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GuideStar Blog

From the President's Office, November 2007

Dear Friend:

We're now entering that time of the year when most Americans take the extraordinary step of making contributions to charitable organizations and many charities receive the majority of their annual revenues. We at GuideStar recognize that there is growing demand from the giving public to provide help in making better and wiser decisions, and we're exploring many ways to do so. At the same time, we're disappointed at some of the simplistic and inappropriate ways being used to judge charities, which we think often miss the mark or fail to measure adequately the impact of a nonprofit organization. For many of us, making a year-end charitable contribution has become something of a tradition. We need, however, to take care to assure that writing that check or clicking that donate button doesn't become a reflexive ritual that we perform without thought.

Making a charitable donation is a powerful act that allows us to create a positive, personalized impact on the world around us. With so many nonprofits performing such a wide variety of good works, it should only take a little bit of effort to find a financially efficient organization with a mission that closely matches your personal convictions. Choosing where to give is a process that can be divided into two basic steps.

1. Listen to Your Heart

  • Take a long look at the world and decide which issues are most important to you. Keep an open mind; they may not be the most obvious ones. Remember, this is your chance to have your say in how we can make the world a better place.

  • Decide whether you want to make a difference on a local, national, or international level. Do you want your donation to have a direct impact on your community, or would you rather support an organization with a broader scope?

  • Don't give to an organization simply because you gave to them last year. Review your priorities and make sure they're still in line with the organization's mission. The world changes, and so do you.

  • Avoid the temptation to give only in response to the disasters that are in today's headlines. Consider giving to the nonprofits that will be responding to tomorrow's emergencies or to the groups that continue to work on yesterday's disasters after they are no longer in the news.

2. Use Your Head

  • Once you've identified your priorities, use GuideStar's advanced search function to find relevant nonprofits. Or if you already have specific organizations in mind, look them up on GuideStar to confirm their authenticity and tax-exempt status.

  • Find out what the organizations' goals are and how they intend to accomplish them. Don't be swayed by marketing slogans and pretty pictures. Get the facts on the programs that they are currently running.

  • Look at their most recent to see where their money goes. Most nonprofits need to spend a portion of your donation on fundraising and administration expenses. But it's important to find out how much is going directly to their programs.

  • When in doubt, ask questions. If anything seems strange or if you can't find the information you're looking for, contact the organization directly. They should be more than willing to respond to the queries of a potential donor.
If you don't have time for soul-searching and on-line research but still want to donate wisely, you should consider making an unrestricted gift to your local community foundation. By doing so, you can ensure that nonprofit professionals will direct your contribution to where it is needed most.

However you choose to make your voice heard this giving season, please find a way to support the organizations doing work that you believe in. By doing so, you should be able to satisfy both your head and your heart.


Bob Ottenhoff
President and CEO

The 20 Biggest Fundraising Mistakes, Part II

Last month, we published fundraising mistakes 1-10. This month, we complete the list.

Excerpt from The Relentlessly Practical Guide to Raising Serious Money

11. Failing to Have a Strong Rationale

Before setting out to raise money, each organization must think through the rationale for its appeal: why do the funds need to be raised, what will they achieve, and who will benefit?

Branding Helps Reveal "The Best-Kept Secret in Town"

Be honest. Have you ever said or thought that "our organization is one of the best-kept secrets in town"?

Plenty of folks in the nonprofit sector—at both the local and national levels—use exactly those words when referring to the good works their organizations perform. For some it has become a mantra.

For whatever reasons, the nonprofit sector has a tendency to undersell itself. It is either too proud or too humble, too understaffed, too involved in providing services, or too overwhelmed by day-to-day survival to promote its true value to the people and communities it serves.

Fortunately, the idea of branding is beginning to take hold within the sector. As nonprofits continue to feel increased competition for dollars—as well as for qualified staff, board members, and volunteers—they are beginning to understand how branding can help them bring clarity to their missions, strengthen their voices, and secure more funding sources on behalf of those they serve.

What follows are some insights to ignite your thoughts about how branding can help let your "best-kept secret" out.

Focus on Building Value as Well as Visibility

When we speak about creating or defining a brand, we are not simply talking about developing an attractive logo and tagline that can be slapped onto stationery, signage, brochures, and the like and, viola, we have our brand. A logo and tagline are simply the banners for your brand.

Your brand is a form of relationship building. It is your promise or covenant to those you seek to reach that says, "If you buy our products or services, or align yourself with our organization, you can expect this."

