Welcome to Your Donor’s Story

Writing a successful fundraising communication — be it an e-appeal, social media post, direct mail letter, personal letter, program copy or anything else — can feel daunting. Especially given the high rate of failure (since 100% response is rare), having to write the ask can seem like a pathway to failure.

But let’s look at your opportunity instead. Last month, while browsing in a home decor store, I saw a wall sign that read, “Every family has a story. Welcome to ours.” My near-immediate, self-directed conversation was, “And every donor has one, too. How do I get invited into their story?”

Let’s back up a step and ask ourselves, “What is necessary for a story?” While everyone who posts online doesn’t agree, the consensus seems to be that a story needs a theme, characters, setting, point of view, plot, conflict and resolution. While taking some liberty with the original meanings, here are some ways these concepts can help you get a front-row seat in your donor’s story without actually being face-to-face.


Yes, your story’s theme is your organization’s great ability to fix a problem. For your donor’s story, the theme is why they care about your cause. In print, suggest reasons that help readers think about why they should care about your cause. Don’t quote the official mission which may not be what they view as your mission at all. Instead, tell them something that tugs on their hearts.


Who else will influence your potential donor’s decision? Since you can’t insist that person also reads your story, consider different points of view that readers may bring to the experience of reading — and address those when possible (without turning the appeal into a term paper).


Where your donor is when reading your letter, e-appeal or post makes a huge difference. Test different days for sending e-appeals and posting on social media. If you use a deadline, don’t make it so short that the donor misses out if he or she puts your letter aside for a week. Consider your donors’ bigger stories (i.e., life) when trying to get them to think about yours.

Point of View

Author Jerry Jenkins asked in a blog post on elements of a story, “Who will serve as your story’s camera?” When you are having a conversation with your donor (not just talking to them), you are showing them your work in your camera. You may not know it, but what is recorded about your organization may, to you, be a secondary — or even tertiary — issue. Be sure to use words that engage, not simply educate.


What has happened in your donor’s life that makes him or her want to know more about, and even support, your cause? What took your organization from one of many to something worth a deeper look? As you tell your story, inject the elements that will grab your prospect’s attention and hopefully result in a contribution.


What is the problem your donor wants to solve? That’s what your donor is going to give to. Even if 90% of your work is one thing, if a donor loves the remaining 10%, that’s what that donor wants to hear from time to time in your story. Never forget: You can’t logic your donor into giving. Each donor will support what matters to them — whether it’s accomplished by your organization or another.


Once your prospect makes a gift, your work isn’t done. What has changed in the story as a result of the gift? Does the donor know how they are making a difference? At the very least, do they know you are grateful? If you aren’t thanking donors for their gifts, figure out today how to make that happen. You may live by email, Instagram and Twitter, but getting a piece of mail that simply says “thank you” will get far more notice than one email lost in the dozens that come every day.

Your job as a fundraiser is to tell your organization’s story, but only after you have also considered your donor’s story. To paraphrase Albus Dumbledore from the fourth “Harry Potter” book: “Differences of understanding about a charity are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

Originally published in NonProfitPRO, June 2, 2022

Don’t Be Afraid to Try Direct Response

Sometimes, saying you are a fundraiser can be tough; it just isn’t as exciting as saying you are an astronaut or a supermodel.

Trust me; I know. My niche in fundraising is direct response — you know, things like e-appeals and direct mail. Granted, it’s not as sexy as taking donors to the golf course or hosting the annual major donor cruise, but I’m proud of what I do because I have seen the results of the money I have raised over the years. And if someone says to me, “Oh, you do junk mail?” that’s OK. I know that what they disparagingly refer to is — or should be — an important tool of almost every fundraising program at every nonprofit.

Whoa! That’s kind of a 1980s statement, but, actually, in 2022, nonprofits are raising money with direct mail as a part of the whole fundraising program. These are large organizations to small ones, and it’s working for them because they have learned the most important truth about direct mail: It is one of the tools we can use, in concert with other tools, to maximize income for our programs.

