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The art and science of direct response fundraising is like the cadence of a flowing river, engaging donors as they flow through, month by month.

You’ve heard of the “whale hunter” in fundraising: the gift officer who is always in pursuit of the next mega gift, searching in the wide-open sea for someone who can make a transformative gift to the organization.

There’s a place for whale hunting, but there’s another type of fishing. The goals and strategies are different than whale hunting, and it’s more predictable. It’s fishing from the riverbank, throwing lines into the moving water—many lines if you’re good at fishing—and attracting fish moving by.

Every river is always moving. We may be stationary as we cast our lines, but the water is constantly sliding by as it flows to the sea. This movement mirrors the seasonality and cadence of direct response giving.

The nature of smaller gifts—of direct response gifts—is that they derive from a different source than major gifts or legacy giving. Major gifts come from a donor’s assets, but smaller direct response gifts come from a donor’s monthly budget, specifically the discretionary portion of the monthly budget. Once all the monthly expenses are measured against monthly income and savings are calculated, what is left falls under “discretionary spending.” That is the bucket that we are trying to tap into in direct mail fundraising.

Discretionary spending happens from month to month, sliding by like river water. This money will soon be spent on something, whether it is on discretionary purchases or as a charitable gift to meet a need and express a donor’s values and desire for a better world. To miss out on a given month is to miss out on an opportunity to engage with many of your donors.


There are fundamental implications from this relationship between discretionary spending and direct response fundraising.

Amateur fishermen may haphazardly throw lines into the water, unsure what will work or how much they should be casting and reeling. But talented fishermen have a plan before they head to the bank. They know what they are taking with them. They know how much they’ll be casting. They know what to use in what season and what part of the day. They know where to cast from the bank.

These talented fishermen have greater yields than the casual amateur because of their knowledge and planning. And the analogy holds with direct response fundraising. Annual planning is essential. Before you “head to the river bank,” map out your direct response strategy for the year. You should know when you’ll be “casting,” and what you’ll be offering. How often are you “casting,” and who is it for?

When you construct an annual fundraising plan, plot out the months and seasons of the year with the intent of maximizing donor engagement and cultivating long-term relationships with our donors. Every month is another opportunity to engage with your donors, and so you want to be consistently informing, asking, reporting, and thanking donors in the ongoing cycle of giving.

Of course, much of a fisherman’s knowledge is hard-earned over time. He knows what fish respond to and when because he’s been fishing for many years. The same holds with your direct response program. Some of the knowledge will be hard-earned, testing strategies and paying attention to results to learn what works and when.

As a result, a direct response program can vary significantly from one nonprofit to the next due to donor and organizational culture—but the basic principles of relationship and engagement throughout the monthly and seasonal calendar are the same. The river of donor dollars (and interest) is constantly flowing by and your success as a fisher—or a fundraiser, rather—will depend upon continuously casting lines into the water and learning over time the best way to engage your donors to maximize their giving.


And here is where the analogy breaks down. Direct response fundraising always contains an element of urgency. Fish take the bait because they are hungry now, and the food is there now. The fishermen need to know what type of bait the fish like, but the urgency is baked into the nature of the offer: food.

You, a direct response fundraiser, need to create a sense of urgency. Your donor is giving, not taking, and they are giving out of abundance, not need. So your offer—the “bait”—needs to pull at the heartstrings and make a compelling case for giving today. Show your donor that while they have discretionary money right now, they can make an impact with that money right now.

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