If I was really your friend, you’d know my name

You’re busy now, getting those appeals ready for the most wonderful time of the year. I know how crazy it can get. But don’t forget the role good data and personalization play in your success or failure. I’m amazed at how many “Dear Friend” letters I still get. Even smaller organizations can make their appeals personal – and increase their results!

Cleaning equipmentData matters

Practice good hygiene. Spend the time to be sure your information is correctly captured, categorized and entered. You’ll save time and raise more money later. Review your lists regularly. When it comes time for an appeal, review the lists again. Make sure all necessary fields are filled in. Double check salutations.

There’s no faster way to say “you’re just a name on a list” than getting that name wrong.

If you find empty fields, set those records aside. Don’t include them in the mailing until you’ve done some research. If they’re donors, you probably have their information somewhere. Check the correspondence in your hard files. If you can’t find anything, try Google. I like to look for other organization’s annual reports or donor lists. In a smaller community, you might also be able to run the information past a board member. A few smart searches can often turn up useful information.

Getting names right is so important if you’re trying to build relationships! Here’s an example. At one organization, we knew a lovely couple whose formal names were Nelson and Helen. They never said anything when we addressed them that way. But when I arrived, I knew from my work at a former organization that they really went by Skip and Jo. At the next event, they seemed more relaxed when their name tags had their preferred names. Imagine if your friends always called you one name and strangers another. Which category do you want your organization to fall in?

Of course, we can collect much more than names. Just don’t edge into creepy. (Have you seen those Facebook ads that pop up after you’ve visited another site to window shop?) If you’re approaching donors who don’t have much of a tie to your organization, using little touches in your letter can bring them closer. You can refer to their town and how your organization helps people there. Or if you know one aspect of your work excites them, you can focus your ask on that work. That’s data you can use to bring donors closer.


Merge into effective fundraising

I know. It’s easier and a less expensive to send one generic letter, addressed to “Friend”. It used to be that using variable merges was very expensive. You couldn’t manage it in-house. (Anyone else remember dot matrix printers?) But hello, 2014. You can easily merge letters and print them, even in-house. Or if you send them to a mail house, they can do so at low cost. Is it worth it? Do you even have to ask?

Research shows one of the first things your donor will look for when she reads your letter is her name. Response rates for personalized mail – or email – are significantly higher. It’s worth it.



Lots of missing information when you review your list? Or are you unsure of the way your donors would prefer to be addressed? The best way to fix that is to ask them. Try including a question about how they’d like to be addressed in a welcome package. If they’ve already been giving, include that question in a donor survey.

And remember assumptions are dangerous. I can’t tell you how many organizations have decided I must be “Mrs. Husband’s LastName”. I am most emphatically not. Never changed my name, never intend to. And it rankles to be reduced to Mrs. Someone Else. If these organizations had bothered to ask (or even looked at the check), they’d know that. And their appeals might not end up in the recycling bin.

Bottom line – if I matter enough to ask for a gift, I matter enough to call by name.

Saving the world, losing your mind

stressed woman


The Association of Fundraising Professionals says 75% of fundraisers are women.


A Harvard Business School study shows that however lofty her professional position, family issues are still seen as a woman’s problem.

(An article in Slate summarizes the information contained the the HBS study).


Go skim the Slate article at the least. Then put those two sentences together. I’ll wait.

You see where I’m going, right?

We expect women to hold down the fort at home, while raising enough money to feed the mission at work. So it’s no surprise the top jobs, and the top pay, still go to men. For most women, there are too many compromises to make that top job a reality.

I’m not claiming my male colleagues don’t feel stress. What we all do is inherently stressful. If we don’t succeed, someone might miss a needed meal or class or job.

But I am saying culturally, women are usually the ones held responsible for the well-being of their families. All of which makes it particularly tough for those of us in the nonprofit sector.

Our “real world” friends might rest easy on a Friday night, able to sleep without worrying about the whachamathingers their company produces during the week.

Work-life balance is a little harder when our work so directly affects our organization’s survival, and more importantly, our mission.

