Archives for posts with tag: solicitation letter

When my brother and I were very young and very bored, around ages seven and 10, we rummaged through our mother’s drab, gray cookbook, looking for something new to whip up.  We weren’t in the habit of cooking at that age; I think we viewed it as a science experiment of sorts. (The book may have once had a gaily printed paper cover, but in a house of six children and constant chaos, flimsy items like book covers didn’t last long.)

At any rate, we wanted to make something we’d never eaten before. After a careful inspection of the supplies on hand, we decided that the one recipe within our grasp was a creamy sort of onion soup. My memory of the soup’s taste is vaguely positive – I think it turned out well, and was certainly different from our family’s normal fare. What I do remember vividly, though, was our sense of adventure as we made it, the knowledge that we were creating something – to us – entirely new and different. And we did it! We succeeded!

That’s one of the reasons I think technology is good for philanthropy. It compels fundraisers to up their game, to think in ways that are unfamiliar, and to trigger the brain-based benefits created by unfamiliar thinking.

For instance, as a former member of a development staff for an art museum, I have seen how challenging it is to secure funding for that segment of the nonprofit industry – especially in a down economy. And here we have crowdfunding to the rescue! Well, sort of. Using web sites to attract large numbers of donors may be, as one of the folks in this article says, a permanent, more efficient way for artists and arts organizations to reach individual benefactors. Or it may be a flash in the pan. But it has people thinking in new ways, and that’s a good thing.

By the way, when I want to cook something I’ve never cooked before, I just page through this, my favorite cookbook and find something I’ve never made before. I guess some things don’t change.


Yesterday I made bread for the first time in years. I used the recipe from the bag of King Arthur Flour. I have never owned a bread machine, so I do it by hand. I was surprised at how sticky the dough was, how hard to knead, and then how gratified I was by the sight of it rising. The loaf turned out fat and brown, as well as I might have hoped, and it was gone in a few hours.

At the same time, I was also reading this post on about fundraising. Joanne Fritz outlines the “bread and butter” of fundraising, and that got me thinking about how deceptively simple the basics are. Bread is made of only a few ingredients – flour, yeast, liquid, and usually a pinch of salt. At the top of the “bread and butter” list on Fritz’s post is annual giving. Speaking as someone who’s spent most of her fundraising years in the annual fund, I’ll say that it often does feel like … well, the sliced white bread, compared to major gifts’ steak and sizzle.

To be fair to the major gift folks, their lives aren’t all glamour, as we learn from this Passionate Giving article. But annual giving – or recurring giving, as it’s increasingly becoming– really is the foundation of most healthy nonprofits. It gives nearly everyone the chance to buy an entry ticket as stakeholders of your mission. It gives your organization a chance to impress them with excellent stewardship, several times a year. It reveals and stewards future major donors and those who will leave bequests. It’s the bread and butter of your campaign.

Have you ever dined at an upscale restaurant, and been served stale, tasteless rolls alongside melted foil butter packets? How did that make you feel about the rest of the meal to come? If bread and butter are the first chance to impress someone, it’s worth your time to make it a quality experience.

Raw potatoes and burned hot dogs. Or maybe it was the other way around – burned potatoes and cold hot dogs. At any rate, it was a camping trip meal my kids will never let me forget. We were in the Franconia Notch State Park, and it was pouring rain. I had a camp stove I didn’t know how to use very well, and a poorly-made pan. Our supper that night was barely edible, to put it kindly.

If you’ve ever cooked under trying circumstances, with tools you didn’t know how to use or that didn’t work very well, you know what I mean.

Similarly, if you’ve ever tried to execute a fundraising strategy without a good, functional database, you face serious challenges.

“At a minimum, organizations should have good demographic data on who they serve,” says  Isaac D. Castillo , one of the speakers in a recent (and interesting) chat with the Chronicle of Philanthropy about using data to boost fundraising. Later in the same chat, his colleague Andrew Niklaus mentions that, with fundraising software, you get what you pay for. As with any tool, this is also true.

