Storytelling without stories

I recently found out I’m attending the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference this year – arguably the most fun conference I’ve been to – and it’s got me thinking about storytelling.

I don’t have to tell any of you that storytelling is critical to fundraising. But it’s one thing to say it and another thing to put it into action.

I’m fortunate enough to work with a number of clients ranging in size, scope, “industry”, who / what / how they serve, etc. They also range as it relates to their access to content a.k.a. stories.

For hospital foundations I work with, it’s arguably easier – they have a clear process for identifying patients with stories that will be compelling for fundraising purposes, and as long as they have consent, a good interview, and photos, we’ve got ourselves a story.

For healthcare organizations that aren’t hospitals, for example research organizations, they’re more removed from the patients they serve (organization –> researcher –> patient) and therefore it’s a bit harder.

Then there are organizations who have lots of content and stories, but their “voice”, so to speak, doesn’t lend itself to the traditional, tear-jerker, heartstrings-pulling direct marketing we know and love as fundraisers.

Now you could say, “Well they should change their voice!” And in some cases that may be the right thing or an option at all. But for some organizations, that voice – the voice that doesn’t lend itself to the usual DM storytelling – is authentic and right, so we have to tell stories another way.

It was in working with a colleague on a direct mail letter recently that got me thinking about this conundrum. So I asked myself, What’s at the core of storytelling in fundraising?

It’s about connection. The problems that charities are solving are compelling in and of themselves, but it takes a real story to bring it home, and really motivate most people to take action. How can we connect people with the cause in a deeper way?

So how can we do that without your standard patient/beneficiary story? How can we connect the donor/prospective donor to the problem, solution, and their role in it? We have to be creative!

Can we talk about sights, sounds, or smells? Approach it from a sensory perspective to bring the donor in?

What have you tried? What’s worked? What hasn’t? What conundrums are you facing? Share with me in the comments or on Twitter! I can’t wait to hear.


Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives and has been working in fundraising for twelve years.
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Top 2 ways to give corporations #donorlove


You have heard it before: treat the company the same as you do an individual donor, and then BANG! you have a successful proposal, ask, and stewardship plan.

In my previous post, 3 things I learned at the #DonorLove Rendezvous, I said I “apply #donorlove principles to the main contact at my corporate partners”. So you are thinking, even better, I will grab my #donorlove stewardship plan and be done, RIGHT?


To do corporate stewardship right, you need to think about two key parts.

You need to think person, your main contact, and company, where the money is actually coming from.

What do I mean?

Stewardship Plan Part 1 – Your Contact

When planning your stewardship for a corporate contact, be sure to think about the individual, what they need to be successful and how to address them personally.

This could include the standard holiday cards, and thank you notes, but if you are really on top of it, you could also include links to articles that will help them be more effective in their jobs. What about letting them know about a conference or speaking engagement you think will support them in building their personal brand? A few times I have even filled out applications for internal employee awards.

On the easy end, I always think about what a convenient time and location might be for our meetings. Sometimes picking a 3pm in the right location gives them a shorter day, or a break from a space with no windows!

Stewardship Plan Part 2 – Company

For the company, depending on the partnership, you need to be thinking about stewarding publicly – this includes the general public, their target audiences or their employees.

It is expensive and sometimes it is still nice to do the big newspaper thank you and traditional press release. But more affordable is digital PR, think social media “Thank You’s” and blog posts that articulate impact.

If the target is internal/employees, prepare an email for your donor to forward internally. Attach a simple photo of a success story at your charity. Highlight the impact of the company donation. MAKE IT EASY!!!

You start the process!

Don’t ask a whole bunch of questions about how they would like you to say thank you. Write a grateful, appreciative, brief email that is meant to be forwarded – they will either forward it, or they will tell you how it needs to be modified for use. But start with doing it, not asking questions.

At the root, stewardship of any person or group is always based on thinking about them. With corporate partners, it is just important to remember that “them” could be a very large employee group with different objectives.

So, back to the beginning, it is about applying #donorlove in that you say thank you, you make them the hero, you show impact… you just do it with two different donors in mind.


