My Top Eleven and Three-Quarters Bits of Advice for Winning at Donor Communications

Inspired by Ken Burnett & Roger Craver & Lisa Sargent & SOFII …

1. Why Eleven and Three-Quarters? Be a little less predictable.

“10 Top Tips” is predictable. “11 Top Tips” is a little less predictable, but still pretty obvious. I ripped this idea off, as most of you immediately recognized, from Harry Potter’s Track Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station.

Steal well. And often.

But don’t steal from failures. Which means you’ll have to learn enough to tell the difference. Plopping a “Letter from the Desk of the ED” on the front cover of every issue of your donor newsletter is common … but typically a waste of your supporters’ ridiculously valuable and scarce attention spans. Just because “they” do it doesn’t mean you should, too.


2. Google “sales lead funnel.” When I did that, Google returned more than 9 million results.

Look at some of the images returned. Read an article or three. The funnel gets you thinking about target audiences. It gets you thinking about offers.

Do not pass “GO” until you understand the sales lead funnel. This is a standard model for how selling works. And at some practical level, fundraising is “just” a type of sales. The sales lead funnel also reveals why direct mail hasn’t died yet. The funnel also reveals why you need a donor acquisition program.


3. Google “AIDA.” Not the opera, the marketing term: the acronym stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.

As the Wikipedia article says, “(AIDA describes) the steps or stages that occur from the time when a consumer first becomes aware of a product or brand through to when the consumer trials a product or makes a purchase decision.”

Why do you care? Because donors are consumers. Consumers of hope, maybe. Donors are fundraising’s customers. And once you understand AIDA, you’ll never again wonder what to say first, second, third, fourth.

Without an understanding of AIDA, you may launch your case for support with something like: “Our organization was founded in 1897 under a chestnut tree when a group of foresightful folk envisioned….” Snore.

Lesson #1 of AIDA: Don’t start with the boring bits.


4. Things change slowly. Until it’s too late.

This keeps me up at night. It keeps me desperately curious about developments in my field. Bigger charities remain bigger charities for lots of reasons: innovation and analytics in fundraising being among the more important.

So you have this data point: “For every 1,000 fundraising [emails] delivered to supporters, groups in our study raised $40,” the 2015 M+R Benchmarks study reported and 2016 was even worse.

But then you have this data point: “Finland to be Cashless by 2029” reads the headline in FinTech Finance, a UK-based financial industries researcher.

The world is abandoning currency, checks, ATMs and credit cards. And then you wonder: “How do we prepare in fundraising for what could be a major shift in common consumer behaviors?”


5. “Digital or print?” That’s so 2003.

That was the year I first heard the question raised by a fundraiser in a workshop. She asked, “When can we retire our print donor newsletter and switch to an email version instead?”

I didn’t know the answer until at least a decade later. And the answer was, “For now, you have to do both, if you want to maximize income and impact.”

We are in a transition period. Multichannel communications are the rule for now and the foreseeable future (at least as I foresee it). In 2018, Mark Phillips, Bluefrog’s founder, shared data showing the bending 7-year trend: purely “offline” donors (i.e., they did not make their gifts digitally) were decreasing (although at 89.4%, they were still the vast majority); online donors were increasing (almost doubling in number in the past three years); and “multichannel” donors were becoming a new normal.

What’s multichannel? Someone gets a direct mail appeal, which prompts them to make a gift … but they make that gift online. Or someone sees a text-to-give poster in the Tube … and takes action via their mobile.

I.e., print and digital working together.


6. The Shiny New Thing saves a few … but probably not you.

Corollary: All fundraising is hard work, yet every so often something crazy wonderful happens (just don’t count on it).

In June 2018, a couple of tech employees in San Francisco, Charlotte and Dave Willner, started a Facebook crowdfunding campaign. They wanted to help kids separated by U.S. law enforcement from their illegally immigrating parents. The Willners’ initial goal: $1,500. Driven by a wildfire of public outrage and press coverage, giving to their campaign quickly broke every previous crowdfunding record, raising $16 million in a matter of days.

And then there was the viral Ice Bucket Challenge. It raised more than $115 million in 2014 for ALS research. Sure, pray for a miracle in your free time. But stick to your knitting at work.

Your board and boss need to know this, too.


7. Donors aren’t forever. Mostly.

Again: Why do you need a donor acquisition program as well as a donor relationship program? Because donors come and go, like pee holes in the snow.

A couple of years ago, I polled experts around the world with the question, “How long does the average donor stick with a charity?”

There was a gawdly lot of hemming and hawing and clearing of throats and asterisks and “depends” and “sometimes” and exceptions (these were all heavily analytical experts).

But the consensus was this: if someone makes a second gift to a charity (which excludes something like 70-80% of first-time donors right there), you can expect them on average to stick around for something like 4-6 years.

If that donor is acquired as a monthly donor or converted to monthly, they’ll hang around longer, on average for 6-8 years.

In other words, the oft-proposed “wisdom” that mandates, “We must find younger donors!” is nuts … IF it’s based on the presumption that donors will stick around forever.

As veteran fundraiser Jeff Brooks commented, “It’s rare even for a long-term donor to stay longer than 7 years.”

If you’re only getting a 7-year run with the average donor, then you actually want OLDER donors. Is anyone out there listening?

Donors give from their surplus. Younger donors are generous, too … but they are building their lives and have lots of expenses. Older donors have already built their lives … and may feel they can give more away. Results vary, but as a rule.

