My 10 commandments for successful donor communications

Tom Ahern

OK, commandment #1 (by far): You build your sales’ success (i.e., your fundraising comm’s success) backwards from your target audience.

“What the heck does that mean?” might be your challenge.

So … let’s get basic.

You, fundraiser, are trying to sell my brain something.

You want my brain to make a purchase decision … a purchase decision that will benefit your charity’s mission-cause-movement-ideal-belief-invention-initiative-program-plans for a better world.

And you want your org.’s appeal to succeed. Even better: you want your org.’s appeal to succeed wildly.

Who are you? And why should I care?

It’s really just a tale/algorithm of two pronouns: you the org. + me the potential supporter.

FACT > The org. knows a lot about itself.

FACT > The org. knows almost nothing about me, supporter … mostly because the org. has never asked; instead, it guesses, hoping for the best.

FACT > Charities well-informed about their donors raise more money. The ignorant (of their donors) harvest mostly the lowest of low-hanging fruit.

A stubborn, persistent lack of “relevant donor intelligence” will lead [predictably] to an extremely high rate of “message failure.” I.e., your giving will linger lower longer than it could be or should be.

What’s the magic?

Talk to your donors. Survey at any level (start small; just one well-asked question can throw open Aladdin’s Cave and show you where “X marks the spot!”).

Adjust your annual comms schedule to routinely include donor surveys.

And the other 9 commandments?

Commandment #2: Recognize that you have two fundamentally different target audiences:

(1) Newbies. Those who’ve never given. That’s your “cold” list.

(2) Those who have given in, say, the last 18 months. That’s your “warm” list. You keep that list “warm” by communicating with it regularly; otherwise, it cools rapidly. BTW, you’re not trying to colonize Mars. You’re trying to retain 1% more of your first-time donors. Even that seemingly small incremental improvement will have an exciting payoff in donor LTV. (Yes, look it up.)

Commandment #3: Don’t overthink your donor communications. Getting an appeal out the door … on schedule … is WAY more important than getting something everybody on the inside “likes.” (In truth? If untrained insiders “like” your donor comms, start to worry. It’s not a good sign. See Commandments #4 & #6.)

Commandment #4: Opinions lead to failure. Training leads to success. The idea that an untrained board member or your ED knows something useful about direct mail or email appeals is preposterous and illogical. If your org. is serious? Get training … or leave the approval loop before you do more damage. (See #3 & #6.)

Commandment #5: Understand the “sales lead funnel.” This is how you move someone from “Just Curious” to Donor. Keep staring at it until you get it.

Commandment #6: Your dumb, messed-up, collegial, everyone-gets-a-vote internal approval process will make or break results. Quick test: Which is most likely to raise more money? (1) Everyone on staff loved the front page of our latest newsletter. (2) Donors loved the front page of our latest newsletter. By now you know the answer.

Commandment #7: Don’t be afraid to “ready, fire, aim.” In communications, there’s always next time. This is a corollary to Commandment #3.

Commandment #8: Stories matter … but not by their lonesome. Stories SERVE the ask. Use the story to break my heart. But don’t forget to ASK for my help, sooner than later. As Steven and Jim advise, if you haven’t asked by your 3rd SHORT paragraph, you’ve waited too long.

Commandment #9: You owe your reader something in exchange for their attention span. Did you make me FEEL good? Needed? Wanted? Important? Happy? Thanked beyond expectations? Entertained? Surprised? If so, you might retain me.

Commandment #10: My wake-up mantra is this: “What if everything I think I know is wrong?”

Go to for more!

  • Tom Ahern