Written by Heather Nelson

heatherstripesHeather is an experienced and passionate fundraising professional specializing in non-profit and corporate partnerships.

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New Year’s Resolution.

I’ve been writing this blog for over five years now and it’s gone through many evolutions.

I’ve written posts where an idea has fallen flat. I’ve written posts where an idea has started a conversation among fundraisers. I’ve allowed guest bloggers on who knew nothing about fundraising (and regretted it). I’ve invited some of my heroines and heroes in fundraising to guest post, and they have! I’ve titled blog posts for the purpose of being clickbait. I’ve shared personal things about my life on the blog…

It’s been a wild ride, and it’s not stopping yet.

But… it needs to change. Blogging is starting to feel like a chore rather than a needed outlet some of the time. I’m starting to write posts just to meet my (at the end of the day, arbitrary) deadline rather than to share something of real value with readers. I want to feel inspired about this blog again. And I want you to, as well.

As a starting point, I’m going to modify my blogging schedule from weekly posts (every Wednesday!) to biweekly or even monthly posts. I might not make an official schedule so as not to fall into the same trap I have already, but I will commit to posting once a month at least.

I will also commit to the best quality and value I can. I want readers to learn, be inspired, find practical and implementable ideas, connect with important fundraising principles, and do better fundraising as a result of this blog.

That includes guest bloggers! I will not accept random guest blog posts that fail to inspire readers the same way I’m trying to. And I’ll make more of an effort in reaching out to my heroines and heroes in the hopes that they’ll guest post.

And because I can’t help it, I’ve learned a lesson about fundraising in this reflective process of modifying my blog. Just because you’ve been doing it doesn’t mean you always have to… or that it’s “right”. Status quo is the enemy for donors, and it’s my enemy, too.

So get ready for something new, exciting and inspiring. I’m feeling more energetic just typing this!

Let me know what resolutions you’re making – for your donors, your work, and yourself.


Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in fundraising for ten years. Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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What’s your 2017 donor journey?


I am back to the grind after a lovely Christmas with family and friends, and a lot of much-needed rest. I took a break from Twitter, email, and this blog, and it felt fantastic! I hope you took some time to yourself, too.

All that rest meant I went back to the office yesterday feeling rejuvenated. I was ready to go! And do you know what the first thing I did was?

Mapped out a 2017 donor journey for one of the organizations I work with.

You’ve heard me say this before: all too often, the needs of our organizations – administrative, financial, bureaucratic, etc. – trump the needs of our donors. Our boss thinks something is important so we spend a lot of time on it, and our donors come second. We have a revenue goal, and we’re so desperate to reach it (maybe our job depends on it), that we treat donors like philanthropic robots and throw ask after ask at them without any thought of how it might feel, or how it fits into their donor journey.

It happens. We all do it. We have real pressures and budgets and deadlines – and bosses – and the donor falls down the list of priorities.

Donor journey mapping can help us get a handle on it. 

And remember – don’t plan your donor journey at the start of your fiscal year. Start it at January 1st. (If that’s the start of your fiscal year, you’re a lucky duck!)

January is the start of a new year for everybody, so it’s also the start of a new – or continued – donor journey.

So with all this in mind, yesterday morning I sat down with a big sheet of 11 x 17 paper and wrote 20+ segments down the left side of the page – current mid-level donors, lapsing mid-level donors, mid-level prospects, online only donors, monthly donors, 3+ year consecutive donors, current donors, lapsed donors, inactive donors… and so on and so forth.

Then I wrote the months of the year across the top.

Then I thought of each group and what made sense for them throughout the calendar year – for example, most current mid-level donors would’ve given in December, so maybe more of them should get stewardship in January vs. a renewal ask.

3+ year consecutive donors are really loyal, so even though they’re usually treated the same way other current donors are, I’d like to test a monthly conversion ask in early Fall.

It’d be great to convert online only donors to give through the mail, but not in the year-end time period when there’s a flurry of online activity; I’ll exclude them from the year-end mailing we do in December.

And on and on I go.

It’s an awesome exercise that puts donors first, and ensures their needs – and the best fundraising strategies – are set up and ready to go before they can be trumped by something else.