[grade level 8.8 before rewrites]


8. If you use the word “you” a lot, in your BIG type, you’ll raise more money.

How much more?

One children’s hospital I know began featuring the word YOU in the headlines of its donor newsletter … and saw giving soar immediately to $50,000 per issue.

This was a 1,000% improvement in giving over previous issues, which lacked YOU in the headlines.

The word “you” warms up the conversation, brings people closer, makes everything much more personal, and sends the reader’s unengaged mind into a higher state of alertness.

Please understand: “you” is far more than a pronoun. It’s a profound emotional trigger as well.

[grade level: 8.8 before rewrites]


9. Statistics are your weakest cards, when you fundraise from individuals.

Stories sell.

Statistics tell.

Stories are for everyone.

Statistics are for specialists.

Stories need no translation.

Statistics do.

Remarkably enough, Joseph Stalin said it best, “One man’s death is a tragedy. A thousand deaths is a statistic.”

Behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, a distinguished professor at Duke, has researched this phenomenon in philanthropy.

In one test, he shared the story of a single girl in Africa who was hungry and asked his subjects, “How much would you give?”

With a different test group, he talked about the severe problem of hunger in Africa and asked, “How much would you give?”

His finding? “People give half as much to Africa as they give to the hungry girl.”

This is all about your target audience.

  • If your target audience is a grants reviewer at a foundation, statistics are the common currency.
  • If your target audience is an individual, stories are the common currency.

By the way, if you’re NOT raising money from individuals, you’re missing out on most of the feast, at least in America.

In the 2018 Giving USA report, 79% of all donations came from individuals; 16% came from foundations; and a mere 5% came from corporations.

And it has ever been so: Giving USA has gathered its nationwide data for more than 60 years.

[grade level: 7 before rewrites]


10. Negative emotions are your special friends.

It started a long time ago, with something called “the lizard brain.”

Psychology Today, take it away: “Lizard brain refers to the oldest part of the brain, the brain stem, responsible for primitive survival instincts such as aggression and fear (‘flight or fight’)….”

In lay terms, you crawled from the muck with just two thoughts: (1) “Can I eat it? [Because I need nutrition.]” (2) “Will it kill me? [Because it needs nutrition.]”

That lizard-ly brain is still in your head … and it’s steering your “attention span” much of the time.

See something calming, like a child’s smile? Relax. No worries.

See something dangerous, like a typical front-page news stories? The lizard brain issues an abrupt order: PAY ATTENTION NOW!

Why does daily journalism dwell so much on disasters, murders, slaughters, catastrophes, and other insults to your peace of mind?

Because your lizard brain says YOU MUST PAY ATTENTION to this noxious, unrepresentative crap … which means, in turn, your for-profit news entity of choice can then sell your eyeballs to its advertisers. (You would do well to break this curse.)

We live in an attention economy. Don’t be duped. Read Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants.

[grade level: 6.4 before rewrites]


11. You can’t say “Thank you” enough. Corollary: Your donors will never tire of hearing how great they are.

The Agitator, reporting research in 2013: “A three-minute thank-you call will boost 1st year retention by 30%.”

First-year retention is SO MUCH all that TRULY matters financially to a growing/ambitious/struggling nonprofit.

ONE-TIME donors can clog the donor-relationship drain, like falling hair.

Peer-to-peer donors? Responding-to-today’s-top-news-natural-disaster donors?

Welcome! But they give once. Never intended to give twice. Theirs was an impulse gift, as many charitable gifts in fact are.

Nonprofits cannot thrive on one-time givers. You need to attract the truest of true believers, the 20% who give 80% of your charitable income. The people who are in it for the long run … until victory is ours! … until death do us part.

Hence the rise of monthly giving.

Hence stroking your mid-value donors toward higher amounts.

Hence the RECENT sudden apparent fascination with bequest marketing on my speaking calendar.

Are your first-time, one-time donors costing you money? Run the numbers.

According to researchers like Dr. Adrian Sargeant, the real money is in retention and conversion.

[grade level: 7.7 before rewrites]


11 3/4. It’s the donor’s story. The organization is almost irrelevant.

The following financial/psychological truth could snap the spine of many a nonprofit brand:

  • In high-performance fundraising communications, the donor counts most. The nonprofit doesn’t.

In lucrative fundraising communications, the donor’s the protagonist. The nonprofit isn’t.

The nonprofit is a prop, a means to an end, a spear the donor carries … to skewer enemies of his faith, her beliefs, his values, her hopes.

Donors give THROUGH you, not TO you.

And, yeah, get over it: you’re thinking PR, not fundraising.

Charities don’t get the donors they want; i.e., people giving for “the right reasons.”

Charities get the donors who respond … misunderstandings, bizarre rationales, obvious warts, traumas and all.

Probably the only truly useful thing in my audit for the Animal Rescue League of Boston was this recommendation, which the staff abhorred: “Add voice balloons to your animal photos.”

Why useful? “Because Walt Disney built a globe-straddling empire on anthropomorphism. You can fundraise with the same approach. Animal-lovers PRAY their pets will start talking.”

ARLB took the advice. Donated income rose.

Coda goes to Seth Godin: “We support a charity … because it gives us a chance to love something about ourselves.” I hear lucrative thunder on that horizon.

[grade level: 7.6 before rewrites]

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