What I learned about fundraising from a terrifying experience


Something really scary happened to me last night…

I was driving home from a meeting around 7:30 pm, and rolled up to a very sketchy intersection in Toronto very close to my home. The stoplight was red, and there was one car between me and the intersection.

All of a sudden, a man darted across the street. He ran up to the car ahead of me and tried to open one of their back car doors. He couldn’t get in, so he headed over to my passenger door. I hurried to lock my door but I wasn’t able to do it in time, and suddenly the stranger was sitting in my passenger seat next to me.

What happened next felt like an out-of-body experience. I calmly told him to get out of my car. He begged me to drive him, as he’d just been “jumped” and needed to get out of the area. I – again, calmly – told him I was not driving anywhere and that he needed to get out of my car. He said he was being threatened by people on the street and needed me to take him away. I said that was not my responsibility and that I needed him to get out of my car.

“Get out of my car,” I said. “Please get out of my car. You need to get out of my car.”

I kept repeating myself until finally, he opened the door, got out of my car, and ran away.

I gathered myself and drove home. Although I’m still feeling shaken, I’m OK and I’m safe.

I recounted the story a few times afterwards – to my girlfriend, a friend, and two of my sisters. Everyone seemed impressed with my calmness in the situation.

The truth is, I’m impressed, too. I didn’t urge myself to be calm in the moment. I just was.

I simply requested that the stranger get out of my car. I was calm, I was assertive, and I was serious. I didn’t scream, cry, or get emotional. I didn’t make a spectacle of it. I simply told the man what I wanted and eventually he did just that.

I don’t want to trivialize the situation that I experienced. I genuinely was shaken by it,

But when I sit down to write my weekly post on Wednesdays, I draw from experience – sometimes very recent, and sometimes unpleasant – to inspire my posts.

And so, I can’t help but think – what could I learn about fundraising from my experience last night? 

We talk a lot about storytelling in fundraising. Inspiring donors through stories is such an important technique in what we do.

But sometimes a story isn’t necessary. Sometimes flowery language, emotion, and a spectacle isn’t required.

Maybe it’s because of the ask you’re making, or maybe it’s who you’re making the ask to.

But sometimes, the best ask is one that’s calm, assertive, and serious. Sometimes you have to make the ask a few times in order for the donor to really feel the impact of what you’re asking. Sometimes they need to know you’re really serious before they consider responding to your ask.

Have you had any experiences that have inspired your fundraising lately? Hopefully they didn’t shake you as much as mine did, but maybe you learned something nonetheless.

Share in the comments below!


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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.

Connect with Maeve via:
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10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal

It may seem crazy sometimes, but mail continues to be the best way to engage donors or potential donors in our work.

Direct mail is both and art and a science… but it’s not rocket science.

Here are my 10 categories to consider in advance of your next DM appeal.

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal (1)

I know it’s boring and uninspiring, but let’s be realistic: the amount of money we have available to us drives what we do. If we think about what we’ve budgeted for before we get going on a campaign, we can allow the budget to guide us rather than limit us. It can help us determine how many people to mail, how many components to include in the mailing, what kind of paper to use, etc. If we realize that we need to increase the budget to achieve our goals, that’s fine, but think about the budget before anything else… and it won’t become our enemy.

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal (2)

Next (somewhat driven by cost): Who are you mailing? Existing donors? Prospective donors? Females? Males? Both? How many people? Are they in your charity’s geographical area, or outside of it? Are they really engaged and generous donors? Donors who are long-lapsed? Your audience drives so much of what you’re going to do in any given mailing, so let this be your second consideration.

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal (3)

Obviously the main goal for any campaign is to raise money, but we also have the opportunity to get insights beyond the dollars we bring in. Before you start really planning for your mailing, determine whether you have the budget to do some testing. If you do, think about what you want to find out: will a more aggressive dollar amount ask generate more revenue or will it freak donors out? Does referencing your donors’ location in the world lift response, or does it make little difference? Think about it. The opportunities are endless, and it’s worth using some of your budget for.

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal (4)

OK, onto creative. Creative is somewhat dependent on the story you decide to tell in your mailing, but it’s also determined by budget, audience, and testing opportunities. What do you have the money to do creatively? Can you use something more exciting than a #10 envelope? Can you include some full-colour photos in the letter, or an insert to expand on the ask? Or – let’s go crazy – can you create a video to accompany the mailing? The creative needs to be aligned to other things in the package, but it’s better to get a sense of your parameters early on.

