Communication To Get More Donors!
Hey everyone, I'm Sarah Lange and I'm here to spark the philanthropy revolution. The word 'philanthropy' means ‘love of mankind’. My show is all about the ways we can open our doors and hearts so we can do more good.
Sarah: Hey everybody, welcome back. I have to apologize, my throat is still a little froggy, I'm sucking on a cough drop, so we're all just going to have to deal with it, but I am so, so, so excited today because I have with me the fabulous Tom Ahern, who is like the king of donor communications and is going to join us today to talk about communications and best practices and how communication done the right way can help us raise more money. So welcome, Tom, and thank you for joining me.
Tom: Oh, thank you, Sarah. Yeah, well, I mean, to build off your intro, communications done the wrong way will not help you raise more money, so it isn't that there is all that much to learn, but there are a few things.
Sarah: Well, so one of the things I'm curious about is if you could talk about kind of the role of donor communications in the overall fundraising scene, because I don't know if you've noticed this, but one of the things I noticed is that this is an area in which nonprofits can really struggle in terms of, you know, they're always being pressured to raise the next dollar, raise the next dollar, and I think it's easy to forget that we have to communicate with people already in the fold. So, where do you see communications fitting in the overall fundraising plan?
Tom: Yeah, well, that is part of the problem, and the part of the problem is simply we have this budget gap to fill every year, and therefore it's all about money. And yes, I mean, ultimately it's kind of about money, but initially it's about developing what you might call your base. That's what politicians would call it, and that's your family of true believers who are going to say, “Yes, I will help move this mission, this vision, this purpose forward.” There aren't that many of them in your community, and, you know, so some of the, well, good news, bad news. The good news is you need to find them. The bad news is it's not every mailbox. Sometimes charities, I think, come in thinking, or boards maybe, come in thinking, “Okay, what if 100% of people in our community gave to this cause?” And that's never going to happen. It's going to be 5% maybe at best, and so how do we find these 5%? And that's job number one. Then job number two is how do we keep that 5%, right?
Sarah: So how do we find them?
Tom: Well, it takes work. I mean, one of the things, I'm looking at my own community, so it's an isolated rural community in Rhode Island, and every mailbox gets certain, well, promotions, requests, appeals, and those are about ‘will you help us this year?’ So, you know, I look at all of them, and the question then becomes, “Do I care personally for my own reasons?” and that's called identity-based fundraising, “What is it that makes me want to respond to these people?” And so a library gets in touch, for instance, and I grew up in a library. I was raised in a library because I was a latchkey kid, and, you know, both my parents were working hard, and so after school, I'd go to the library, and I'd just hang out there for hours reading the Encyclopedia Britannica A to Z…
Tom: …whatever else I could get my hands on, and then I'd go home, and then they'd be there. So my feelings about libraries are very strong, very basic, very internalized, and when my local library then asks for a gift, I'm like, “Yeah, of course.” However, this isn't the library I use a lot. Mostly, we just dump the books that we've already read into their slot. However, in one instance, we had a windfall year, Sarah, and I was able to give them without paying $1,000, which is a big gift for a local library, and I never heard back from them.
Sarah: Oh, geez.
Tom: I may have, you know, could it have gotten lost in the mail? Yeah, all sorts of things could have happened, but I never received a thank you, and then what happened the next year is they'd ask again, and they got 25 bucks. So, you know, it's like you have to deal with the donor communications aspects, because that's where your retention hides.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah. And I see this all the time, and it's, you know, your example is a fantastic example. I've had those own experiences, and what I want nonprofits to understand is, like, you can lose up to 30% of your donor base every year because of these types of things. You know, there's nothing that's more of a turnoff to me than getting a generic, you know, printed thank you letter, like, 90 days after I gave. And what drives me even crazier is if they include another envelope, because to me, that's not gratitude, right? If this is a letter expressing your gratitude, now asking me for more money, A: you didn't give me any information about where my gift went, and then the other thing is, like, you're basically telling me my last gift wasn't enough, and I need to give more. Well, that doesn't make me feel very good as a donor either, right? So what are some of the things you do to help donors feel good about their giving?