I believe so much in direct mail — because of the results I’ve seen — that I’ve decided to try again to convince some of the naysayers out there to give it a try. Don’t worry — I won’t be hurt if you are rolling your eyes about now. After all, I taught fundraising at the university level for a decade, and I’ve heard it all from my Gen X and Millennial students. But since I’m seeing direct mail have exciting results in 2022, that’s enough for me to give it another shot.

So, I challenge you: If you aren’t including direct mail in your fundraising strategy, do so. But do it wisely by following this proven advice.

  • Plan your entire direct response activity before you begin. Direct mail is not a standalone fundraising tool, but instead part of a multi-effort project to maximize results. After you mail the letter, how many follow-up e-appeals will you send, and when? Can you realistically call your major donors to follow up and answer questions? Is hand-signing the letters to the major donors feasible? What will the thank-you message to your donors say?
  • Only use partners who have expertise in direct mail. A writer who specializes in nonprofit fundraising will be able to take your ideas and turn them into copy that leads to donations. A direct response designer knows that the design supports the words, not carries the message on its own. A good printer can be invaluable in helping you design a letter that is the most cost-effective layout possible.
  • Talk to the donor in your copy, not to your board chair or CEO. Your donors likely support three or four other nonprofits in addition to yours, according to Nonprofits Source. Meet them where they are instead of shouting at them to hurry up and catch up. Tell a story. Share a personal experience. Show the reader what their gift will accomplish. Be clear about what you are asking for. Don’t be ashamed to ask for money. Scientific studies show that giving to charity makes the giver happy. Be proud when you ask!
  • Avoid the temptation to think you have to create an award-winning package. Instead, focus on creating a money-raising appeal. Despite having won a few awards in my day, I am most proud of the packages that raised a lot of money. Direct mail is not a beauty contest; it’s all about the bottom line.
  • Mail consistently. Start with just a couple of letters a year. Obviously, year-end is key (though that means getting in-home in November or very early December to give people time to respond), plus choose another time that makes sense for your organization — spring, summer, back-to-school or whatever. Mailing just once a year will likely not succeed; my theory is that every letter ends up having to reintroduce you, so donors are more likely to ignore it.

Come on — be brave! Commit to doing two direct mail letters in 2022 and discover how direct mail done right can provide meaningful net income for your organization.

Originally published in NonProfitPRO, February 8, 2022

Be a Smart Small Fundraiser

I recently stated that direct response “is — or should be — an important tool of almost every fundraising program at every nonprofit.” While the concept of fundraising via e-appeals and mail may sound so last century, I assure you it is an important foundational piece for a fundraising program of the 2020s.

Key point: Don’t overlook that tiny work. Direct response is not the only fundraising tool you need, but when done right it provides a foundation of almost immediate and ongoing support that lets you add on more longer-term or seasonal complementary programs.

If you represent a nonprofit that competes for the top spots in lists of America’s largest charities, you can move on; this article isn’t for you. But for those of you who are struggling to make ends meet and relying on a few core donors to keep you afloat, I encourage you to keep an open mind to discover some blunt truths about successful direct response.

Your No. 1 concern as you get started is to acquire donors — warm, breathing names and addresses that you can cultivate. You may not net a fortune out of the gate, but your initial goal is to get a core group of people who respond to your e-appeals and mail appeals. Don’t raid your major donors who are already being cultivated. Focus on the one-time or occasional givers, event participants, etc.

Be sure to watch your costs. After all, spending $1 to raise 80 cents is not sustainable in the long run. Success in direct response is ultimately measured in net income. Some may argue with me on this, but I know firsthand that, in a small shop, you cannot afford to lose money month after month. Your board will only bail you out so often before they decide that something — or someone — has to go.

So, how do you get the job done? Well, now I am going to really step on toes — spending a lot of money to hire a big firm may not be the best approach. As Elvis Presley sang, “Before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.” While I am near-certain he wasn’t talking about direct response fundraising, this lyric certainly applies. Before you hire someone to write and/or design your direct mail or e-appeal, ask this question: “How long has it been since you have done my job — if ever?”

