Mistakes That Will Sink Your Fundraising Campaign

Advanced, Fundraising

By Jeremy Reis

I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve had to learn a lot of hard lessons.

Nonprofit fundraising isn’t always easy. There are many rules and guidelines that industry pros have learned through expensive testing over decades. When you learn these lessons, some come from your own expensive mistakes, you will learn how to best fundraise for your organization.

The #1 rule in fundraising? You are not the donor. I am not the donor. You don’t think like the donor. You don’t act like the donor. When you begin to believe your opinion is the one that matters, your fundraising will suffer.

Learn from the experts who have come before us. They will teach you mistakes like these that will sink your fundraising campaign:

1. Prioritizing Design and Layout Over Response

There’s nothing wrong with making something “pretty.” Unfortunately, we often view pretty as something different than how our donors view pretty. We think that our opinion of good design is the primary factor in creating the piece, when it is what the donor thinks that matters.

The beauty of a particular design is often an opinion and not based in fact. When an opinion is driving your fundraising, it’s not going to perform at its best. Instead, look to your data and testing to discover insights into what your donors respond to.

At Food for the Hungry, we’ve tested a variety of different designs in email including those with heavy graphics and those with all text. We consistently find the ones with less design elements have higher click thru rates, more donations, and a great total donation amount.

Test different design options and see what resonates with your donor audience.

2. Not Demonstrating Urgency

Urgency is a key part of writing an effective appeal. You need to demonstrate to your donors that you are working hard to accomplish your mission – and are aligned with their passion – and that you understand there is a problem that needs to be solved now. The donor wants to know that when she gives to your organization, it will be put to good use right now. If two nonprofits send an appeal to the same person and one uses urgency and the other does not, the donor will give to the one using urgency because he believes the money will be put to good use immediately. If you don’t need the money right now and the other organization does, why give it to you?

There are several ways to demonstrate urgency in your fundraising appeal, including:

  1. Use urgent language. Use words like “Now” and “Today” to illustrate urgency in your language. Using urgent language will convey that the donation is required right now and stop the recipient from thinking¬†I can get to this later, it’s not important right now. You have a very limited amount of time to convince a donor this appeal is worth her time reading and responding to. Other words that convey urgency include: only, deadline, rush, urgent, breaking, tomorrow, important
  2. Show them what happens without their donation. What is the consequence if the reader doesn’t take action? If nothing bad will happen, why are you appealing for money? You don’t have to overplay this hand and describe a dire situation that only you can solve, but you do need to explain to the reader what will happen if you don’t raise the necessary funds.
  3. Use a story that demonstrates urgency. Within your story of the one, or story of the beneficiary and how your nonprofit transformed his life with the help of a donor, tell of the urgency of getting help. For example, if your beneficiary is a single mom who just lost her home, explain the emotional struggle that caused not having a place to live but urgently needing shelter and food. Your reader will feel the same sense of urgency and want to help someone like the beneficiary in your story.

3. Talking Too Much About Yourself

Count up the number of times you use “I” or “we” in your appeal. This is a common mistake in fundraising. Writing from the point of view of the writer or organization will suppress your results.

A simple fix for underperforming fundraising is to start talking from the point of view of the donor. Start using “you” and “your” in your communications and your donors will start seeing themselves as the solution.

For example, if you write this sentence:

We can do this together! We can change the lives of 75 homeless families by providing emergency shelter, food, clothing and job training assistance.

What’s wrong with this sentence? Readers don’t read “we” as you plus them, they see it as your organization being the “hero” in this appeal. Instead, rewrite it as:

You can make a difference! You can change the lives of 75 homeless families by providing emergency shelter, food, clothing and job training assistance.

The sentence now places the reader in the position of changing the life of these 75 homeless families.

When you write with the point of view of the donor, you position the reader to become the hero in the story.

4. Not Customizing Your Landing Page

Sometimes it’s easier to just use a single landing page for multiple fundraising campaigns. It saves you time and reduces complexity.

In fundraising campaigns, there is a concept of congruency. You want your campaign to be congruent from beginning to end. When your campaign is congruent, it uses the same stories and images, similar copy, and a look and feel that tells the reader that he is in the right path from start to finish.

Create a custom landing page for each fundraising campaign you create. The custom landing page should “look and feel” like your appeal so the reader understands where he is at in the process.

5. Making Too Many Assumptions

It’s easy to assume that someone understands the same concepts that you do. That they speak the same language that you do. In research circles, this is called the “curse of knowledge.” The curse of knowledge strikes when you write an appeal and use jargon or dive into specifics on how your programs work. It strikes when you grade your writing level and discover it’s a grade 13 when you were intending to write at a 6th grade level.

Making assumptions about what the reader understands may end up in confusion. As my friend Donald Miller says, “if you confuse, you lose.”

Instead, use clear and plain language to explain your communication. Tell the reader what he needs to hear in simple language. Not because the reader is simple, or because you’re simple, but because simple language communicates the concept more clearly.

Nonprofit fundraising may not be easy, but by avoiding these mistakes, you’ll increase your chances of producing high performing appeals.


Get Your Free Course!