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal (5)

I know this seems crazy, but only now is it really key to determine what you’re asking for. You may know already; it may be unrestricted funds like it always is. Or you might have a really urgent ask to make. However your process works, it’s now time to finalize the key priority you want to inspire the donor with, and you also want to figure out the ask amounts and how they might be based on the segment the donor falls into, their past giving, etc.

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal (6)

These things aren’t really in a critical order, but if you haven’t figured it out already, it’s time to determine your story. The more personal, the better. If you can tell an individual’s story, that’s ideal. This story should be determined by some of the decisions you’ve already made; maybe it’s based on the audience you’re mailing. Maybe it’s part of a test. Maybe it lends itself to some creative you want to work with. Or maybe it ties perfectly to the ask you want to make. Whatever it is, make it inspiring!

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal (7)

Just like we have to think critically about who sits across from the donor in a 7-figure major gift ask, we have to think about who “signs” a fundraising appeal. Who’s appropriate? Who matters to the donor? Whose voice do we want to use? We know that people are more motivated to give when someone they know asks, so we have to think about that just as much in direct mail. Have you always used your CEO? Great! Could it be worth testing another signatory? Probably! Just make sure you’re thinking about it strategically. It matters.

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal (8)

OK time for a #donorlove break! Before you actually write this awesome and inspiring letter, think about the decisions you’ve made. Then think about the donor. Are they synced up, or is there some disconnect? If there’s a disconnect between the donors’ needs and the decisions you’ve made, then you need to stop and reconsider. Are you doing a test that could alienate donors? Be careful! Is the ask you’re making inspiring, or just an urgent need? Maybe you can do better! Is there truly a story in your letter, or is it organizational jargon? STOP. Think about the donor. If you need to make some changes, do. It needs to be about the donor.

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal (9)

So the letter’s written, the creative’s created, and the package is nearly there. Time to consider variability (if not before this stage). Variability is your chance to speak to different donors within this larger group you’re mailing. Maybe you’re mailing regular donors and you want to acknowledge whether they gave recently, last year, a few years ago, or it’s… *cough*… been a while. Or maybe this is an acquisition mailing and those receiving it are made up of internal people (a.k.a. really inactive donors) AND external people (a.k.a. rental lists). You might want to acknowledge those groups differently. Make sure you consider this before you go any further; the more a donor – or potential donor – feels like you’re speaking to them, the more moved to give they will be.

10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal (10)

And finally – YOU. No, not YOU… the donor YOU. This is the final step. Take out the package, take out your red pen, and “circle the you’s”. This mailing isn’t about us – the fundraiser or the organization. It’s about the donor. It’s meant to speak to them, inspire them, and move them. So review your package and make sure you’re seeing many more “YOU”‘s than “WE”‘s. If you’re not, be prepared to start again. It’s worth it.


So that’s it! 10 things to consider when writing your next direct mail appeal.

If you’re excited about this post, you probably want a chance to win one of these beauties!

Untitled design (18)

That’s right! Your very own red pen, ready to circle the you’s in your next appeal (as per #10)!

How can you win one? In one of two ways:

  1. By subscribing to my newsletter! OR
  2. Sending me an email with a quick message about what you liked about this post.

Do that, and a pen is in the mail!

Thanks for reading!


Sign up for my email list and get a FREE E-BOOK on mid-level donors!

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.

Connect with Maeve via:
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Guest Post: Do you ask on the first visit???

Do you ask on the first visit---

It’s a question I get all the time!

And by the look on people’s faces, my answer must be pretty lame. Probably because I usually say something along the lines of “sometimes,” or “it depends.”

When I worked in leadership annual giving, I always asked on first visits. Gifts at that level tend to be a little more transactional. And for the most part, people got it. They weren’t offended that we just met and there I was asking for cash.

But with major gifts, it’s different.

So, I suppose a better answer would be: “I talk about philanthropy on first visits, but I don’t always ask for a gift of a specific amount to achieve for a specific outcome.”

But sometimes I do! It depends. On a lot of things.