Why does this matter? Say you wanted to learn to drive. You find a driving instructor to explain best practices in driving. He regularly presents at conferences, has connected with firms that offer the latest research on driving and can crunch numbers to identify every potential flaw in the world of driving. He has a blog about driving and has won national awards for driving instruction. He knows the terms and where your hands belong on the wheel — but he has never actually driven himself.

Why, as a small nonprofit, would you hire someone who has never worked at a nonprofit and tried to raise money to make Friday’s payroll? You need support from someone who understands what it’s like to sit behind your desk and sweat over stretching too few dollars to accomplish the vision that you are committed to.

If you look for outside help (and I do recommend that), don’t commit to a contract or a retainer. Stick your toe in the water before you plunge off the high diving board. Try a single direct mail letter and a handful of e-appeals and look for signs of life. How much did you raise? How many people responded? Did you get positive messages? (Don’t let any complaints overpower the kind words and the money you raise.)

Next, start slow. A letter a year is too few, but 12 is likely too many when you are just getting started. I typically recommend six (enough so the donors don’t forget you but not so many that they don’t net dollars).

Finally, expect to be criticized. Board members and some of your colleagues may tell you it’s a waste of time at best, offensive at worst. Be armed with results to combat the naysayers.

Bottom line: After a few years of steady efforts, direct response fundraising can raise a steady stream of funds. Then your major gifts can truly be used for transformational programs.

Originally published in NonProfitPRO, April 25, 2022

Is it time to become an independent consultant?

After more than a year of work from home — completely or part of the time — many fundraisers were eager to get back to the office. The colleagues! The coffee! The gossip! The super-fast copy machine! But others are asking, “Do I have to go back? Can I work from home forever and thrive?”

Leaving the comforts (and yes, the irritations) of working for a nonprofit organization or an agency can sound like Nirvana, especially after a day of meetings filled with office politics, talk and little to no action. But it’s not a move to be entered into lightly (unless circumstances force you to do that). One very successful and happy fundraising independent proprietor told me several years ago that if she ever went back to corporate life, it would be for IT support. She had found (as I have) that when you are on your own, every problem is yours.

So, is it worth it?

Here are some things to consider before “hanging up a shingle” and starting your own business. For the technical details (e.g., corporation or LLC), you will want to consult a CPA or lawyer, but these are some “gut-checks” to do before you turn in your letter of resignation.

Do you have at least one client that will pay the bills while you build the business? Depending on your state, taxes and registrations can be a (very expensive) killer. You may need insurance. You will need office supplies. Don’t count on your former employer or a client from your agency to be your key client. The former may surprise you and never call. The latter may be unapproachable because of a non-compete policy. You need an iron-clad commitment from someone — or another income source you can tap into in the interim.

Can you fill a niche that needs filling? There are seemingly more than enough fundraising consultants, and many of them seem to toss clients back and forth like a softball. What do you have to offer that people actually want to buy? Is that enough to sustain your company? Once you narrow your focus to match your skill set, your preferences and your bandwidth, is it marketable?

Do you have a contingency plan for… well, everything? I had a copy deadline and my computer broke. I had to rush out and buy a new laptop and have, ever since, had a spare computer in my office. I back up my files in three different places. I have a spare phone. In short, I am trying to make sure I stay in business, no matter what. The initial outlay wasn’t fun, but my experience with a dead PC taught me well: never be dependent on a single fallible thing for your success.

Do you have a support network? Have you found a good CPA to do the bookkeeping you don’t want to do, file the mandatory paperwork and advise you when you have questions? Do you have a vendor network you trust and that trusts you? Do you have friends to talk to when you need a sounding board? Do you have access to health insurance?

