11 Ways to Avoid Fundraising Failure

There’s an old saying that applies as much to direct mail fundraising as to anything else in life: “Little strokes fell great oaks.” So if you’re looking to harvest a money tree with your next direct mail fundraising campaign, avoid response killers that are sure to chip away at it.


…use the same creative for different audiences. First time donors. Loyal donors. High-end donors. Prospects. Lapsed donors. They’re as different from one another as Amnesty International is from the ASPCA.

So acknowledge the status of various donors and their psychographic differences in your letter. Use a particular copy strategy to one segment and a different strategy for another. Use a different tone. Perhaps a different envelope teaser for some groups. Maybe a different mix of components, depending on whether you’re dealing with prospects or established donors.

… do an Eddie Haskell, i.e. “Gee, Mrs. Cleaver, your donation has made a demonstrable difference to people all over this world.” The Beaver’s mother wouldn’t be sucked in by that kind of false praise. Neither will your donors believe you if you tell them that, “Your gift of $30 has provided hope to 4,000,000 desperate men, women and children across Africa.” Donors know their donation only helped your cause to assist some people...which is what you should tell them.

…bury your “ask”. The people who open your envelope aren’t stupid. They can see from your logo that you’re a non-profit and they expect you’re going to ask for money. So state your true mission on Page One of your letter. Readers will appreciate your candor - a good first step in your quest for a donation.

…overwhelm donors. If you inform your audience that you have to raise $36,000,000 the task will seem beyond their ability to make a difference. Instead, set a goal they’re capable of achieving on your behalf, e.g. “Your gift of $25 will feed a starving family for a week.” That’s something your audience can understand…and respond to.

… feature conflicting statistics. You’d be amazed how often a not-for-profit’s direct mail letter says XXX people have The Dreaded Disease, while their web site claims that the number of sufferers is YYY. Make sure those numbers are the same.

…be so afraid of offending a prospect that you fail to be impactful. Be bold with your acquisition packages. Faint hearts don’t win fair ladies; they don’t win new donors either. And there’s no reason to be timid anyway. As Bob Dylan put it, “If you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”

…over-inform your audience. Most donors only want to be assured that their money is going to a good cause. And brochures often depress response. Supporters who are info-junkies can visit your web site or call your toll-free number if they want more information.

…hesitate to put your cards on the table with Lapsed Donors. You’ve tried renewal mailing after renewal mailing. But it’s no dice. They’re not responding any more. For all intents and purposes, they’re now prospects. That means you ain’t got nothin’ to lose. It’s time to go for the gusto.

…include a newsletter in a prospect mailing. It can be even more counter-productive than including a brochure. After all, if the newsletter was written properly, the copy is skewed towards donors.

…ask donors to put a stamp on your BRE. A line like, “Your stamp will save us money” often reduces response.

…expect a leopard to change its spots. If you attract a new donor with a freemium, you’ll likely have to keep offering gifts in order to keep that donor. “Not,” as Seinfeld would say, “that there’s anything wrong with that.” Just be prepared to keep shelling out each time you ask them to shell out to you.

BONUS RECOMMENDATION: Don’t follow any of the foregoing advice…unless, of course, testing proves that it’s effective for you. Just because something works for one organization, doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to work for yours.