How to move hearts with a great story

Children's hands with coins

I might not have opened the letter yesterday. It’s from Covenant House, a charity I supported only occasionally and long ago. But I did open it. And though I planned a different post to share with you this week, I knew I had to share this instead. You see, I don’t cry easily. But this one got me.

I first heard about Covenant House as a teen. Vin Scelsa was a DJ on WNEW in New York. He did the late night show. This was in the days when DJs could still choose what they wanted to play and say. I clearly remember him talking about this organization that helped homeless kids in NY. (I think he ended the conversation by playing Springsteen’s Meeting Across the River. So you know he was my kind of guy.)

So why did this appeal grab me? The storytelling is striking. We’re drawn in immediately. From the start, the narrator has us seeing things through his eyes.

But it’s soon clear the protagonist isn’t our narrator. We meet Jeremiah, a scared, lonely kid. He’s afraid to come in out of the cold.

We’re carried along as the narrator persuades him to come in. That succeeds, but we’re quickly taken to the next critical moment as we learn about Jeremiah’s story.

The narrator keeps us hooked with small successes followed by new revelations. We understand Jeremiah is every kid who needs a safe home. But it’s not until the end of the story that we realize Jeremiah is US, too.

It’s powerful stuff. And especially effective at Christmas time.

Covenant House has a target audience in mind. This is a letter intended to resonate with a religious audience. There’s a card enclosed, with a painting of Mary and baby Jesus. But that’s a good thing – it will really resonate with the intended audience. (Although, even with the religious language, I don’t know anyone who this story wouldn’t move).

One last note: there’s a dime and a penny glued to the letter. I did open the letter because of them – I had to remove them before I could put the mailing in the recycling bin. So I assume their purpose is getting the envelope opened. The P.S. references them. But it does interrupt the flow of the letter for me.

So. Here for your perusal is a great example of an effective appeal. Your mission might not be as immediately moving as homeless kids. But there’s something… and it’s your job to find it. Click on the text below and read this letter. Then go find your message and share it.

Covenant House appeal

covenant house website

What’s a consultant’s job, anyway?

Coin flip


Tony Martignetti began a conversation yesterday with his provocative videocast. In it, he complained that too many consultants don’t do the hands-on work. He felt too many offer only “tip-sheets” and brief recommendations. And that doesn’t help the organization get ahead.

I thought it was an interesting conversation. So I’m continuing it here. I’d love your input.

I’ve spent more time as a staff member than as a consultant. Years, in fact. During that time I’ve seen consultants (both fundraising and other) who were enormously helpful. And I’ve seen those who may have caused damage. The most helpful consultants, in my experience, did roll up their sleeves. At least to the extent of training, not just telling, staff.

When I began to work in development, the marketing director and I rebuilt the entire giving program. Fundraising had been board-led, with one staff member writing grants. Since neither of us were experts at that point, one of the smartest things we did was bring in consultants. Two of them, actually, working as a team. One focused on outward-facing work. He talked generally, and attempted to translate his political fundraising experience to a nonprofit. It was helpful, in a big picture, theoretical way.

The other was the geeky numbers guy. He sat with me and taught me about lists and segmentation and tracking results. This was before we had computers. He had me create a simple paper form to keep our records. I could tell you how each mailing performed from that day on. His hands-on work made a huge difference, because knowing where we were kept us pointed in the right direction. He had a measurable impact on our work.

They also pointed us to a professional copywriter. But we didn’t use the copywriter for long. Because a print newsletter taught me to write copy. Jerry Huntsinger had a fabulous newsletter back then. He mailed it once a month. And I couldn’t wait to get it. That $75 a year investment paid huge dividends for my organization. (You can read more from him on SOFII now). He and I never spoke. He hasn’t a clue who I am. But he started me down this path.

Now you don’t have to wait for a monthly newsletter in the mail. There’s a wealth of experience you can access online. As someone who loves to learn, I’m always reading. And I’m very grateful to the consultants and others who share their knowledge this way.

But what’s a consultant supposed to do? There is no one answer. There may be as many as there are organizations. A consultant can be anything from interim staff to a way to add a public gloss to your internal efforts. Your consultant can train you or step in to persuade the board to follow your advice. It depends on the needs of the organization. A consultant can even help you figure out what those needs are!

My personal bias is for working hands-on. (What, you figured that out?) But that’s a reflection of my personality, not a slap at other ways of working.

Here’s what I think it comes down to:

  • Knowing what you need. (Even if knowing what you need is what you need to know.)
  • Clarity about roles from the beginning.
  • A common understanding of goals for the work.
  • Integrity on both sides.

What do you think? Please give me your thoughts in the comments.


Are you bothering people or inspiring them?

Woman reading her phone

You’ve got seconds. Are you a pain or a joy?


So here we are – for fundraisers, this is the home stretch. The last weeks of the year. The most generous time of the year. (Cue the canned holiday music).

We’re thinking about giving and new starts and miracles. We want to picture ourselves as kind and generous people.

So why do I hear from so many fundraisers who fear they’re bothering their donors? “Let’s not send too many emails. We don’t want to turn them off.”

Make it meaningful

It’s less a question of frequency and more one of content and relevance. When someone receives your letter or email, are you one more thing to get done in the rush? Or does she eagerly read, happy to confirm what she wants to know: that she’s a good and generous person who can make someone else’s life better? Does she click or write a check, eager for the wonderful feeling of warmth she knows is coming?