To that end, your brand should be a true reflection of your organization's DNA and answer the following questions:

  • Who are we?
  • What do we do?
  • How do we do it?
  • Why should anyone care enough to support us?

View Branding as a New Way of Doing Business

There are no quick fixes to creating a solid and successful brand. On the contrary, it takes a great deal of introspection, time, effort, coordination, and collaboration to come up with the branding messages that define your organization. And once you've defined your brand, it requires an ongoing effort to manage and maintain it.

Therefore, consider brand maintenance an ongoing commitment that needs to be incorporated into your everyday business activities rather than a campaign that you intend to focus on for a limited time only.

View Branding as an Organization-Wide Effort

Maintaining your brand should not be the responsibility of your organization's communication and marketing units, but rather must be viewed as an organization-wide effort in which every department and business unit understands that it has a role to play.

Moreover, employees at all levels of the organization, regardless of job description, need to be made aware of the goal to raise the visibility and value of your brand, and the valuable—and valued—role they are expected to play in achieving that goal. If it helps, consider the person who answers your phone your "director of first impressions."

Keep the Effort Manageable, Yet Meaningful

For staff in most small- to medium-size nonprofits, just keeping up with day-to-day operations can be overwhelming. Consequently, keep branding efforts within the range of what is doable.

For example, it doesn't take much in the way of time and resources to ensure clear, consistent messaging; to educate staff about the purpose and goals of branding; and to promote your brand actively through already scheduled public-speaking engagements, events, and publications.

Promote Open Communications and Collaboration among Staff

For any branding effort to succeed, everyone needs to work in an atmosphere of open communications and collaboration so that the organization can convey clear, consistent, and accurate messages to target audiences. It also requires that everyone work toward common, rather than individual business unit, goals.

For the sake of uniformity and consistency of message, creating this atmosphere more than likely will require some centralization of the brand message-creation and delivery processes.

Educate Your Staff

Consider your board members, staff, and volunteers your best—and most cost-effective—brand ambassadors. Also keep in mind that people can't represent or promote what they don't know or understand.

Therefore, to build employee pride and understanding around your brand, incorporate a strong educational component into your branding effort that describes the brand, underscores the importance of promoting the brand accurately and consistently, and the role each person is expected to play.

Also, make supporting and promoting the brand part of everyone's overall annual performance review. This always seems to help motivate people.

Lead by Example

Executive officers and board members need to champion your branding efforts. Leading by example demonstrates their commitment to and the importance they place on these efforts. It reinforces the message to staff that "we are working together" to accomplish the goal of raising the visibility and value of our organization.

Be Flexible and Interactive

Branding is not a static, but rather a dynamic, process. Maintain flexibility in your thinking and be open to suggestions from all parties for strengthening your brand. This will allow for better, more efficient use of resources as well as make for a more dynamic, interactive, and collaborative process that takes advantage of branding opportunities as they arise.

Live Your Brand!

Your brand reflects your promise to the public and your commitment to your staff and volunteers. If the brand that you are seeking to convey is one of an organization that is effective and efficient; caring and responsive; a responsible steward of public and private funds; and a reliable, trustworthy organization to partner and do business with, as well as to work for, then live that brand through all of your words and deeds.

Once again, your brand is only as good as the people who live it day to day. Staff and volunteers who are knowledgeable, who take pride in the brand, feel secure in their jobs, and are appreciated for the good work that they do are your best resource for keeping your organization from being the best-kept secret in town.

Larry Checco, Checco Communications
© 2007, Larry Checco

Larry Checco is president of Checco Communications and author of Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization. Larry is a nationally recognized public speaker, workshop presenter, and consultant on branding. To learn more, log on to or contact Larry at

The Nonprofit Persona: Tips to Ensure Consistent Messaging Across Mediums

Television, direct mail, e-mail, events—there are many channels that nonprofits use to disseminate information. Each of these mediums differs in the way it delivers and communicates information. Certain elements, such as a visually creative story, are more essential to a medium like television than to an event. The single-page direct mail letter is going to be significantly different than the 60-second public service announcement. How can nonprofits, with limited resources and volunteer-led programs, ensure consistent messaging across all mediums?

Below are 10 steps to help nonprofits deliver a consistent message regardless of the medium.

  1. Determine your audience: Accurately identifying an organization's audience is the first and most important step to ensuring messaging consistency. A poorly identified audience leaves volunteers and employees with content and communication gaps that will inevitably be filled on the spot. Such last-minute messaging is one of the primary culprits that can lead to the creation of mixed messages or even messaging that contradicts the organization's mission or intent.

