A Seriously Bad Fundraising Appeal

I thought it must be spam. Surely a large and reputable nonprofit would never send such a poorly conceived and badly written email. But no. It is apparently legit. Sigh. Double sigh

It starts nicely enough. The first two words are”Thank you. “ But for what?  I am neither a current donor nor have any of former gifts—infrequent as they were—large enough to by themselves have made a difference. It’s also been at least three years since I donated  I don’t know why I am being thanked and the writer doesn’t say

The writer does go on to tell me that the organization is, and here I am quoting (including the obvious oops of something that was lost in translation) working hard to serve our communities and patients, ensuring that our doors are open to everyone – no matter what.

As I write to you today, we are nearing the end of our fundraising year on June 30.

(And here is that oops I mentioned) changes the lives of our patients, and I want to share one such story with you.

Then there is a clip about a very specific population. Whether I care about this population is beside the point—the organization very clearly does not know if I care and did nothing to tell me why this should, could, might matter to me.  In fact, it seemed clear to me that I only mattered as an ATM machine.  That was brought home to me by the P.S.:   If you have already made your gift, please disregard this email and accept our heartfelt thanks. 

Oh, okay, your message is only important if it causes me to make a gift.  

Folks, this is a poor reason to do an e (or snail) mail solicitation.

At best, this appeal will garner a 4% response rate.  But think of how many people could be influenced—perhaps not for now but for the future—with a message that had a call to action beyond “give us money.”  

Giving money is easy.  But it’s not a connection.  Instead of telling me to “disregard this email” because, I presume, what you are saying is of no import,  how about using it to show me what my gift meant.  “If you’ve already made your gift, I hope you watch the clip and see how important your support has been.”

Obviously, this appeal was not part of a well-thought out campaign.  It appears that it was an add on because the end of the fiscal year is nigh and the organization has not hit its fundraising goals.  

For fundraising, particularly transactional fundraising, to be successful, there has to be a plan.  The pieces need to support each other, reinforce key points, engage your donors, and show them why their involvement is critical to meeting the mission —the mission they care about.  Just throwing something out in the hopes that some people will respond is not just ineffectual, but it is insulting to everyone involved in your organization.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to move from mired to inspired.  Learn more at www.janetlevinconsulting.com.  While there, sign up for our free newsletter and contact Janet to schedule a free, 30-minute consultation.

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The Well Resourced Nonprofit

The businessman was ardently telling me how awful it was that nonprofits spend donated money on things like (gasp!) salaries, staff development, office space, benefits!  The money he gives, he told me, should only go to programs.  We’ve heard this before, and it doesn’t get less ridiculous because it keeps coming around.

“And how,” I asked him, “would you like these programs to be managed?  Who,” I asked, “will take care of those pesky things like being in compliance, providing the needed services, turning on the lights, making sure the plumbing is in order?”

It gets old.

The nonprofit sector provides over 5% of the nation’s GDP annually; we get about 2% in charitable gifts. We account for over 9% of all wages and salaries paid in the United States—and I’m guessing that the vast majority of those are way underpaid.

The vast majority—about 67%– of public charities have expenses of under $500,000.  Only a little over 5% have expenses of $10 Million or more.  Which points to the fact that the heavy lifting is being done by those with the least support.

Too many people start nonprofits because of a passion.  I’m not knocking passion; indeed, it is imperative.  But above all, those who start these organizations need to understand that they are businesses—and like any business must have a revenue plan that will get them firmly in the black in a reasonable amount of time.  And, like any business, they must have appropriate resources so they can do the job they need to do—in our case, push their mission forward—well.  And you just don’t do that by cutting corners, trying to do more with less, expecting people who are making less than they should be making to work as if they were being paid more.

And passion is what drives many people to take low-paying jobs at a nonprofit.  They accept little because they care so much.  And, because they care, they get hired—despite the fact that often, too often, they do not possess the necessary skills.  This is especially true in fundraising.

To be fair, often they are not hired to do fundraising.  They are hired for general office work or to use the skills they have for programs. And then, they get thrown into doing something for which they have no passion, no experience, and typically no one on staff who can guide them.

I started consulting with a passion to help mainly smaller nonprofits get better at what they need to be doing.  And mostly, I love what I do and am pretty proud of what my clients have been able to accomplish.  But I do get frustrated by how poorly we have made our case for being well resourced and able to hire the best and the brightest and pay them livable salaries so that they can make our world a far better place.


Janet Levine helps nonprofits go from mired to inspired.  Learn how at www.janetlevineconsulting.com.  While there, sign up for the newsletter and do contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation.


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Steps to Success

As someone who does a lot of training, I appreciate the importance of making sure that my audience is hearing what I think I am saying.  One way to ensure that is to regularly define my terms.  Fundraising, like all other fields of endeavor, has its own peculiar jargon and expecting that everyone will understand what I mean when I say something is hubris as its worst.  I was reminded of this the other day when one of my clients’ noted that “major gifts are part of our annual fund.”


And then there are all those people who think their excel spreadsheets are their donor databases and look confused when I try to explain why a spreadsheet and a database are not the same.

The most egregious are those who conflate cultivating a donor with waving at them across the ballroom at an event, in the auditorium of a performance, or by sending them an invite to buy a ticket to something.  Or think that a newsletter is a cultivation step.

At best those might be touches—acts that remind the person that you exist.

Touches are important. As someone once noted, you can’t be hugged if the hugger doesn’t know who you are.  But don’t for a moment think that the person who has attended two of your galas, been getting your newsletter for 3 years, and said hi to you in the supermarket line is ready to be solicited for a major gift.

