Donor Communications



The Worst Reason to Ask Your Donors to Give:

Because it’s time to.

Powerful fundraising is the intersection of strategy, passion and relevance. Of course we have communication calendars. And we most certainly have fundraising goals.

But if you find yourself starting your next development/membership department meeting with “What are we gonna write about this month?” then take a step back.

Instead, ask yourself and your membership team:

What is our organization fired up about?

What gets our donors fired up?

Where is funding needed?

What do we want to have happen with this appeal? (And don’t just think about financial goals.)

Start here and your powerful message – and results – will follow naturally.

Where have your best ideas come from? Share your thoughts here or drop us a line at And if you’d like to expand your own idea library, email us to request MKDM‘s free Idea Book.




The Boss of You

Quick: who do you work for?

Most people, when asked this question, will automatically tell you the name of their employer: “I work for Acme Incorporated, where I’m the VP of Sales and Marketing” (or something like that).

But “who signs your paycheck?” wasn’t really the question. And you, of course, are not most people: your employer is a nonprofit.

This means you don’t work for the Chair of your Board. You don’t work for the person who supervises you. You don’t even work for the nonprofit that employs you.

You work for your organization’s donors.

Your donors believe in something, and they have hired YOU – and everyone else in your organization, from the Executive Director to the administrative assistant – to achieve their vision.

So the next time you sit down to write a membership renewal letter, or a cultivation newsletter, or a fundraising email, remember this:

You are writing to your boss.

For insights and ideas on communicating with your real boss, join me on July 27th in Washington, D.C. at the AFP / DMAW Bridge Conference, where Robin Kornhaber and Jeff Costantino from Legacy, Evan Parker from The Nature Conservancy, and I will be sharing helpful case studies and tips in our session Six Steps for Building Donor-Centric Direct Response and Communications Strategies. Hope to see you there!




Things We Think We Know

The most successful membership programs excel, in large part, because they know how to strike up the conversation with prospective donors.


Instead of would you like to make a gift? great membership programs approach us with questions like: what concerns you more: drilling in the Arctic, or deforestation in the Amazon? They ask our opinions: Where do you stand on health care? They pique our curiosity: How well do you know your rights? They even stop us in our tracks sometimes: Do you think this child deserves to eat dinner tonight?

We all know this as good membership and marketing people.

Or do we?

We strike up all these great dialogues via our emails, newsletters, blogs and Facebook pages. But more often than not, our offer to engage our donors through these channels happens via one conversation-killer:

Join our mailing list.

It’s good to question our strategies every once and a while. Often, we validate the way we do things. But sometimes, we find better ways to do them.

What do you think? Is there a better way than “join our mailing list?”




Snoozeletter or Schmoozeletter?

If you’re responsible for creating your organization’s newsletter you probabaly scrutizine every edition for accuracy, messaging, typos and so on. But when was the last time you sat down and read your organization’s newsletter cover-to-cover … for pleasure?

Made you laugh, didn’t I? 


This donor profile from Lambda Legal's newsletter draws the reader in with good content, lively graphics, reader-friendly copy and compelling donor quotes.

That’s ok. Most of us are glad to forget our newsletters the moment they’re printed or we hit send. We fill them with staff and Board announcements, snapshots of people in suits shaking hands, and pictureless articles in 8-point type. We assume that our newsletter is about us, and so we write articles about ourselves. Creatively, we try to get each edition over with as quickly as possible so that we can check that box and get back to more important things.  

And lost in the drugery is a simple question: if our own newsletter bores us, what do our donors think?? 

Fortunately, all you need is a fresh perspective and a little imagination to turn your “snoozeletter” into a lively publication that engages, cultivates and even entertains your donors … a.k.a. (so sorry) “the schmoozeletter!”

Here are some tips to get you started on your own new and improved newsletter…

Be interesting to your donors. Your newsletter isn’t about you. It’s about your donors, and nourishing their interest in your work. If not produced entirely by your Development department, your newsletter should at least be a collaboration between your Communications and Development departments. Your newsletter should …

  1. Supply your donors with the information that interests them about your work and your issues
  2. Demonstrate the value of your donors’ investment in your organization
  3. Reinforce your donors’ sense of belonging to a community of like-minded individuals
  4. Lay the foundation for further giving

Tell your story. Many organizations make the mistake of approaching their newsletter as a straightforward chronicle of their accomplishments. Don’t give your readers program reports; instead, tell them stories, beginning with compelling headlines.

For instance, instead of “The So-and-So Organization Delivers Groceries to a  Record 350 Families ” try something like “Michaela’s First Thanksgiving” or “The Johnson Family’s Recipe for Happiness.” And then, for example, tell the donor about your organization by telling the story of a little girl’s first Thanksgiving or a family’s special time bonding over supper, all possible thanks to the donor’s support.