If you’re like me, what happens more often is work and life bleed into one another. The boundaries get hard to find. We leave at 4, but put in another 3 hours at night. We spend free time reading about our trade. We check our phones to see how the last email is doing. We run out of the office to take care of a family emergency. We schedule meetings with donors on Sunday afternoon. It’s all part of the job. And the job has tremendous emotional benefits that whachamathingers could never provide.

Time for a break!

But how can we stay sane long enough to do good work?

I’m not even going to pretend I have the answer for you. I left my development director position to consult to nonprofit organizations. But I also left because being my own boss meant working on my own terms, and around the needs of my family. Believe me, I don’t claim to be anyone’s role model!

First, we need to be more aware of the pressure and ready to support one another. Knowing you’re not alone can help. Having a friend or colleague reinforce your confidence or praise your skills can make a tough week more manageable.

We need to stand up for one another in the larger sense, too. Why does our culture still expect women to handle most of the home and child care? How can we change that attitude? It’s not going to change without us. (Sharing those duties is likely to make for happier, more balanced men as well. Too many don’t even realize what they’ve missed!)

In the meantime, self care matters. Here are some ideas I’m trying to take to heart. And regardless of your gender, maybe they’ll help you, as well.

Writing for Huffington Post, Kris Carr suggests:

Disappoint people. In short, guilt happens. Try to let it go.

Keep emails and meetings short. No explanation needed, right? We all spend way too much time talking instead of doing.

Hit delete. You don’t have to respond to every email. She suggests putting an away message on when you need to work, explaining that you may not respond. Then hit delete.

Let them judge. Spending time living up to other people’s standards just hurts you.

You don’t need to fix people. I suspect this one is tough for all of us in the nonprofit world. But it’s not our job to fix everyone – especially people who haven’t even asked to be fixed.

Trust. Other people are also capable. Trust them.

You can’t give it all. Perfection isn’t attainable. Sometimes good enough has to be good enough. (Wisdom is in knowing which is which, I think).

You can’t have it all. You can do a lot. You can achieve a lot. But don’t kid yourself – there are always choices to be made. Accept that.

You are worthy just sitting still. Take time to just be present. (I had a boss once who would bark at us “What have you done today to justify your existence?!” I think he was joking. I’m still not really sure. And unfortunately, that message is still alive and well in my subconscious. Someday I’ll beat it.)

small divider

We’re all headed into the busiest time of the year. I hope you find the time to take care of yourself so you can take care of the world. Your hard work, your sacrifices, your late nights are not unnoticed. You should know that.


I am more than my checkbook

Does a well-written appeal really matter?

In the rush to get something, anything, out the door on time, does it really matter how good it is?

Judging from my mailbox, many charities – even large ones – don’t seem to think so. The mistakes range from simple to fix ones – like formatting problems – to an outright rejection of the donor as involved in the process – other than as a check.

I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised by these. Don’t nonprofits with huge budgets have the resources to work with writers who know how to do this? Are annual giving programs just that low on the totem pole? Are they actually having the signer write the thing?

I don’t understand why an organization would spend the money to roll out a huge mailing and give the content so little attention. If it came to a choice, I’d mail less and do it better.

Take a look at this appeal:


renewal appeal

click to enlarge



Paragraph one: We’re awesome.

Paragraph two: Your money makes us awesome.

Paragraph three: Did you know there are more ways your money can make us awesome?

Paragraph four: Here’s a brochure about more ways you can send us money. Or you can call us to talk about how to give us more money.

Paragraph five: Thanks for sending us money.

OK, I’m being a little tough. Paragraph two got close to involving me, the donor. But then they veered right off into “we’re awesome” again. They’re the hero here – donors just get to help.

Where’s my story?

How did the money I gave last time change someone’s life? For pete’s sake, this is a cancer research organization – they can’t find me a story? This organization has pages on their website dedicated to patient stories. Why did they choose not to use one here? Since it’s a soft legacy ask, didn’t they think good practice would be even more important?

Here are the facts: we’re wired for storytelling. A story, well-told, puts our entire brain to work. It awakens our empathy. It touches us in a way no fact could do. In short, stories have what’s needed to move someone to make a gift.

So don’t tell me about your ranking or your awards. Tell me about me (that I’m caring and generous) and tell me about someone who needs me.



Does a well-written appeal really matter? Yes. Always.