Cultivation should be a carefully planned series of steps that bring prospects closer to becoming donors. And since your best prospect is always an existing donor, these steps may take place over a long period of time that is punctuated by regular or occasional giving.

These steps need to be personal, and must be intentional.  If I do, indeed, see someone at the supermarket, that is a touch. When I then follow up with a call and arrange a meeting or a tour of my facility, those acts are moves.  And when we discuss at that meeting or on that tour the things that they hope to accomplish with their philanthropic giving, we are moving closer and closer to the point where a solicitation will be successful.

After all, it’s not just about holding out our hands for a gift.  It is creating a space where giving is done joyously because it fulfills the donor’s needs.

To do that, you must know what matters to your donors.  And you must consistently show them the impact that their giving has on the work your organization does.


Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping them to go from mired to inspired.  Learn how she can help inspire you and your board at www.janetlevineconsulting.com.  Do sign up for the newsletter and call Janet to arrange a free 30-minute consul

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Let’s NOT Have Lunch

I had just mentioned qualifying meetings as an important step as you are researching potential major donors. A woman in the audience raised her hand and talked about how impossible it was to get prospects and donors to say yes to lunch.  She saw that when she worked in New York, and she was seeing it even more here in LA.

Another audience member noted that everyone is busy.  Lunch is a big commitment.  What she has found much more successful is asking for a 20-minute meeting at their home or office.

I see this in my own business.  Even if the meeting is at noon, it is in a potential client’s office and not at a restaurant.  The focus of the meeting is the business we need to conduct, and then we are done.

I kind of like this. Lunch, for me, is a time to unwind; relax.  Maybe meet a friend; maybe read.  Sometimes just to stare ahead, with not much thought in my head.

Beyond my preferences, of course, lies the preference of the prospect.  Occasionally there is that person who prefers lunch (or breakfast), but we should not assume that everyone wants meetings to include food.

“I would love to get together with you for a quick conversation about your support (or our organization, this new initiative—whatever the purpose of your meeting will be). What time of day works best for you?” is a good way to approach this.

In asking, you are always trying to get your prospect to answer the question you are asking. Here, you are asking for a face to face meeting.  Easy enough to say no to lunch;  harder to say “no time works.”

People might say that, of course.  Then your response should be “I do understand.  How, then, can we best discuss these important issues?”

I do have a client who received a 7-figure gift and only conversed via text.  They never, ever met the donor in person.  Unusual, but that was what the donor wanted.

Too often, we think we know the best way to cultivate a prospect.  And too often, we get frustrated because—clearly—the prospect doesn’t agree with us.

As with all things fundraising related, your best tactic is to put it to the prospect.

Because I am on the road a lot, I rely heavily on email.  Most of my prospects like that.  But some prefer a phone call.  In lieu of in person meetings, I offer video conferencing.  So people love that we can get together from the comfort of everyone’s own office or home.  Other clients hate the idea, and all of our meetings happen in their facility.

Your prospects are no different.  Finding out what works best in their all too full lives will end up working best for you. And I’m guessing that most of the time, it won’t include lunch.

Janet Levine works with nonprofits, helping to move them from mired to inspired.  If you need help with your fundraising or board development, shoot me an email or give me a call at 301-990-9151. And do go to my website and sign up for the newsletter.


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Calling Fundraising What It Is

It’s past time, I think, for a new fundraising language. We talk about annual and major gifts; gifts that are planned (as if all other gifts are randomly made), institutional giving—which usually isn’t a gift in any sense of the word as there are contracts, deliverables, all sorts of quid pro quo’s.
Let’s start and spend a minute on annual gifts. These are the ones you can depend on year after year after year, to run your organization. But the ugly truth is that more than 60% of all annual donors who make a first time gift to your organization will never, ever make a second.  So annual becomes first and only annual gift.

Truth to tell, when people think annual, they think smaller gifts.  Gifts that are gotten transactionally.   You could call these sustaining gifts—though that term seems to have been snapped up to mean monthly donors—because in truth these are the gifts that sustain (support, maintain) your status quo.  These are the gifts you budget with.  The ones who maintain your operating costs.  They are also the gifts that are made from your donor’s income.

Major gifts are thought to be a gift that is larger than some magic number.  That number varies from organization to organization.  But that should just be a threshold, below which a gift is not considered major.  If, however, I am giving you a gift of that size or larger year after year after year, I am not giving you a major gift.  I am simply doing what I can easily do and to me, it is my yearly support.

A real major gift is something that is large—by organization’s standards and by your donor’s.  It is a gift that will make a difference all by itself. It is usually restricted—not meant to merely help maintain what you do.  And it is often given over a specific number of years.  These gifts are thoughtful.  They are significant.  They are one-time gifts (though a donor can be a serial giver of these large gifts).  These gifts often come from someone’s assets.

Planned gifts are those that come as a result of estate planning.  Though often the plan—especially if there is not much of an estate–is simply to make a bequest, name your organization as a beneficiary of an insurance or retirement policy.

We often call these gifts legacy gifts because they are what the donor leaves behind when he or she dies. That, however, often keeps an organization from asking for these gifts, or even acknowledging that these sort of gifts exist.

I like to talk about tomorrow gifts—the one that ensure the organization will be around for generations to come.

And while I have nothing against corporate giving—I started my career as a director of corporate relations—I think it would be more honest to call it something that acknowledges that by and large there is a return on the investment.

Fundraising, we also maintain, is all about relationships.  I agree. But it is also about clarity, and I think the place to start is by being very clear about the gifts that we are asking for.


Janet Levine helps nonprofits go from mired to inspired, with better fundraising results and more focused boards.  Learn more at http://janetlevineconsulting.com.  While there, sign up for the newsletter and contact Janet for a free, 30-minute consultation.


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