  2. Develop three to four primary messages: Developing three or four primary, organization-approved messages gives employees and volunteers the ability to select the most appropriate one for a particular medium. This is one reason why identifying the appropriate audience—or, in some cases, audiences—is so important. Flexibility is essential for communicating with multiple audiences and through multiple mediums while maintaining consistency.

  3. Make the messages clear: An ambiguous or unclear message can ruin the effectiveness of any communication piece.

  4. Speak with a single, identifiable voice: This is a difficult element to monitor, especially from the inside. It might be a good idea to go outside the organization and test to ensure that messages convey the same overall personality for the organization. For example, if the organization wants to portray a young, hip personality, then the messages created need to have a young, hip tone. Likewise, if an organization's audience is older and tends to be highly educated, the language and tone of the message needs to match the speech and persona of that audience.

  5. Deliver messages in a consistent format: In this use, format refers to the path and nature by which a message is delivered. It isn't the medium, which refers to e-mail, direct mail, or television; rather, it is the path or direction in which the audience is brought to the message. For example, if a personal story about how the organization has made a difference in someone's life is the format used to deliver the organization's mission statement, then stick with it. Use a personal story in the e-mail campaign, in the public service announcement, and in the direct mail piece. Using a consistent format doesn't mean organizations should use the same story over and over. Add elements to the story or use different personal stories to make the communications appealing while still bringing the audience to the primary message.

  6. Use repetition: Repeat the message over and over in all channels. When creating a piece of collateral, start with the message and work your way back. Don't let a piece of communication go out without having your primary message mentioned in, if not the focus of, it.

  7. Develop an internal communication plan: It is important to make sure that everyone in the organization is on board and understands the primary messages. Every employee—including volunteers who are working on marketing materials, events, or promotions—should be able to identify the messages and be able to use them without hesitation. An unquestionable understanding of the organization's messages by all employees and necessary volunteers will help ensure consistent messaging across mediums.

  8. Gather internal feedback: Make sure that messages are understood and accepted by employees and volunteers. Messages can be explained to employees without using marketing jargon. After all, they are the people who will be using them. Employees and volunteers should be able to take a message and make it their own. Also, don't be afraid to get employees' and volunteers' feedback about the effectiveness or accuracy of a message. Sometimes, they have the best idea of how the audience will react.

  9. Appoint a messaging monitor: Most organizations have someone who is responsible for branding. Although implied in this duty, messaging is frequently forgotten. It is amazing what can happen when someone is held accountable for a particular element. Identifying and appointing a qualified person to check specifically for messaging inconsistencies is another way an organization can ensure that it conveys the same message at all times.

  10. Remember—messaging is a part of branding: Just as an organization ensures that its logo and colors are used properly, so too must it ensure that its messaging is consistent. The branding and messaging work hand in hand to create the nonprofit persona. And portraying the same persona consistently can go a long way toward expanding awareness of an organization and, in the end, increasing the number of donors and fundraising effectiveness.
Because constituents today are bombarded by messages from all types of organizations, it is more important than ever to maintain a consistent persona. And the best way to do this is with consistent messaging. These 10 steps will help nonprofits ensure that they portray the same organization in every interaction and communication with their audiences. The most important thing to remember is that consistency is king. Always portraying the same persona will help organizations stick out from the plethora of other nonprofits that are all trying to reach the same people.

Darryl Gordon, November 2007
© 2007, Kintera®, Inc.

Darryl Gordon is vice president of marketing for Kintera®, Inc. Kintera provides software as a service to help organizations quickly and easily reach more people, raise more money, and run more efficiently. The technology platform features a social constituent relationship management (CRM) system, enabling donor management, e-mail and communications, Web sites, events, advocacy programs, wealth screening, and accounting.

Is Mobile Fundraising the Next Frontier for Charities?

The numbers speak for themselves: there are currently 236 million cell phone users in the United States—an astounding 76 percent penetration. In December of last year alone, 18.7 billion text messages were sent—up 92 percent from 9.7 billion in December 2005. Estimates predict 195 billion text messages sent in 2007. That is 600 million text messages a day.

Needless to say, fundraisers and nonprofits are salivating at the potential of reaching all of these people where they are, at the moment they are moved by a cause, and when they are able to GIVE—with their thumbs.

Mobile fundraising for worthwhile causes is indeed beginning to make headlines. So what is the truth behind the hype? What can fundraisers and nonprofits promoting a cause do and expect as results, and what creative ideas have gone untapped so far?

