Ask yourself, “Would I donate to this?”

A direct mail appeal from an international aid and relief charity opens with:

“Five of Sayo’s children died because of dirty water. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?”

Okay, we have a statement of need that maybe the donor can do something about. But then, right after that, there’s this:

“After I shared her story last month, thousands of people responded generously in support of families like hers. Thank you!”

Hang on a sec – so, thousands of people responded? That’s great, so why do you need me to give? And what’s with the thank you? I didn’t give to that previous appeal, so what are you thanking me for?

Then, right after that, we get to the ask:

“Your generous gift of $25 can help save more lives.”

Which is fine (if a bit vague), BUT …

The part earlier about how people have already given undercuts the argument for donating to this appeal. The donor sees “thousands of people responded – thank you!” and naturally thinks, “Well, I guess we’re done here – no need to go any further.”

Of course there’s more to the letter than these few opening paragraphs, but the lead has to be right, because if it’s not, you’ll lose the reader that fast.

But, hey – who knows – maybe this appeal did great. Maybe this particular set of donors is unique in the way they respond. Maybe they’ve grown used to overlooking this kind of messaging from the charity. Maybe there’s some diabolically clever reverse psychology going on here – we’re getting you to give by telling you we don’t need your stinkin’ gift. Or maybe this appeal is part of a global master plan that’s playing out on a 3-D chessboard. Who knows?

What we do know is that this tactic of opening an appeal by thanking donors and telling them that everything’s great seems to persist. Even though it clearly fails to engage the reader – which you can prove to yourself:

“Dear Ms. Smith (pretend that’s you), our donors are giving like crazy, and things are just zooming along. Thank you!”

There – do you feel like your donation is needed? No? That’s why this kind of approach doesn’t make sense, and why it isn’t best practice for direct response.

The irony is that opening an appeal by talking about success and thanking the donor seems like a safe bet, but it’s really not. It doesn’t pull donors in the way it might seem like it should. In fact, it leaves donors out by telling them they’re not needed.

Usually, the most reliable way to engage donors is by presenting them with a believable problem that they can do something to solve. That’s what pulls donors in, and that’s the approach with a far better chance of moving them to give.

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One reason why fundraising appeals go bad

“The letter doesn’t sound like me.” That’s something a president/CEO or executive director of a nonprofit might say when she’s reviewing a fundraising appeal.

It’s actually a frequent comment, and it’s understandable, really.

After all, the president probably believes passionately in the cause that their nonprofit is engaged in and probably works like crazy at it. So it’s completely understandable that she would think of herself as the face of the nonprofit, as if she and the nonprofit are somehow one and the same.

And that’s exactly where the disconnect comes in. Most donors will probably never meet the president, will probably never even see a picture of the president, and probably wouldn’t know the president’s name except that it’s on the bottom of the letter. Most donors, to be honest, probably don’t know or care who the president is.

So it’s probably not the president who should be thinking of himself or herself as the face of the nonprofit. If anybody should be doing that, it should be the donor.

The reality is that the fundraising letter isn’t there to reflect and validate the president – as vital as that person unquestionably is to the nonprofit. It’s there to reflect and validate the donor. So when the president says the letter doesn’t sound like her, that’s okay – and probably even beneficial – as long as it sounds like something that interests the donor.

This is a hard thing for a lot of presidents to come to terms with – again, for completely understandable reasons. But sometimes it gets a little nutty. Like the president who forbids the use of contractions in letter copy… or beginning sentences with “and” … or using sentence fragments … simply because these and other quirks are pet peeves or personal preferences.

In other cases, it’s more extreme.

One president who was heading up a Christian rescue mission was reviewing a Christmas appeal, and he reacted to all the references to the birth, the nativity, and so on. “I don’t really talk about that very much,” he said. Keep in mind, he was a devout Christian. It’s just that, for him personally, he preferred not to wear his faith on his sleeve, and that included his very real feelings of joy over the birth of Christ. He felt this was intensely personal, not something to be included in a fundraising letter. So the feedback was to reduce and tone down the references to the birth. Remember, this was a Christmas appeal. Coming from a Christian charity.

The president may be reluctant to have lots of nativity talk in his letter, but you can bet the donors want to see plenty of Christmas language and Christmas imagery in a Christmas appeal. After all, this is a charity that they have not only an emotional connection with but also a spiritual one. They’re no doubt expecting religious language. They’re probably even looking forward to it.

