Advancing Philanthropy

The Art of Communication: Communication Is the Ask

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When donors say, “communication is the ask,” they are making a profound statement about what inspires their decision to give again—and give more—and they are revealing when that decision is made. This is such important information for fundraisers because so much of their time and resources go into shaping appeals. Meanwhile, donors say that by the time they are asked to give again, they have already made their decision. Sadly, for fundraisers, that decision is usually “no.” Between the time donors are initially acquired and the next appeal, two out of three have decided not to give again. By the fifth campaign, more than 90% of donors have stopped giving.

That doesn’t mean asks are unimportant; in fact, most donors who intend to give again wait to be asked before transacting their next gift. It’s just that asks are not very effective at convincing donors to give again. But something else is.

I and my company, Cygnus Applied Research, Inc., have devoted more than two decades to investigating why donors stop giving or give less than they could and whether adjustments to fundraising could improve results. The answer is a resounding yes, and it’s yes with a bonus. Effective communication not only raises renewal rates, but it also generates higher average gift values and inspires some donors to leap from modest to generous giving much sooner. This makes fundraising more profitable, of course, which lessens the need for frequent, high-cost acquisitions. Acquisition rates now hover around 0.65% because more not-for-profits are raising funds while fewer Americans are giving, and those who donate support fewer causes.1

Just about anything can be labeled “communication,” but certain communications resonate strongly with donors and influence their behavior, while others demand more time and budget than they are worth. If fundraisers did only two things, they would improve retention and gift value across their donor groups regardless of who their donors are or how long they have been giving. Those two things are:

  • Acknowledging all donors promptly after they give with a gracious and genuinely grateful thank you letter;
  • Letting all donors know what their last gift helped accomplish through an evidence-based report, before asking for another gift.

I emphasize all donors because typical fundraising tends to operate on a reward/punishment model, reserving beautifully composed thank you letters and meaningful communications for donors who already give big. But all donors need to feel that you noticed and appreciated them, and they need to know that their giving has had some measurable benefit. So, withholding these things guarantees that most donors will disappear before your investment in them can be turned into profit. The evidence is indisputable. More than 70% of donors say that the first gift they make is not generous within their own means; they purposely hold back waiting to see how you will respond.

I understand when fundraisers point out that the minority of donors who stay loyal and give generously account for the majority of fundraising profit. “Surely they should be singled out for better treatment,” they counter. But donors say that’s not the point. Those who make significant gifts do it because they can, and they don’t look down on other donors who give less. At any moment, everyone has different capabilities and priorities, say major donors. Donors’ views concerning philanthropy are decidedly inclusive and democratic.

Thank You Letters—the Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

When I worked on the frontlines in fundraising, I thought issuing thank you letters was the last obligatory function before closing off a campaign. Now I know better. The thank you letter is actually the first step fundraisers take in securing the next gift, and, when it’s great, it really works. Four out of five donors say that a beautifully crafted acknowledgement letter, promptly received, is all that it takes to make them want to give again.

Figure 1: What Makes a Thank You Letter Exceptional?
Figure 1: What Makes a Thank You Letter Exceptional?

Over the years, fundraisers have become much better at turning around acknowledgements more quickly, but their content often leaves donors cold. For instance, about 80% of thank you letters start with “Thank you for your generous gift of...” missing an opportunity to surprise the recipient with an original opening line. Typical thank you letters also focus on the money when it’s the donor, what she has just done, and what she might do in the future that fundraisers should be grateful for. Thank you letters also tend to be too long on the assumption that they have to fill up an entire page (they don’t). As early as the second sentence, lesser acknowledgements shift gear into talking about the not-for-profit. Here’s an example of how fundraisers can reorient their prose to be donor-centered.

We at ABC Housing envision a world where everyone has a decent place to live.

You envisioned a world where everyone has a decent place to live; then you stepped up and helped us build it.

Figure 2: How Communications Content Influences Gift Renewal
Figure 2: How Communications Content Influences Gift Renewal

It’s not easy to compose great thank you letters. Start by crafting an opening line that doesn’t start with, “Thank you for...” and you’ll see what I mean. Great letter-writing is an art, and creating art requires original thinking and constant practice. But it’s so worth it. I hear stories like this from fundraisers all the time. Here’s one instance:

...Among the first group of donors to receive my new donor-centered thank you letter was someone who had just made a first-time gift of $100. A few days later, she called the office asking to speak with “whoever wrote that letter.”

“When we finally spoke, the donor told me, I have been giving in this community for over 30 years and I just wanted you to know that this is the best thank you letter I have ever received. Who are you?”, she continued, “and what’s going on these days at your Hospice?”

We fell into conversation for a few minutes. The next day an envelope arrived from the donor by courier. Inside was a check and on the check was a post-it note which read, “For your hopes and dreams.”
The check was for $25,000.

Communicating Progress—How to Set Up the Next Gift

After saying thank you, fundraisers have one more opportunity to set the stage for higher profit. Eighty-four percent of donors in our most recent survey agreed that knowing how their previous gift was used and, as a result, what has been accomplished to date, is all that it takes to make them want to give again. And that makes sense when you consider what donors say about the importance of philanthropy—not just for you, but for them. They say that their best giving experiences give them a sense of satisfaction which, in turn, makes them want to keep giving and give more generously over time. Fundraisers are indispensable in fostering that philanthropic feeling. Without you reaching out to say thank you and, later, returning to tell them what’s happened so far, donors only know they sent you money but they never get to feel proud of what they helped you accomplish. Most important, they cannot answer two very personal and ever-present questions, “Am I making a worthwhile contribution to society?” and “Am I a good person?”