Can you survive rejection? Your best client — the one that loves you and raves about your work — leaves and the new hire has his or her own network. You throw your heart into a proposal and never hear a word back. Your client starts giving the “good stuff” to a larger company and feeds you the grunt work. The client edits your work so much (and so badly) that you don’t want to claim it for your own. Can you handle that — and sometimes make the tough decision to “fire” a client when it’s no longer working?

Do you have what it takes to survive on your own? Sure, we all dream of being the hot, new entrepreneur. But that’s not always reality. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one in five small businesses fail in the first year, and half will be gone within five years. In addition to all the above, you need grit: courage and resolve. You have to give up the comfort, step out without a safety net and work long and hard if you want to succeed. There is no nine to five, and there is no team to step in when you’re swamped. It’s you… all alone. Is it worth it? Maybe yes, maybe no. Only you can make that determination.

Dave Goetz, founder of CZ Strategy, recently wrote, “The hardest entrepreneurial moment is not the decision to act. It’s the first few years afterwards, the interregnum after the emotional surge of the new and before the outcome is fully known.” Want to survive and thrive as an independent fundraising consultant? Then make sure you have the grit that will take you the distance.

This article was originally published in NonProfit PRO.

Rethinking Employee Retention

When nonprofit staff discuss employee retention, the consensus is typically that employee turnover is a problem we need to fix.

I totally agree — sort of. Having a stable workforce can improve efficiency, provide institutional memory and significantly benefit donor relationships. Yet, retaining the wrong employees can be more detrimental to the organization, demoralizing to staff and the managers who eventually have to deal with personnel problems that have festered year after year.

As a fundraiser, it’s easy to see the importance of retaining employees, especially those who have relationships with key donors. “Donors desire to ‘plug in’ personally with someone from the organization,” Joe Dominguez from Phoenix Rescue Mission said. “If they can make the connection, the long-term benefits are endless: increased giving, volunteering and soliciting others to support the mission.”

“Donors often see retention as a mark of organizational stability,” Lisa O’Leary, a seasoned fundraiser at a community college foundation, noted. “When employees are committed to the institution, donors are more likely to want to provide the same commitment. These donors value the relationships they have built over the years and appreciate the ease of working together.”

Why Complacent Employees Actually Hurt the Organization
But with that said, retaining employees “no matter what” actually hurts an organization. For example, employees who have discovered that average is good enough at your organization often become complacent. Dominguez was hired to lead a team that had staff with 10 to 25 years of service in their positions.

“Despite their tenure and vast experience, they were unable to meet the department goals,” he recalled. “They believed they knew the best way to do things because they had been in the position for so long.” Over time, Dominguez added team members whose “primary focus was not to keep their jobs but to figure out how they could do the best job. Their enthusiasm and drive helped change the landscape and propelled us to meet our objectives.”

Additionally, retaining staff who are unexceptional at best and incompetent at worst can send a message to star performers that all work is equally rewarded. An employee can produce good, bad or mediocre work and remain employed. “There is almost nothing more demoralizing to star performers than feeling like their hard work and the results they produce aren’t recognized,” Kellie de Leon, an experienced marketing and fundraising leader in nonprofits and the agencies that serve them, said. “When you retain employees with mediocre performance, it shows your entire team where the bar is set: low. You disincentivize your best employees.”

The end result is often that the very employees who could help your organization grow and succeed leave for other positions, and you are left with sub-par performers who are perfectly happy with the way things are now. Your organization survives, but it can’t thrive and reach its full potential because the people who should be pushing you forward are comfortable right where they are. It’s like trying to win a game of tug of war when a few people are pulling with all their might while the rest are barely keeping their hands on the rope. You may not totally fail, but you’ll likely never make progress.

How Your Nonprofit Can Best Prepare Itself
A better approach is to embrace the fact that turnover is inevitable and is not a bad thing unless you — and your employees — are perfectly content with status quo, both in terms of organizational performance and personal career growth. With this attitude, you can focus on preparing for — and embracing — turnover.