If what you’re sending is a message about your organization and its need, chances are you’re a bother. Whether you send one or many appeals, they’ll all be met with the same unenthusiastic response.

But if your message is all about your donor – celebrating how generous she is, what great things you know she can do – then your messages won’t be a burden, but a gift.

If you tell a gripping story – with your donor as the hero, because someone needs her help – that’s inspiring. If reading what you send makes her feel empowered, she won’t mind feeling wonderful again. And then one of your messages will come at just the right time. The time when she needs to make a gift.

(I’m not saying it’s impossible to send too many appeals. Of course, it’s possible. But most people I talk to worry about sending several emails between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. Or two letters. That’s not going to be too much, if those appeals are worth reading.)

Make it easy

Once you’ve moved your donor to act, there’s another hurdle. Be sure you make giving easy. Don’t ask your donor to click multiple links in response to an email. Don’t ask for her life history. Every step you ask her to take moves her away from that warm feeling. Keep it emotional and simple.

If you’re sending mail, have the response form all but filled in. Print her information on it. You know her address – don’t ask your donor to fill it all out again. Include a picture that reinforces your story. Use a great headline, filled with emotion. Underline the urgent message of why she’s needed. Consider using a whole piece of paper for the response form so you can print in a font large enough to be read easily.

Actually, read this: Good advice from Claire Axelrad and Jeff Brooks about response forms.

In short, boring is a burden. Inspiring is not. Here’s a quick guide:


  • Your budget
  • Your fundraising goals
  • A chance to be an extra in your drama



  • Her kindness
  • Her generosity
  • A chance to star in the story
  • A chance to change someone’s life


Remember: your organization is simply a means to an end. Step back a little. Focus on connecting the donor and the person who needs her. Make that connection as seamless as possible and you may have some happy year-end news to celebrate yourself.


Gratitude is a blessing

On the day we in the US usually stop for at least a moment to think about our blessings, I want to thank you.

Thank you to my old friends, who do me the favor of reading these posts. Thank you to my new and yet-to-be friends who do the same. If I’ve been able to bring you something of value every once in a while, I’m very happy.

On this day when we think about our blessings, I’ll be thinking of you.


May the blessing of the rain be on you—star in the night sky
the soft sweet rain.
May it fall upon your spirit
so that all the little flowers may spring up,
and shed their sweetness on the air.
May the blessing of the great rains be on you,
may they beat upon your spirit
and wash it fair and clean,
and leave there many a shining pool
where the blue of heaven shines,
and sometimes a star.

Irish blessing


Thank you.

Do you want your donors to stick around?

An example from my past


Photo courtesy of Riverfront Recapture


Donor retention continues (rightly) to be a hot topic. It risks being like the weather, though: everybody’s talking about it, but nobody’s doing anything about it.

I thought about an organization I used to work for. Riverfront Recapture built and programs a series of parks along the Connecticut River in Hartford and East Hartford, CT. Even in the worst of the recession, we had an enviable 74% retention rate. So what the heck were we doing right?

Have the right donors

Most important, I think, were our donors. We attracted exactly the kind of people likely to be loyal. They were older. Very tied to the community. Civic-minded. These people loved the idea of parks. I often heard from donors who could no longer get out to enjoy the parks themselves. But they remembered how much they loved being outdoors and wanted to be sure new generations could do so. And so they continued to give.

Now, obviously, you can’t really pick your donors. They choose you. If you’re fortunate to appeal to the kind of people likely to be loyal, don’t waste that opportunity! And if your donors aren’t there yet, give them a reason to be loyal. Better yet, give them lots of reasons.

Strong community ties can help

The organization grew from the ground up in the community. People were excited by a big vision and bought into it. They had spread a wide net and the project appealed to people from all sectors of the community. Politicians, community activists, families, athletes, business people. We celebrated 25th and 30th anniversaries while I was there. And all those years later, people were still committed to the vision.

So what if your community is a country or the world? You build it. You bring together different people interested in your cause – for a variety of reasons.

Trust matters

The Executive Director was not the founder, but he had been there a very long time. His name was publicly associated with the organization. And he knew everyone. That built trust. People knew who was taking care of their money.

Communication focused on your donors

The Executive Director was also skilled communicator. As was the development staff (including me). Letters didn’t contain a lot of back-patting. We all put the focus on our donors. You’ll never go wrong giving your donors and other supporters the credit.

Thank people well and often

Thank you letters were hand-signed. The ED included short notes. This often meant my job was to nag – because he wanted to sign every single letter. It was always a balancing act between how long it would take and how much he could write.

I did add some donor-focused communications to our mix. Print newsletters focused on the donor. (They often raised more than appeals did.) Surveys to ask what donors thought. Thank you letters “just because”, not in response to a gift. Donors loved them all.

Recognize and celebrate loyalty

Long-time donors – of any size – were prominently recognized in our annual reports. Donors wanted that designation. I’d get a call if I missed someone! We held thank you events just for them. They knew we were grateful for their loyalty and the responded with more. Are your giving groups all about dollars amounts? Do you have a loyalty group? If not, start one.

So bottom line? There’s no easy answer. It takes organization-wide commitment. It means truly focusing on donors. Measuring and valuing their loyalty. Communicating well. A consistent vision.

And gratitude. Lots of gratitude.

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  • Mary Cahalane

    Mary Cahalane

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