Tom: Well, first of all, we know, we do know, and this is research, that the most important donor communication is the ‘thank you’ So does it come in fast enough? There's good evidence that if you, for instance, call a donor within 48 hours, a first-time donor within 48 hours of their gift, then they're, whether you have to leave a message or not, they may not pick up, but that will make a big impression on them. And they are four times as likely, four times as likely to make a second gift. And what you're really, you know, first gifts are great, but second gifts are where the magic happens. And until somebody makes a second gift, they're really, you know, if you want to look at this as a fishing metaphor, they're really not hooked. And you can let them off the hook by doing a poor job at thanking, or you can reel them in and then stroke them. And then, of course, catch and release, and make them feel like, “Wow, thank you for being so special.” And in part, you know, that's part, that goes back to that 100% fallacy, they are special and you should reinforce that idea.
Sarah: Great. One of the things that I sometimes hear when I'm talking about making the donor kind of this, you know, not just the center of your organization, but understanding that it's you, your clients, and your donors, right? It's like, it's everybody's linking arms. And sometimes the response I get is, “Yeah, but we're the ones doing all the work.” When I say, “Talk to your donor, make them the hero.” So they're like, “Well, we're the ones doing the work.” How do you respond to that?
Tom: Two different ways. If they're volunteers, I hug them. And if they're staff who are making an income, I say, “Well, yeah, you're getting paid.” So, you know, yes, you're doing the work. Could you do the work if you had no donors? And if the answer is ‘no, we couldn't’ then you are a donor dependent charity. And a lot of times you'll go to a website because websites are kind of like make everybody equal. I can create a website for my tiny village nonprofit that looks as good as some brand name, you know, it's all the same. And what I'm saying is that when you go to that website, if it looks like a brand name, then you don't really have the sense that the charity needs my help. And this is a, this is a key thing. One of the, um, when I'm getting involved with a new client, the first thing I look at, is what is called a 990 in the U S and that's where they report to the internal revenue service, how they make their money. And I'm looking for, um, particularly do you depend on charity or is it a minor thing? for your mission? your cause? your annual expenses? And, um, if it is a major thing, then I go back to their homepage and I look at, well, is it a major thing on your homepage, or are you just talking about how wonderful all your programs are? And if it isn't a major thing and they are dependent on charity, then my initial advice is, “Okay, we have to bump this up. We have to bump up the fact that you depend heavily on charity because that's where your money is actually coming from and right now it looks like you don't need money.”
Sarah: That's such a good point. Um, yeah, I, I think at the other end of the continuum, we can find, uh, nonprofits with websites. I was looking at a website of a local nonprofit the other day and they hadn't updated anything since 2019. And I was like, I know they're still in business, but if I didn't know that, and I looked at their website, like that was their last annual report. I was just like, “Oh my gosh.” Like I understand we had the pandemic, but come on, you know, like it was…
Tom: You're always sending messages, even if you don't think you are. And so many of them are subliminal. And for myself, every year I update my copyright statement and it goes from 1066 to whatever the latest year is 2023. It's like, “Yeah, I've been around a long time.”
Sarah: You're a 39 plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, right?
Tom: Yeah. No, I am definitely 39 plus, plus, plus.
