Your Great Story Isn’t Enough

         Use the word “You” early and often. Be warm and conversational – don’t write a term paper – in your letters, emails, and other communications to donors. Tell stories. 

         That’s the gospel we preach here at New River Communications – at least a few books of it.

         All excellent advice, too, (though judging from many letters and emails we see being sent out by non-profits large and small, it’s advice not always taken.)

         But sometimes we and other like-minded agencies make it sound too simple…

         You could come away thinking, “Awesome! Just write a letter that breaks every rule of grammar I’ve learned since fourth grade, insert “You” in every other sentence, and tell a couple of stories about our work, and ‘BAM, PRESTO,’ the money will come pouring in!”

         Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

         Close, but not quite. The part about breaking your English teacher’s grammar rules (and heart) and sprinkling more “Yous” throughout the copy is right on, but getting the storytelling part right requires more thought.   

         A recent post by Jeff Molander got me thinking about that. He writes:

The biggest beef I have with most of today’s content marketing experts is this: In the end, they claim it’s all about a good story when it’s not. You can tell the most honest, interesting, moving story possible and never get the customer to pick up the phone, send an email, make an appointment with you, click to fill out a lead form… take an action. And that’s just a waste of a good story!

         Jeff’s talking about the use of stories for sales in the commercial world, but I believe much of what he says also applies to us good people working in non-profits. Jeff doesn’t hate a good story, he just thinks it’s not enough – and I think he’s right.

         When you tell a story about your work, are you connecting it back to your donors with the most powerful offer/request for support possible? Are you moving their hearts and then making it easy for them to join in and help?  

         If your story/offer doesn’t compel a donor to take action and make it easy for them to do so, if it doesn’t draw them closer to your work and make them proud to be associated with you, if it doesn’t motivate them to think, “I love this organization. I want to do more to help – and I will!” you have to ask yourself,

         “Can I do better?”

Katapult MarketingYour Great Story Isn’t Enough
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One essential you need to get right

        Non-profit executive directors and development directors often ask me: “How can we use direct mail without being overwhelmed by complex strategies, production issues, postal regulations and other things I just don’t have the staff or time for?”

        These leaders at small to medium size organizations get it. They recognize that…  

(a) A significant portion of the U.S. population are charitable and willing to support causes they believe in.

(b) Even though social media is all the rage, the vast majority of donors use direct mail to make their donations. (Many love to research organizations like yours online, but they do their actual giving the old way – at least 90% of it anyway!)

        So from summer on, I answer their question like this: “Make sure you send out a year-end appeal to all your donors.” Even if it’s a low-key request for help, getting something into the hands of your supporters in the thick of the charitable giving season is essential –

        In fact, most non-profits receive nearly half of all annual donations in the fourth quarter. But it won’t happen magically. Out of sight, out of mind. In the frenzy of the giving season, you’ve got to be on your donors’ radar screen – reminding them of the good works you’re doing and, most important, that you depend on them to make those good things happen.

        If you don’t tell them, how will they know?

        When done properly, a mailing with a compelling offer and direct ask sent to the right audience, can produce truly stellar results. One organization we helped with only 4,000 donors generated income of more than $100,000 from a single year-end mailing!

        Labor Day has come and gone – NOW is the time to get started! Remember, your donors aren’t just your donors. They “belong” to other organizations as well – organizations who will be reaching out to them this fall. . .

        Will you get there first?

        If you want to save the work and worry of producing a year-end appeal, we are ready and happy to help! Just click here to see a sample of our year-end package format – we’ve made it simple and affordable for small and medium-sized organizations to get an effective year-end appeal into the mail.  Minimum 3,000 pieces

        New River’s team of agency pros will create and mail your year-end appeal for just .88 cents per piece, including postage! To participate, please contact Margaux Parento by phone 954-535-0644 or email Margaux@NewRiverCommunications.com). I must hear from you by Wednesday, September 12th to participate!

Katapult MarketingOne essential you need to get right
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Quit Social Media? Not so fast…

I just ran across an interesting post on The Agitator by Tom Belford on quitting social media.  Tom cites Erik Sass’s 9 Reasons to Quit Social Media Now … a thoughtful take on why social media isn’t always a net positive.  In closing, Tom calls for rebuttals, so here’s mine:

I absolutely appreciate the lead in to Tom’s post; at this point, social media is not a major medium for fundraising.  If you look at response rates and dollars generated by social media, it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to email fundraising – which itself is only a fraction of the donations received via direct mail.

I would argue, however, that it misses the larger point of how social media is best used by nonprofits. 