In America, the most visible and widely publicized campaigns have been so-called premium SMS campaigns (SMS refers to text messaging) for disaster relief, notably the Asian tsunami and fundraisers for Katrina victims and those of the California wildfires. Customers of participating mobile carriers could send a text message to the short code "2HELP" (24357) containing the keyword "Help" to make a tax-deductible donation to American Red Cross relief efforts. Short codes are often referred to as the "mobile URL"—short, five-digit codes or even vanity codes that customers can text to receive information or participate in a campaign.

These donations via premium SMS then appear on customers' monthly bills or are debited from prepaid cell phone account balances.

The city of New Orleans tried a different route: they worked with PayPal, which has a mobile option to raise cash via text and on-line. The "Text to Give" campaign was slated to raise $1 million, but the actual amount raised fell far short of that goal.

Amnesty International and UNICEF have experimented with mobile Paypal as well. Donors simply text the word "AMNESTY" or "WATER" to a short code to receive a link to donate $10 to their chosen organization. A potential donor needs a PayPal account to make for a smooth and quick transaction, however, and even then there is a multi-step process that may deter potential donors.

At Text for a Cure you can make a donation and get messages from breast cancer survivors. But the site reveals the actual cut for the charitable effort: for a $5 dollar donation, the actual amount received by the charity is only $2.10; that is, more than half of the donation is eaten up by various charges.

Premium SMS is the easiest way to raise money over the phone by billing charges to the customer's bill, but it clearly has shortcomings for nonprofits. The initial idea by the carriers—through third-party vendors—was to sell entertainment, not causes. Maintaining a short code is expensive—$500 per month for a basic short code and about $1,000 for a vanity short code, if you want to maintain your own code. To make this process easier, however, many mobile vendors maintain short codes and up-charge their nonprofit customers a small portion for the use of a shared code.

The other drawback is the limit that carriers will let a donor give via premium SMS, currently capped at $10. Carriers also hold the money for PSMS donations up to two months before releasing the funds—once the customer's bill is paid.

Last, the carriers take a substantial cut of the donation—as much as 40 percent to 50 percent. There are several mobile vendors who have been—for a year now—trying to allow for much reduced charges for legitimate charitable purposes, but so far to no avail. It is worth noting that the carriers waived their fees for the Red Cross relief campaigns.

So what is an enterprising nonprofit to do? How can the ubiquity of mobile phones be leveraged for a just-in-time contribution when a potential donor is inclined to give—say, upon seeing a particularly effective advertisement or appeal? Even though premium SMS is only marginally viable for micro donations or to build a mobile list (and should not be underestimated for this purpose), there are other ways in which nonprofits can think creatively about integrating cell phones into fundraising campaigns.

Internationally, there are many clever examples of innovative fundraising campaigns:

  • Meir Panim, a network of soup kitchens in Israel, recently ran "SMS for Lunch," a promotional interactive campaign: on their Web site a boy was seen facing an empty plate. The site invited you to donate through SMS. The moment the system received the SMS, the banner changed: the plate filled, and the boy smiled. The amount of the donation—each SMS—covers the cost of one meal for a child, according to the site.

  • In Australia, a special exhibit called "The Human Zoo"—an experiment that places humans in animal zoo enclosures—allowed visitors to vote by text messaging for their favorite human beings, with the proceeds of the premium SMS going toward the construction of a new enclosure (for animals, presumably).

  • Amnesty UK is experimenting with a digital wallet, a service of a mobile company called LUUP. Using LUUP allows more money and larger amounts—up to £800—to go to the human rights organization instead of the network operators.
In addition to LUUP and mobile payment providers such as mobile PayPal, organizations are experimenting with mobile Internet sites, also called WAP sites, where people with WAP-enabled phones can interact with the charity and make donations as well as purchase ringtones, games, and wallpapers.

Others, such as the New York Philharmonic, are selling ringtones for use on multi-media phones through their Web sites.

Mobile content is a useful awareness-raising and, to some extent, fundraising tool, but most nonprofits will have a hard time generating the PR or viral "buzz" to make it worthwhile to develop and provide mobile content, which can be technically challenging.

The times are changing, however, and mobile payment services will become increasingly available, and not just in Japan or Africa, where mobile payments are easy and fast. M-Pesa in Kenya is one of the better known m-payment services that allows mobile pre-paid customers to transfer airtime between phones. In fact, airtime is a de facto currency in an increasing number of countries, and, as such, is a potential source of revenue for local NGOs. For example, before leaving a country, tourists could be encouraged to donate what is left of their airtime to a local cause.