And that’s the point. It’s not the president’s letter, even though his or her name and signature are on it. That’s tough for many presidents to realize. The effective ones do realize it, though. They know that it’s the donor’s letter. And so, it should be all about her, all about her values, all about her heart for the cause, and all about giving, because that’s what draws donors closer to the nonprofit – and that’s what raises more money.

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The single best — and easiest — way to improve your fundraising

If you’re heading up a nonprofit (or part of the team that does), one of the best things you can do for your fundraising is to come to terms with a hard truth: You are not your donors.

But don’t feel bad. Most corporate executives have to come to terms with the fact that they’re not their customers and have to keep that in mind when they’re deciding on their advertising. Anyway, back to donors.

For one thing, your donors are probably much older than you are. Which creates a completely different frame of reference about what’s good and what isn’t when it comes to copy and design.

Not only that, what you want to see in your fundraising appeals probably isn’t what’s going to motivate your donors. Your perspective is from within the organization. You’re “in the bubble.” Your donors aren’t.

Take the photos in your appeals. Those photos of happy, smiling people in your appeals that you believe show your nonprofit doing a good job – those really don’t work as hard as you might think to raise money. Maybe you think that showing photos of a sad child or a hungry adult will cast your nonprofit in a negative light, as if you’re not pursuing your mission. But your donor’s perspective is different. Your donors want to make a difference with their gift. When they see those “negative” photos, they see need. They see a problem to be solved. They see something they can do to change the world, even if only a little bit. So if you want to motivate donors to give, they should be seeing photos in your appeals showing need, not photos of success.

Same thing for the stories you use in appeals. The stories with a positive ending that you believe show your organization doing good work – those shouldn’t be in your appeals. (They should be in your newsletters, but that’s another discussion.) Donors have to read stories of need if they’re going to give.

The same applies to copywriting. You might think that fundraising copy is too corny, too emotional, too repetitive, too plain and simple. But that’s not how most donors see it. The fact is that donors respond best to copywriting that’s emotional and direct – not copywriting that’s formal, dry, or academic. Plain talk is best.

Or let’s say you can’t stand sentences that begin with “and” or “but.” Or sentence fragments. Or contractions like “won’t” or “can’t.” That’s fine, but imposing personal preferences like these onto appeals means you’re not going to create the kind of friendly, approachable tone in copy that’s likely to draw donors in and convince them to give.

When it comes time to create or review fundraising appeals, it’s important to view your own preferences with some healthy skepticism. You can’t just go by what you like or don’t like or what you think that you would or wouldn’t respond to in an appeal. Because your fundraising isn’t about you.

Which means that the decisions about what does or doesn’t go into an appeal should be based on your donors. It’s all about them, all about their values, all about their heart for the cause, and all about giving, because that’s what draws donors closer to the nonprofit – and that’s what raises more money.


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Are your fundraising appeals repetitive? Good

Effective copywriting for fundraising is weird. It has a lot of characteristics that seem to be the opposite of what’s right. One of these is repetition.

Good copy for an appeal tends to repeat some things over and over. To the uninitiated, this seems wrong.

In our English composition classes in school, we’re taught to make a point and then move on, continuing to make successive points until the conclusion. That’s basic expository writing – which is nothing like copy for an appeal.

That’s because most donors probably won’t read an appeal letter from beginning to end. They tend to skip around. So we repeat key things in order to catch the reader’s attention at various points in the appeal. But there’s another reason to use repetition, and it’s based on science.

In this study, the researchers wanted to test the assumptions people make about what they read and hear. So, they designed a test in which subjects were given sets of statements to review. Some of the statements were true, some were false, and some were repeated. The statements were generally expressions of fact (or what appeared to be fact), like “Zachary Taylor was the first president to die in office.”

The upshot is that the repeated statements were more likely to be judged as true, compared with similar statements that were not repeated. So, if you saw the statement, “Zachary Taylor was the first president to die in office” again and again, you’d tend to think it was true, even without looking it up. (It’s not true, by the way. William Henry Harrison was the first.)

Think about what this means for fundraising copy. First, though, a caveat: of course we wouldn’t repeat a false statement in order to make it seem true to donors. That would be unethical.

But if we want to enhance the believability of a true statement, then repetition is one way to do it – and a very effective way. It could be a statement like, “Your gift will transform lives.” Naturally we’d want donors to believe that true statement.

Or maybe it’s a statement that’s true but strains credulity a bit, like, “Your gift will multiply 1,000 times in impact.” In order for an offer like that to be effective, it would have to be believable for donors. Repetition would be one way to accomplish that.