Avoid what’s not relevant to your donors. Certain content may be unavoidable, but be sure to keep the following to a minimum:

  1. New Board announcements
  2. New staff announcements
  3. Long letters from the president
  4. Photographs of people at podiums or holding drinks at parties

Make it easy on the eyes and visually appealing. Good newsletters are engaging in part simply because they’re pleasant to look at…

  1. Make use of white space for readability.
  2. Fill your newsletter with photos “from the field” emphasizing the beneficiaries of your organization’s work.
  3. Your newsletter should be attractive but not too expensive.
  4. Make sure your newsletter is very legible and friendly to older eyes.
  5. Establish a graphic standard for your newsletter (i.e. consistent design and formatting).

Do you have ideas of your own on creating more engaging newsletters? Then post them here or email us at

mkdm-idea-bookAnd speaking of ideas, we have only a few more 2009 Idea Books featuring some of our best ideas for engaging donors, motivating action and inspiring philanthropy. If you’d like your own free copy, email And if you already have our 2009 edition, email us to sign up in advance for your copy of our 2010 Idea Book, available in late February, 2010.




What’s Your Thing?

Earlier this week I received an Evite for a friend’s birthday party with this at the bottom of the invitation:


I was already a fan of the American Cancer Society‘s More Birthdays campaign professionally, and genuinely appreciated seeing it in action on a personal level via Rebecca’s birthday invitation.

The power of the campaign is its universality. We all understand birthdays because we all have them. And, sadly, most of us have some experience with cancer. But we never really connected them before in the way that ACS has:

If you’d like more birthdays, let’s talk about having less cancer.

Powerful message. Also powerful: ACS is well on its way to owning birthdays.

If you’re asking yourself why didn’t I think of that? don’t worry. That idea is taken, but there is plenty of room for more – you just have to use your imagination.

Think about what your organization makes possible. Think beyond the literal, beyond your specific programs, outside of your official agenda. Think about the unofficial effects of your work – and then consider embracing them, as they rightly are, and as ACS has, as an important and official part of your mission.

What are the universal things that your organization makes possible? What do you think of the ACS campaign? And what other campaigns do you like? Share your thoughts below, or email us at




Ask The Nth Factor … About Newsletters

I received an interesting question yesterday about reply envelopes – interesting, because it was really a question about something entirely different: newsletters. Here it is:

“Our office has been debating this for a couple days and we were wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing your point of view.”newsletter-reply

The email then directed me to a reply coupon that this organization had noticed in another organization’s newsletter. To give you a visual, it was something along these lines, –>                      although it included membership levels and benefits and was, admittedly, way more attractively designed than this example that I created for this post. Here was the question:

“Half of our staff thinks this is a great, eye-catching addition that may motivate people to give without the hassle of sending a remittance envelope. The other half think that eliminating the return envelope (as a way to save money), would limit the responses we get because it will become a hassle for potential donors. What are your thoughts?”

It was a great question – but my thought as I reread the email was there’s a better question in disguise here. And that is: is my newsletter a fundraising vehicle? You see, whether it’s better to include a reply envelope or not in your newsletter hinges on an assumption that your newsletter is for fundraising.

Is it?

Here’s what I emailed back to the organization:

  1. You always want to include a remittance envelope in any direct mail solicitation.
  2. But a newsletter isn’t a solicitation. Newsletters are cultivation devices, not fundraising devices, so I wouldn’t look at this reply form and whether or not the newsletter contains a reply envelope the same way.
  3. Even though a newsletter’s primary purpose is cultivation, it should still include a reply device and can be expected to generate a bit of revenue. I emphasize “a bit” because …
  4. If you actually raise a lot of money from the reply device/envelope in your newsletter, then that is a good sign that you are under soliciting your donors. Think about it: if your supporters are sending in a lot of money when you don’t ask (because a reply form in a newsletter is only a passive ask), imagine what they’ll do when you do ask!
  5. In hard copy newsletters, most organizations still do include an actual envelope and that’s what I’d lean toward. That might be something worth testing though.

So thanks for a great question, Jackie! Have any questions of your own? Email and we’ll do our best to answer them in our Ask The Nth Factor series. If you’re interested in tips for making your newsletter more effective by the way, here’s an article you might find helpful from our website.

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When Bad Communications Happen to Good Organizations

I love fundraising and donor cultivation communications. In any form. Direct mail, email, websites, newsletters, annual reports, phone calls, donation forms, Facebook pages, you name it.

We save most of what we receive at my office – and anyone working or interested in donor communications should do the same. Over the years we’ve built up a library of great donor fundraising and cultivation messages. We return to it periodically as a springboard for new ideas, or validation of existing ones.

My saved email folder

But there’s a small corner of our library that also reminds us how NOT to communicate with donors. Of course I won’t name names. And in fairness to those of us who develop dozens of campaigns a year, it’s inevitable that we’re going to miss the mark occasionally.