In the United States, Obopay allows a user to authorize payment from a pre-paid account via SMS. Similarly, one can imagine authorization via SMS for a credit card on file, especially when the donor's information is firmly integrated with the NGO's customer relationship database. With Visa (and already Western Union) entering the mobile space with a vengeance, mobile payments are not far off in the United States.

The most promising way to raise money right now using mobiles is probably the old-fashioned way—by using the VOICE feature. The Edwards presidential campaign, through its vendor Mobile Commons, sent everyone on its mobile list (those individuals who had opted in to receive text messages by signing up at events or on the Edwards Web site) an SMS asking participants to listen to a special message from Elizabeth Edwards. Those that made the call (15 percent of recipients on the mobile opt-in list) were then directed—after Elizabeth's appeal—to press "1" to be connected to an operator to make a donation. About 10 percent of those 15 percent did—with an average donation of $120.

While the sample was small in this case, interactive voice response systems activated via mobile and phone donations show definite promise and can motivate a person to give (and in considerable amounts just in the moment he or she is engaged in a cause—and without having to forfeit small proceeds to a wireless phone company).

Finally, here are two other mobile fundraising ideas with a bit of a twist. The first is from Tactical Tech, an NGO in the UK: "A number of companies now run schemes to collect old handsets, selling them on—often into developing markets—and then passing on the revenue to the participating charity. In countries with mature markets, handset recycling can be a useful source of additional income for non-profit organizations, particularly those with large membership bases (such as Oxfam, who have raised over $600,000 through their UK-based handset recycling scheme). Companies such as Lifeline For Africa in the USA and Fonebak in the UK, collect and make these handsets available to non-profit organizations."

Similarly, Working Assets is offering charity-branded handsets and mobile plans to sell and promote to an organization's members. Both Amnesty and the National Wildlife Federation are offering their own phones and plans through Working Assets Wireless. Working Assets gives 10 percent of the cost of the calls to the given charity. (See Working Assets for an example.)

It's a mobile revolution, and nonprofits are well advised to pay attention to it—for campaigns, for keeping constituents and members informed and engaged, and most definitely for fundraising.

Katrin Verclas,
© 2007,

Katrin Verclas is with, a global network of people (and their tools, projects, and resources) focused on the use of mobile phones in civil society.

Is Your Organization Ready for "The Boom"?

The "boom" years of 1946 to 1964 boosted the country's population by 77 million citizens. The baby boomers have shaped our culture, from their political activism in the 1960s to their business savvy in the 1980s and beyond. Presently we see the leading edge of the boomers hitting retirement age. Consider these statistics:

  • In January 2006, the first boomers began turning 60, with an average life expectancy of 83.
  • Members of the boomer demographic make up one-quarter of the American population, the largest cohort in U.S. history.
  • Every minute three boomers turn 50, while another six turn 60.
Even—and perhaps especially—as they approach retirement, baby boomers will continue to have a significant impact on society. Although they will leave huge holes in the workforce, all indications are that this group will still be motivated to contribute to their communities, often in the form of volunteerism.

But are organizations ready for the boomers? Currently most nonprofits are unprepared to accommodate the sheer volume of potential volunteers. In addition, baby boomers boast a large number of well-educated, highly skilled executives, entrepreneurs, and leaders, many of whom will feel that their talents are not being put to use in low-level volunteer positions. Research indicates that these boomers should be placed at programming levels to utilize their abilities fully and to keep them engaged. Achieving this goal will require some agencies to rethink their volunteer management, perhaps resisting the urge to fill unskilled positions with volunteers who clearly want and can contribute at a higher level.

Barbara Weiderecht of the Volunteer Center of Bergen County, New Jersey, sums up the current situation: "Today's older volunteers do not want to be thought of as just office help or envelope stuffers, and are increasingly turning down all such opportunities. Yet when this is addressed with many of the agencies where we place volunteers, they do not understand nor do they want to hear it. 'What do they expect? They're only volunteers,' is a frequent reply. That attitude is deadly for attracting volunteers."

Thankfully, organizations are beginning to change their views, tapping into the wealth of knowledge the boomers bring with them. Retirees are being placed as volunteers in key areas such as strategic planning, program development, information technology, and training/education.

