8 transformative things I’ve learned from 35 years in fundraising

I just realized that some time late last year, I hit the 35-year mark as a fundraiser. (Yep, I started when I was nine years old!)

As a belated celebration, here are some of the things I’ve learned over those three and a half decades:

  1. Fundraising is not about you. It’s about donors. If you make your fundraising about what donors can accomplish and how your cause connects to their values, you will do well. Bragging about how great your organization is not effective fundraising.
  2. Offers win. Stories are great, brilliant photos are important, timing makes a difference — but if you really want to raise funds, offer is king. Always spend time and energy on what you’re specifically asking the donor to do! Find ways to make it more specific, more concrete, more compelling. That’s where most of your success is waiting to be found.
  3. The outer envelope matters a lot. Everyone thinks the letter is the center of a direct mail piece. It isn’t. If you’re looking for big improvements, spend your time on the outer envelope. After all, it doesn’t matter how great your letter (or anything else) is, if it doesn’t get opened, it’s going nowhere!
  4. It’s harder to get attention than it is to get donations. That’s why the outer envelope is so critical. If you can get their attention, you are well on your way to getting a gift. (Bonus hint: Mystery is one of the best ways to get attention.)
  5. Pretty fundraising rarely works. I don’t quite want to come out in favor of “ugly” fundraising, because that’s not really the point. But plain, out-of-date, messy, or strange fundraising does well consistently. Trying to make your fundraising look “nice” is not a great goal!
  6. Branding experts really don’t get it. If some ad agency approaches you and says they can change everything with a re-brand, turn and flee! Virtually every time I’ve seen this happen, it has been followed by a swift and steep crash in fundraising results. Brand matters a lot for fundraising, but the commercial experts just don’t understand your donors and your world. No matter how cool and smart they seem!
  7. Most organizations could easily be raising twice as much as they do. Most organizations are not doing fundraising right, and a few easy changes could easily double (or more!) their results almost immediately. (See all these other learnings.)
  8. The biggest barrier to success in fundraising is poor leadership. Bosses, boards, and other authorities who don’t understand fundraising, don’t listen to experts, and value their own gut feelings over known truths about what does and doesn’t work are killing their own organizations. And it’s disturbingly widespread. If you can fix this, you’re pretty much home-free on all the other challenges!

(This post first appeared on January 24, 2019.)


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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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About the blogger

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.