Try it! Especially when your energy is fresh, and your donors are feeling the same way.

Good luck, and Happy New Year!


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Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in fundraising for ten years. Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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Turning off autopilot.


Going on autopilot is sometimes considered lazy.

But I don’t see it that way.

Check out this definition of autopilot:

An autopilot is a system used to control the trajectory of an aircraft without constant ‘hands-on’ control by a human operator being required. Autopilots do not replace a human operator, but assist them in controlling the aircraft, allowing them to focus on broader aspects of operation, such as monitoring the trajectory, weather and systems.

Going on autopilot doesn’t mean you’re not focused on “flying the plane”, so to speak; it simply means you’re getting some assistance where you can so you can manage all the other big picture things.

I “go on autopilot” sometimes at work. I consider it a means of survival – especially at this crazy time of year. I spend less time doing some things in order to manage the myriad other things I have going on. I let some things be “status quo” so I’m not totally overwhelmed by my workload.

But you take a risk when you go on autopilot. You risk not doing the very best work you can… for the donors.

Because as crazy as it sounds, the donors are the first stakeholders to be neglected. When you’ve got performance reviews and a certain amount of money to raise, you run as hard and as fast as you can for your internal stakeholders, and – if there’s time – you spread a little #donorlove.

So here’s my unsolicited advice to you as we tip over into December:

PAUSE. Breathe. Get off autopilot! Even just for a day. Just for a few hours!

I did this last night. I was doing some work on some big picture creative planning for a client and preparing a slide deck to brief our creative team. I had a glass of wine and the slide deck and was feeling really relaxed and inspired. So I tried to get off autopilot as much as possible. I tried to ask questions that it’s hard to find time to ask: How can we do things differently? How can we surprise the donor? I tried to think of what I learned at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference. How can I implement what I know to be true? Not just successful revenue-wise, but also delivering the donor what inspires her.

It felt awesome! And I’m not going to just please the creative team when I share the deck with them, or the client when we share the ideas… We’re going to meet the donor where she is and motivate her to give! What could be better?!


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Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in fundraising for ten years. Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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5 storytelling tips from #NPStoryConf


Last week I attended the most frustrating conference I’ve ever been to.

Why? Because the ideas that were shared were so good that I was frustrated I couldn’t implement them right away.

What I really mean is that it was one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to.

There were a lot of new insights, but even more than that, there were key messages that were reinforced by presenter after presenter. It really made me think about how we need to take a step back from our crazy day-to-day work, and focus on what we’re communicating to donors, and how important it is.

I know taking a step back is tough at this time of year, so I’ll try to make it easier for you with 5 storytelling tips + 1 silly bonus fact. Enjoy!

SMIT = Single. Most. Important. Thing. What’s the SMIT for your direct mail letter? What one thing do you really need to tell donors? That’s what Tom Ahern tells us to focus on.

“I try to write a letter with no speed bumps or brick walls.” This quote came from Leah Eustace. All the presenters urged us to keep our donor communications free of obstacles – write it at a 6th grade reading level, and avoid statistics or anything that takes the reader out of the story.

Donors don’t give to fund a process. They give to solve a problem. This line came from Jeff Brooks, but really everyone said it in one way or another. Don’t focus on what you’re doing to get there, focus on what “there” is. Donors want to be part of the solution. Inspire them to feel that.

Our job as fundraisers is to make gifts feel real for donors. This came from Steven Screen, a fantastic direct response fundraiser. He was differentiating between making a purchase and a donation. When you buy something, you get something. When you make a gift, you don’t. Our job as fundraisers is to ensure the gift still feels real.

If we’re fundraising on Facebook, we need to target the same people as we do with our other communications, and with the same kind of messages. Sean Triner presented first-thing Friday morning and I felt so validated by his message: “Old fashioned ads to older people online.” Don’t seek out young donors with fancy new messages (unless you don’t want money). Reach your main donor group, just on a different channel.

And finally… BONUS!

A lift note is called a lift note because it tends to lift results. This is a silly one via John Lepp, but I’ve been talking about lift notes, always wondering why they’re called that… Like, duh!