Aside from matching skill level, studies also provide other key recommendations for attracting and retaining baby boomer volunteers:

  • Market your agency's purpose. State your mission clearly and articulate the ways in which you seek to attain your goal.
  • Consider volunteers as part of the organization's regular workforce.
  • Provide a variety of volunteer tenures. Some volunteers may want to complete a one-time project, whereas others may want to commit to a regular schedule.
  • Provide incentives, such as social interaction, advancement opportunities, and public recognition.
  • Ensure that volunteers are well trained, organized, and managed. Baby boomers want to see that their time and skills are being used effectively and efficiently.
Although accommodating, attracting, and retaining baby boomer volunteers may initially require reorganizing and rethinking current systems, these investments will reap huge rewards. If organizations will allow it, the generation that took social activism and industry to new heights will do the same for volunteerism.

Christine Litch, VolunteerHub
© 2007, VolunteerHub

Christine Litch works for VolunteerHub, an on-line service providing event, event registration, and volunteer workforce management since 1996. Today VolunteerHub connects people and purposes for a variety of nonprofit, educational, and commercial organizations.

New Survey Looks at Giving from a Different Angle

A new survey by American Express and conducted in September 2007 has taken a different approach to examining the philanthropic habits of American donors. By looking at individual gifts on a national scale rather than annual donation amounts, the American Express Charitable Gift Survey—conducted in partnership with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University—offers an intriguing look at how much is given in a single transaction, the differences between on-line and off-line gifts, and the motivations that lead donors to choose one method of giving over the other.

Little Things Mean a Lot

Although the survey did not find any significant differences between the average amounts of donations made on-line and off-line, it did reveal that a large number of these charitable transactions involved small amounts of money. Of the more than 900 gifts reported in the survey, more than two-thirds represented donations of $100 or less. In fact, the study found that the median charitable donation is $50.

In 2001, a report by Independent Sector showed the average annual charitable contribution per American household to be $1,620. When examined against the backdrop of this figure, the American Express Charitable Gift Survey presents a view of the way in which charities receive their money that might be at odds with the expectations of the average person, illustrating how every dollar counts and even the smallest donation makes a difference. These figures also serve to emphasize the importance of donor stewardship for nonprofit organizations, as individuals who tend to break up their annual giving into a large number of smaller transactions must be kept continually engaged and informed.

"Nonprofit organizations rely on many low dollar donations to fund their vital work," said Dr. Patrick Rooney, director of research for the Center on Philanthropy. "Even though high-profile, multi-million dollar donations receive the most recognition, the American Express Charitable Gift Survey demonstrates that most Americans are giving small donations—and that they can add up for charities."

If You Build It, Will They Come? Only if They Know It's There

On-line donations have been a hot topic in the nonprofit sector for some time now. Many charitable organizations have incorporated an on-line giving function into their Internet strategies in order to offer their supporters an alternative means of making a contribution. But are these "donate now" buttons being clicked? Nearly two-thirds of the individuals participating in the American Express Charitable Gift Survey reported that they had made a charitable donation in the past year. Of these donors, 1 in 10 made their contribution on-line, representing about 6 percent of the total survey participants.

So of those who are giving on-line, what are the motivations that drive them to do so? Part of the answer can be found in the fast pace of today's society: 64 percent of on-line donors indicated it was because of the speed or convenience of the process. Not surprisingly, one of the most common reasons offered for not giving on-line was that the individual didn't own a computer. Despite technology's seeming ubiquity, only 54 percent of American households reported owning a computer with Internet access in 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's latest Current Population Report. The most common reason—after not having a computer—chosen by 28 percent of donors who only gave off-line, was that they either could not find an on-line giving site, they didn't know they could make a gift on-line, or they simply did not think of giving on-line.

Although it is apparent that the "click to give" message isn't reaching everyone, there are some potential supporters who have already been moved to action on-line. The second most common reason for making a donation on the Internet was a direct appeal from the organization itself, such as an e-mail that included a link or a Web site that prominently featured an on-line giving function.

"The American Express Charitable Gift Survey serves as a call-to-action for charities to boost their on-line initiatives," said Bradlee Benn, vice president, Business Development, American Express Merchant Services. "This survey indicates there is an untapped pool of donors who are influenced by a charity's on-line presence, and charities could benefit by proactively reaching out to them."

About the Survey

American Express sponsored the research for the Charitable Gift Survey, while the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University completed the analysis and the report. The project was managed by the Hart Philanthropic Services Group/ and the Innovative Research Group fielded the telephone survey. Download the American Express Charitable Gift Survey >

Patrick Ferraro, November 2007
© 2007, American Express

Patrick Ferraro is a freelance writer in Seattle, a former editor of the Newsletter, and the guest editor of the 2007 giving season issue.