The considerations involved are actually pretty interesting.  So, I decided to see if I could map them on a decision tree. Take a look!

Decision Tree_Asking On First Visit_Page_1 Decision Tree_Asking On First Visit_Page_2

And when you’re done, leave a comment letting me know if I left anything out.
What else determines whether or not you ask on the first visit???


Written by K. Michael Johnson


A self-proclaimed fundraising geek, K. Michael loves the nitty-gritty of major gifts work. By day, he raises money for a large research university. In his spare time, he blogs about things he’s learned the hard way at www.fearless-fundraising.com.

Connect with K. Michael via:
Twitter | LinkedIn | Email

Young Alumni Fundraising – Part II

Young Alumni Fundraising - Part I (1)

On April 26th I wrote Young Alumni Fundraising – Part I, and shared with you the many reasons why you cannot ignore your young alumni.  I ended the post by promising to share how to ask your young alumni, so here is Part II answering “how?”.

Again, this post in two parts is the result of my passion for young alumni fundraising combined with the enthusiasm for this topic that I’ve developed, thanks in large part to the dynamic discussions I’ve participated in on LinkedIn.  Members of those discussions requested that I share with them some samples of solicitation techniques I’ve used and/or fundraising appeals.  I intend to share some of those pieces with you, too.

Here are five techniques I’ve found work best:

  1. A specific, manageable amount
    Back when I was a phonathon caller, I learned that asking for a specific amount is crucial.  If you leave it open-ended, potential donors feel uncertain and confused and may give much less than they’re able simply because they weren’t given any guidelines.  Young alumni are no different.  I find using a consistent, concrete, and manageable ask amount for young alumni across the board (I’m referring to GOLD – a.k.a. “Grads Of the Last Decade) yields great results.  What number do I use?  $25.  There’s something about that number that jives well with me, and it seems to jive well with the young alum, too, because 8 times out of 10 they give exactly that.  It’s reasonable, it doesn’t have much pressure attached to it, and it emphasizes the important message that participation is what counts, not how much you give!  For the record, $25 isn’t the only amount I include on our pledge cards, but it’s the one I use in my messaging and emails, etc.  It’s not scary, it’s specific, and young alumni feel comfortable with it.
  2. Regular updates
    My solicitation process with young alumni follows a particular plan, and last fiscal year (2011/2012) it went a little something like this:a) Direct mailing – In the Spring (there had been no solicitations sent out before then), I sent out a letter to every member of GOLD that we had a mailing address for.  More than that, I sent each of the past 10 graduating classes a letter customized for their class.  The bulk of it was the same, but there was a custom message identifying their participation rate from last year and their participation goal for this year. (Click here for a version of that letter).b) Two weeks after the direct mailing went out, I sent out a short and sweet email – again, customized per class – linking to a PDF version of the letter and letting them know they should’ve received it in the mail.c) Two weeks after that, I sent out another email.  The purpose of this
    message was to update them on the gifts made so far, encourage them
    once again to donate, and let them know how many people would have to
    give in order to reach their participation goal.d) A few weeks before our fiscal year-end, I sent an email to all of GOLD (not
    class-specific) to update them on overall GOLD progress, and encourage
    people to give in order to be included in our 2011/2012 totals.  It also
    featured specific class totals.e) And lastly, I sent a final email in August 2012, after the FY year-end, to
    update each class individually on their final totals.  I even mentioned each
    of the donors by name!  I thought this email was crucial; why push them so
    hard to meet their goals if I wasn’t going to tell them how they did? (Click
     for a version of that email).For the record, I never received any complaints for over-soliciting these classes by
    email.  My purpose wasn’t to inundate them, but to regularly keep them posted on
    how they were doing. My sense was that it really got them uniting as a class, keen to
    meet their participation goal.  And with each email blast that I sent out, gifts came
    rolling in.  So in my humble opinion, the plan worked!
  3. A project they can rally behind
    We all know that donors are changing; people making donations expect their gift to go to exactly what they want it to go to, they expect follow-up, they want to know how they’ve impacted your organization, and they hold you accountable and expect you to do what you’ve said you’ll do.  Young alumni have the same expectations, and they only want to give to something they care about.  Of course, they care about your institution, but many of them don’t want to see their hard-earned money go to superficial things; they want to make a difference.So, when approaching young alumni, the project/gift designation is key.  I’ve found the best project is – and will increasingly be – financial assistance.  I’m not saying this is the only project that works, it just needs to be something that tugs at the heart strings and that they consider personal.  Whether they received financial assistance or not, they want to support the best, brightest, and most deserving students so that they can attend their alma mater.  And it’s a need that’s difficult to argue, and it’s only becoming more important.  Again, financial assistance isn’t the only project that falls into this category.  Perhaps their residence needs sprucing up, or the sport they were passionate about needs funding… whatever it is, you need to consider it.  I don’t think young alumni are interested in supporting the area of greatest need, so be creative, think hard, and put forward something they can really rally behind and believe in.
  4. Class-specific goals
    I already highlighted the importance of this when I outlined my solicitation plan to you, but I’ll say it again: customized and/or class-specific goals and appeals are great! When you present to them the fact that they’re part of GOLD or the young alumni society, or whatever it is, they feel a part of something.  When they then consider the fact that within GOLD, they stand with their classmates and have the opportunity to challenge themselves and make a difference, there’s power to that.  Sure, you can ignite some friendly competition, too, but something I like writing in letters to young alumni is: “Show GOLD what you’re made of.”  In other words, you are part of a smaller community within the alumni community, and within that community, your class can make the biggest and best impact together.
  5. Creating a young alumni giving culture
    I was getting at this with point #4: create a culture.  I talked in my last post about planting the seed and creating a culture of philanthropy.  But don’t just throw young alumni into the big sea of all your alumni; make them something different. Acknowledge the meaning of them giving back when they’ve only just recently graduated.  Recognize the difficulty of giving at a young age, when they haven’t yet established themselves.  Tell them you understand, but that they can still make a difference.  Treat them as a separate class within GOLD, but when GOLD does great, acknowledge the whole group!  As one class, they might be happy with reaching a participation rate of 5%, but they might not think their total dollars matter much.  Tell them the total that GOLD raised, and they’ll put it into perspective.  Create that culture and nourish it, with regular updates, consistent messaging during their years in GOLD, and constant encouragement and celebration.  They need it, and it’s worth your time and investment of energy and more, because they’ll deliver!