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Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in fundraising for ten years. Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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spread the #donorlove

spread the #donorlove

I had a great customer service experience recently. I went to a pretty fancy store in Yorkville (a fancy neighbourhood in Toronto), bought my niece a gift for her baptism, and then found out one of my sisters bought her the same gift. So I bought her something else, and then put off returning the fancy gift for ages. Finally I got my butt to the store and not only did the person who was processing my refund not ask me for my receipt or ask me when I bought the gift, he also offered me something to drink!


For me, that is customer service. Treating someone well regardless of what they’re doing for you. It matters because we remember this stuff. The fancy store where I bought the baptism gift is going to be the first place I think of the next time I need a gift. And any places where I’ve received bad customer service? They’re on the blacklist.

OK, so this is a fundraising blog. Why am I writing about this?

Because today is The #DonorLove Rendezvous. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ve likely heard about #DonorLove. The Rendezvous is a day-long schmonference (I’m avoiding using the word “conference” because we’re trying to do things differently), but it’s really part of a movement. A movement focused on showing our donors all the love we can since they’re essential to our organizations, yet unfortunately too often neglected, treated badly, or not thanked enough.

It’s like the guy at the fancy store in Yorkville. He was thinking about the long-term. He could’ve rushed through my refund to get to the other things he had to do, but he offered me a drink. He made me feel good about what I was doing. He made me feel valued by the company. He made me feel special and important.

Do your donors feel that way with every interaction you have with them? Not just in person, but through mail, email, and any other channel you engage them through?

Here’s your action item for today: Call a donor and say thank you. Any donor. They could’ve made a gift yesterday or 3 months ago. Their gift could’ve been $5,000 or $50. Make sure you tell them that your organization can’t do what it does without them… because it can’t.

Spread the #DonorLove!


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Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in fundraising for over nine years. Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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Dirty words you NEED in your fundraising vocabulary

the dirty words in fundraisingI thought “revenue” was a dirty word.

In fundraising, I mean.

We don’t say revenue. We say total dollars raised.

We’re not business people. We’re in the world of philanthropy. We don’t want to sound sales-y.

We also certainly do not say “net revenue”, because then we’d have to acknowledge that there are costs associated with fundraising.

But now I’m on the dark side – the agency-side – and we use words like “revenue” and “net ROI” all the time.

So do our clients.

Once I got over the horror of it, I realize how much better off we are to acknowledge these metrics for what they really are. And we’re better fundraisers because we measure ourselves against them.

What if I told you that you should really pull 10,000 people out of your next mailing? They’re not performing well enough and it doesn’t make sense to mail them.

You might say, “Sure!” And then after I adjust your campaign projections, all you see is that “total dollars raised” have gone down.

But look at the costs – they’ve gone down, too. And yes, net revenue has gone down, but not nearly as much as gross revenue has.

You’re now spending money on your best performers, and not wasting it on others, which is smarter in the short-term and – more importantly – the long run.

But you don’t have to stop there. Take the money you saved and invest it in a better package for those high-performers you’re mailing.

Yes – I said invest. Because you’re gonna get a return on this.

What does that mean? Let me translate for you: more total dollars raised.

Don’t be afraid of the “dirty” words. Use them, measure them, and you might find yourself better off than you were before.


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Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in fundraising for over nine years. Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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Guest Post: Full on Nerd — What Maximum Donor Consistency Means for Your Fundraising

Full on Nerd- What Maximum Donor

I’m a big fan of What Gives, so I talked to Maeve about dropping some of my giving research nerd on the topic of donor consistency.

Why talk about this? Consistency in giving matters.

It could matter a whole lot for your program. I’ll show you why, if you can agree to nerd out with me for a moment.

First, two definitions:

Maximum Donor Consistency (MDC): This is the longest stretch, year to year to year, that a donor has given consecutively. To determine a donor’s max consistency you look for the longest number of “years in a row” a donor has given in any amount. If a donor gives for 4 years, skips a few years, comes back for a few, their MDC will be 4 until they exceed that stretch.