Sarah: Yeah. So, what mistakes do you see nonprofits? So, you know, you were just talking about the website, and some of the mistakes that happen there, but where are some of the other mistakes you see really frequently in nonprofits, particularly when it comes to communications? =
Tom: Oh boy. I've written, as you know, Sarah, like five, six, seven books about basically nonprofit communications mistakes and what to do about them. I'm not sure how to rank them. Initially I would say, first of all, a lot of nonprofits don't ask early enough for one thing. And I was just working on a, what is it called? GoFundMe thing. And I have absolutely know nothing about GoFundMe, but one of my favorite nonprofits down in Dallas, Texas, they work with homeless. They got in touch and said, “Here's our new campaign on GoFundMe. What do you think?” Well, okay. So being a know nothing, I went online and found, of course, millions of essays about, “how do you do GoFundMe correctly?” And so then I went back to their stuff and saw that, okay, your headline is not strong enough, it's not whatever strong means so we need to fix that. And then the text that comes after that kind of wanders around a little bit and it doesn't get to your ‘ask’ until the very last paragraph. And for a professional copywriter, you know that people aren't going to read that deep. So you need to ask right up front and then again, and then again, and then again, and nonprofits tend to be kind of shy about this because we don't want to be just asking for money all the time. Well, yes, in some ways you do. And, uh, you know, it's, it's basically, this is a reader convenience. “What do you want me to do?”, “Oh, you want me to give money?”, “Oh, okay. Well, you seem like a reasonable cause, I'll give money.” Do that early, not at the end.
Sarah: Right. Well, I totally agree with you because, you know, like you so well pointed out, people don't read, do you know what I mean? Even if you can get them, say you send them an appeal letter in the mail or an email or whatever, like they need to know,”what do you want?”, “How do I do it?” And, you know, I think most people, I mean, at least the data in my experience is that most people want to support causes, right?
Tom: Yes, they do.
Sarah: And so they tend to be generous, but you can't make them read like an eight paragraph letter before you finally get around to telling them. It's like, why don't you just start out by saying, “We need your help.”
Sarah: Yeah. I was working with a person on their appeal last fall. And I mean, it goes back to what you were saying about being shy about asking and at no point in that letter did they actually come out and directly ask for money. And I just said, “So if I get this letter, how am I supposed to know what to do?” And they're like, “Oh, we're going to include a donations envelope.” I'm like, “That is way too subtle…
Tom: Way too subtle.
Sarah: …and you're making people do way too much work.” So we recrafted the letters. That was like right out of the gate, “We need your help, we get 18 calls a day from women who need shelter from domestic violence and we need to be able to meet the need.” And, you know, so I was like, you know, I followed up with them and I was like, “Oh, how'd your appeal go?” And they're like, “Oh, we got double what we did last year.”
Sarah: Yeah. It's great. But it just, you know, again, it goes to these communication issues, you know, like, so being shy about asking. What are some of the other things you see pretty commonly?
Tom: Shy about asking, as I mentioned before, “I don't know that you actually need my help.” You know, “You're kind of, you look like you're prospering” and, you know, “Why would I make a gift?” And, you know, these are some of the early things Sarah that you kind of tweak and you get them out of the way and things start to improve. Now, the next thing you want to work on is the quality of your offer. So what is it you're asking me to do? And is it simple to understand? Is a simple problem to understand? Is a simple solution to understand? Is it an affordable thing? In other words, an average household could give you, and in the U.S. the average household gives $20 per appeal below $1,000. And then the fourth thing is urgency. So you have those four things. Easy to understand, easy solution to understand, easy problem to understand, affordable, and urgency.
Sarah: Yeah. I think the other thing that I think is really important is to make it bite-sized, because I think a lot of times, you know, we're making, we're dealing with issues that are huge like, homelessness in Dallas, right? I mean, Dallas is a big place, you know, that just feels like a very big, overwhelming problem. And I think that's where, you know, like using the data and also telling stories can really help people understand, “Oh, I can help somebody like Mary or Joe get off the streets.” You know what I mean? Because so many nonprofits are dealing with these ginormous issues, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, and it could just feel like, “Uuuh, how do we solve that?” So I think it goes back to the kind of the quality of the offer that you, and is it reasonable, you know?
Tom: Well, and Sarah, I think the details, for instance, the group in Dallas, what do they actually do? Well, they, you know, they go into the encampments of the homeless who are living under bridges and so forth and they give them sanitary stuff, fresh socks, all sorts of things that just make the day go a little bit better. And because they're faith-based, they wash their feet.