And that brings me to my last point.  I know you fundraisers, you want proof!  Well, last fiscal year (2011/2012) saw GOLD participation in the Annual Fund double.  Yes, double.  In fact, participation more than doubled.  The final participation rate for all of GOLD last year was 4.9%, and the year before that it was 2.2%.  The year before was my first year on the job and all I did was send out one direct mailing, and maybe the same letter via email, but no regular updates, no specific strategy, nothing like that.  So it shows that when you put the effort in, the young alumni respond.

This year is on track to be even greater.  I don’t know that we’ll see another doubling of participation, but it will grow, and the more the culture is established, the more growth we will see.


I hope you enjoyed part II of this post and that you found some practical, implementable ideas within.  Please comment here with questions, concerns, and ideas, email me at maeve@whatgivesphilanthropy.com, or interact with me on Twitter @fundraisermaeve.

Thanks for reading!


Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in educational fundraising for the past 6 years.  Click here to learn more about Maeve.

Connect with Maeve via:
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End-of-Year Giving

My years so far in fundraising have taught me so much, and one thing they’ve taught me is that we use parts of the year as anchors for good solicitations.  Certain times of the year are better for fundraising than others; the summer, for instance, is a bit of a wash!  Fall and spring seem to be the best time of the year for direct mail appeals.  And then there’s December…

I thought this would be a timely discussion right now: end-of-year incentives to give.  The end of the calendar year seems to be a great anchor for good fundraising.  The question is: what’s your angle???

I sit on the alumni association at my alma mater and had the chance to proofread an end-of-year email blast for the Annual Giving office there.  Their angle was to encourage alumni to give NOW so that they can be receipted for this tax year.  Many donors plan their giving around tax-related things, so this is a worthwhile angle to use; this could really compel some people to give now rather than later.

Then, of course, I also work in an educational institution myself, where we sent out Christmas cards to our alumni encouraging giving with more of a “’tis the season” angle.