Lifetime Donor Value (LDV): This is the total amount that a donor has given during their lifetime – along with any eventually received bequest – to any fund, cause or project with your organization. People who buy cars also buy oil changes, parts and service from a dealership (and some buy more cars). Donors contribute to annual funds, special projects, reunions, crowdfunding campaigns (and some also make big donations with major or planned gifts).

If there was a simple linear relationship between these two things, or the hypothesis: “consistent annual donors give more over their lifetimes” was true, a graph would look like this:


However, if we switch the hypothesis and say: “consistent donors are more likely to increase annual gift amounts over time and also make major gifts”, then we should see a curve. The plot won’t be straight; it will slope up over time. The steeper the slope of the curve, the more lifetime giving from donors with higher consistency.

What do we actually see? We borrowed data on all gifts from alumni to eight higher education institutions and graphed it out. Here’s how it looks:

max donor consistency and LT giving donor study_w_curve

You see the curve? Consistency seems to have a significant association with donors giving more over time. The annual giving program is warming up a bunch of future major donors as well. The relationship isn’t just positive, it’s exponential.

This phenomenon is likely one of the reasons that that Nonprofit Research Collaborative told us last year that programs with annual funds are more likely to be on track with total fundraising goals and is confirmed when fundraisers say over two thirds of their major donors were regular givers.

Warming donors up with regular giving and becoming a part of their lives is absolutely crucial in increasing giving over time and building your donor pipeline.

How do you maximize donor consistency? Personalization matters. Recognizing a donor’s history, referring to it, and tailoring your appeals to consistent donors is worth the time it takes.  Many organizations are also establishing consecutive giving societies as well.

You might have to also consider when a donor seems to be lapsing, or has told you they can’t contribute this year, asking for a smaller amount to keep them on the rolls for another year. It’s controversial, but there does seem to be merit in establishing consistency early in the relationship.

The biggest mistake I have seem organizations make is focusing on broadcasting their donor base with appeals (which is important) but failing to be responsive to what a donor or group of donors is doing. For example, few organizations run a list of “consistent donors who are about to lapse.” They just send more appeals.

I have also heard that some organizations are being drawn in by big major gift totals and pulling away resources from annual giving because it is expensive. The impact to the future major gift pipeline could be severe.

Overall, the idea is that you should be considering the long-term relationship, judged by maximizing consistency, at least as much as you are considering the bottom line cash.

This special relationship, when it is recognized, reinforced and valued is also likely to provide a great deal more joy to donors.

Focus on long-term, incremental relationships while you hunt the big money. You’ll be rewarded with a sweet curve rather than a straight line in your increasing results.


Read more about getting nerdy with donor behavior in this RNL blog post, and check out our full blog for this and other fundraising topics.


Written by Brian Gawor

Brian Gawor 2

Brian Gawor is Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a platform company that helps institutions and charities build loyal donors.

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Off on a new fundraising adventure…


I am thrilled to officially announce that effective January 20th, I will be starting a new job at my alma mater, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.  You may have noticed over the past two years that I love to write about Laurier.  I soaked up the Laurier experience as a student, and got my start in fundraising there, so my passion for the school knows no bounds!  If you can’t tell, I’m so excited for the opportunity!!!

That being said, it’s always bittersweet to leave such an excellent working experience as Trinity College School has been for me.  I’ve learned so much, and worked with such incredible colleagues and alumni.  Stay tuned for a “goodbye” post coming up on my blog.

All of these big changes in my life won’t change much about though.  The posts will continue, and likely reinvigorated with new content based on my new portfolio (mid-level gifts, surprise, surprise…).  Hopefully I can get a few new guest bloggers on board as well from the Waterloo and Laurier communities.

#maevesmeetup will continue as well!  Although I won’t be holding socials for fundraisers in Toronto, my fellow fundraiser – and sister! – Arundel Gibson will be taking this event on.  Click here to see the details for the inaugural #arundelafterwork coming up on Thursday, January 23, 2014 (and stay tuned to see whether I can bring #maevesmeetup to Waterloo!)

2014 is looking to be a great year for me and  Stay tuned for more great content, inspiring guest bloggers, and my attempts to put the “fun” in fundraising!


Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in educational fundraising for the past seven years.  Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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