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The year-end fundraising message that inspires people to give

If you remember only one point from this post, make it this one: Your fundraising message is not about you. It’s not even about the people you’re helping.

It’s about the person receiving your message.

We all talk to ourselves. All day every day. What we’re saying to ourselves is more than: “Don’t forget to pick up milk on the way home” or “Is it weird that I’m talking to myself?”

All day, every day, you’re telling yourself a story about...yourself! Donald Miller says that each person sees herself as the star in an epic movie playing in her own mind. Each one of us plays the hero in our own story.

Seth Godin says that when you make a decision about how to use your money or time, you are really looking for an answer to this question: “Is this what people like me do with their money or time?”

When we make decisions--right down to what fast food to pick up on the way home from work--we subconsciously tell ourselves: “This is what the hero of my story eats for supper.”

So each time a person chooses to use her money, she is really buying a little piece of what she wants to believe about herself. She asks subconscious questions: “Does someone like me drink coffee from McDonald’s, Starbucks, or an independent coffee house?”

Advertisers know this. They design brands and messages to answer these kinds of questions. For example, if you’re a person who drives a Jeep, shops at Whole Foods, and wears Patagonia, what other brands and messages are most likely to appeal to you?

Apply this to the people who support your small nonprofit. When someone gives you money or time, he is really buying into your story and your symbols. That’s because he decides that your story enhances his story. Your symbols enhance his self-image. When he donates or volunteers, he’s telling himself and the world: “See? I’m the kind of guy who hangs out with [your small nonprofit].”

So let’s talk about your small nonprofit and your year-end fundraising message.

I hope I’m making it clear that your fundraising message really has very little to do with you. It has everything to do with the story your donor is telling herself about herself. Remember: In that story, she is the hero.

Keep in mind that each one of your donors is encountering hundreds of thousands of messages every day. Most of those are marketing messages. That's your competition: First, for your donor’s attention, and then for your donor’s energy, money, and time.

Over a lifetime of this constant bombardment, your donor’s brain becomes a fine-tuned, highly-trained machine that filters out most messages and pays attention to just a few.

Which messages make it through your donor’s filter?

The ones that help your donor be the hero she wants to be in her own story.

So the magic in your fundraising message has everything to do with what your donor wants to believe about herself. Your message will cut through the clutter and pass through your donor’s filters if it is effective at making the donor the hero in her own story.

I know this may seem deep for a post on writing a fundraising appeal. Here’s another way to put it: Your fundraising message is not about asking for money. You’re not asking the donor to make a gift; you’re actually offering a gift to your donor. You’re offering your donor the opportunity to act like the hero she wants to be in her own story. You’re saying to your donor: “Here’s a story that needs a hero. We believe you are just the hero this story needs.”

Please note: This is not ego-stroking. People don’t like to think of themselves as egotistical or selfish. Anything that whiffs of flattery is a turn-off. After all, real heroes are always humble, right? Real heroes “just do what any decent person would do in the situation.” So your message needs to affirm the donor’s heroism without kissing up.

Let’s get practical now. How are you going to craft your year-end fundraising message?

Here are the steps:

  1. Group your supporters by lifestyle

  2. Examine lifestyle to reveal aspirations

  3. Offer to fulfill your supporters’ aspirations

  4. Surround your offer with a story that makes your supporter the hero

  5. Make it extremely easy and highly satisfying for your supporter to take action

  6. Craft your message for the media you choose (next blog post/lesson)

Step One: Group your supporters by lifestyle

In an earlier lesson/post, I encouraged you to put your supporters in three groups: Partners, friends, and acquaintances. Beyond these groups, you have strangers who might support you if they know about you. You also have strangers who will never support you for whatever reason.

Organizing your supporters into these groups helps you choose how you will invest your energy, money, and time. You can’t meet and relate to everyone so you have to choose. Grouping your supporters as partners, friends, and acquaintances is a kind of “heat index.” Partners are white hot for your small nonprofit whereas acquaintances are just lukewarm. Your “hottest” supporters--your partners--are most likely to respond bigger and faster than your “coolest” supporters.

So when you’re planning your fundraising, you can “place your biggest bets” on your hottest supporters. That means putting more energy, money, and time into partners and placing limits on what you invest in friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

This “heat index” approach to your supporters, however, is really only about how you spend your energy, money, and time. It has little to do with the actual fundraising message itself. That’s because “partner,” “friend,” and “acquaintance” are behavioral groupings rather than aspirational groupings. You know the difference between a partner and an acquaintance by the actions they take toward your small nonprofit. The more active and responsive, the more a supporter acts like a partner. The less active and responsive, the more a supporter acts like an acquaintance.

Grouping your supporters by aspirations is different. You’re looking at all of your supporters--and even strangers who seem to be “your kind of people”--and asking this: What lifestyles are these people living and what stories are they telling themselves about themselves?

Lifestyles are a good place to start sorting your supporters into groups. For example, you may find that your supporters fall into three main lifestyle groups: Middle-age businessmen, affluent stay-at-home moms, and college kids.

When you identify the lifestyle groups among your supporters, ask as many questions as you can about each group. The best way to do this is to imagine yourself living life as someone in each lifestyle group. Imagine that you are an actor preparing to play a business leader, an affluent stay-at-home mom, or a college student in a movie or play. How will you prepare for the role? How will you “get inside” that person so that you know what it feels like to live her or his life?

You’re trying to get down to the common lifestyles among your supporters. When you understand what it is like to live the lives your supporters are living, you can choose the best methods for reaching them.

Most important, imagining yourself living the lifestyles of your supporters helps you discover the stories they are telling themselves about themselves. This is the key to a powerful fundraising message.