First and foremost, social sites like Facebook and Twitter are best used by most organizations as a branding and engagement tool.  For most organizations, there is no quicker, cheaper way to communicate with donors than posting on your favorite social media site.  This truth is only becoming more prevalent as the stereotypical donor group (read: older donors) move online.

Social media sites are also one of the best ways to motivate the elusive 40 and under donors.  Dunham+Company’s recent study of online donations makes the point quite succinctly:

Social media motivating more donors under age 40

Social media shows no real improvement in motivating an online gift among donors 40 years old or older (10 percent in this survey versus 8 percent in 2010).  However, social media giving continues to grow among donors under age 40, as a full 30 percent now say they have given online because of social media compared to 24 percent in 2010.

My co-worker at New River Communications Christa Chappel just shared the perfect example of social media as a direct response channel:

Florida Yorkie Rescue continues to engage and involve people (donors or prospects) on Facebook and the owner Kit has said that if it weren’t for her doing that on Facebook she wouldn’t raise as much money.  She doesn’t have funds nor time probably to participate in direct mail or do a major fundraising event but she posts about a situation (dog needing surgery), the goal amount to solve the problem, and all of a sudden within 48-72 hours she hits her goal.  I am a donor and have given to almost every one of her cases…

Bottom line, it’s a multi-, multi-, multi-channel world out there, and the prospect of quitting social media – even if we wanted to – isn’t really an option.  The only question now is: what do we do with it? The answer isn’t the same for every nonprofit, but I believe nearly all can find ways to enrich their relationship with donors who use some form of social media – and isn’t that just about everyone these days?

Now, off to tweet this to the masses…

Katapult MarketingQuit Social Media? Not so fast…
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Five Ways to Boost Your Fundraising Returns

Looking for a few good ideas to maximize your fundraising results?  Try one or more of these five strategies and watch your returns head north:

1)  Target Ask Amounts to the Donor

If you have any mail pieces that are using a generic ask for everyone that receives it; change it.  And by change it, I don’t mean add a couple of ask levels.  Calculate ask amounts based on a donor’s past gift history.  You’ll get within each donor’s gift range and avoid under-asking, and also avoid asking them for gifts significantly higher than they could ever give. 

2)  Follow-up

This should be a no brainer for your major campaigns, like an Annual Fund Drive, but it also has its uses for more low-key appeals too.  Especially if you have new information to report, status updates or if you are still trying to hit your goals.  Whether via another mail piece, email or pick up the phone and call those highest of high dollar donors, following up with donors lifts response.  The trick is to not spend more following up than the additional revenue it generates.

3)  Send a Recorded Message

Similar to above, the additional “touch” of a recorded message (OVM) from a recognizable individual connected to your organization (letter signer/celebrity/etc.) helps lift direct mail response.  It’s different from a typical follow-up, in that federal law prevents you from actually mentioning a mailed appeal.  That said, timing a generic thank you OVM around a mailing works consistently to increase response.  This is one of those cheap, but way underutilized tools that should be in every fundraiser’s tool kit.  **Caution:  we’re heading into election season, so September – December would be less than ideal timing for these. 

4)  Link to (Compelling) Online Content

Linking to a simple photo slide show or couple of minutes of video on the topic of your appeal will more often than not increase response rates.  The trick is that it has to be relevant and compelling (though not necessarily “slick” or professional looking).  As more organizations move to multichannel, I expect this will become less effective.  That said, use it while you can! 

Fun fact:  we had one client test this strategy and donations went up MORE than the number of visits to the landing page!  Our only explanation is that just including the option made more people give!

5)  Pay the Return Postage

The professional fundraiser’s constant goal is to eliminate barriers to making a donation.  “I ran out of stamps” is one of those clear cases where an organization can step in and make the act of giving a gift easier.  Within your data, there are donors who it would make sense to *occasionally* pay return postage.  A live stamp is almost always better than a business reply envelope, but is more expensive and so trims the number of donors that this would make financial sense for.

While there is no silver bullet to effective fundraising, the suggestions I listed are simple to implement and work.