First, commit yourself to developing current position descriptions that are reviewed annually and updated when needed. “Department work processes are always in a state of flux, and it’s our responsibility to be diligent in regularly reviewing job descriptions and responsibilities,” Dominquez said. This activity needs to be part of regular reviews that cover strengths and weaknesses. de Leon knows that “it’s natural to want to avoid challenging conversations, but we owe it to each employee to be as transparent about negative feedback as we would be about praise.”

You must also make sure there is a healthy environment for cross-training and knowledge-sharing. “In organizations where turnover is minimal, employees may retain tacit knowledge that is often not passed on to other employees before their departure,” O’Leary noted. “Although this can be beneficial when the employee is still there, it can be difficult for future employees to complete these tasks since the knowledge (to do so) was not documented or shared.”

It is also critical to identify your key performers, work with them to define a career path and help them pursue that path. When an employee is committed to personal growth and career enhancement, seeing no place to go in your organization sends a loud message: I have to work elsewhere to keep growing.

Perhaps the most important practice nonprofit leadership must commit to — even if you don’t work in the fundraising department — is to insist on copious reporting of donor interactions. This must be a “trust but verify” task because it is so critical when you have turnover of any staff person who has interacted with a donor. A second part to this is to never, ever let only one person have a relationship with a major donor. While one may have the primary relationship, one or more others need to have ongoing, consistent interaction — even if it is a supportive role — so the donor has a familiar point of contact if an employee leaves. These two actions, taken together, are essential for maintaining major donor connections despite inevitable staff turnover.

Reward Your Star Performers
Finally, no matter how little funding you have for raises, reward employees for performance, not just for staying around. “Think deeply about how each team member contributes to the promises you make to donors, whether that’s how your programs get carried out or how efficiently you work to make sure their donations stretch,” de Leon said. “Then reward the behaviors and people that align most closely with carrying out your work.”

When you identify your star performers and give them the raises and the support that enable them to achieve their career goals, you will likely retain the people who can help move your organization ahead — and that’s far better than retaining everyone but never moving ahead.

In closing, each person that I invited to contribute to this article has shown himself or herself to be a rising star — two while working on my team and one in the classroom where I was the instructor. Each one has risen to my expectations and then moved beyond, and I could not be prouder. If any had remained where they were when I first met them, the nonprofit community would be less than it is today, and important causes would have suffered. I urge you to join me in accepting that turnover as inevitable — but more importantly, in embracing it as a way to grow people, organizations and missions.

(This feature article was originally published in the November/December 2020 print edition of NonProfit PRO)

It’s Time to Stop Complaining

Pandemic. Wildfires. Snowstorms. Killer hornets. Monoliths. The election… And the list goes on. We had more than enough to justify complaining in 2020.

Yet these events — especially COVID-19 — seem to have also given us a great excuse for abysmal customer service. Every other call I make seems to begin with a recording message: “Due to COVID-19, response times may be longer than expected.” In one case, I waited 45 minutes only to then get a message that the company (a major national brand) was not supporting its phone lines at present. (You couldn’t tell me that 44 minutes earlier? No, you had to keep promising me I was moving up the queue.) Several other times, I pressed all the right buttons, waited several minutes, and then was cut off. Oops! Try again…

Now don’t just assume I am too old school to know that we’re supposed to go online now instead of using the old-fashioned telephone. These call attempts came after ignored emails, online contact forms and even a few efforts to start conversations on social media.

It’s time to stop complaining and get back to focusing on our donors.

I firmly believe (assuming I am anything like a normal person) that the companies and nonprofit organizations that show care for their “customers” will be the ones that spring back from the pandemic with super loyal supporters. Believe me, I remember my experience with the national telecom company; sure, I was on hold a while, but when my call was answered, the representative went out of her way to make sure my problem was addressed. In the course of conversation, she told me she was working at home and that her shift ended five minutes after she picked up my call, but she was not going to hang up until my problem was resolved. I suspect I’m a customer for life now.

