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The only 2 dots that matter to your donors
Tom Ahern

November, 2010

Is fundraising hard? Absomootley. Still, we make it harder than it has to be. Just connect 2 dots in your communications ... and you'll be on the road to unprecedented success.

Donors really aren't all that demanding, at least regarding the messages you need to send.

All you have to do is connect two dots.

Dot #1: your promise.

What kind of promise? It varies.

"Nothing stops a bullet like a job," the tagline of Homeboy Industries promises.

(Stop a moment to reflect: What does your tagline promise? A tagline is a great place to announce briefly, lucidly, and dramatically to the world exactly why your nonprofit matters. For the world's largest sample of "little nonprofit taglines that could," see Nancy Schwartz' annual contest.)

"180 days can change a life," UCAP promises on the cover of its annual report. UCAP is a school that rescues urban dropouts from seriously crappy futures.

"We're a little, mission-driven place that wants to be recognized for providing the best care for the poorest people," the president of Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science promised in 2008.


Achieve Hartford!, an urban school reform initiative, promises, "Every child living in poverty in this city will have a real chance to succeed - with 100% graduation rates a realistic possibility."

Dot #2: the donor's vital role in achieving that promise.

Call it the "public radio approach."

If you live in the U.S. and have been on the receiving end of a public radio fund drive, you've heard some of the most effective fundraising techniques in the world at work.

Consider. U.S. public radio was an entity that in the early 1980s received the bulk of its funding from the federal government.

Today, though, most public radio stations receive very little funding from the feds. Instead, philanthropy, from individuals and corporate sponsors, plays a decisive role in keeping this magnificent example of unbiased, unusual reporting on the air.

What is public radio's secret?

Its fundraising is intensely "donor centered." Every other sentence seems to start with, "It's thanks to your support that public radio can continue to...."

There's a lot going on in that deceptively simple sentence.

It spoons out heaping helpings of praise for the donor.

And, just as important, it reminds the listener gently that without donor support, these same great radio programs could not "continue."

That particular sales tactic is something called "loss aversion." In a nutshell, donors are inclined to rescue the thing they love ... if they sense a threat.

When you make a low-grade awareness of threat part of your fundraising messaging, as public radio does, you will raise more money.

It's basic psychology. And it never stops working. (Acquaint yourself with the writings of psychologist Robert Cialdini and researcher Adrian Sargeant for a deeper reading into this phenomenon.)

The threat isn't there to scare people, by the way. The threat is there so that the donor knows that her support really does matter.

Here's a footer Greenpeace puts at the bottom of emails:


Greenpeace relies almost entirely on the support of individuals, remaining independent of any government or corporate money. Please donate now if you can.

This is one dot: "Greenpeace relies almost entirely on support from individuals...."

The other dot: "...remaining independent of any government or corporate money."

Why is this important? Because remaining independent is a key component of the Greenpeace promise. A Greenpeace dependent on funding from, say, the Japanese or Icelandic governments, would not be the whale-defending, high-spirited Greenpeace we've come to know and love.

Connect just two dots -- your promise and the donor's supreme role in keeping that promise -- and your donor will be satisfied, gratified, and loyal.

Takeaway >>>>

Instilling the belief that you need charity to achieve your promised results is basic to successful fundraising. It's the most important message you need to get across.

And you get that essential message across by repeating it constantly, tirelessly, remorselessly, ad infinitum.

Not 10 repetitions. Not 100 repetitions. Thousands of repetitions, every chance you get
, in every nook and cranny of your communications, in places such as email footers, e.g., Greenpeace.

Now for the bad news: The basic message that donors are essential to achieving results is absent from at least 90% of the donor communications that come across my desk. Scary.

People lament the decline in funding that has followed the Global Economic Crisis. I'm a contrarian. I believe many charities today could immediately double their charitable income if they merely connected the right two dots and gave their donors unrestricted credit for every success.

Visit Tom Ahern at


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