It is certainly challenging to keep up with a communications industry that is evolving at lightning speed, let alone adapt strategies to the unique customer group that is philanthropic donors. But certain communications are more effective than others at keeping donors loyal, and that’s where fundraisers should concentrate their time and budget. Figure 2 illustrates how donors rank various communications for their ability to inspire repeat giving. Note how several commonplace and time-consuming activities at the bottom of the list occupy priority space in newsletters and annual reports yet do little to contribute to raising more money.
The most persuasive communications feature measurable results, but donors are also keen to read news (when it is still news), and they sit up and take notice when the “right” person reaches out to them. While board members and other volunteers are highly influential when saying thank you, CEOs and staff on the front lines of programs and services are the people donors want to hear from about progress because they are the experts.

Crafting a compelling message, then getting donors to pay attention to it, is challenging in a world where donors are drowning in everyone else’s communications. Here are three things fundraisers can do to improve open and read rates and ensure that your important information sticks in donors’ minds.

1. Be Brief

Everything you send to donors interrupts something they are already doing, so one way to get your message heard is to make it short. Longer e-communications risk being red-flagged by donors who intend to come back when they have time—which they rarely have. Similarly, printed newsletters and annual reports get buried under that “pile of good intentions.”

Our research and testing have produced better results with e-communications that are 15 words or fewer, accompanied by a link and featuring an irresistible alert in the subject line. Donors with no time to spare can quickly read your concise communique then get back to their work. But your essential information remains lodged in their brains, ready to be recalled when you ask them to give again. Other donors won’t be able to resist clicking the link that transports them to your website, presenting you with a whole new opportunity to ensure their loyalty.

Offer donors irresistible information, then make it as easy as possible for them to give by having all transaction options available.

Queen of the Valley Hospital Foundation (Napa Valley, California) found that out when they sent a five-word email to donors who had funded their campaign for a magnetic resonance imaging machine. “It’s arrived thanks to you” was followed by a link that took them to the hospital’s website and a photo of the MRI hanging from a crane. Delighted to see the results of their fully funded campaign, many rewarded the Foundation with additional unsolicited gifts.

Brevity plus creativity can be applied to print communications too. BSW Irving Foundation in Irving, Texas exchanged their 102-page report on community health for “Mr. Bones,” a single-page skeleton featuring the top advancements in health care that donors had helped make possible. It was an instant hit, enjoying wide readership and repeat giving.

2. Content Eclipses Calendar

Over a series of research studies, respondents opted for ever-shorter communications, so we asked them how often they wanted to hear from not-for-profits they supported. “Whenever you have something important to say,” was their wholly logical response. Of course, that’s always when you are reporting measurable results and often when you have other news to share. But if you bother donors with trivia or make them chew through articles on internal process, open and read rates will go down and you will pay the price in poorer renewal rates and stagnant average gift values.

When your information is important and crafted in a compelling way, you only need to say it once. In fact, telling donors the same thing twice or repeatedly gets you labeled as someone who has nothing new to say. Never do anything that makes donors question your importance.

3. Drive Donors to Your Website

Your website is a virtual library of information and, as such, a huge advantage to fundraising. The only thing that is the same about your donors is that they all give to your not-for-profit. In every other way they are different from each other, including how they learn and what interests them about your cause. Your website offers the most satisfying experience if your information is up to date (49% visit your site for the latest news) and robust.

About one in three donors goes to your website with the express purpose of transacting a gift, but everyone else is open to persuasion. In fact, your website is a donors’ number one assessment tool, and they are especially interested in finding the answers to these
two questions:

  • If I make a gift, exactly what will you do with it? Your answer is your not-for-profit’s assurance that contributions will not end up in the general fund but will go toward accomplishing something specific and important.
  • What is your track record over the last year or so with gifts from donors? This information is evidence that you do what you say you are going to do and that donations are critical to achieving measurable results.

Not surprising, donors who find what they are looking for on your website are more likely to follow through and make a gift (54%) than are those who don’t (21%). Still, not everyone gives online. In fact, one in three goes offline to give after doing their due diligence on your site. Offer donors irresistible information, then make it as easy as possible for them to give by having all transaction options available.

You’re So Much More Than a Solicitor

Over $160 billion is held in donor-advised funds, the fastest-growing reserve of philanthropic capital today. Fundholders in our survey say they don’t respond to appeals but communications that not-for-profits and institutions make available are important drivers of their giving decisions. In our thought-provoking research on bequests, donors with gifts assigned to one or more not-for-profits say the difference between them remaining beneficiaries or being dropped from the will is the quality of their communications. In this rapidly changing world of philanthropy where donors can act on their desire to give without ever responding to a fundraising appeal, fundraisers create that elusive added value through the timeliness and compelling nature of the communications they issue.


1 In keeping with our research findings since the late 1990’s, The 2021 Burk Donor Survey observed that middle-age donors support only half the number of causes to which senior donors contribute.

Additional Resources

Donor-Centered Fundraising, Penelope Burk’s best-selling book on what donors need in order to stay loyal longer and give more generously:

Donor-Centered Thank You Letters, a compendium of 130 great acknowledgements to inspire your creativity, fully annotated by Penelope Burk:

Penelope Burk’s Blog, editorials on fundraising and not-for-profit management:

Penelope BurkPenelope Burk, president of Cygnus Applied Research, Inc., is a fundraiser, researcher, author and one of the industry’s leading keynote speakers. She has been a proud member of AFP for over 25 years.

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08 Aug 2022 President's Perspective Blog
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