make you feel like you’re reading an ornithology text, and the whole approach seems to slowly run out of steam. It seems pretty clear that this appeal is focusing more on the donor’s head rather than her heart.

Maybe that’s intentional for this audience. Let’s stipulate that this appeal has mailed more than once, so it may be a control, and it may perform well.

But geez, this is for bird lovers and nature lovers. Where’s the awe? Where’s the wonder? Where’s the romance? Where’s the poetry?

By way of example, let’s take a look at some writing – a famous bit of writing – that is all wonder and romance about birds and nature. Yes, it’s poetry, and yes, it’s Tennyson, so the comparison is naturally unfair, since fundraising copy isn’t and shouldn’t be poetry, and in any case, nobody writing copy is Tennyson or even a weak imitation.

Still, it’s illuminating simply as an example of what language can do. Here it is:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

That’s the whole poem. And – wow – in just six carefully hewn lines, you can see and feel the magical and majestic nature of the eagle. You’re right there, transported to that scene, witnessing it for yourself. It’s stirring … in exactly the way that any bird lover and nature lover would appreciate. The concrete imagery conveys everything that needs to be said or can be said. There’s not a textbook fact to be found. It’s all heart.

So, which approach grabs you? Is it the facts of the first example? Or is it the imagery and emotion of the second example?

Again, let’s stipulate that fundraising copy isn’t poetry, and yet, isn’t something that stirs your emotions like this what you would want from a fundraising appeal that you receive? After all, most donors receiving an appeal like this are probably just people who love birds and nature – not scientists recording their observations in a field guide.

It’s important to meet donors where they are. We’re appealing to donors — which by definition means we’re making a deeply felt request. Deeply felt. That usually doesn’t mean a recitation of facts. It means conveying honest human emotion, because in most cases that’s where you find the connection with your donors. And, in turn, where your donors find their connection with their checkbooks.

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Why a cup of tea means better fundraising

More than you probably realize, your fundraising has a lot to do with Japanese green tea. As they say in direct mail letters, let me explain.

See, I’m a big fan of Japanese green tea. I drink it all the time, and I’m very particular about the varieties of tea I like, how it’s brewed, how it’s enjoyed, where I get it from, and on and on. It’s a whole thing.

My trusted source is a distributor on the West Coast that works with certain tea cultivars in Japan.

Over the holidays, I got an email from this provider offering a free tea canister plus a special discount with an order of $50 or more. My first thought as soon as I saw that email was “I should order some tea.” Never mind that I already had plenty on hand (I rarely let my supply dwindle), and probably wouldn’t be ordering again for several weeks. And never mind that I don’t really want or use a tea canister (the foil package the tea comes in keeps it as fresh or fresher than a canister). And yet, despite those two reasons NOT to order, my immediate reaction was to tell myself that I should place an order and do it now.

Right there, in that one simple example, is the amazing power of the offer and why it’s crucial for fundraising. The offer is the quid pro quo. It’s the “you give me this and I’ll give you that.” It’s the deal between buyer and seller. Now, this may seem purely transactional, and in one sense, it is, but it’s also so much more than that.

The offer is inherently motivating. It’s one of the surest ways to get a prospect’s interest and show that prospect what’s in it for them. The offer is the single most effective thing that has ever been devised to move someone from inertia to action (except maybe a gun to the head, which when you think about it is an offer too).

The offer is essential to all marketing, really, but it’s critical to direct response marketing.  It’s equally critical to fundraising – except that many nonprofits don’t seem to realize it.

Most fundraising appeals don’t present the donor with a specific, compelling offer. Instead, what most donors see is a general, nonspecific, mushy sort of offer that basically consists of “donate some money to ABC charity.”

Now suppose my tea vendor had sent me an email saying, in essence, “buy some tea.” My reaction would have been “uh, okay, maybe later.” But no, they didn’t do that. Instead, they made me a specific and compelling offer, and that offer is what turned a “maybe” into an “I should do this now.”

It’s the same for a nonprofit. If your offer to donors is “give to fund our mission,” your likely generating a lot of “maybes.” Many, many nonprofits do exactly this, and it’s one of the reasons that cause a lot of donor appeals to underperform, failing to raise as much money as they could do.

This is why it’s vital to think what the offer to your donors should be and how to present it in your fundraising appeals – online or offline. That’s what will motivate more donors to give and often to give more than they did before. In your fundraising appeals, the offer carries more weight than your logo, the size of the envelope, the font for the appeal letter, whether the email is long or short – any of those things. The offer is what engages your donors and motivates them to take action now. Yes, it’s that important.

And yes, I did order more tea.