No fundraising plan? Don’t worry. Here’s what you can do.


So, it’s October and you still haven’t gotten around to making a plan for your fundraising through December.

Yeah. You’re screwed.

No, just kidding. You can still make this work. But you need to start today.

Why not just wing it? Just do what you always do, right? Who has time to think about this when there’s so much doing that has to happen?

Trust me, you do. Why? Well, first because doing what you’ve always done will – at best – give you similar results. Did last year’s final quarter kick big butt? If your answer is “no”, then you need to make a few changes.

Second, because if you spend some time now, you’ll save more of it later. And you and I both know things won’t slow down between now and December 31st. So block off some time and get your plan organized now.

At the very least, do this:

Review your budget and goals

You have to know where you’re aiming if you want to get there. How much do you need to raise between now and the end of the year? How much do you have to spend to raise it?

Review your list

You know what you need to raise – but where will that money come from? Run a few reports. Which dependable donors haven’t given yet? Do they usually make their gift now or has their usual date already passed? Get granular here – who gives what and when. Figure on some increases, and figure on some donors not giving. Get a good estimate of what you might hope for from this group.

Then do the same with past donors. And make a guess, based on your past results, about new donors.

All this just gives you a baseline idea of what you’ll need to do. But it will also point to where you should focus most of your effort. That’s probably with your loyal donors. And even more specifically, with the loyal donors who make the biggest gifts. Don’t write these off by assuming they’ll be there. Chasing new donors while taking your old ones for granted isn’t usually successful.

Get basic segments identified. Target as specifically as you can. But if all you can do is identify donors who “gave recently”, “gave in the past few years but not recently”, “have never given”, that’s miles better than directing the same message to the entire file.

Collect your stories

You’ve already got a folder somewhere with stories and anecdotes about your work, right? If so, you can review it and decide on a story or two to use. Remember, you don’t have to come up with brand new stories for every communication. No one will pay as much attention to your messaging as you will. When you’re sure donors are tired of hearing it, it’s starting to sink in for them. If you have one great story, use it. You can find different ways to share it.

Story folder empty? You’ll need to hunt some down. Talk to your program people. What would they like to share about why the work matters? Can they illustrate that with a story? Is there someone they think you should talk to? Reassure everyone that it’s OK if you use a different name to protect privacy.

How about donors or volunteers? Give a few a call and ask about their experience. Why is it important to them? Why do they volunteer or give?

Put it all on a calendar

Here’s where the work now will really help later. Plot it all out – who will receive what and when will they receive it? What channels will you be using and for which people? Having it all on paper (or a spreadsheet) and not in your head will make a huge difference. It gives you a chance to see where gaps are. It allows you to take advantage of particular dates – a thank you message around Thanksgiving, for instance. It also allows you to start building deadlines based on these dates.

Don’t forget your website! Is the donation page ready? Even direct mail donors often look at your website before sending a donation. Be sure the messaging on the site matches the messaging in your mail and email appeals.

On the practical side, don’t forget to talk with any vendors you’ll be using. I recommend finding a great mail house and sticking with them. I’ve seen organizations bounce from one to another each year, looking to save a few bucks. It doesn’t pay off in the long run. Find people you can trust and work with them. You’ll have a better grip on scheduling and you’ll save time communicating with them. You’ll speak each other’s shorthand. They’ll understand what you do and how you do it.

Now you should know:

How much I need to raise.

From whom?

How and when will I ask?

Deadlines and assignments: who will do what or how you’ll organize your time if you’re doing this solo.

Get cracking!

Time to start putting together those appeals. You have a story – now you need to use it. That topic is bigger than a blog post. But I’ve written about writing your appeals here and here. How many to write? That will depend on your organization, your list and your budget. But don’t be afraid to communicate often. Just make sure each message is compelling. Relevance matters much more than frequency.

Thank you

Don’t forget the thank you!

Don’t forget to build gratitude into your schedule! Saving acknowledgements until after the year-end rush is not acceptable. Mailing just a tax receipt is not acceptable. Or not if you’d like to keep your donors.

Here’s what I suggest: write a great thank you letter as you write each appeal. Code each of them, so donors receive a thank you that matches the appeal that triggered their gift. Here’s some advice on creating a great thank you letter.