Sarah: Oh, wow.
Tom: And that's such an amazing detail. When you, you know, you're kind of going check, check, check, and then you get to, and they wash their feet and you go, “Oh my Lord, that's biblical.”
Sarah: Yeah, literally and figuratively. I mean, that is such an act of care and kindness and love, like, and especially for homeless people, their feet are a big issue, you know, because like, you know, they, they may-
Tom: My feet are a big issue, and I’m not homeless.
Sarah: Yeah, but like, that's such a loving kindness to extend to people.
Tom: Well, it's what Jesus did, and they are, as I said, faith-based.
Tom: I mean, on their website, you look at their board chart and their CEO is Jesus.
Sarah: That's awesome. Is the chairman of their board God?
Tom: I suppose. I, you know, I'm not, I'm an agnostic myself, but I love them because of what they do. And so, you know, I look at it, I go, “Well, you, you know, you're, when you're speaking to the right people, you're speaking to the right people.” and they are.
Sarah: Yeah. Great. So, when it comes to, I have a question for you about newsletters. What is your take on newsletters?
Tom: Well, newsletters fill a, you've got a cycle with donor communications. You ask for my help, you thank me for that help, and then you tell me what all this philanthropy led to, you know, all the good stuff. And so, newsletters, I mean, to treat them as just a, I don't know, something very formal. No, what it is is your reporting mechanism. And so, whether you're going to make money with a newsletter or not is not your, is not your primary goal. The primary goal is to let your base know that they are doing fabulous work, thanks to their giving. And you can do that with an e-newsletter, they won't produce much revenue, generally speaking. Or you can do it with a print newsletter, and if you do it well, that can produce a tremendous amount of revenue, it's not for the untrained, and it works better with bigger lists. So, print newsletters, while they can produce an astonishing amount of money, and I have the evidence for that, they're not for everybody. An e-news is probably enough.
Sarah: Yeah. So, what do you think makes a great newsletter? Because some of the things that I get, I would call them, I would categorize them as snooze letters.
Tom: Snooze letters.
Sarah: So, what makes a good, a good newsletter?
Tom: Not bad, not bad. No, that's good. I think I will steal that with credit, Sarah.
Sarah: Yeah, please go ahead.
Tom: Okay. Well, if it's an e-newsletter, let's look at it step by step. The first thing is the subject line. So, we're trying to get the damn thing opened, and the subject line is doing all that work. So, if you're sending me a newsletter that says, “Your March 2023 newsletter”, then that's like, okay, but we had a February 2023 newsletter, we'll have an April 2023 newsletter. It's just not that enticing. Now, my personal newsletter, which I send out as a how-to newsletter, I get an opening rate of over 60% consistently.
Sarah: That's amazing.
Tom: Which is truly amazing. And most nonprofits who are sending out just a kind of bland newsletter, well, a bland subject line, month after month, week after week, whatever, they're getting a 12% opening rate, 15% opening rate, those are subpar. And so, you can evaluate whether you're doing this properly or not based on your opening rate. If you're not getting 15% above opening rate, then you're probably, you want to take some chances with your subject line, make it a little more, I don't know, “Broadway”, “Las Vegas”...
Tom: …surprise the heck out of me.
Sarah: What are some of the favorite subject lines you've seen that you've been like, “Oh, I have to open this.”
Tom: Okay. All right. Well, thank you for asking, because I keep an ongoing file called “Made Me Open”.
Sarah: Oh, wow, cool!