Both are meaningful angles; one is more practical than the other, perhaps, but they both strike some kind of chord and hopefully spur action.  Could you say that using the tax year as the incentive is kind of dry?  Well, you could… but you could also say that sending out Christmas cards is risky to those that don’t celebrate Christmas…

At the end of the day you have to make a thoughtful decision on how to make an ask in December, but I think we can all agree that with the spirit of giving in the air, it’s a good time to make the ask.



And with that, dear readers, I am done posting for 2012.  It’s been a great year at What Gives Philanthropy, with engaging content, new guest blogger friends, and lots of interaction on the site, Twitter, and offline.  I hope you have a very enjoyable holiday season, and you’ll hear from me on Friday, January 4, 2013.  All the best!!!


Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in educational fundraising for the past 6 years.  Click here to learn more about Maeve.

Connect with Maeve via:
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Why don’t people give???

I participated recently in an “interview” with an individual who is working to develop a social media strategy for the Development & Alumni Relations department at a higher-ed institution.  His intention was to get my input on what alumni want from their alma mater and how that might be provided through social media.  I was pleased when alumni giving made its way into the conversation and intrigued by his approach to the topic; he asked me, “Why don’t alumni give???” What a great question!  And one that definitely applies to all forms of fundraising – not just educational.  There are, of course, a myriad of reasons people don’t give.  Drawing once again from my experience as an Annual Giving phonathon caller, I heard reasons including a negative experience at the university, still paying off student loans, big transitions in life with big costs attached (getting married, buying a house, starting a family), and sometimes a plain old “not interested”. But then I thought, “Why DO people give?”  And as any good fundraiser knows, the #1 reason people give is … say it with me … because they are asked!!!  Yes, it’s often that simple!  So, would that mean that the opposite is true???  Do people NOT give because they’re NOT asked?  Well, let me say this, rarely do fundraisers hear from their prospects that they’re not being asked enough… So, what is it?  Perhaps people don’t give because they’re not asked right. What do I mean by that?  Is it that best practice fundraising approaches should be thrown out the window?  Not at all!  My thought is that we’re doing a great job except that we’re not giving our prospects enough info on HOW to give.  We’re telling them who to give to (our organization), when to give (now), why to give, what amount to give, where to designate, but are we giving them the right options at that point on HOW to make their gift?  And I’m not talking about which credit card to donate with… It’s my belief that many people don’t give because (a) they think only enormous major gifts matter and (b) they don’t know their options.  For example, I donate regularly to four causes, and in all four cases I’m a monthly donor.  Are we as fundraisers making options like monthly giving clear when we make our ask?  This is just one example, of course, but I think it’s part of a key “toolkit” we ought to be sharing.  A $240 gift may seem intimidating, but $20/month might not… So I told this individual I had my social media interview with that sharing quick updates on Facebook and Twitter, not asking for donations but informing people on how to make them, could be a potential way of engaging more alumni in giving… I guess we’ll see if it works! Food for thought… Why do YOU think people don’t give???


Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in educational fundraising for the past 6 years.  Click here to learn more about Maeve.

Connect with Maeve via:
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Why I love what I do: reason #1

I’ve been very topical in this blog so far, which was my intent, but I’d like to write a quick post about one aspect of why I love what I do.

As a fundraiser and/or alumni relations officer, you get to meet a lot of people. Sometimes you’re meeting them to ask them for a lot of money, but sometimes you’re meeting them simply to meet them; to engage them, to get to know them, and to find out what they’re passionate about.

Remember what James Fleck said?
Philanthropy is balancing your passion and your resources.

If you do your research, you might know that the individual that you’re meeting with has the resources to make a significant and meaningful contribution to your institution/organization. However, meeting and conversing with them is how you research their passion. Passion and resources; without the former, the latter will never be realized.

So that means that part of our job as fundraisers is to find out what our prospects are passionate about. That means that when you have a conversation with them, you try to get them talking about their passions. That is one reason why I love what I do; hearing people talk about their passions. Why? Because no one speaks more passionately than when they are talking about their passions. They have this energy coming out of them that is absolutely thrilling to experience as a listener; they’re emphatic and excited and happy!

It’s a wonderful thing to watch the transformation that someone goes through when they go from having a conversation with you about the weather, to talking about what they’re passionate about.


Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in educational fundraising for the past 6 years.  Click here to learn more about Maeve.

Connect with Maeve via:
Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn | Email