The Story of the Gold Toes: The Best-Kept Holiday Fundraising Secret

Adapted from Chapter 4 of Robin Hood Marketing: Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes

Open your sock drawer and look inside. I am willing to bet that if you're a man, you'll own at least one pair of Gold Toes. Those are the dress socks with the distinctive gold thread at the toe. If you're a woman, you may have a pair of white work-out socks with that gold color on the toes. The odds are in my favor because more than half of all men's socks sold at U.S. department stores are the Gold Toe brand, and the company weaves more than 140 million pairs for men, women, and children every year.

Why does Gold Toe hold such a strong position in the market? Because it has a clear competitive advantage. In the consumer's mind, Gold Toe stands for quality and durability. Gold Toe socks don't get little holes at the toe after you wear them a few times, nor do they lose their elasticity and start sagging around the ankles after a few washes.

The company gained its toehold in the sock market during the depression, when it began weaving strong Irish linen into the tips of its socks so they would last longer during hard times. In the 1930s, a department-store buyer told one of the company's founders that the durable toes were great, but customers couldn't tell which brand had them. In a stroke of genius, the company decided to wrap gold acetate thread around the linen so its strong toe—now a Gold Toe—would be immediately visible to consumers. The company made its competitive advantage recognizable and unmistakable. That decision has made Gold Toe Brands Inc. the third largest sock manufacturer in the United States. Go to a leading department store today, and you can see why. In a sea of black and blue men's dress socks, Gold Toe practically leaps off the display shelves.

Gold Toe tells us to "enlighten your feet." This holiday fundraising season, we're going to enlighten our minds with Gold Toe's winning approach:

Stake a strong competitive position in the minds of the audience. We want to make our competitive advantage as clear to our audiences as if we'd adorned it in gold thread.

Corporations understand their competition in order to be profitable. Good causes need to understand their competition to succeed in their missions. The goal is not to obliterate other good causes or get into hand-to-hand combat with private-sector competitors. The goal is to understand our competition so we can differentiate ourselves and secure a strong and unique position in our audiences' minds.

Competitive strategy should focus on the audience while taking into account the competition, not the other way around. We do not win solely by reacting to other nonprofits but rather by focusing on how best to motivate our audiences.

Think of all the also-ran ideas that were knee-jerk reactions to competition: Burger King's Magical Burger King as rival to Ronald McDonald or Mr. Pibb as an afterthought to Dr. Pepper. These ideas come from the "they did it, we'd better too" school of thought. This thinking can extend to nonprofits, especially with regard to marketing tactics. We don't necessarily need a silent auction or imprinted coffee cups or wristbands or a logo with clasped hands just because the other guy has them. We are better off finding a better, newer approach to communicating.

So how do we differentiate ourselves in the eyes of our audience, which is buried under fundraising appeals? We establish a competitive position and winning message with four attributes: it is based on our strengths, it is unique, it is simple to understand, and it is important to the audience.

The first attribute is our natural strength. We want to take an honest look at what we do well. Gold Toe knew it had the most durable toe in the sock market. To use a nonprofit example, let's think about the relative strengths of Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Greenpeace has a good infrastructure for what it calls "bearing witness" to enemies of the environment and grabbing headlines. The National Resources Defense Council has a band of relentless lawyers and scientists who are great at lobbying and litigation.

Second, define the characteristics that make our cause unique. If we think about our environmental example, one factor that differentiates Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council in the marketplace of environmental groups and the minds of consumers is how they use their relative strengths. Greenpeace goes after governments and corporations with confrontational tactics that expose environmental problems. This in-your-face style defines them in most people's minds. The Natural Resources Defense Council is good at tightening up environmental-protection policies by working within the system to effect change. It works at the policy level.

The third attribute is to stick to a simple, understandable idea when we market our cause. We want to stand for one idea, consistently. Greenpeace owns the mental real estate of extreme environmental activism. The National Resources Defense Council sticks to the idea that it is "the earth's best defense."

Finally, the competitive position must be important to the audience. If we stake competitive ground that's not relevant to our audiences, we will never get their attention. Our strengths, unique qualities, and single idea must be attractive to the market we want to capture. Greenpeace appeals to a certain kind of person, while the National Resources Defense Council attracts a different crowd. They each have an audience that likes what they do.