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DON’T do this in fundraising appeals, and get better results

In fundraising appeals, you should always thank your donors for their support, right? Wrong!

You can see why in this example. The direct mail appeal from a farm-advocacy nonprofit begins like this:

“Let me express my personal thanks for your generous support in this difficult year. Because of you, [charity] could work vigorously in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic to protect America’s precious farmland and ranchland and keep family farmers and ranchers on the land.”

The tone of this copy is all corporate memo. It’s not personal. It’s not conversational. But that’s not the real problem. The main thing that’s hurting this appeal is the opening that thanks donors for their support.

You see this kind of opening again and again in fundraising appeals, and it’s hard to understand why. As an opening gambit, it’s just weak.

First of all, a donor getting this might well assume that it’s a thank you letter for past support and simply stop reading.

Second, a donor who gives to your nonprofit should be acknowledged for their gift in the thank you letters you send, in the newsletters you send, and in other communications. Not in appeals. Your appeal mailing is where you want to engage a donor with an exciting opportunity to make a difference.

The headline, the subhead, and the lead paragraphs are your chance – consisting of only a few seconds – to attract your donor’s attention and keep her reading. You don’t do that by acknowledging a fact that your donor is likely already well aware of – that she gives to your organization. You do it, in most cases, by opening with a compelling offer.

The second paragraph of this appeal goes like this:

“All of us at [charity] are deeply aware of the growing threats to America’s farms and ranches and the urgent need to protect as much agricultural land as possible. The personal and economic impacts of the coronavirus have added new layers of pain and hardship onto countless families, which makes us especially grateful for your generosity right now.”

Again, more corporate-memo copy. But that’s still not the real problem. The problem is that we’re well into this appeal and still there’s not even a whiff of an offer, not even a hint at something that would engage the donor in making a difference.

In fact, it’s not until you get to the fifth paragraph that you see the offer – a matching grant.

It’s hard to know why this idea of opening an appeal with a donor thank you persists, but it’s virtually always a bad idea.

If you’re responsible for your organization’s fundraising, and your in-house team is giving you this, you should probably look outside of your four walls for creative strategy. Or if your agency is giving you this, you should look elsewhere for help. Or if you believe that appeals should start with a thank you, it’s time to challenge that assumption.

So, bottom line, considering all of the above, how did this appeal perform? No idea. But it’s a pretty fair bet that it underperformed. However much money it raised, it could have raised more – probably a lot more – with the right creative strategy and the right structure for the appeal. And that’s a key point. Given how much time and money it takes to produce and send an appeal, it just makes sense to optimize everything. And that goes double for the messaging. Getting that right is essential to raising the funds your nonprofit needs.

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Try this to increase fundraising response

One of the best ways to boost the response of your direct mail fundraising appeal isn’t what you might think. It’s to send an email.

Mail and email complement each other, creating better response than either would separately. That’s one of the messages in new research from Virtuous and NextAfter on multichannel fundraising.

The research shows that offline donors who receive an email are more likely to give a gift offline and to give again. The email also makes them more likely to give online.

Clearly, the two channels – online and offline – work together. That’s important. Because, as the research shows, multichannel donors are worth three times more than either online-only or offline-only donors.

So, the next time you do a mail appeal, take the next step and produce an email to go along with it. This is pretty easy to do. You’re simply creating a companion email that’s based on the content of your mail appeal, so most of the work has already been done. It’s mainly a matter of adjusting the messaging for email, formatting, and then distributing the email.

Your fundraising will stand out because the research also shows that very few organizations are communicating with offline and online donors in multiple channels. Not sure exactly why this is. Maybe it’s the ‘multiple’ that’s scaring nonprofits off. Maybe they think you have to use every channel that exists. You don’t.

But you do need to use mail and email. Not one or the other. Both, at the same time. And not just one online channel like social media. During a conversation about fundraising around the holidays, one nonprofit explained that the staff decided they would use social media – alone – for their Christmas fundraising. Good luck with that.

Mail and email. That’s the way to go. That’s multichannel enough for now. And even that safe step forward will make a big difference in your fundraising.

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Easy way to tell if your nonprofit will survive and succeed

Here’s an easy way to find out whether your nonprofit is operating in a way that’s helping to ensure your current and future success.

Not only is it easy, it takes nothing more than a few minutes of your time. And what you discover could really be eye-opening for you and your fundraising team. 

This is what you do: You pretend you’re a donor who has just received one of your fundraising appeals in the mail, and you have a question. Now you simply pick up the phone and dial the phone number for your organization that’s on your fundraising. Then you sit back and see what happens.

