Worms. Grubs. Caterpillars.  Rat-tailed maggots.  All of these are used commonly as bait by anglers looking to land a fish.

How do they decide which one to use?  I assume they taste each one and see which one is the tastiest.

After all, that’s what often happens with our fundraising letters: we put in the things that seem tastiest to us.

Sometimes that’s the big check photo – we are so proud we got the foundation/company/major donor to make such a big donation that we happily put the grin-and-grip photo in our newsletter despite the clear message to donors “Your check is tiny.”

Sometimes that’s talking about program minutiae.  It’s great that your logic model has enough double-blind studies that it just got validated in a peer-reviewed metastudy.  But while catnip to your program staff, donors who read this hear the muted trombone of Charles Brown’s teacher: wah WAH wah waaaaaah wah wah…

Sometimes it’s forgetting that the cause exists because and only because there are good people who support it.  This manifests in the “we did this and we did that and now you can help us” copy that is all too common despite years of pleas to the contrary.

In fact, there are some that simplify the idea of donorcentricism down to this last point – that each communication has a “you”, second-person focus.

It’s both true and wholly insufficient.  Saying your focus on donors is calling them by “you” in copy is like saying your astronomy is My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.

Pluto #Planet4Ever

(Yes, I include Pluto in there! #Pluto4ever #itsroundandorbits #clearingyourorbitalpathisoverrated #PlutoTruth)

Saying you is necessary.  But it doesn’t mean you are happy to serve donors.  It doesn’t mean you will listen to them and respect their wishes.  And most of all it doesn’t mean you understand why they give.

It’s this last part that is essential to crafting your donor and prospective communications.  And by “understand why they give,” it isn’t just understanding why donors give to your organization generally; it’s understanding why each donor gives to your organization.

Picture an oversimplified disease charity with a dual mission – prevent the spread of the disease and help those who have the disease.

Usually, such an organization will have something like this somewhere on page two of their control annual fund appeal:

“And not only are you helping defeat this dread disease, you are also helping support those who have it in their time of need.”


“And not only are you helping people who suffer from this disease, you are also preventing people from getting this disease in the future.”

In reality, the majority – probably the vast majority – of their donors have a reason they give to the organization.  A reason.  Singular.  They care more – probably significantly more – about one of these mission areas than the other.

Yet we often message everyone the same regardless of their preference.  We may talk about what a “you” are doing with their gift, but we don’t take care to make sure the impact “you” make is the impact “you” want to make.  And yet this is still called loving your donors for some.

This is (from my experience) partly an organizational compromise.  The people who work there and are committed to the mission believe in all parts of it and want everyone to do likewise.  And no one wants to offend the prevention people if only services are mentioned or vice versa.

It’s also partly for efficiency sake.  Having done that job for a number of years, I understand that.  But at the same time, the purpose of direct marketing is not to be convenient to the direct marketer.

Mostly, it’s because we don’t know.  We haven’t analyzed the data.  And we haven’t asked the question “why do you give?”.

You can start in broad strokes and still have an impact.  For some organizations, it will be the difference among “I have this disease,” “I love someone who has this disease,” and “I just want to help.”  For others, it’s the difference between dog people and cat people.  For some, there may be a segment that is looking to make amends for something they did in their past.

For each of these, there’s a more compelling “you” statement than the kitchen sink approach.  If having “you” statements is knowing the nine planets (#eightisntenough), knowing what each of your donors needs out of their giving and giving it to them is having a North Star to guide you.  Then, and only then, can you make the things that are tasty for your donors and not those doing the fishing.