Tom: These are emails that I just couldn't resist looking at. And so, the last one, it just came in yesterday. Happy Dog, D-O-G-ust. So, it's August…
Sarah: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tom: …Happy Dog-ust. And it's the happy universal birthday for shelter dogs at the American... No, ARLB. It's the Boston Animal Rescue League. And so, I had to look at it. What does this mean? Another one, “Lunar New Year, a hoax, but 220 plus million Chinese tourists, a reality.” It's like, “Okay?” I'm totally, totally confused. I'm not a great math person in the first place. And I've got to see what the heck they're talking about. Or here's one from a zoo, “We think you're pretty ‘tweet’” And it's about parents. And it goes on. Kids, grants, chats, Leonard and Rose, a hair and a proposal. This is one subject line from the Arts Council Greater Lansing. Or “happy thank you, Mary” Which is crayons to computers out in Cincinnati, et cetera, et cetera. I just collect these things because I'm trying to teach people get out of your comfort zone. Show me something I hadn't seen in the last 24 hours. And the average person now, if you're a professional, for instance, is getting something like 150 to 200 emails a day. It's like, “Oh my God.” Mostly what we do is, how many of these can I just throw away? And it's a burden. It's not fun and so forth. So, when you can show me a subject line where I go, “Oh, I've got to look.” Then this is a good one.
Sarah: Yeah. So, thanks for sharing that. So, what is some of the content you feel like should be included in newsletters? I mean, aside from the catchy subject line, which makes people actually read your newsletter, what do you think is some engaging content that people can include in their newsletter?
Tom: Well, as it happens, Sarah, I have, just did our latest newsletter webinar and there are four basic categories for newsletter content. And I'm just kind of scrolling quickly to remind myself what they are. One of the things you can do is what's called social proof, that's a psychological term. And all it means is, what did other people like me do? And so, you use little articles about other donors, essentially. And why did they do it? And you interview them and so forth. Another thing is, well, then what happened? So, then you're talking about the people on the receiving end of whatever the service is you're providing, and you're reporting back on them. So much of a newsletter is based on its headlines. So, if you are good at headlines, your newsletter is going to penetrate much more deeply than if you're bland at headlines. And what makes a headline work is, well, first of all, in journalism, the purpose of a headline is to summarize the gist of the article that's underneath it. So, you try to capture that in as few words as possible in the headline. The next thing you have to do in a good headline, this is, again, journalism, is you have some kind of hook, which, you know, hook in air quotes, tell me something I didn't know. And the third thing, and this is for donor headlines exclusively, you have to applaud the donor. So, here it comes again. She's getting sick. Anyway. Sorry.
Sarah: Getting better, not sicker.
Tom: Yes, you are.
Sarah: That's the goal, right?
Tom: Oh, you're getting better. The third thing is applaud the donor. So, there's an acronym, B-O-Y, you'd read it as boy, and what that acronym stands for is ‘because of you’. Now, you can say it in any number of different ways, but you want the donor to be going, “Oh, this is thanks to what I did, I got past my inertia, I made a gift, and something good happened because of you.” Hello? No more to say, Sarah.
Sarah: Okay. All right. I thought you were going to give us an example, but that's fine.
Tom: Oh, well, I can definitely give you an example.
Sarah: Yeah, that would be fantastic because I think, yeah, because you're so good at this stuff. I think sharing examples of what you've done will be somewhat helpful.
Tom: Okay. I'm looking at a newsletter that was done during the pandemic for a US charity that works with refugees overseas. So, it's a big charity. They've been around for just after the Second World War. And the first thing we did was we renamed it. It had some kind of bland name. Now, it's called “Because You Care”. And then there's a subhead that says, “Your Newsletter Exclusively for Compassionate Americans Who Care About Refugees.” So, it's a very precise group of people. And the reason we decided to focus on them was that we had done some research. And the research showed that Republicans were not giving to this cause, Democrats were. And they were mostly giving, well, in some part giving, because they opposed the Trump administration's policies toward immigrants. And this was kind of their way to protest. They weren't going to give to refugees overseas. So, we renamed the thing. Then the big headline says, it's got a picture of a person who is a refugee who is now a doctor in Georgia. And “her undefeatable spirit, and your persistent compassion.” And then it has a subhead, “meet this incredible woman who is inspiring the next generation to never stop fighting for a better future.” For one thing, you have to be kind of unembarrassed about saying these things.