There are lots of ways to use repetition in appeals. And it’s good to. Repetition is there for a reason. Its use in appeals is purposeful and strategic. Don’t avoid it. Embrace it for better results.

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New Year’s Fundraising Resolution: Connect with your mid-level donors

You probably hear a lot about mid-level donors, and that’s for good reason. For most nonprofits, these donors represent the single largest opportunity for short-term and long-term growth. Cultivating mid-level donors increases their giving but also cultivates donors who can move into major giving, generates leads for planned giving, and increases overall donor retention, since donors who give at higher levels tend to remain more loyal. All of which can add up to game-changing growth.

So first things first, you have to define who your mid-level donors are. There are three main ways to do it, according to Pursuant. The first is the top 5 percent of your direct mail donors. The second is donors giving an annual cumulative total of $1,000 up to major-donor level. And the third is this formula: 3x average gift x 12 months. Defining mid-level donors will vary for different organizations, of course. But in general, for many nonprofits, mid-level donors are those who give about $1,000 to $9,000 a year.

Now, how do you reach these donors? It’s vital to create a unique donor experience for them that makes them feel valued as individuals and yet part of a community of supporters.

Generally, this is going to be a multichannel approach that could include telemarketing, surveys, in-person visits and more. But direct mail is going to be a key part as well. It’s a different kind of direct mail appeal, though.

Mid-level donors are less transactional and far more relational in their giving than most annual fund donors. This is why standard direct mail won’t work for them. But specialized direct mail can and will.

These donors need to be approached in a unique way that demonstrates the impact, stewardship, and engagement they expect. In general, they respond best when there’s a specific program or initiative for them to fund, when they receive plenty of information (much more than you’d provide for annual fund donors), and when they’re recognized as being part of a group of select supporters. A specialized direct mail appeal can do all these things.

There’s a lot of data analysis and strategy that have to go on before you uncover your mid-level donors, but it will all come to nothing unless the approach to communicating with these donors is the right one. Specialized direct mail is the cornerstone of the program that will engage mid-level donors for greater revenue and retention.


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New Year’s Fundraising Resolution: Reconnect with lapsed donors

One way to start 2020 off right is to reactivate lapsed donors. They’re not a lost cause. But you have to be strategic about winning them back.

First, realize that they’re not sitting around thinking, “Wow, I haven’t given to Save the Gooney Bird League in a while. I should do that.” You have to keep in touch.

But don’t just keep them in your regular mail stream, and don’t mail them your newsletters. That’s too expensive.

Second, not all lapsed donors are worth reactivating. Not much point in going after a donor who gave $5 a year and a half ago. The lifetime value isn’t there. Sometimes you just have to let them go and focus on the higher-dollar supporters with a higher lifetime value.

Once you’ve determined which lapsed donors to contact, one approach is simply to version a successful appeal with wording like “We miss you” and “We need you back.”

If that seems to work, another approach is to go even further with the lapsed language. Make a big deal about how much their last gift did, and make an even bigger deal about what their returning gift will do. Go overboard talking about how much you want them back.

Yet another way to go is to try a different format altogether. Maybe a handwritten card with a personal-sounding note about losing touch and how much their support is needed. Including the amount of their last gift can help, too.

Problem is, though, that many donors who haven’t given in the past 12 months might not think of themselves as lapsed. And all your “we miss you” talk might rub them the wrong way. Maybe they just haven’t gotten around to giving but still thinking of themselves as supporters. Imagine their surprise when you accuse them of cutting things off.

The reality is that you can’t know why donors have lapsed. Maybe they’ve moved on to other causes. Maybe they didn’t feel their gift did any good. Maybe their situation changed and they’re not donating anymore. Maybe they were acquired with a freeium or a premium and are waiting for another free gift to give again.

So, yes, it’s a bit of a guessing game. But considering the cost of acquisition, it’s almost always  a good idea to try to reclaim lapsed donors. The subsequent support will likely make it worthwhile. They’ve given before, so they’re more likely to give again. If they’re asked the right way.

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When not to thank your donors

How to begin a fundraising appeal – that’s a tough one. You win or lose donors in those first few seconds. So the opening has to be spot on, and that’s not easy.

Which is probably why so many appeals default to opening with a thank you to the donor for their support. It seems like a solid approach. Donors like to be thanked, right? But as this post from the Better Fundraising Company points out, it’s not a solid approach at all.

