#Nonprofits, Keep Doing Your Good Work!


I’m still in shock over the U.S.election. I had planned to submit a post today and mulled over whether I should wait until tomorrow. Somehow a post about donor communication seems trivial, even though it’s not. But it can wait.

How do we deal with uncertainty the next four years brings us?  Some of you may want to delve into your work to take your mind off things. Others will need a break to process this. Do whatever you need to take care of yourself.

Nonprofits, we need you more than ever. Don’t stop doing all the good things you do – for women, families, children, people of color, immigrants, the LBGTQ community, homeless people, the environment, etc.

Keep doing your good work!


Beware of Bright Shiny Objects

3214060741_db8c069c72_mIt can be tempting to jump on the latest craze and try something new. But that bright shiny object may not be the answer you’re looking for.

In fact, you can be more successful in your fundraising and communications if you use methods that have been around for awhile. Here’s how.

Give your donors the personal touch

We have lots of different ways to communicate with donors, many of them electronic. Electronic communication is great because you can get a message out to many people in an instant.

But technology isn’t always our friend. Often these electronic messages don’t sound like they’re coming from a human.

Hardly anyone writes personal letters anymore but imagine your donors’ surprise when they receive a personal, handwritten thank you note from you. Delight Donors and Volunteers With Hand-Written Thank You Notes

Another more personal way to communicate is to give your donors a call to say thank you. Thank You Calls as a Donor Retention Tool: 6 Steps to Success

In this age of automation, we need to be more personal.  

Make retention and relationship building part of your fundraising plan

Most nonprofit organizations rely on fundraising for the bulk of their revenue. It’s not easy to raise money, especially if you spend more time focusing on finding new donors than keeping the ones you already have.

You might think you can take a break after a big fundraising campaign, but your work has just begun. Thank your donors right away and continue to stay in touch throughout the year with donor-centered newsletters and other updates.

If you keep churning through donors and have a high attrition rate, you need to do a better job of building relationships. It’s not hard, but you have to work at it. This link includes a quick way for you to figure out your donor retention rate A Guide to Donor Retention, and here are a few ways to build relationships with your donors throughout the year. How Are You Building Relationships?

Your new donors are closer than you think

Of course, you’ll need new donors. You’ll have more success if you reach out to people who already know you. Potential donors are your newsletter subscribers, social media followers, event attendees, friends of board members, and volunteers.

You can cultivate these supporters by communicating regularly and showing how you are making a difference for the people you serve. If you do it well, you should have a good chance of getting them to donate.

Unfortunately, not everyone is interested in your organization. That’s why buying lists is not the best way to fundraise. Find people who will be drawn to your cause.

It’s also not enough to find people with money(forget about trying to woo Bill Gates). If you want more major donors, work with your board and other donors. Connections always help.

Again, it comes down to good old-fashioned relationship building, something most organizations need to improve.

So, beware of bright shiny objects and focus on more personal communication and building relationships.

We Can’t Afford This


How often do you say that? I understand. Many nonprofits are stretched thin, But what are you saying you can’t afford to do? It may be something you should be doing.

Here are a couple of areas that you may be neglecting that I believe you can’t afford not to invest in.

You need a good database

If you’re using Excel instead of a database because it’s free, stop doing that. A spreadsheet is not a database. Your Worst Fundraising Enemy

A good database won’t be free, but there are affordable options for small organizations. Compare Non-Profit Software  You don’t want to limit yourself by choosing a database that can only hold a certain amount of records or can only be used on one computer because you don’t want to pay for additional licences.

A good database can help you raise more money. You can segment your donors by amount and politely ask them to give a little more in your next appeal – $35 or $50 instead of $25.

A good database can help you with retention, which will save you money since it costs less to keep donors than to acquire new ones. You can personalize your letters and email messages. No more Dear Friend. You can welcome new donors and thank donors for their previous support. You can send targeted mailings to lapsed donors to try to woo them back. You can record any personal information, such as conversations you had with a donor and their areas of interest.

Don’t cut corners when it comes to your donor data. You can’t afford to do that.

You need to use direct mail more often

If you never or rarely use direct mail, you’re missing out on an effective and more personal way to communicate with your donors. Think of the mammoth amount of email and social media posts you receive as opposed to postal mail. Your donors will be more likely to see your messages if you send them by mail.

If money is tight, you don’t have to mail that often. Quality trumps quantity but aim for at least four times a year.