Save time through the busy season by setting up a monster template document in Word with nested merges. You’ll run thank you letters once daily and get specific letters for different donors. Here’s a pretty thorough explanation of mail merges if you’re not already comfortable with them.

Try to build in some additional thanks as you plan. A grateful, human letter is a must. But don’t stop there. A thank you call from you or a board member is wonderful as well. Handwritten notes really stand out these days. Take exceptional care of your donors now, and you’ll raise more money in years to come.

UPDATE: Thanks to Tony Martignetti for inviting me to share year-end fundraising tips on Fundraising Fundamentals on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s site. Listen here.

Counting steps



Since mid-July, I’ve been counting steps. (The idea is to log 10,000 steps each day.) I started during vacation, when we tend to walk a lot. Then I decided to keep going. I downloaded a little app to my phone and carry it with me. During the day, I can check in to see where I am in relation to my goal.

It’s been a pretty easy way for me to push myself to move a bit more. Looking a bit shy of the goal? I walk a little more. Almost there? Well, there’s still time, let’s see if I can get another 1,000 today. Unfortunately, I’m a skilled procrastinator. So constant motivation and bite-sized pieces of effort seem to work for me when weekly or monthly goals do not.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it seems like I might be on to something. And that’s where it might matter to you.


The progress principle – and you.

Have you heard of something called “the progress principle”? I hadn’t, but here’s the scoop.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, researchers Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer shared:

…of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress—even a small win—can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.

So. Lots of smaller wins keep you creative and motivated. Just what we need at this time of year, right?

Even better, in a Forbes article, they connect their “progress principle” to our work. They recognize the intangible advantage we have – there’s an emotional satisfaction that comes from helping people. That’s often very motivating!

But they note:

In spite of this, it is often easy to lose the connection between the day-to-day work of an organization and its overall mission. So, leaders must make sure that employees understand how what they do contributes to that mission, and make it clear to them that those contributions are important. One way to help promote this connection is suggested by the research of Adam Grant and his colleagues. They have shown that workers’ motivation is increased if they can have some direct contact with people who have benefited from the services they provide.

That makes perfect sense, right? When you’re feeling unmotivated, the best thing you can do is reconnect with your mission.


Do something good


Counting down to year end – do something!

As of today, there are about 60 work days until year end. This is our busiest season. I hope you’ve already got your fundraising mapped out through that date. But I want to encourage you to add just a little to that plan, every day. Because small steps can add up to a more successful program in the long run.

It helps to have a goal, of course. I track my walking goal daily, but my real goal is feeling better and maybe feeling more comfortable in my jeans. Not world-changing, but meaningful to me.

I’m sure you have dollar goals. Maybe broken out into daily or weekly targets. Those are pretty easily measured, but not as easily controlled. (If you know how to guarantee you’ll raise a certain amount by a certain date, I definitely want to hear about it!)

But think about more than that. Stay focused on the larger goal – your mission. Why are you raising this money? What will change if you succeed? What will happen if you don’t?

And what about retention goals? Those go beyond the immediate dollars. Using the increased communication you’ve probably got planned for the next few months as a means toward bringing donors closer to the work they make possible will pay off now – and later.

Once you’re clear about what you want, you can add a few more steps. Find small, easily accomplished goals every day between now and year-end. Here are some ideas:

  • Talk to your program staff and find a new story.
  • Send a handwritten thank you note.
  • Rewrite your thank you letters.
  • Videotape an interview with someone your organization helps.
  • Interview a donor.
  • Call a donor just to say thanks.
  • Write a new appeal draft. Or write it again.
  • Update your database. Make sure you’ve got names right.
  • Check your numbers against your goal so you know where you stand.
  • Read an article on an area of fundraising you want to know more about.
  • Begin a new welcome email series or a mail welcome pack.

You get the idea. Promise yourself that you’ll take one step every day. One step to bring you closer to your donors and to your mission.

So what about you? Please tell me what your plans are for the rest of the year. What are you doing every day to make this the best year-end ever?




photo credit, steps: y.caradec via photopin cc

photo credit, sign: HowardLake via photopin cc

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  • Mary Cahalane

    Mary Cahalane

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