Tom: I mean, part of the problem is, we're always training the insiders. We don't do this, like we're going to have a contract for 10 years. We're thinking we'll have a contract for one year, we'll train an internal staff to replicate it. And in order to do that, I mean, one of the things they're going to be resistant to is, “I just feel so uncomfortable talking like this.” It's like, “you got to get past it.” Because this is about your target audience. This is not about your comfort level.
Sarah: Right. You have to get comfortable with being effusive with phrases. And I think just the words you were using, and I know when we were in Scotland, we did a lot of that work around donor identity. But it's like, those words are very particular, as those people identify themselves, “Oh, I'm a compassionate person. I care about refugees.” So I agree with you. We have to learn how to speak to our donors in ways that really build them up. You know.
Tom: Well, one thing I preach a lot, Sarah, is that, you know, on the writing end of things, we're moving at one mile an hour. We're just trying to get every word perfect and positive. The reading end of things is 100 miles an hour. And it's just coming in one eye and out the other. And so don't overthink this stuff.
Sarah: Yeah, done is better than perfect sometimes.
Tom: Much better.
Sarah: Yeah. So we only have a few minutes left and I'm wondering if you have any final words on donor communications of what nonprofits can do to do a better job communicating with their donors, or strengthen their communication with their donors?
Tom: Well, the most important thing you have is your house list. And so are you building your house list? And whatever that means to you, maybe you're doing it through social media, or trying to gathering email addresses, or trying to, maybe offering people petitions to sign, which is great. If you're in the advocacy world, one of the best things you can do is just put out a petition and say, “Will you sign it?” And then ask them for their email address. And so you're building your house list. The house list is the most important thing, most valuable thing you actually have because these are the people you're going to try your messages out on. And are they always going to respond? No. Will a handful respond? Yes. And those, that handful, you know, you kind of keep track of them. These are your true believers. And your true believers are going to be the people you stand on, ultimately. And that could be 10 people, could be 100, could be 100,000, could be a million, depends on what your cause is. But you have to assemble it. And so, you know, we talk about communications, like it's a foregone thing. The truth is, it isn't communication unless the other person, the person on the receiving end responds. Otherwise, it's just a broadcast.
Tom: And so that's why we do things like petitions and so forth. We want people to tell us, “Yeah, I was paying attention, I care about this.”
Sarah: Yeah, for sure. And I think one of the things that I tell people is, you don't have to broadcast on every single social media channel and do this and do that. Like pick one thing and start there, you know. So whether it's, you're going to establish an email campaign of, you know, giving people e-news letters once a month or quarterly, like just stick your flag in the ground somewhere and start.
Tom: Well, and the other thing I would say too, Sarah, is that, you know, I have some idea of who your target audience is, your target audience. Local is an advantage. If you can tell me, I'm going to tell you stuff about your locality, your neighborhood, your community. I'm going to pay more attention to that than somebody saying, “I'm going to talk about your region. I'm going to talk about the national, international and so forth.” So your, the smaller charities actually, because of the local factor, they have an advantage.
Sarah: Yeah. That's such a good point. I hadn't really thought about that as, you know, keep the focus local. And especially when you're talking about impact that, you know, donors are making, I think that's a good point.
Tom: All right.
Sarah: Well, I want to thank you so much for joining me today. I'm so grateful for your time and your insight.
Tom: Well, thank you as well.
Sarah: And I learned something today. So hopefully our viewers did too.
Tom: Get well soon.
Sarah: Thank you. All right.
Sarah: All right. Thanks so much, Tom. I'll talk to you soon.
Tom: Love you.
Sarah: Love you too. Bye.
Thanks for tuning in. I'll be back in two weeks with another episode. Got topics you want me to cover? Organizations you want me to showcase? Let me know. Also, I'm here to help you revolutionize philanthropy at your nonprofit. If you want to talk about what that looks like, drop me an email.