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Five Copywriting Mistakes to Avoid

Most charities these days, large or small, are operating on tighter budgets than ever before. So when you spend good money to get a letter in the mail to your donors, make sure you get it right. Here are five all too common mistakes to avoid if you want your fundraising letter to actually raise funds:

  1. Every letter tries to cover everything you do. Most charities have various programs as part of their overarching mission. When writing a letter to your donors, it is not necessary to detail ALL the ways that your charity helps others. Even in acquisition, you don’t have to discuss EVERY single program provided by your organization. Instead, choose one compelling program to focus on and tell a personal, in-depth story that makes an emotional connection with your donor.
  2. Avoiding the ask. Never stray away from asking for donations. Don’t worry, you’re not being pushy. Direct mail means being direct with your supporters. Tell your donors exactly what you want them to do – DONATE! Remember to ask early and ask often. Unless you actually ASK for their help, very few donors will offer.
  3. Overlook the reply device. A common mistake is to write the response device as an afterthought once the letter is completed. Even before writing your letter, be clear on where it will lead your donor – it should be directly to the reply device. A good response form not only asks for the donation, but also reinforces the reason to give.
  4. Fundraising by committee. With every additional person who reviews your appeal, the copy gets weaker. Not better. Copy that’s written by committee fails to be “real” or authentic. Your letter should sound like it was written by a human being to another human being. Overall, strive for an informal, warm, conversational tone because that’s what people respond to.
  5. Copy is NOT donor-centric. When writing your copy, keep in mind that it’s not all about you or your nonprofit. After all, your charity didn’t rescue the litter of kittens found in the dumpster…Your charity didn’t build that water well for a poor village in Guatemala. Your donors did all thatand more!  The truth is, your supporters want to know what’s in it for them. What they get may be intangible, but when they give they get something just the same. Your letter needs to offer it to them.

I hope you’ll remember these five mistakes to avoid when crafting your next fundraising letter. If you need additional help with your direct mail appeals, send me a recent sample and I’ll send you several ways to make it better – no cost or obligation!

You can send your direct mail sample to:

New River Communications

Attn: Sean O’Neil/Package Makeover

1819 SE 17 Street, Suite One

Ft. Lauderdale, FL


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What will your non-profit do with the public’s social media addiction?


So check out the stats. 23% of people’s internet time is spent on social media. 91% are on Facebook, 63% Twitter, 45% YouTube and 35% LinkedIn. You might say many of us are addicted. The good news is, SM addiction is not the life-threatening variety. In fact, for non-profits, the public’s SM obsession offers a great opportunity to engage, energize, and educate your supporters and prospects.

But first rule of SM engagement: Be present every day and make at least one great post in all forums. Say you have a great photo of a local family your organization saved from losing their home. Post it, share it, and tell your donors about them – and let your donors know they’re behind the good work. How about when your organization was first to respond to the deadly tornadoes this past year? Show us some of the action, what you did, where the money went, where future gifts are going.

And when you post make sure to connect the dots. Use your Twitter accounts to post teasers for whatever you have going on Facebook. You can even link your Twitter account to make posts on your LinkedIn account. They all connect in some shape or form. Use them!

When you post great photos, videos, updates, and statistics, you’re energizing your supporters. But don’t stop there. Remember, this isn’t a lecture, it’s a conversation! So invite them to comment on and share your posts. Get them excited and they’ll help spread the good news about your organization to friends, family, and colleagues – as word travels, it builds your brand and opens the door to potential new donors. People are more likely to give if they’ve heard about you, especially from someone they know, love, and trust.

You also can utilize SM to educate your donors. Make posts on current statistics, upcoming goals, continuing problems you need help with. The more informed your donors are, the more likely they’ll be to support your cause. So don’t hold back with all the info you slaved to pull together for your 2011 Annual Report. Use SM to post some compelling statistics … Let your supporters know what they helped you accomplish this past year and why you need help now in 2012.

Bottom line is don’t miss out on all the SM possibilities for involving your supporters and prospects. You have the power to engage, energize, and educate them. You just have to be present each and every day and keep the posts, sharing, “liking”, and comments coming. Happy posting!

Katapult MarketingWhat will your non-profit do with the public’s social media addiction?
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Lessons from the Kony 2012 Campaign


By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock – a rock without internet access – you’ve heard of the Kony 2012 Campaign. Hopefully you’ve seen the video. If not stop reading this and go here http://www.kony2012.com/. We’ll wait.

Everyone back? Good. Now if you’ve been following the story you’ll know that there is a lot to learn for nonprofit fundraisers, marketers and public relations professionals. Lessons on both sides of the equation. Some things worth emulating and some mistakes to avoid.

Let’s start with the positive side. First off we must acknowledge that this campaign has already accomplished its goal. The goal of the viral video, as one component of a broader campaign effort, was to make Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony famous. The premise put forth in the video was that if Kony became a household name this would increase pressure on policy makers to ensure his capture.

Time will tell if Kony is eventually captured as a result but there is no question that the campaign has already accomplished the goal of making him famous. The video has received more than 100 million views and it has been reported that more than $8 million has been raised by the non-profit organization behind the campaign. This response is unprecedented and has established a new gold standard for viral fundraising campaigns. The campaign, video and resulting media coverage has brought a lot of welcome attention to the issue of child soldiers and I think we can all agree that’s a very good thing.