If your organization is like most, your call does not connect you with an actual living human being. No, that would be too easy. Instead it goes into the pit of despair known as the automated phone attendant.

Okay, fine. There you are in the pit. But you realize that it happens to everyone at some point. So you stay positive, despite the despair, as you listen attentively to the computer voice explaining your options, meaning possible ways out of the pit and back into the sunshine.

If you’re unlucky, the computer voice tells you to key in the extension of the person you want. But you don’t know anyone personally at the nonprofit. You just have a question about this appeal that you received. So you wait, hoping that you’ll be connected to a receptionist – which may or may not happen. Spoiler alert: there’s no receptionist, just the computer voice telling you that you can repeat the menu options. Oh boy!

But let’s say you’re lucky. The computer voice rattles off a list of departments, and you hear “administrative office.” Your mood suddenly brightens. Yes, maybe that’s it – the administrative office. Do you dare to hope? You press the button, and miracle of miracles, the line is ringing.

But do you hear a cheerful “hello” on the other end? No, that would be too easy. Instead, it’s voice mail, the second pit of despair that’s only slightly less demoralizing than the first.

You hang up. It’s not worth the trouble. Defeated, you shake your head, thinking, “I just had a simple question: I want to give $100,000 – who do I talk to about that?”

How many times has this happened and to how many charities? It’s impossible to know. What we do know is that most nonprofits can and should do more when it comes to basic donor service.

Be accessible to your donors. If they call, make sure somebody answers the phone. If they email, make sure somebody replies. If they request information offered in an appeal, make sure they receive it. Spell their names right on their appeals. Keep track of how long they’ve been donors, and let them know that you know by acknowledging their giving anniversaries. Things like that – the basics.

With all the high-minded talk about donor centricity and donor love and so on, it’s easy to get caught up in all the philosophical hand-waving that these topics tend to inspire. But as with most things, it’s often best to focus on the fundamentals, and you can’t get much more fundamental than this: Provide your donors with the basic service that they deserve and expect. It’ll pay off.

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5 emotional triggers for fundraising

How do you create a strong connection with your donors? One way is to use emotional triggers in appeals. Let’s take a look at some, discussed in my guest post, that you’ll want to know about:

  1. Altruism. Altruism is concern for others, and it’s pretty much hard-wired into humans. One way to tap into it is with a compelling story about a beneficiary who’s suffering – a story that tugs on the heartstrings to elicit concern and sympathy. Other ways include adding photos that show need, reminding donors of past giving (acts of altruism), and coming out and saying, “You’re a good person. The fact that you’re reading this letter tells me you care about people who are hurting.”
  2. Outrage. Donors are inclined to take action when there’s a wrong that needs to be righted. Like altruism, it’s hard-wired. It goes to the very core of our sense of fair play, and when that’s violated, donors get riled up. “Look at what fracking does. It fouls the air we breathe. It pollutes the water we drink. It speeds up climate change. It’s destroying our planet. I’m not going to stand for it. Are you?”
  3. Guilt. This emotional trigger is one of the most powerful. Everyone has experienced it, and it’s part of almost any cause. When you contrast the donor’s relatively comfortable life with that of someone who’s homeless, say, or living in abject poverty in a developing country, the result is likely to invoke a feeling of guilt. “As I watched little Amina lying in that bed in the clinic, barely breathing, beyond hope, drifting away, I kept asking myself, ‘Why do we have so much when this innocent child in Ghana is starving to death?’”
  4. Fear. Judging from its use in commercial marketing, fear may be the single most powerful motivator. Don’t avoid it in fundraising. Use it to get donors involved. “When drug addiction increases, so does the crime that goes with it. What will happen in our neighborhoods? What will we do when burglaries and muggings skyrocket? How will we keep our homes secure? How will we protect our children?” To stir a powerful reaction from donors is to use fear as a motivator.
  5. Exclusivity. You want the donor reading your appeal to think she’s the most important person in the world in that moment. “Your generosity really sets you apart as a truly committed and beloved supporter. You’re at the heart of this work to end homelessness.” Exclusivity as a motivator is also a natural for sustainer appeals that invite donors to become monthly supporters. “You’re invited to join this select group of supporters who believe in putting a stop to child abuse.” Exclusivity is also an effective motivator in appeals to higher-dollar donors. “The extraordinary generosity you’ve demonstrated puts you way out front as a leading advocate in the pro-life movement.”

You can use these in all kinds of ways in appeals, and it’s good to use as many as possible. They create a stronger connection between your donor and your cause – a connection that’s going to bring your donors closer to your nonprofit and motivate them to give.

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