Put some thought into what you send. Some ideas, besides appeal letters, include thank you cards; Thanksgiving, holiday, or Valentine’s Day cards (I received a very nice Valentine’s Day card from an organization); infographic postcards; and two to four-page newsletters and annual/progress reports. You could put a donation envelope in your newsletter to raise some additional revenue, but don’t put one in a thank you or holiday card  Shorter is better. Lengthy communication will cost more and your donors are less likely to read it.

A few ways you can use direct mail without breaking your budget are to clean up your mailing lists to avoid costly duplicate mailings, spread thank you mailings throughout the year – perhaps to a small number of donors each month, and look into special nonprofit mailing rates. You may also be able to get print materials done pro bono or do them in-house, as long as they look professional.

Of course, you can use email and social media, but your primary reason for communicating that way shouldn’t be because it’s cheaper. It should be because that’s what your donors use. If your donors prefer to communicate by mail, then you should too.

Make a smart investment

You often need to spend money to raise money. Perhaps you need to reallocate your budget to cover some of these expenses. You could also look into additional sources of unrestricted funding.

Don’t limit yourself by saying you can’t afford to do something important. Making smart investments should pay off in the long run.

Photo via Pictures of Money


But Why?


If you’ve ever spent time with little kids you know one of their favorite words is why. You’ll answer a question, and she’ll respond with “but why?” again and again…… It may start to get annoying, but it’s good for people of all ages to be inquisitive and ask questions.

This applies to nonprofits, too. A lot of our communication isn’t focused on why something is important. The typical fundraising letter and newsletter article ramble on about accomplishments with no explanation of why something matters.

As you work on your messages, pretend your donor is a four-year-old who keeps asking “but why?” over and over again.

Why is what you do important?

Here’s something you might see in a newsletter or annual report.

We expanded our tutoring program to four more high schools.

Okay, but why is that important?

To serve more students.

That’s good, but why is that important?

After six months of weekly tutoring sessions, 85% of the students in our program have improved their math skills.

There you go.Tell your donors about the impact you’re making.

Why should someone donate to your organization?

Do your appeals focus on why it’s important to donate to your organization?  Instead of saying something generic like please donate to our annual appeal, tell a story emphasizing why someone should donate to your organization.

David, a 9th grader at Baker High School, always hated math and was barely passing his algebra class. “Algebra is stupid. I don’t get it,” he complained.Then David started weekly tutoring sessions with Matt, a volunteer tutor. It was a struggle at first, but thanks to Matt’s patience and guidance, David got a B on his last test.

Again, focus on why.

Why is your donor’s gift valuable?

When you thank your donors, do you tell them why their gift is valuable?  Give a specific example.

Thank you so much.Your generous gift of $50 will help cover the expenses of five one-to-one weekly tutoring sessions. After six months of these tutoring sessions, 85% of the students in our program have improved their math skills.

It’s all about the why.

Why do you appreciate your donors?

Finally, do your donors know why you appreciate them?

Thank you so much for doing your part in helping high school students boost their math skills. We couldn’t do this without you.

Start channeling your inner four-year-old and keep asking why.

Photo by Colin Kinner

Keep it Simple


Fundraiser Maeve Strathy recently wrote this great post – Explaining a Capital Campaign to a 3-year-old  Maeve is riding a streetcar in Toronto when they go past a hospital that’s undergoing massive renovations. A little boy nearby asks his mom what’s going on and she replies “They’re fixing the hospital. They’re making it better… and bigger.”  Wow, that’s a nice, simple explanation.

I like to use the example of pretending you’re at Thanksgiving dinner and Aunt Shirley asks what your organization does. Imagine her looking confused when you spew out terms like food insecurity or culture-focused projects. Imagine your donors doing the same thing.

While you’re unlikely to have any three-year-old donors, you have a lot of Aunt Shirleys, who don’t have a medical or social services background and aren’t going to use terms like at-risk populations.

Use language your donors will understand

When I read the term culture-focused projects in a nonprofit newsletter, I thought they meant art projects. But they were referring to students creating a flag from their “country of origin.” Why not tell a story about Lisa and Carla’s experience working on this project and include some quotes from the girls?

Instead of writing a lot of long-winded text about food insecurity, tell a story about how the Johnson family has to choose between buying groceries and paying the heating bill.

Rather than using one of my new least favorite terms – unbanked, say some people don’t have bank accounts.

Your goal is to be donor-centered, right?  Well, you’re not doing that when you use language your donors won’t understand.