Step Two: Examine lifestyle to reveal aspirations

Now that you can imagine yourself in the lifestyle of each supporter group, you can ask the most important question of all: What does it look like to be a hero in the story this supporter is telling herself about herself?

So from our example: What story is a middle-age businessman telling himself about himself? If he is the hero in that story, what does heroism look like? What story is an affluent stay-at-home mom telling herself about herself? If she is the hero in that story, what does heroism look like? What about the college student? What story is he telling himself and what does heroism look like in his story?

Lifestyle gives you some clues. For example, look closely at the brands your supporters choose to buy. Look at the groups in which they choose to be members. Look at what they reveal about themselves in public (Google searches and social media are useful here). These clues will tell you what your supporters want to be true about themselves. These clues reveal what heroism looks like to your supporters.

The key phrase is “what heroism looks like.” If you can paint that picture for each of your supporters, you have the most powerful element of your fundraising message.

Step Three: Offer to fulfill your supporters’ aspirations

A middle-age businessman may want to be the guy who comes through and saves the day. An affluent stay-at-home mom may want to take care of everyone and everything (and look good while she’s doing it). A college student may want to feel like he’s an evolutionary marvel who is destined to change the world. Or he just wants to impress girls.

When you know what heroism looks like in the mind of your supporter, all you have to do is make it easy for him to fill that role of hero in his own mind.


  • Middle-age businessman: “Everyone knows you’re a leader. Everyone admires you, not only for being smart and strong, but for being generous and kind. You’re the kind of man we need for these times. You’re the kind of man we need to lead us.”

  • Affluent stay-at-home mom: “Everyone knows how hard you work and how much you care. It is a marvel how you manage to take care of so many people. We know how much you want to make sure people in your community have the same care and support you give your own family.”

  • College student: “We are so impressed by you. You are one of a kind. We are sure that you are going to change the world. You’re already changing the world through the remarkable things you’re doing.”

Step Four: Surround your offer with a story that makes your supporter the hero

The story is where most fundraising messages go wrong.

The temptation is to talk about yourself or your small nonprofit. It seems to make sense that you would tell a story about what you are doing to make a difference.

Your supporter is neither interested in, nor looking for, stories about other heroes (you). Rather, your supporter is looking for a story that needs a hero: Your supporter.

Here are two of the easiest ways to tell a story that invites your supporter to be the hero. The first method is to tell a story about your supporter’s past heroism and invite her to be heroic again. The second method is to use the magic phrase “people just like you.”

Tell a story about your supporter’s past heroism and invite her to be heroic again


  • Middle-age businessman: “Bob, you were instrumental in making sure that every child at Osborn Elementary School had her or his own home library by last summer. Can you imagine what a difference that is making to those kids and their parents? Wouldn’t you like to do that again?”

  • Affluent stay-at-home mom: “Susan, you made it possible for 1,000 children to have breakfast and lunch last school year. Can you imagine what life would have been like for those kids if you hadn’t contributed to our program? Can you imagine what a relief it was to their mothers to know that their kids had healthy food to eat each day? Wouldn’t you like to do that again?”

  • College student: “Tyler, we are simply amazed at the creativity and energy you brought to our summer youth program. The kids loved having you around as a volunteer. The staff marveled at your contributions. We can tell you’re going to change the world if you keep doing what you have been doing. In fact, here’s a chance to do just that right now.”

Use the magic phrase “people just like you”


  • Middle-age businessman: “Over 100 of our community’s best business leaders and corporate citizens are already on board with this project. You deserve to be one of them.”

  • Affluent stay-at-home mother: “Anna Smith, Charlene Jones, Emma Brown, and Gina Cook are chairing our committee this year. They asked if you would join them and 100 other leading women as they work to make sure no child in Springfield goes without a meal.”

  • College student: “Tyler, over 100 of your fellow students are joining this campaign. That includes social work majors Jennifer Black [photo] and Lisa Doe [photo], our student leaders for 2017-2018. As someone we regard as a leader among his peers, we know you’ll want to be part of this team of amazing university students.”

Step Five: Make it extremely easy and highly satisfying for your supporter to take action

What could be easier than making a gift online or writing a check?

You’re not only offering heroism, you’re offering convenience.

Make sure your donors can give with the fewest possible number of steps. The feeling you inspire in your supporter only lasts a few moments, so make sure she can act on the spot.

I’ll share more on this in the next lesson/post on media.

For now, I want to focus on the “satisfying” part of taking action.

Make it the bare minimum requirement that you send an immediate thank-you that reinforces the story your donor is telling herself.

If your donor makes the gift online, make sure you set up an automatic email to go out as soon as the gift is made. If your donor writes a check, make sure a thank-you letter or note is in the mail within 24 hours.

The message in your thank-you note continues the story of heroism your donor is telling herself.


  • Middle-age businessman: “Bob, thank-you for your gift of $1,000. Even more so, you have the appreciation of your colleagues in the business community who are joining you in this cause. Most of all, you have the admiration and thanks of hundreds of school children and their parents. Thank-you.”

  • Affluent stay-at-home mother: “Susan, thank-you for your gift of $250. My thanks, however, is small compared to the gratitude of 1,000 children and their mothers. What a difference you’ve made in their lives already...just showing them how much you care. This community is so fortunate to have people like you making the difference you make.”

  • College student: “Tyler, thank-you for showing us once again that you’re the kind of person the world can depend on. Your $20 gift is going to make a world of difference to 500 kids and their families this school year. Their future is brighter and we believe the world’s future is brighter because of people like you.”

Step Six: Craft your message for your media

This is the next lesson/post.


The magic in your message lies in your ability to make the story about your donor. This means you need to put some thought into what really motivates people to give. Hint: It's the story they want to tell themselves about themselves. Give them an opportunity to be the hero they want to be in their own stories and they will give you their attention and their money.

Onward and upward!

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