My Top Eleven and Three-Quarters Bits of Advice for Winning at Donor Communications… part one in a two-part series

Tom Ahern

1. Why Eleven and Three-Quarters? Be a little less predictable.

“10 Top Tips” is predictable. “11 Top Tips” is a little less predictable, but still pretty obvious. I ripped this idea off, as most of you immediately recognized, from Harry Potter’s Track Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross Station.

Steal well. And often.

But don’t steal from failures. Which means you’ll have to learn enough to tell the difference. Plopping a “Letter from the Desk of the ED” on the front cover of every issue of your donor newsletter is common … but typically a waste of your supporters’ ridiculously valuable and scarce attention spans. Just because “they” do it doesn’t mean you should, too.


2. Google “sales lead funnel.” When I did that, Google returned more than 9 million results.

Look at some of the images returned. Read an article or three. The funnel gets you thinking about target audiences. It gets you thinking about offers.

Do not pass “GO” until you understand the sales lead funnel. This is a standard model for how selling works. And at some practical level, fundraising is “just” a type of sales. The sales lead funnel also reveals why direct mail hasn’t died yet. The funnel also reveals why you need a donor acquisition program.


3. Google “AIDA.” Not the opera, the marketing term: the acronym stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.

As the Wikipedia article says, “(AIDA describes) the steps or stages that occur from the time when a consumer first becomes aware of a product or brand through to when the consumer trials a product or makes a purchase decision.”

Why do you care? Because donors are consumers. Consumers of hope, maybe. Donors are fundraising’s customers. And once you understand AIDA, you’ll never again wonder what to say first, second, third, fourth.

Without an understanding of AIDA, you may launch your case for support with something like: “Our organization was founded in 1897 under a chestnut tree when a group of foresightful folk envisioned….” Snore.

Lesson #1 of AIDA: Don’t start with the boring bits.


4. Things change slowly. Until it’s too late.

This keeps me up at night. It keeps me desperately curious about developments in my field. Bigger charities remain bigger charities for lots of reasons: innovation and analytics in fundraising being among the more important.

So you have this data point: “For every 1,000 fundraising [emails] delivered to supporters, groups in our study raised $40,” the 2015 M+R Benchmarks study reported and 2016 was even worse.

But then you have this data point: “Finland to be Cashless by 2029” reads the headline in FinTech Finance, a UK-based financial industries researcher.

The world is abandoning currency, checks, ATMs and credit cards. And then you wonder: “How do we prepare in fundraising for what could be a major shift in common consumer behaviors?”


5. “Digital or print?” That’s so 2003.

That was the year I first heard the question raised by a fundraiser in a workshop. She asked, “When can we retire our print donor newsletter and switch to an email version instead?”

I didn’t know the answer until at least a decade later. And the answer was, “For now, you have to do both, if you want to maximize income and impact.”

We are in a transition period. Multichannel communications are the rule for now and the foreseeable future (at least as I foresee it). In 2018, Mark Phillips, Bluefrog’s founder, shared data showing the bending 7-year trend: purely “offline” donors (i.e., they did not make their gifts digitally) were decreasing (although at 89.4%, they were still the vast majority); online donors were increasing (almost doubling in number in the past three years); and “multichannel” donors were becoming a new normal.

What’s multichannel? Someone gets a direct mail appeal, which prompts them to make a gift … but they make that gift online. Or someone sees a text-to-give poster in the Tube … and takes action via their mobile.

I.e., print and digital working together.


6. The Shiny New Thing saves a few … but probably not you.

Corollary: All fundraising is hard work, yet every so often something crazy wonderful happens (just don’t count on it).

In June 2018, a couple of tech employees in San Francisco, Charlotte and Dave Willner, started a Facebook crowdfunding campaign. They wanted to help kids separated by U.S. law enforcement from their illegally immigrating parents. The Willners’ initial goal: $1,500. Driven by a wildfire of public outrage and press coverage, giving to their campaign quickly broke every previous crowdfunding record, raising $16 million in a matter of days.

And then there was the viral Ice Bucket Challenge. It raised more than $115 million in 2014 for ALS research. Sure, pray for a miracle in your free time. But stick to your knitting at work.

Your board and boss need to know this, too.


COMING in Part 2: The thing about “younger donors.” And 5 3/4 other bits of advice.