Managing Fundraising Messages: Make Sure the Cup is More than Half Full!

by Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin

Seemingly all-too-often often, fundraising professionals and nonprofit executives receive (deserved) criticisms for the negative perceptions they create and concomitantly, these negative self-perceptions carry into the messages these same nonprofit leaders share with their donors and stakeholders. How often have we heard the word “schnorrer” or an equally derisive term, even in good fun, associated with fundraising and those who are asking for money to support charitable causes?

By managing the messaging of fundraising, nonprofit leaders can create positive opportunities for engagement between nonprofits, their leaders and stakeholders.

Consider the essence of good, successful fundraising by presenting opportunities to donors (at all levels) to truly make an impact and tangible differences rather than focusing significantly on just asking for a “handout” or “help.”

Outside-In Fundraising

As IMPACTS’ Coleen Dilenschneider details in her excellent blog Know Your Own Bone, many successful nonprofits are now practicing what she calls outside-in marketing. These nonprofits “actively listen to their audiences and collect market data to determine what kind of content the organization’s visitors and supporters want.” In other words, they realize it’s not only what they are selling … it’s understanding what their donors are buying!

Customer-centric marketing is nothing new, but too often, nonprofit leaders forget the central components of this practice when it comes to marketing their organizations and fundraising to sustain their programs and advance their visions. They stick to “inside-out” fundraising: their agency’s immediate needs and assumptions developed in their internal “echo chambers” drive what they say to their external audiences. They are not “getting into the heads of their donors” and crafting messages that current or prospective donors can digest and embrace. Instead of trying new methods, they stay stuck with their same mediocre strategies, and if donors don’t respond well, they assume that the donors are to blame.

Donor-centric fundraising demands that nonprofit leaders create fundraising language that puts the donor at the center of the question, emphasizing and responding to the donor’s unasked questions and unstated expectations.

How can fundraisers understand what these questions might be? Testing approaches is a for-profit technique but how many nonprofits attempt to test the marketplace? For example, send out multiple versions of your agency’s next annual appeal and see which version donors respond to best. Create A/B testing with every email campaign. Convene focus groups. Donors are always ready to give feedback but they need to be asked in the right manner!

Note, too, that before embarking on any major campaign, our clients always conduct a market scan or pre-campaign assessment, essentially trying to determine how donors may (or may not) respond to certain key messages and concepts. This process is critical to understanding how and why certain communication channels are best utilized to connect with donors, and what types of information they want to receive through these channels.

Impact Investing as the New Normal

The fundraising profession relies upon a bouquet of euphemisms when requesting charitable contributions from donors and friends. Instead of being direct with their solicitations, many fundraisers sidestep their core objectives by couching it in “friendlier” requests. Donors are often asked to show their “support” and “give generously” to their favorite charities. However, this nomenclature is quickly becoming outdated.

Nonprofits can “steal” another page from the corporate playbook by mimicking and co-opting the language that businesses successfully utilize with consumers. Substituting “investment” for “support” or “donation” is one popular transition we’ve seen many successful nonprofits utilize.

As one example, we ask you to consider the following two statements. The first uses “traditional” fundraising language and the second reflects an update using impact investment influenced terminology.

Example A

Please consider giving to the JCC and providing countless children with the opportunity to learn more, grow stronger, and become better leaders. Your generous gift will provide crucial programs and services to underserved youth in our community.

Example B

By supporting the JCC, you’ll receive the benefit of knowing that 25 kindergarten students will have access to our award-winning Strength and Leadership Curriculum. As a Childhood Program Backer, your investment of $1,000 today will yield strong dividends for tomorrow by ensuring that our community is creating educated, independent students capable of leading the next generation of innovation and prosperity.

Notice that the second example uses powerful, impact-oriented language to show the donor exactly what he/she is accomplishing or “getting” for the charitable investment. The marketplace continues to emphasize transactional relationships, and nonprofits can capitalize on this trend by explicitly demonstrating outcomes and the impact that those outcomes are making with every piece of communication material they send to current and future donors.

Organizations that serve our Jewish community have largely been “late to the game” in changing language and approaches and the recent research notwithstanding have much work to do to sustain current support and cultivate and engage the next generation of leaders and donors. As we launch into a new Jewish year, we encourage you to:

  • Know your donors better and determine how to communicate with them. Make the time to meet with lead and other donors and understand what is needed to reach out and touch the broader community of support.
  • Get into the heads of donors and understand what would connect them to your organization’s “value proposition.” If they aren’t getting it, they won’t support it.
  • Stay mission driven AND donor-centric, finding the correct balance between staying true to your purpose and vision, and connecting with your supporters in the philanthropic marketplace.
  • Underscore the notion of their investment and the trust that you must earn to come with it. Remember: involvement = investment = inclusion.
  • Make sure that your website is updated regularly and that it effectively projects your message and the ability of the donor to respond and engage with you.

Jewish nonprofits of all types and sizes – domestically and overseas as well as Federations – which look to the donor-centric approach will find a new vista before them offering greater opportunities for even more effective philanthropy. By utilizing new language to change the conversation around fundraising, development professionals can better make their case, support their organization, and feel confident in their abilities to serve their cause.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, a fundraising consulting firm located in suburban Philadelphia. They are frequent contributors to The EHL Consulting Group is one of only 38 member firms of The Giving Institute. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and nonprofit business practices and strategies. Learn more at

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