And what about the small, local diner that wrote “Happy Holidays” and drew some Christmas holly on the cover of my take-out breakfast? That’s showing me I’m their honored guest, even if I’m limited to dashboard dining.

Yes, these are for-profit examples. But the same principle applies to nonprofit organizations: There is never a good excuse for bad donor service.

If you’ve let the pandemic and all its corresponding frustrations color your response to your donors, it’s time to take action.

Answer their calls. If staff are working from home, calls can be forwarded to them. Even if they don’t have access to what they need to answer, they can collect the information, research it when they are in the office, and then call back.
Receipt their gifts. It’s well worth the dollar or so to mail a receipt for a donation, because a sincere thank you is remembered and valued.
Tell them what is now possible because they gave. This doesn’t have to be a multi-page annual report or a four-color newsletter. A half-sheet update in a receipt or even a postcard with a brief report is inexpensive and can be very meaningful.
Truly value them. If you view your donors as necessary evils to accomplishing your mission, it’s time to get out of the nonprofit business. The reality is that your paycheck is a result of your donor support, as is all the work your organization is able to accomplish. Your supporters need to know they mean more to you than a cash withdrawal at an ATM.
Ask them for donations. Many organizations that are doing the steps listed above and are using tried-and-true methods of fundraising are succeeding. I’ve heard many nonprofits tell me that direct mail is performing better than at any other point in recent memory. The same is true for eAppeals that feel personal — not those that read like, “To the entire free world, Greetings.” With no galas and golf outings, we now have time to read letters and emails. Take advantage of people being at home and reach out to them.
I know many nonprofits that have been hard hit by the events of 2020. Yet, many others I am familiar with are doing fine. They didn’t allow the events of 2020 to be used to justify bad donor service.

In 2021, refuse to allow complaining. Instead, show your donors that despite all the uncertainty of life, your organization continues to do the work they believe in — because they continue to stand with you. Together, you are changing the world.

(Originally published in NonProfit PRO, January 4, 2021)

Hidden Treasures for Fundraising Copy

As a writer of fundraising copy, one of my greatest frustrations is having to create new copy on a regular basis with little or no fresh material to work with. Between privacy laws and too-busy-to-write-stories-up issues, it’s not unusual to have next to nothing to begin with.

Even if your writing is limited to the year-end eAppeal, a thank-you letter or a proposal, you likely know how challenging it is to keep saying what is basically the same thing in a way that is fresh and unique. But that creates a problem — I firmly believe that monotonous copy is a sure path to donor attrition. I have often said (so much so that I’ve likely become boring) that “a bored donor is a former donor.”

It often doesn’t take much to get you started on writing a great message, so even when there seems to be nothing new to write about, consider these hidden treasures.

What Is the ‘Other Guy’ Saying?

Reading what you can from similar organizations can help you recall a story or a fact that you can use as the beginning of your writing project. I’m not suggesting plagiarism; rather, read with an open mind and see if anything sparks a fresh angle you can take.

Sometimes even reading unrelated copy can help. I confess I sometimes look at famous quotes on a given topic, and often, one of those will spark an idea that I can move ahead with. (At the very least, it makes my procrastination seem more purposeful.)

What Are Your Donors Saying?

Collecting tidbits from the notes donors include with their checks can be a great source of brief comments that can be woven into your copy. In my experience, these short notes often include a turn of phrase that is a hidden gem. I recently had a client provide me with a few dozen notes (most just a sentence or two) — and truth be told, a few expressed the value of the nonprofit better than I could have done so myself.

What Are Your Volunteers and Staff Saying?

Getting people to write down what they see and hear can be hard; instead, ask them to call your office phone after hours and leave a message with the story. Except for the genuinely bad story (“After we helped her, things were better until she was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison”), try to use most of what you get, and tell the person who provided it how you incorporated it. This encourages that volunteer or colleague to keep providing these nuggets to you.

What Are the Statistics Saying?