The reason it’s not a good approach, they say, is that most donors will read the first line thanking them for their support and go no further, assuming that nothing is being asked of them. No doubt that’s true.

And yet … the drive to open an appeal by thanking donors is incredibly strong. Many nonprofits can’t resist. Some, in fact, have it written into their list of fundamentals that every appeal shall begin with a thank you to the donor. Yes, that actually happens.

Luckily, most nonprofits probably aren’t this extreme. Yet this opening-with-a-donor-thank-you thing persists.

If it’s an absolute imperative to open with a thank you, then at least don’t let the thank you stand alone. Donors will assume nothing is being asked of them, as the Better Fundraising people say. Which means that the rest of appeal will probably go unread … and not acted upon.

Instead, at least key the thank you to an offer, so that donors realize that they can do some good. It could be something like this: “Because your last gift of $15 made such a huge difference – thank you! – I writing to you about another powerful way to save someone who’s going hungry.”

Better yet, keep the thank-you stuff for acknowledgement letters and newsletters, and use appeals to focus on the problem that donors can solve.

It’s a shame for a nonprofit to restrict itself to one kind of opening for an appeal when there are so many clever gambits that we could use – openings that would grab donors’ attention, draw them into the appeal, and get them to donate. It’s a choice between raising more money and raising less.

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Your year-end appeal: last-minute help, free

It’s time to get your year-end appeal (online and offline) set up, nailed down, and ready to go. If you’ve been putting it off … or if you already have an appeal prepared and want a gut-check before you launch, here’s help.

This free guide covers everything from offers to formats to messaging, and more to ensure that your year-end appeal this year is one of your strongest. Get your copy of this free guide here:

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Are you shouting at your donors without realizing it?

Yes, most donors are Baby Boomers. They’re in their 60s or later. And they don’t like to be shouted at.

Are you doing that in your mail appeals? You might be if you’ve bought into the idea that the bigger the font, the better. You might think you’re being helpful to your Baby Boomer donors because of what you assume to be their poor eyesight. But they might not take it that way.

If your appeal letters look like a page out of a large-print book, consider the words of Claude Hopkins, the father of modern advertising. He said: “Some advocate large type and big headlines. Yet they do not admire salesmen who talk in loud voices.”

You see appeal letters that do look like a page out of a large-print book, with fonts that look to be 14 point or even larger. It’s the typographical equivalent of an obnoxious, back-slapping salesman – or fundraiser – who’s loud, booming voice bounces off the walls.

That’s not necessary. And it’s not effective. You don’t want to be that fundraiser. Huge type is annoying.

Hopkins goes on to explain: “People read all they care to read in 8-point type. Our magazines and newspapers are printed in that type. Folks are accustomed to it. Anything louder is like loud conversation.”

8-point type? Not so sure about that, but lots of newspapers and magazines today are printed in 10-point type. That’s about the average. And “folks” would be used to that. So there’s no real reason to go crazy big in the font for appeals.

On the other hand, don’t go to the other extreme, either. You don’t want the font to be so small that it’s like you’re whispering. That’s also annoying.

So, do what any good face-to-face salesperson or fundraiser would do. Talk in a normal voice.

A normal voice, for most appeals, would be something like 12 point Times New Roman. There are lots of other similar fonts, but Times is a good bet. It’s a serif font. That’s important. A serif font is way more readable than sans serif.

And no matter which font you use, don’t put it over graphics. Don’t put it over a color. And don’t use a reverse (with the type in white on a color background). And even though your graphic designer will want to do all those things because it seems trendy, they all hamper readability.

And readability is key. So in most cases, that means a font that’s not too big and not too small, that’s in black on a white background, and that doesn’t have to compete with a lot of extraneous graphics. For most donors, this simple approach – based on centuries of typographical history – says “read me.” And in fundraising, that translates to “donate now.”









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Year-end fundraising – what you should be doing now

To raise more money with your year-end appeal, one of the first things to do is to make sure you have a solid offer.

The fundraising offer is a statement of what the donor receives in return for giving. It’s the deal, the transaction, the quid pro quo. It’s how the donor and nonprofit connect.

The offer for your year-end appeal needs to convey:

  • Why you’re writing to the donor.
  • What you want your donor to do.
  • Why the donation is a good deal.
  • Why the donor should give now.
  • What the donor gets out of it (benefits of giving).
  • Why your donor’s support matters.

Getting these basics nailed down is the first step in building a strong year-end appeal. For help thinking through your offer and the other elements of your year-end appeal, check out this free informational guide:


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