How and why ugly works in fundraising

This is probably the toughest fact about fundraising: ugly works.

Corny, out-of-date, plain, unattractive fundraising wins nearly every time against sleek, modern, cool, high design.

Why? Honestly, I don’t know. But I have some theories:

  • Everywhere you look, you see slick, professional design. Design, most of it marketing messages, is in front of us virtually everywhere. No matter how good it is, it’s about as remarkable as gray concrete. Homely fundraising messages can really stand out in this context.
  • Just because it’s pretty doesn’t mean it’s readable. Sadly, many in the design profession have abandoned readability for their own idea of beauty. That’s why so much print and display design is a playground of Stupid Design Tricks, like illegible fonts, reverse type, confusing layouts, and worse. Those things can look nice if you don’t care about the actual message. Fundraising doesn’t work if the message doesn’t get through.
  • Authentic is more compelling than slick. In fact, slick design tends to carry the subtext, “This message inauthentic. It has nothing to do with you.” People give to charity for intensely personal reasons. The farther away you get from real-life authenticity, the more difficult you make it for people to connect to your cause.

So have we just relegated fundraising designers to creating bland, under-designed pabulum? Not at all. The best fundraising design is:

  • Emotional
  • Readable
  • Authentic

That’s a tall order. Only the very best designers can do all that, and they’re the ones who work calmly and fearlessly, like Clint Eastwood walking in on an armed robbery.

Sadly, more designers follow their finely-honed aesthetic sense, which leads to ineffective beauty. And that’s bad fundraising.

(This post first appeared on March 23, 2011.)


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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