Yes, stats can be boring (unless they are an integral part of grant or donor reports or requests), but you can make a statistic meaningful to your more typical donor by putting it in visual terms. For example, in the county I live in, 20% of people are hungry. On its own, 20% is kind of flat. But put it in terms I can visualize — of the five people you saw at the bus stop this morning, it’s likely one didn’t know where his or her next meal was coming from — and it becomes a much more meaningful way to present a need.

Mark Twain, one of my favorite sources of inspiration, wrote this: “And mind you, emotions are among the toughest things in the world to manufacture out of whole cloth; it is easier to manufacture seven facts than one emotion.”

Until we have files of resources to comb through every time we need to find a fresh way to ask for money, keep seeking out these hidden treasures. Ideally, one will give you the emotional “hook” to make your next fundraising message irresistible — and that sure beats manufacturing emotion.

Published in NonProfit Pro, September 11, 2020

Retention: Still Your Best Strategy

Much of what we knew about fundraising before COVID-19 seems to have gone out the window, and “nimble” has been the new No. 1 skill. We’ve received donations from first-time contributors to help with COVID relief,  we’ve moved events online, major donor cultivation has moved to Zoom and work-from-home has become the daily reality.

But no matter how soon or how long it is before COVID becomes a distant memory, one thing remains the same: Donor retention is still the best strategy for long-term sustainability.

Retention isn’t easy, as the numbers show us. The Fundraising Effectiveness Project’s 2020 Q1 report found that “the donor retention rate — the percentage of donors who gave last year and have already given in 2020 — dropped three points to 16.4%.” It also found that last year, only six in 10 of existing donors, as of January 1, 2019, gave throughout that year. Or to put it another way, 40% of the people who gave to you in 2019 will likely not give to you in 2020 — even without the mitigating factor of COVID.

What’s a smart fundraiser to do? Focus on the basics!

1. Make Retention a Priority

Don’t allow yourself to be lured by the sultry voice of the “next great thing.” That doesn’t mean you don’t try it; you simply can’t sacrifice your tried-and-true foundational fundraising programs to put all your energies into the shiny new thing. Study after study shows that donors who receive communications across multiple channels are more likely to keep giving.

One of the keys to retention is how committed you are to caring for your existing donors. Jeff Jowdy of Lighthouse Counsel noted that, “We often find that most organizations don’t need to focus on donor acquisition — yet — because they have so many donors leaving their organization. Shore up the support of your family first!”

2. Truly Serve Your Donors

We have all seen the communications from donors that make no sense, ramble on, go on a tirade, ask crazy questions or feel more like a “lonely hearts club” episode. But each communication represents an individual, and that individual deserves respect. Engaging someone in a debate who really isn’t interested in changing his or her opinion isn’t good use of time but saying “thanks for sharing your thoughts with us” can be.

3. Try Something Innovative

One positive out of the pandemic is that many nonprofits had to pivot quickly and find a way to replace a fundraising tool that has served them well for a number of years. Some had success; others not as much. But the takeaway is that many organizations that were previously living in the land of “The Way We’ve Always Done It” stepped out of that comfort zone — and just maybe found a new tool in their fundraising toolbox.

4. Get and Tell Great Stories

Our stories need to be long enough and detailed enough so the donor can paint a picture of the need and solution in his or her mind. This can sometimes be accomplished in a few sentences; other times it takes a few paragraphs. No matter what, it is focused on the donor — not on the organization.

“Too many nonprofits don’t understand the big difference between marketing communications and fundraising communications,” Jowdy said. “We need stories to grab the donor’s interest and show how they can make a difference. We don’t need stories about how great we are, or how much trouble we are in.”

5. Encourage Your Organization to Invest in Programs That Donors Can Relate to

Every program may not have the sizzle that donors can visualize and be attracted toward, but parts of most projects can have a donor-friendly component without sacrificing the integrity of your work. Sit down with your program staff and show them what projects excited your donors. Become collaborators, not competitors, and everyone will benefit.

