Why we do it

A friend shared a video that I had to share with you. If you’ve ever wondered why donors donate, this might help.

I hope it also reminds you of why you do this work.


Are you guilty of donor abuse?

It happens too often. You might want to check yourself. Here are some signs:

You value the person according to their checkbookcheckbook

It’s happened more than once. I make a thank you phone call, only to hear the person on the other end protest. “You don’t need to call me! I’m not important enough for that.”

Of course, the reaction only underlines how important it was to me to make the call.

Now, I do understand it’s a bit Animal Farm. All donors are equal; some are just more equal than others. I get it. It’s impossible to offer the same level of personal care to every donor. And if you want to develop a good major gifts program, those donors will receive more attention.

But we don’t need to treat smaller donors like smaller people. It’s possible to put systems into place to make sure every donor feels valued. But it only happens when gratitude is part of the organization’s culture. And if you must prove the importance of making every donor feel valued to some powers-that-be, point to donor retention studies. Finding a new donor is far more expensive than keeping the one you have. And then there’s the lifetime value of the donors’ gifts. Loyal, happy donors’ gifts add up – even if they come to you in smaller amounts at a time.

You want to “educate” your donors

This idea comes around time and again. I’ve seen it recently in articles about the Ice Bucket Challenge. “Donors aren’t making good choices!” “They’re giving where it won’t have the greatest impact!” “We need to educate them so they’ll give better!”

It’s hard to find a more patronizing idea.

apple and books
Donors don’t need us to educate them. Their decisions don’t have to be carefully vetted, logical ones. In fact, they’re usually not. Donors give from their hearts. Sometimes, they even give on a whim. Does it matter? Only if you’re experiencing some big sour grapes about this latest viral fundraising trend. Yes, ALSA got a boat load of money. Good for them! I hope they can make the most of it. Just remember: that wasn’t your money going to ALSA instead of your cause. Donors always get to choose how they give.

You don’t have to educate donors. But you can offer them great reasons to think of your own cause. You can show them what a gift could do. You can show them how they could help someone. You can and should offer them the chance to make a difference through your organization. So quit whining and get on with making the best, most emotional case you can.

Donors will decide if it’s good enough.

You do a bad job recognizing their gifts

So, you’ve received a gift. Wonderful! But what do you do from there? If you answer “cash the check, put the donor on a list, and send a receipt when we get to it”, you answered wrong. If you answer “send out a generic postcard and a receipt slip”, you answered wrong.

Get their name wrong. Neglect to update your records when requested or when you have new information. (Marriage, death, divorce…) Incorrect recognition listing. Record the gift for the wrong area so the money isn’t spent in the way requested. None of this is acceptable as a practice. If you do it, stop!

Yes, we’re all busy. Yes, getting the data right and creating a warm, genuine, personal thank you process takes time. But mostly, it takes focus. You and your organization have to choose to do it well. It matters to your donors.

Donors aren’t a means to our ends. Our organizations are the means to their ends. Our organizations exist so they can invest in a better world. Keep your priorities in the right place and remember to treat people like people, not numbers.

Let’s stamp out donor abuse. What do you say?

Why I write

Last week, my friend Diana Schwenk shared her thoughts on writing and handed off #WhyIWrite to me.

Here’s why:

Creativity will out

Pretty much how I spent my childhood. (I did get better, though)

Pretty much how I spent my childhood. (I did get better, though)

People are creative – whatever outlet they choose. And if one outlet is not available, that creativity will find its way out into the world somehow.

For as long as I can remember, I was dancing, singing, acting. I loved to draw and paint. But I’ll admit, writing – especially creative writing – scared me.

But life happens, change happens, priorities shift. I grew up. Few employers wanted to pay me to sing or act. When I began my nonprofit career in professional theater, I no longer had time for performing. But I learned to write to our donors. Writing, once scary, became a fun challenge. And the more I did, the better I got.

Thoughtful communication

Despite my history, I’m an introvert. I don’t like to speak before I think. I try to listen more than talk. That’s why I prefer writing over speaking. It gives me time to think. It gives me a chance to get it right. I don’t have to fill the silence with “um” while I consider my words. And yes, it lets me feel like I have more control.

Emotional rewards

Writing is a craft, a skill that can be learned. It’s satisfying to put what you’ve learned to work. Especially when that work is for a great organization. It’s even better when what you’ve written works. There’s nothing quite like a stack of return envelopes in the mail to make your day.

I have no plans to write a novel. But what I do write – to and for donors – is creative. I share stories and I look for a reaction from my readers. That reaction helps organizations do their work. It makes the world a happier, kinder, more beautiful place. That’s such a privilege!

Your turn

How about you? Why do you write?



So, Hands-On Fundraising is a thing…


photo by wallyir

Just a quick mid-week post to share with you that Hands-On Fundraising, LLC is formed and ready for business.

I think this is where my long nonprofit career has been pointing. It’s time to share what I’ve learned over those years. Time to reach more organizations and help them do great work.

Thank you for helping me get here! Hands-On Fundraising started as a blog… but as I wrote for you, I realized it was time for it to be more.

The blog remains – as long as you’re willing to read, I’m willing to write. But do me a favor? Let me know what you’d like to read more about. Use the comments, or send me a message here. I’ll do my best to oblige!

Writing, simply

$END sand writingI was helping a client with an appeal the other day. I found myself explaining some of the choices I’d made in the letter. At this point, they were almost automatic for me.

I realized not everyone knows there are some simple changes you can make that will improve your appeal. When I get a rough draft, these are some of the first things I do.


Simple is not always easy! It’s harder to write short, clear sentences than complex ones. It’s easier to rely on terms that make sense to you – an insider – than it will to your reader. Simplicity is good because it makes the letter easier to skim. (And that’s all most readers will ever do.) Simplicity is also good because to get it you have to fight. You’ve got to work at being clear. You’ve got to struggle to say what you mean economically. It’s a good exercise. And it makes your appeal more effective.


I’ve spent a good amount of time the last 26 years explaining formatting. No, we can’t get the letter on one page by decreasing the font size. Yes, I did mean to have those short paragraphs. Yes, I wanted to end the page in the middle of a sentence. It was intentional.

Mostly, this is about formatting the letter so it can be skimmed quickly. Highlight important points by giving them lots of white space. Use underlining or bold as well. You want to create a road map through your letter. This way, you increase the chances your reader’s eye will go where you want it to go. She’ll get the points you want to make even on a quick read.

Forget business

You’re not going for professional here. You’re not seeking to impress the reader with your superior grasp of language. The aim is to make your writing almost disappear. It’s about getting the stories and need right into your donor’s heart. If she’s stopping to admire (and look up) that five dollar word you used, you’ve missed.

So ignore some rules. Do things your grade school teacher would never have allowed. Sentence fragments. Ellipsis… And – sometimes – dashes do the job. You want to sound like one person talking to another.


Finally, I take a tip from Tom Ahern and highlight all the instances of “you” in the letter. If it doesn’t look like it’s got a disease after that, I rewrite. Because an appeal isn’t about you or your organization. It’s about the donor. Focus on that and you’ll get read.



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