So what can other nonprofits learn from the success of the Kony 2012 campaign? I have a few thoughts:

  1. Viral video campaigns can be very successful at generating attention and support. While your effort might not generate this kind of “lightning in a bottle” success most nonprofits would be thrilled with 1/10th of a percent of the views this video created. Wouldn’t you be happy if a modest 100,000 new people heard about your organization’s good work?
  2. Some causes are harder to explain than others. Either because they are too complicated or too obscure. With all forms of fundraising, but especially when trying to recruit new people to the cause, you must humanize the problem. This video does a great job of first humanizing the cause by featuring the story of a young Ugandan Jacob Acaye whose brother was killed by LRA members.
  3. We also can learn a lot from the effective way this campaign simplified the cause. The issue of child soldiers is complicated. Like most causes it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a cut and dried solution. But this video uses the device of explaining the situation to a young child to make it simple and sets up the easily understood premise that if we can make the bad guy famous it will lead to his capture and solve the problem.

Of course most problems aren’t really that simple and that’s a good segue to discuss lessons we can learn about what not to do. The initial, and perhaps even inevitable, criticism this campaign generated was focused on the charge that the video over-simplified a complicated issue. Fair enough but I doubt a complicated accurate explanation would have generated the interest that this video did. And I also think this initial criticism came with just a tad of sour grapes. Surely to be this successful they must have cheated somehow?

But as this story continues to unfold bigger and more legitimate concerns have come to light. In American culture we’re used to the cycle of building something up before tearing it down. Our pop-cultural landscape is littered with bones of celebrities, politicians, companies, causes, etc. that were first greatly celebrated and then roundly criticized. And this Koby 2012 campaign and the organization behind it have probably broken the record set by the Herman Cain presidential campaign for roller-coaster plummets.

The main take-home lesson? Be ready when your moment comes. Especially if you are carefully orchestrating your moment. In all fairness it is extremely difficult for any little-known organization to be ready for the kind of media attention this campaign generated. But still, in hindsight, we can see that some obvious mistakes were made. The organizations servers crashed under the weight of response. There appeared to be no ready response to some predictable criticism regarding the organization’s finances. An email sent to the organization today received a witty but disappointing response that “it may take up to 3 weeks to receive an answer.”

And of course we all know by now about the…uh… unfortunate incident” leading to the hospitalization of the video’s star Jason Russell. We don’t know yet the full story behind Russell’s breakdown. If you were made world famous overnight – and then forced to deal with very public blistering criticism – how well would you handle it? I don’t think most of us would handle it well but let’s just say keeping your pants on in public would be a good start.

It’s been a fascinating story and I’m sure fundraising and nonprofit professionals will be studying this case for years to come. But let’s give them well-deserved credit for shining a very bright light on a very serious issue and if Kony is indeed brought to justice we’ll have the Hollywood ending a story with this much drama deserves. Even if he is not captured the issue of child soldiers is on the minds of a lot more people than it used to be and for that alone we all owe a hearty congratulations to the people behind this campaign.

Katapult MarketingLessons from the Kony 2012 Campaign
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The Write Stuff


For most major non profits, direct mail will continue to be the biggest revenue generator this year. The fact is, it’s still the most effective way of reaching new donors and cultivating them.

I realize that for many charities reading this blog, you may not have the budget to hire a consultant or agency that’s expert in crafting a direct mail appeal. So I want to share several nonprofit copywriting tips with you to make your next direct mail appeal the best it can be:

1. There’s nothing like a good story well told: Donors enjoy a good, personal story and if you have a short relevant one that pulls your donor (or prospect) right into your benefits, then by all means use it!  If it’s an especially compelling story, you might even consider leading with it on the outside envelope.

Think what your reader might be asking and answer it right upfront: “Have I heard of this organization before?”“Do they really need my help?”…”Can I trust them with my contribution?”  These are just a few questions your potential donor is most likely pondering as she first glances at your letter copy. Anticipating the concerns of your readers and addressing them in your direct mail letter helps you gain their trust and support.

3. Tell your donor exactly what you want her to do. Be clear and direct about the action you’re seeking.  It’s not enough to simply say, “You can help.” Instead, ask the donor directly for her support today, “Please, will you send a gift now of $35 to help feed a child for five days?”

Hope these tips help when working on your next direct mail campaign.

Katapult MarketingThe Write Stuff
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Lessons from a Fiasco

If you are like me, you watched the recent drama between the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and Planned Parenthood with a mix of horror and morbid curiosity.  Think what you may about either organization, it’s unfortunate to watch such large, successful organizations tarnished. 