Now let's apply this list to ourselves:

  • Strength: What is our strong suit, or what strength can we create? What characteristics will make our audience choose us over the competition? Are we especially good at building relationships with our constituents? Do we have good services or an innovative approach to tackling our issue?

  • Difference: What makes us unique? Do we have the most stellar reputation in our field? Are we the biggest or the first to offer a service? Are our services more accessible than those of our competitors, or are our customers more satisfied? Is our overhead lower than that of other groups?

  • Simplicity: Is our strength or difference a simple, easily grasped concept? At best, we can stand for just one attribute in each audience's mind, so we want that quality to be clear and memorable.

  • Value to audience: Last, check ourselves. Is the quality we've chosen something that our audiences care about? The competitive advantage we believe we have is not an advantage if it's irrelevant or uninteresting to the people we want to reach.
Now think about all of your messaging this holiday season. When you're talking about your organization, are you answering these questions? If so, congratulations. You'll have success because your Gold Toe is showing.

Katya Andresen
© 2006, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Adapted from Robin Hood Marketing: Stealing Corporate Savvy to Sell Just Causes. Adapted with permission.

Katya Andresen is the author of the nonprofit blog Robin Hood Marketing and vice president of marketing at Network for Good, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits raise money on-line.

Misconceptions About Writing Fundraising Letters

Excerpt from Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why

One of the most crippling misconceptions about letter writing is that it's hard and something to labor over. Not so. The secret to writing effective fundraising letters is to write quickly and naturally. To let the words flow from your fingers, to talk a "blue streak" on paper.

We're wary of people who choose their words too carefully, and we seldom vote for political candidates who appear to be "thinking" while they're speaking. Donors write checks because they feel a personal and comfortable connection with your organization, and that starts with your writing.

Of course, once you've spewed out your purple prose, you must go back and rewrite. And rewrite again. Too many drafts can turn your letter into a stiff and convoluted essay, but I worry if my letters haven't gone through three drafts.

In fact, one of the primary reasons I edit my letters is that, in my haste in putting words on paper, I sometimes slip into "fine literature." I want to make sure my letter does feel like conversation—that it does indeed break the rules of good grammar and conventional prose. In other words, you edit fundraising letters so they don't seem "written" at all.

As I edit letters written by myself and others, there are at least seven practices that fly in the face of what many believe is good grammar or fine writing:

  1. Contractions—the bread and butter of conversational prose. In the minds of many executive directors, the use of contractions is probably the single most offensive aspect of direct mail writing. But even the most educated and elegant leader can't avoid using this shorthand when speaking.

  2. Frequent use of "I"—the singular voice that our schoolteachers tried to drum out of our essays, in an effort to achieve "objectivity."

  3. Beginning sentences with "and"—one of my favorite connectors that encourages readers to keep reading (actually "listening" because that's the way we talk with friends).

  4. Liberal use of dashes—they're so handy for linking phrases together in an "illogical" manner that helps the reader jump from one thought to another. They also serve as visual "breaks" that evoke the "breaths" we take when we're talking enthusiastically with our friends.

  5. Short paragraphs without worrying about whether the sentences belong together—often just one or two sentences and never more than seven lines. Fundraising letters are read very quickly and with only partial attention, so you must make them easy to read.

  6. Incomplete sentences—without a subject and predicate, missing either or both a noun and a verb. Even just one word. Really. We don't talk in complete sentences. If your computer screen doesn't have a bunch of squiggly green lines (Microsoft Word's grammar warning), then you haven't written a fundraising letter.

  7. Redundancy and repetition—using the same words over and over as well as repeating arguments made earlier. In school, we were encouraged to rephrase. We were taught to organize our points in a logical progression from thesis to conclusion. But we know readers of fundraising letters don't read in a sequential pattern, so we can't ever leave them wondering about referents. And we can't rely on having our strongest argument appear only once in a letter. In a sense, almost every sentence—and surely every paragraph—has to stand on its own.
Please don't conclude that I believe in sloppy writing. Woe to you if you throw good grammar out the window. And you can't simply transcribe your oral speech onto paper. In reality, your syntax should be simpler, and you must avoid the trite phrases and other "empty words" that populate our speech. Your fundraising appeal will fall short if it sounds like an essay or an editorial, but ultimately your letter—filled with conversational prose—is still a letter to be read.

Stephen Hitchcock
© 2005-2006, Stephen Hitchcock. Excerpted from Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Stephen Hitchcock is vice president of client services at Mal Warwick and Associates.