Skip the fancy words, too. It makes you sound pretentious. You’re trying to impress your donors, not your English teacher. You don’t want them to have to find out what a word means. Most likely they won’t take the time to do that, and they’ll miss out on what you’re trying to say.

Write at a sixth to eighth-grade level

This is not dumbing down. Using clear, everyday language your donors will understand is a smart thing to do.

I wouldn’t rely too much on Word Grammar check, but the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics can be helpful. Test your document’s readability You can also access it online if you don’t use Word.

Besides determining a grade level and reading ease, it flags passive sentences, which weaken your writing. Instead of saying 5,000 meals were served at our community dinners, say we served 5,000 meals at our community dinners.

Less is more

In Maeve’s post, she mentions the tendency to get verbose in our messages when we should be doing the opposite. You need to make your messages as clear and simple as possible. Sometimes that’s harder, but your goal is to get your donor to read and understand your message.

There’s no need to overthink it or use jargon.  Just keep it simple.

Photo by One Way Stock


What Does That Mean?

When you write an appeal, thank you letter, or newsletter article, are you throwing in terms like at-risk youth and underserved communities?   The problem with those terms is they’re broad and often meaningless. 
Here’s an example from a thank you letter I received from a social services agency. “As you already know, X organization serves individuals who are often the most disenfranchised members of their communities.” Yikes! What does that mean?
Let’s look at some of these problem terms and what you can say instead. You may use some of these terms internally and they might be in your mission statement, but try to limit them when you communicate with donors. How To Follow in the Footsteps of Your Nonprofit’s Promise
At- risk
At risk means there’s a possibility something bad will happen. Instead of just saying at-risk students or youth, tell a story or give specific examples of something bad that could happen. Our tutoring program works with high school students who are more likely to fail, be held back, and drop out of school.
I like this post How to Convince Your Boss to Let You Write Like a Human and some of the comments in which people describe their experiences of whether to say kids, children, or youth.
I’ve had that same discussion at different organizations.  We can say children and youth, but not kids because that’s too informal and demeaning.  

But why not say kids?  I’m sure most donors don’t refer to their children as youth.  Kids sounds warm and fuzzy and well, youth does not.
After having this debate, one of my colleagues said it made him think of the two yoots scene from the movie, My Cousin Vinnie.  
Disenfranchised means being stripped of power, rights, or privileges.  It’s often used when talking about voting rights.
I’m not sure the organization I quoted above used it correctly, but either way, it’s a mouthful. If your clients fall into this category, show how you are giving them a voice or giving them back their rights.
Underserved means not receiving adequate help or services. Instead of saying we work with underserved communities, explain what types of services the residents don’t receive.  Maybe it’s healthcare, affordable housing, or decent preschool.
Be careful not to just say services. The 3 Most Boring Words in Fundraising Appeals Again, tell a story or give a specific example.  Sandra isn’t able send her daughter Lisa to a good preschool because there isn’t an affordable one nearby.
Making a difference or changing lives
Yes, you need to show your donors how you are making a difference, but you can’t just say your organization is making a difference or changing lives.
How are you doing that, and why is it important?  Maybe you’re helping families find affordable housing so they don’t have to live in a shelter, motel, or their car.  Now they have a place to call home.
Use language your donors will understand
Most of your donors don’t use these terms when they talk to their friends and neither should you when you communicate with them.  Use language they’ll understand.
Do you have any terms to add to this list?
Photo by Colin Kinner via Flickr



Fresh Fundraising Ideas

Do you need some fresh fundraising ideas for the new year? Or, maybe it’s time to revisit some that have proven to work.

In her post, Seven quintessential nonprofit resolutions for 2012…and beyond, Pamela Grow gives us tips from creating a solid plan (it’s not enough to have a plan, you need to execute it) to starting a monthly giving program (something you may not have thought of before).

Direct mail is still one of the most common ways to raise money, but you need to do it well. Jeff Brooks shows us How fundraisers are getting it right in the mail These are simple techniques that show results. 

Focus your efforts on your current donors. It should require less effort than trying to find new ones. This post by Sumac talks about Creating the “Perfect Donor Experience”. It’s not just about the ask. Spend time thanking your donors and keeping them updated and engaged. Let them know how they are making a difference.

Speaking of saying thank you, Kivi Leroux Miller highlights Nine Clever Ways to Thank Your Donors. Be creative – don’t just send out the same boring thank you letter. Of course, also let your donors know how their gift is being used to make a difference for the people you serve.

I encourage you to give some of these ideas a try to keep your fundraising fresh.