This was a great learning opportunity, though, on the dangers of letting your organization get off mission. Without getting mired in the details, I thought it important to highlight some lessons I was reminded of from the kerfuffle and how to avoid them before they happen:

1) Avoid Cognitive Dissonance:

Your donors have an image of who they think your organization is and that’s why they give you their financial support.  Organizations should be doing everything in their power to not upset that opinion.  Stick to your mission statement.

There’s an old saying; “There are two things you don’t talk about in mixed company; religion and politics…”  For religious and political organizations, this is obviously a non-issue.  Otherwise though, it’s likely that your donorbase comes from a diverse background and you should do your damnedest not to stir your supporters. 

2) If You Disregard #1, Have a Good Reason:

And explain it!  Not every move a nonprofit makes is going to make everyone happy at every turn, but it is pretty easy to know in advance when you are making a potentially risky move.  Your donors are naturally pre-wired to agree with you; if your decision making is sound, you should be able to explain your moves in a way that donors will be able to understand.  Be consistent and ACCURATE when explaining it!

3) Know Your Donor:

The reasons that people give to your organization are probably wide-ranging, but there are likely some trends regarding who and why people give you their support.  Immerse yourself into their world, so that you are better aware of what potential pitfalls you might face with changing or new initiatives.

4) Help Your Donors Know You:

Your financial house should be in clean enough order that donors should have no doubt where their donations are going.  The more explaining you need, the less compelling your offer seems.  This can be taken to various extremes, but it’s always good practice to let donors know where and how their dollars are helping.

5) Know Yourself:

This is one of those leadership issues vital for the long term success of any organization.  There are often short term incentives to move a small, monetarily insignificant project to your forefront.  However, it’s very important that these short term pushes don’t trump the long-term goals of the organization. 

I’ll give an example:

An emergency need on the periphery of your organization’s work is gaining media attention, so you shift communications to highlight your work on that issue.  The short term dollars gained are a boon for the organization, but you are also attracting and renewing donors that don’t necessarily support your primary mission.  It’s important that efforts be made to shift back on topic.  Otherwise, you risk cultivating a database of donors that aren’t compelled by the body of your work.

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Go multi-channel, but don’t forget to do this…


It’s “multi-channel madness” out there these days, with every
non-profit across the country thinking about how to connect with their

Just count the many ways…

Get them to like you on Facebook. Tweet ‘em on Twitter. Direct mail
‘em, email ‘em, call ‘em. Meet ‘em not where you want them to be, but
where your analytics people tell you they are – online, offline, on the
phone, on the moon… wherever they may be! 

All good advice, BUT…

you start blasting out your message by every communication channel
known to humankind, do this: Slow down, take a deep breath and find a
story worth telling.

You’ll know it when you come across it, because it’ll speak to
your heart and remind you why you got into this crazy non-profit
business in the first place…

 It won’t likely be your PR person’s dream tale, a story that portrays
your non-profit in all its glowing perfection (and leaves donors saying
“that’s wonderful, but who needs me?”)

It’s more likely a gritty story that grabs your donor by the hand and
walks her right up to the scene of a need – and leaves her thinking:
“This cannot be, I’ve got to do something!”

… a story like this one we developed for an international relief organization:


Every week, I’m receiving reports from our ministry partners in the field
who, with minimal resources, are struggling to provide starving children
with their daily bread.

        One of our team members, recently returned from Haiti with this heart-wrenching Mission Report:

        “The food program in Gonaives can only be stretched enough to feed 50 children a day. During one of those days, after most of the children had eaten, there was enough food for a few more. So I opened the door and I was surprised and pained by
what I saw: a long line of children quietly waiting. As much as we
tried to stretch the food there was only enough for a few more that day,
and then I had to shut the door…”

        With tears in his eyes and his voice cracking, Andrew said that closing that door in the face of a starving child was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do in his life…


you see, your story isn’t “our organization is the greatest ever, won’t
you lend a hand?” Rather it’s an opportunity to let your donors see,
taste, hear – to feel in their marrow – a critical need that demands to
be addressed.

course, you’re implicitly telling your donor that your organization is
ready and willing to meet that need, but that’s not your story. Your
story is the door closing on starving children and your donor seeing
herself there and thinking, “I’m going to help hold that door open so more little ones can pass through and eat.”

ask yourself:  Beyond mission statements and vision statements, when
you roll up your sleeves and really get down to work, what is your organization’s story and how will you tell it?

Katapult MarketingGo multi-channel, but don’t forget to do this…
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