Thanksgiving Thankfulness

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Nov 212011

This fall has been a whirlwind of activity — from kids’ school and soccer, to a husband in grad school, and a work load that threatened to bury me in direct mail. There were more than a few moments I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep up the pace.

A friend of mine once told me that if you work for a nonprofit, you will always have work on your desk and exhaustion in your bones.

And these days, when more organizations are trying to meet increased need with decreased resources, I think that’s more true than ever. If you don’t find a few moments during the year to remember why you do what you do, you’ll go bonkers…or worse, burn out completely.

So now that I have a light, short week in which to take a breath and reflect, I want to jot down a few of the things I’m thankful for…things I haven’t been able to see amidst the deluge of responsibilities this past few months.

  • Clients who consistently surprise and delight me. It is so much easier to endure crunch time with people who appreciate what we’re trying to accomplish and who collaborate fully and openly. What a treat!
  • Family support. Even my four-year-old knows when Mama needs a break, and my husband and three children are my biggest caretakers…and biggest fans.
  • Friends and neighbors who step up, no questions asked. Whether it’s providing emergency child care, donating a hot meal, helping me network, or volunteering to proofread my latest letter, these people have my back!
  • Work that I believe in. One of the best things about my job is being able to channel my creativity into efforts that make the world a better place to live.
  • Connectivity. I’m old enough to remember how cumbersome working at home used to be, and I’m thankful every single day for the tools that allow me to work with people all over the world from a corner of my kitchen.

There are, of course, many other things I’m thankful for — my home, my town, my good health, the bottle of wine on my counter, peppermint jojos from Trader Joe’s, and more. But those are the biggies.

Try to take a moment this week to think about what makes you thankful in your job and in your life. Colleagues? Donors? Small successes or huge triumphs?

Nonprofits are busy places at year’s end, and sometimes the only way to make it to the other side is to remember what keeps you going. So, what are you thankful for this year?

Calls to Action…And How to Use Them

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Nov 182011

Want your donors to bite? Give them a strong call to action!

When you send out your Direct Mail package, you’ve got one goal in mind. A gift, right?

Nope. Your one and only goal is to get your donor to take action.

That action may include a gift. And most fundraisers are hyper-focused on that outcome, since it’s measurable and — let’s face it — the reason they’re there. But donors don’t want to be treated like ATMs. They want to feel like partners in your mission, the invisible force that’s making all of your crucial work happen.

Instead of looking for the gift, look at the action the people on your list take. In time, you’ll see that the most engaged donors also have the busiest wallets. Try these calls to action for better donor engagement:


Most philanthropically minded people would love to count themselves among the enlightened and compassionate people who support your cause. Most of us like to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, a coalition or broader movement that will make things happen or solve problems or just make a difference.

Of course, by itself, asking someone to “join” your organization or your cause isn’t especially compelling. Some of us see that word and think about how we “joined” the PTA in September and by February were spending 20 hours a week making photocopies and attending meetings about school uniform policies.

So make your “join” message irresistible by linking it to a campaign or an action-plan that has specific goals in mind. Consider the difference between “Join This Great Organization!” and “Join our 3-step Campaign to Solve This Very Important Problem!” One’s vague and only moderately interesting, while the other promises results.


This works well on a website or for an organization with a high-quality publication as part of its benefits. If you can get someone to subscribe to your e-newsletter or your magazine, you know that person is a willing ear. They may need a little more convincing before they fork over the dough…but if you’re writing your publications correctly, it won’t be long before that reader turns into a donor.

Of course, all the subscribers in the world are no good unless you are sending out publications that include fundraising asks and describe the various fundraising needs your organization has. So make sure the publications and fundraising teams are working together!


I write for a lot of activist organizations, so this is one of my favorites. Anytime you send out a package (or put up a web page) with a petition in it, you’ll get a lot of people — usually around 30-50% of responders for mail — who will ONLY sign the petition without sending a gift. But guess who your best responders are the next time you go out? That’s right, those who signed the petition. Petitions are a fantastic way to get people involved in your mission and an easy way for donors to feel like they’re making a difference in your cause.

You need to have a petition-worthy issue to make this work, though. If you’re sending a petition to one of 18 city councillors or the undersecretary of some department no one knew existed, it’s not going to be very compelling. Save this for when you have a big, well known target in mind…and an issue that gets people excited enough to sign.

Tell us Your Opinion!

Everyone loves to spout off their opinions, and when you give your donors a quick, easy-to-follow survey to fill out, few can resist. Keep it short — 3-5 questions — and make sure the last question leads them to donating. (Try something like, “If you knew that This Great Organization was a leader in solving This Terrible Problem, would you be willing to support us with a financial gift?”)

All of these are great ways to get donors involved in what you’re doing. And an involved donor is a donor who gives again and again. Which gets you to the one action that most fundraisers — and board members — are most interested in: Donating.