In my experience, too many nonprofit organizations don’t even have basic demographic data, and if they do, it’s not in a program that allows you to access it easily. I once worked with a program that required manual entry of a series of date ranges and other data, and would only print – not display – the one resulting data point, using three sheets of paper each time. It was like trying to cook in the rain, with a dimestore aluminum pan.

What are your experiences with the tools and technology you need to do your job?

I like to cook with “real” ingredients, don’t you? While I appreciate that some of us react negatively to sugar or wheat or animal fats, there’s nothing like the taste of real sugar, flour and butter.

In the same way, preparing fund raising communications works best when we have real, fresh, and local ingredients to work with.

I’ll explain. Last week I did a presentation (for AFP-NNE and CONFR) on working with creative people.  While I have more than two decades of experience working with other writers, graphic designers, web folk, and the like, I wanted to share what I’d learned with fund raising professionals who might not have had that type of experience. I also solicited advice from creative colleagues, and one writer’s answer reminded me of one of the chief difficulties of our work.

She spoke of the challenge – in a solicitation piece – of making the need concrete. I couldn’t agree more.

So much of the time, those of us in development are tasked with raising money for basic operations. These are worthy, indeed, but don’t tend to make compelling copy. Donors want to make a difference, and they want to make a specific difference unique to your mission.

Donors don’t often get excited about keeping the lights on, or the parking lots clear of snow, so we end up with language that dances around that. We ask for dollars “where they’re needed most.” It’s an unsatisfactory substitute, and it can leave an unsatisfactory taste in the mouth.

I’ve attended fund raising workshops in which were advised to find out exactly what charitable gifts were spent on, and to report that back to the donors when thanking them, and when asking for new gifts. If you follow such fund raising gurus as Penelope Burke and Bob Burdenski, you’ll see it’s a key foundation of good development practice.

Why, then, do so few of us practice it? Why do so many of us continue to settle for saccharine substitutes?

Once a year I struggle with mashed potatoes. I love potatoes in almost all the ways they can be had – as chips and fries (unfortunately for my waistline), baked, roasted, home-fried, what-have-you. But I never liked them mashed.

Bear with me – this is about communications, I promise.

My lack of love for mashed presents a problem each Thanksgiving, when the dear members of my family gather in my home for the annual feast. Everyone else loves mashed potatoes – they represent the holiday as much as turkey does –   so of course I serve them. Over the years, I’ve found a good recipe or two, and I feel confident they are up to par. Still, if it were up to me, they wouldn’t even be on the menu.

But that doesn’t matter. What matters is what my audience wants, and I think that’s a mistake that a lot of organizations make in their communications. People tend to create what they like to consume, whether it’s a side dish or a solicitation letter.

If I could give one piece of advice to would-be successful communicators, it’s this: pay attention to your audience. They will surprise you.

I once worked at an educational institution that sent out a holiday card appeal each December. Each year, the card was similar – photos of happy, smiling student faces with a brief sentence or two. Everyone felt this was what donors responded to. One year, an interim director decided to change things up. He used a wintry campus landscape photo and an excerpt from a poem. The appeal brought in twice the amount of money it had the year before. Was it a fluke? We used the same formula the next year and it outperformed the previous. Contrary to original assumptions, it was what our donors responded to.

This shows that you need to pay attention to the audience, but don’t ignore your own taste buds completely. I recently took a chance on serving an apple, fennel and olive salad to half a dozen guests, and they loved it. It was gratifying, but the stakes weren’t particularly high – I wouldn’t have experimented with the entrée (chicken parmesan).

As you look over your communications schedule for the year, think about your audience as dinner guests. Does your menu include mashed potatoes? If the answer is yes, your bases are covered. Then go ahead and try a fennel salad with a small test group to see if they like the same things you do.