6. Thank Your Donors

Call, write, visit — just say “thank you.” Forget about self-service — you know, “if you want to feel good, all you have to do is go to our website.” Everyone in development, including your CEO, needs to make saying thank you a priority. The time you spend on that “is a key indicator of the quality of your fundraising program and how it is fulfilling its potential,” Jowdy said.

Pandemic or not, our job as fundraisers is retention. This takes many forms, but one truth doesn’t change: Your donors know you need money. You have to show them you need them. That’s the 14-word secret to retention.


Published in NonProfitPRO, August 4, 2020

Change Your Perspective: Look In From The Outside

Ah, the perfect world: a world where we have plenty of money to do research and make decisions based on well-documented findings that provide a deep level of confidence in decision making. Sadly, most of us don’t live in the perfect world. In our world, we may only have money for the very basics — and donor research hardly fits into that category. Happily, there are ways to get a better understanding of who your donors are that won’t stretch your budget any further than it’s stretched right now…

Read my entire guest post on the Lighthouse Counsel blog at https://www.lighthousecounsel.com/blog/change-your-perspective-look-in-from-the-outside/.


Becoming a Skeptic to Improve Fundraising

Me? Not so much…

Don’t get me wrong. I really believe in what you do. I want to end homelessness/feed the hungry/bring about justice/preserve nature/educate people and so many other important causes. But I just haven’t bought into your organization as the only solution.

The problem, as I see it (and read it and hear it on multiple platforms), is that fundraisers eventually know enough to forget that the “PD” (potential donor) doesn’t know nearly as much. Unless there is a logical  connection (e.g. a satisfied alumnus), the PD can’t figure out what your “secret sauce” really is and why your nonprofit is the ONE that really deserves money and loyalty.

Don’t misunderstand — as your PD, I’m well-educated. I have disposable income and follow world events. But I don’t sit in on your board meetings, I don’t talk firsthand to your staff and I don’t read the executive summaries of the reports that show the impact you made using grant funding.

As a fundraiser, we have to start with that reality, and then work to change it. And that requires a healthy dose of skepticism. Only then can we figure out how to talk to PDs and turn them into loyal supporters who are at least pretty convinced we’re one of the best — if not THE best — solutions to the problem we care about solving.

To view your fundraising as a skeptic and then identify the most effective way to communicate so your PDs embrace it, ask yourself some questions.

  1. So what? Your organization is busy doing X, or it’s about to launch Y. What difference is that going to make? You helped Z people last month. Did that really make a difference in the problem? Be honest. Be bold. Find the gold nugget in all the surrounding pyrite.
  2. Who’s doing it better? This is not information you’re collecting to share with your donors, but it is likely information some of your PDs have. Your job is not to point to another organization’s flaws, but rather to use this information to develop an explanation of what your organization is doing differently that makes your approach the best choice for your PD.
  3. What is our “unique selling proposition”? This marketing term is from the 1940s, but it’s still relevant. We may now call it a more contemporary term, but the question it seeks to answer is the same, regardless of the nomenclature: What makes our organization stand head and shoulders above everyone else in the business of doing whatever it is we do? You may not be the biggest or the flashiest, but your PD sees the possibilities. What makes a PD fall in love with your organization is a fierce belief that YOU have a RIGHT answer to the concern they are PASSIONATE about.
  4. What’s the best story to show this specialness? It’s not enough to know what your secret sauce is; your PDs need to understand it and want more of it. Statistics are nice, but it’s hard to get excited about a cold, hard number. But tell a story of how your approach to whatever it is you do best is changing the world — even if it is on a smaller scale than another organization — and I’m going to “get it.” I may not give, but if I do, I will be more likely to be loyal because I believe your unique approach is what’s really going to change things over time.

To create fundraising that turns PDs into loyal partners means taking off the rose-colored glasses and letting yourself be skeptical about everything. That’s how you put yourself in the PD’s place and find language and images to make your fundraising messages credible. The result? When PDs understand what you stand for, they become more likely to connect with your organization, not just the broad cause.


Published in NonProfitPro, June 4, 2020