3 min read

Motivating donors to give isn’t easy. You need to connect money to mission, but you also need to give donors a reason to act. That might require some cheese.

When you think of a “fundraiser,” what comes to mind? There’s a not-uncommon notion of the fundraiser as a smarmy money-grubber. He’s the guy who’s only here for your money … rubbing elbows and dropping business cards with one goal in mind: the ask.

What about fundraising communications—the letters, emails, texts aplenty? They often feel cheesy or gimmicky, trading in manufactured urgency. Give tonight—or else!

These perceptions aren’t entirely off. Fundraising coaches always remind fundraisers not to be shy about asking for money during meetings: they know why you’re there … it’s to ask for money. And fundraisers put a lot of time into crafting compelling communications that motivate a donor to act now.

The healthiest nonprofits are the ones who aren’t embarrassed to employ a little bit of cheesiness in their fundraising. But that cheesiness, I suggest, isn’t all that cheesy.


Fundraising is like sales (in one sense). Anyone asking for money—whether they’re moving a product, looking for investors, or fundraising for a nonprofit—is selling something.

A traditional salesman sells goods, some product that he thinks will provide value to a buyer. If you’re recruiting investors, you’re selling a business plan that you think will provide value (returns) to your investors.

The nonprofit fundraiser is selling a vision of the world. “If you contribute to this organization, you’ll help us achieve a better world.” The fundraiser is promising “returns” on an “investment,” but those returns are neither financial nor quantifiable—and they often take a long time to “mature.”

The nonprofit fundraiser’s job is likely the hardest sales job (if we account for quality of the product—nothing is harder than selling a bad product!). Selling goods promises an immediate value. Selling an investment promises (with risk) a full refund of your investment, along with financial returns on a realistic timeline. In both of these cases, the salesman need only tap into the buyer’s self-interest.

In selling a “vision of the world,” we are tapping into a deeper aspect of a donor’s humanity (we are generous creatures more than we are selfish creatures), but an aspect often more latent and unexercised today.


And so comes the cheesiness. This cheesiness does not apply to in-person meetings. In those cases, a fundraiser actually isn’t trying simply to close a gift. This-or-that gift is poor fodder for advancing a mission for the long term. During meetings, the fundraiser is trying to close gifts, yes, but he’s ultimately trying to foster a real relationship with the donor so that she’ll be involved in the organization’s work for many years to come.

But so much of fundraising doesn’t happen in person.

When you’re not together in person, you need to find a way to motivate a donor to act—to make the very strange move of taking time out of her day in order to give away her hard-earned cash … and now. For that action to make any sense, you need to articulate the “return” on that “investment.”

(To be clear, “investment” and “return” is not language to use with donors. It is the structure of the communication, but it should not be how you communicate with them. You’re “selling” the mission, and the only reason to “buy” is to realize some desired end which is not personal gain, but some improvement in the world.)

And therein lies the need for cheese. We need to offer donors and prospective donors a reason to make a gift, and that reason is that they can realize some good right now—otherwise, they’ll wait and never make the gift.

Many, perhaps most, organizations don’t have any real urgency to receiving this or that gift right now, and so ginning up the motivations to “act now” can seem cheesy and inauthentic. Of course, fundraising may be inauthentic, but it isn’t necessarily so. Fundraising communications are simply a way to help a donor see the value of her gift to your organization. With your gift today, you’ll help us solve this problem today!

Make sure that when you write to donors, you focus the pitch and give them a reason to act now. You should avoid gimmicks, but don’t shy away from creating some urgency for your donors.

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