Chasing that Silver Lining

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Nov 072011

When I picked up my 8-year-old from school a few weeks ago and asked her how her day went, she heaved a huge sigh and said, “Terrible.” Of course, I asked what had happened. In a voice heavy with anger, she told me that her teacher had asked her to write her personal narrative more neatly.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“You don’t understand!” she howled. “I want to write fast! It made me so mad that I had to slow down!”

“So,” I said, “your teacher did one thing that made you mad, and that ruined your whole entire day?”


It’s human nature to focus on the bad stuff. Listen to the morning news any day of the week, and stories about horrors happening in the world outnumber stories of joy by a wide margin. The mistakes we make in life stay with us in a way that our successes rarely do. We remember the bad days, remember exactly where we were the moment tragedy struck.  But those days of ordinary sweetness — of tasty dinners and laughs with friends — are harder to recall with the same clarity.

And the same is true at nonprofits. It’s so much easier for the Board, the staff, the volunteers — for everyone — to zero in on the one mailing that didn’t go right instead of celebrating the dozens that did. That mistake that resulted in a deluge of angry donor calls? Everyone remembers that. The fundraising event that exceeded projections? All anyone can recall is the snafu that meant there was one bathroom for 500 people.

And there is tremendous value in reflecting upon our mistakes.

But I’ve found — in life and in fundraising — that if I want to have more success and more joy, I have to chase down the success and joy I’ve already had.

Chip and Dan Heath, in their amazing book SWITCH: How to Change When Change is Hard, call this “finding the bright spots.” See where your fundraising program is working and try to replicate that success in your weaker areas.

A few years ago, I had a client that was very enthusiastic about trying new techniques in the mail, but they didn’t want to spend the money to test. The result was a series of mailings that were wildly divergent in their results. A blockbuster appeal was followed by a bomb, one renewal performed well, while the next effort tanked. They wailed over every disappointment and bemoaned the lack of consistency in their direct mail program.

I desperately wanted them to test, but they refused. So instead of fighting a pointless battle, I started honing in on what was going right in their program. I came up with a list of appeal themes that I knew had worked. The designer and I started using graphics that were still bold and exciting, but that we knew from past successes would work. We were able to create a more consistently effective program, while I continued to impress upon them the importance of testing.

The great Tom Ahern says that a fundraiser’s primary mission is to “Deliver Joy.”

But how can we deliver joy if we’re only focused on the bad stuff?

That day with my daughter, I asked her to spend the walk home from school listing three good things that had happened that day. She was sure she would never be able to think of three good things about that horrible day, but by the time we walked through our front door, we had a list of five great things about the day. (Which may not have softened the blow when I made her work on her handwriting for homework.)

Embrace your mistakes. But don’t forget to chase your successes, find the bright spots, and deliver joy.

Your Fundraising Letter: the 3 Pillars of Persuasion

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Nov 022011

When you sit down to plan out your next fundraising letter, of course you’ll remember to write to one donor, have one signer, make it personal (by using a lot of “I, you, we”) and keep your paragraphs short and your key ideas and asks highlighted. And still it might not be enough to push your letter from “solid” to “solid gold!”

So take another look at your copy and see if you’ve used arguments from all three Pillars of Persuasion.


The Intellectual Argument is often one of the easiest for people to make. We’re used to collecting facts and figures to back up our positions. Numbers can tell a powerful story to many people. After all, it’s hard to argue with cold hard statistics.

A letter I received recently from World Wildlife Fund tells me that “The average American uses 350 plastic bags each year.” That’s nearly one for every day of the year! It goes on to report that “Every year, more than 100,000 whales, seals, turtles and birds die as a result of plastic bags.” I — like probably most of the people WWF mailed to — really try to limit my use of plastic bags, but as I sit at my computer, I can look over at my recycling area and see a few poking out.

I hope I use fewer than the average 35o bags per year, but I know that if 100,000 wild animals are being killed by plastic bags, then using any bags at all is too many. Those numbers convinced me.

But you can’t rely on numbers alone.


When you’re asking people to part with their hard-earned cash, you have to move them emotionally. One easy way to do that is to paint a picture of the problem they’re helping to solve. Animal rights groups can describe the deplorable conditions for animals raised on factory farms. Environmental groups can show the suffering of children with pollution-induced asthma or the rapid disappearance of ancient stands of old-growth trees.

Tell a story related to your mission, include a photo of someone impacted by your work, or talk about a moment that moved you.

Make your audience feel the importance of your cause and the passion of everyone in your organization to solve it.


Most of us believe we are moral people, and your direct mail package can give your donors an easy way to exercise their moral muscles. Remind them that their support places them on the side of Right. Knowing that by giving to your organization they are in fact standing up for their principles is a huge motivator for many people.

Which brings me to the silent 4th pillar:

Know your audience.

Some audiences respond more consistently to well-reasoned arguments and solid facts, while others are consistently swayed by a moral ask, and still others care little for facts and respond solely to emotional pleas. Test different ways of framing your ask to see how your audience responds.