Fortunately while there are many, many ways we can botch our donor communications, we tend to do so for just a handful of reasons. Here are five of the biggest reasons I think bad fundraising communications sometimes happen to good organizations, and some simple suggestions for how you can avoid these pitfalls:

1. We take our donors for granted. During the height of the financial crisis last fall, we received a year end email solicitation from an organization with the subject line: “From the Bean Counter.” It was a frank communication from the Chief Financial Officer stating that the organization’s programs would be a “nonstarter” unless “donors like you step up with a few extra dollars.” The email was terse, the tone impatient. There were no words of thanks for the donor’s past support. The email even marginalized the act of giving itself, dismissing the donor’s philanthropy as a matter of stepping up with a few extra dollars.

I’m all for the occasional “I’m gonna give it to you straight,” donor communication. In fact, the urgent CFO letter can be a very effective – and appropriate – fundraising approach at times. But we’re never excused from good old fashioned manners. Like saying “how are you?” and “it’s nice to see you” to a friend before you ask a favor. So before you hit send on your next donor appeal, ask yourself this: “does this communication demonstrate sincere, heartfelt appreciation for my donor?” If your answer is anything less than ABSOLUTELY!, rewrite it.

2. We try to be clever, and wind up being the opposite. Another email solicitation that caught my eye recently showed a picture of a beach scene with the breezy headline, “It’s Summertime and the Giving’s Easy!” Considering it was early June and unemployment was over 9%, neither of these statements was actually true. Worse, neither was a case for support. (I could just imagine the donor puzzling why to give to this organization – because it’s summer? because it’s easy?)

What’s easy is spotting mistakes like this in hindsight. All of us sometimes turn our brains off accidentally. The trick is to realize it and turn them back on – quickly, before we talk to our donors. So after every fundraising communication you compose, complete this statement: I have given my donor the following reasons to make a contribution: ________. Ideally, you will list at least three. Then ask yourself, are they good ones?

3. We lose sight of the forest for the trees. I once did a messaging and creative audit for an organization whose mission involved women’s rights issues. After reviewing their annual report, I had just one question: “where are the women?” It turned out that the majority of this organization’s considerable successes were achieved in government offices and at international conferences. So their donor communications showed their staff doing things like talking to policy makers, giving keynote addresses and shaking the hands of world leaders. They gave excerpts of the organization’s important publications and research. They gave long explanations of the organization’s particular method for achieving its mission. They explained why their method was the most effective one. But they didn’t tell a single story or show a single picture of a woman and child.

Fortunately this kind of oversight is an easy fix, too. As a rule of thumb, the large majority of your donor communications (say 75%) should be about the ultimate vision, and the donor’s role in making that vision possible. This means devoting 75% of your donor communications to photographs of the people you serve, stories of your beneficiaries, words of thanks to the donor and engagement opportunities for the donor. Leave the details to the remaining 25%.

4. We don’t ask (AKA we bury the ask, we beat around the bush, we don’t ask clearly, we don’t ask for a specific gift or action). I receive a lot of letters from organizations, particularly in the fall, that go something like this: “The So-and-So Organization has come to the end of another year of (doing the work the organization does).” This is followed by a page of hefty bullet points recapping the organization’s accomplishments and successes from the past year. In the second to last paragraph, I’m told that the organization’s Annual Fund supports this work and that the bigger and better Annual Fund goal this year is $__ (fill in the blank). Finally, in the last paragraph, the letter says the organization is hoping for 100% Annual Fund participation. From the enclosed reply form listing a range of giving levels from $25 to $10,000, I gather that the organization wants me to select one and send the form back in with a gift.

We all know this letter, don’t we? We’ve received it a hundred times, maybe even written it ourselves once or twice. It’s such a familiar format that we don’t even notice that while the organization has given us an excellent recap of the fine work they’re doing, and even demonstrated that they would be good stewards of our continued support, they haven’t actually asked us to give. They also haven’t told us how much they want us to give. It’s an easy pitfall, but equally easy to avoid. When you finish writing your Annual Fund letter this year, just ask yourself: 1) have I made a clear and direct ask on the first page of my letter? and 2) have I asked the donor for a specific amount that reflects his/her giving to my organization? Make sure you can answer YES! to both, before you go to print.

5. We ask – but make the same ask again, and again, and again. Last and perhaps the greatest pitfall of all: we run out of ideas. We start using the same #10 envelope, the same email template, the same photographs, the same arguments, the same petition. Without even realizing it, our donor communications become formula. And then we wonder why our results start to wane.

The fact is, routine kills originality. Yet to do our jobs well – that is, to build ever stronger donor relationships through terrific fundraising communications – we must be routinely original. Unfortunately, there’s no simple checklist for creativity and originality. But the good news is, you’re not on your own either. There’s a whole wide world of organizations connecting with their donors and providing inspiration to all of us for how to connect with our own. Sure, they miss the mark occasionally and end up in that dark corner of our library. But most fundraising communications out there are excellent demonstrations of how TO talk to your donors. So whenever you find yourself in need of ideas, look to your peers for inspiration – and return the favor by creating your own inspiring donor communications.