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Are You Mindlessly Employing “Best Fundraising Practices?”

Are You Mindlessly Employing “Best Fundraising Practices?”I’m starting to get annoyed.

I’m getting too many formulaic fundraising emails.

Maybe it’s partly my fault?

You see, I know I write all the time about “best practices.” And some of these annoying emails are employing these practices―just not in a “best” way, as that word is defined.

“Of the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.”

Just because a strategy generally has been shown to work does not mean it will work standing alone.

No fundraising strategy is an island.

Let me give a few examples:

  • Saying “YOU” a lot won’t ipso facto make your email effective if everything else about it is wrong.

  • Personalizing the salutation won’t automatically make me feel you know me if there’s nothing else personal in the body of the email.

  • Offering up a “matching gift” campaign from an unidentified “group of generous supporters” won’t always make me believe this is my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to increase my gift’s impact (because I’ll imagine these folks are your board members, and they’re not likely to pull back their support if I don’t give).

  • Telling me you need me to “lead” the way, without clarifying how other prospective donors will know that I’m leading, won’t necessarily move me to action.

All those “best practices” are swell, but they won’t do the trick unless woven together in a manner that makes the reader feel you’re writing from the heart and not the head.


No matter what strategy or tactic you employ, you must come across as genuine and donor-centered

Today I received an email saying:

I wanted to make sure you heard about a special opportunity to have your support matched, dollar-for-dollar.”

That was the lead! Nothing emotional that triggers my empathy. No story about a specific problem and a suggested solution to that problem. No expression of gratitude toward me. Nothing indicating what this appeal was really about; just process over program. This could have come from any charity. Do I genuinely believe this sender really cared, first and foremost, that I not miss out on this chance to double my money? Nope.

The next sentence confirmed this for me by saying:

Thanks to a generous group of supporters, we are launching a special matching gift campaign.

So … this is really about them and money, not about me and the impact I can create.

Then, to top it off, it continued with:

Im coming to you today for two reasons. The first is to make sure you dont miss this chance to double your impact. The second is because we rely on leaders like you to step up and lead the way forward.”

Again, I’m not moved by these “reasons” because they’re not donor-centered. They’re about the charity’s process and the charity’s needs. I really don’t perceive a benefit to me, and there’s nothing calling to my emotions. Why are you trying to reason with me to get me to give, anyway?

Any practice that doesn’t move the reader to take action is not a “best” one

Explaining to me you’ve got a match—woo hoo!—doesn’t trigger the part of my brain that responds emotionally. People give when their hearts are touched.

I’m not identifying this organization here because I happen to love them and will continue to give to them. But ... I’m not going to do it today! To me this email simply came across as (1) we heard beginning with the word “you” is good; (2) we heard launching a matching gift campaign is good, and (3) we heard telling you you’re a “leader” is good. All true things. However …

  • Robotic won’t cut it.

  • Canned won’t cut it.

  • You talking like someone else won’t cut it.

  • Throwing in some good practices without throwing out some bad practices won’t cut it.

  • Leaving out emotion and empathy triggers won’t cut it.

Before you hit “send” on your email, have at least two other people give it the once-over

Ask them these questions:

  1. How does this come across? Did you have a specific emotion you hoped to trigger, and is that what’s happening. Does it seem warm? Personal? All business? Canned? Urgent? Frightening? Reassuring? Grateful?

  2. How does this make you feel? You’re hoping to trigger empathy. A feeling of “there but for the grace of …” Or a sense of caring for one’s fellow human beings that reminds prospective donors of the Golden Rule. Or a reminder that as others helped you, so do you wish to help others.

  3. Is it clear what I’m asking you to do? Is the ask specific, or am I making you guess what would be an acceptable response? Are there too many competing action items?

  4. What action does this make you want to take, if any? If you asked for more than one action, this will come to light here.

  5. If no action, why?

  6. If yes, what and why? And is there a way to make this point even stronger?

  7. Is there anything you would take out? If so, why?

  8. Is there anything that seems like it’s missing?

  9. On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely would you be to take the desired action?

  10. If it’s not a 10, how could we get it there?

The more everyone on your team understands about what makes good fundraising vs. bad fundraising, the betteR

If everyone knows what works/doesn’t work, you can be each other’s checks and balances. Whether you’re a one-person shop or part of a large fundraising and marketing team, it pays to engage everyone with whom you work in continuing education.

Effective fundraising is a team sport.

How to get there?

  • Make sure you have a budget for professional development.

  • Make sure your educational budget extends to other members of your team.

  • Attend fundraising conferences as your budget allows.

  • Attend free webinars (they’re abundant these days, and I send you links to curated resources every two weeks in my Clairity Click-it e-newsletter).

  • Read blog articles, research studies, and white papers. Of course, GuideStar is an excellent resource as they curate articles from a wide variety of nonprofit practitioners. I also hope you’re enrolled in Clairification School and receiving access to all my content. There are also plenty of other resources out there. I suggest you find two to five folks you trust, and who give you actionable tips, and stick with them. Otherwise, you’ll get conflicting advice and become a bit overwhelmed. Plus you’ll have difficulty connecting the dots and getting a full picture of how different strategies work together to become “the most excellent, effective, or desirable type or quality.”

[Wisdom from my dad: When I found something to buy on sale, he’d say, “Claire, would you buy it at full price? At twice the price?” If I thought it was that useful, he’d tell me to go ahead. Otherwise, it wasn’t really a bargain; it was just stuff adding to the clutter. Pretend you have to pay for everything; then go with quality. ]

  • When you learn something, share it. The best way to do this is in person so you know you have the other person’s attention. I would often use staff meetings to make presentations after I’d attended a conference or taken a course. I asked other members of my team to do the same. Every other staff meeting became a professional development opportunity. You can also, of course, simply email folks articles with highlights and ask them for their thoughts and feedback. How do they think you might employ this idea in your shop?

Of course, you can always hire a consultant to give your appeal the once-over. But you really don’t need to. You can get a lot from just these few articles:

  1. 10-Step Annual Appeal from Start to Finish
  2. 25 Secrets to Instantly Improve Your Annual Fundraising Appeal
  3. The Evil Cousin of Fundraising

Want More Fundraising Appeal Tips?

Grab Anatomy of a Fundraising Appeal Letter + Sample Template. Writing a compelling fundraising letter can be tricky. It’s not the same kind of writing as a brochure, annual report, or grant proposal. But it’s not rocket science—it’s something you can easily learn. It’s just not something most of us are taught. Want to learn what you need to know to become the most excellent, effective, desirable type of fundraising master? You can do this!

Are You Mindlessly Employing “Best Fundraising Practices?”Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification. Check out her online course, Winning Major Gift Fundraising Strategies.

Topics: Fundraising Fundraising Communications Donor Communications