South African NPOs: Six things to avoid in fundraising emails

Gabrielle Ritchie | Director, The Change Room | 26th May 2017

Last night I participated in Gail Perry’s Fired-Up Fundraising webinar, How a Smart Fundraising Plan Can Transform Your Fundraising AND Save Your Butt. It was a brilliant reminder of some of the basics, the fundamentals, that organisations need to put in place for successful fundraising.  It also reminded me of some of the technical issues around fundraising communications, with particular reference to emails.

While Gail shared with us that last year’s US-based Giving Tuesday’s email campaigns saw 34% of mails ending up in spam, it is still a key mechanism for building support for non-profit causes, and for communicating fundraising messages.  So we really need to get it right.  I recently received two very horrible fundraising emails which reminded me not only how easy it is to get it wrong, but how many organisations are still getting it wrong.  With the unprecedented level of easy-to-access online resources, this should not be happening.  So I have a list, based on the two examples I referred to, on what to AVOID:

  1. Subject line – your subject header is your first and last opportunity to grab your readers’ attention, so make it work!  If you must include something like “[organisation’s name] fundraising event” then …. no, just kidding. Don’t use that subject line. Ever. Unless its an internal organisational event-planning email intended only for your colleagues.  Use that tiny window of opportunity (ie.the subject header) to communicate your key message – eg. Support [xxxx cause] – join us on [date]; or Join us in rocking to [xxx band] – and support [xxx cause]; or something unrelated to the event or to the fact that your support is needed. If it is an event, try something fun: How to spend your Saturday night having the most fun ever! Or if you are appealing for direct donation, try “Ten ways to support old people in your community”. Anything but ploddy and blunt – “Fundraising event” or “Appeal for donation” are designed to put people right off.
  2. Greeting – avoid a dead line such as “Good day” or “Good Afternoon Sir/ Madam” – with no personalisation. It is the coldest, most off-putting, most “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t care, but I want your money” kind of opening. And it puts mail recipients off just like that, in the opening line.  Ensure you include the recipient’s name, or title and surname. And get it right.  With the mail management software available, there is no excuse. If you really aren’t able to include names, at least start with something warm and friendly, like “Dear Friends”.
  3. Attachments – don’t include attachments. Just don’t. This is not what fudnraising emails are for. If you are mailing out to a predominantly cold list, an attachment will put people right off. I, like most others, don’t open mails with attachments from people I don’t know.  If you are mailing to a group of existing supporters, don’t make them do the work by now having to download and open an attachment!  If you need to space in an attachment, to include all your information, you are doing something wrong.
  4. Images – if you need to embed images in your mail, make them small!  As a fundraiser, you want to be keeping things as simple, easy and uncumbersome as possible. And you want images to come up right away – because if they are not included to grab attention (only a few seconds to do that!), then why did you include them?
  5. Content – you need to include encouraging text, that takes the mail recipient by the hand and (very quickly) leads them to an emotion.  No emotion = no point of contact.  Don’t bore readers with technical details about your organisation (eg. “:We are a registered NPO” – because if you aren’t, then get out of my mail box you hoaxer! That kind of info belongs in small print as part of your signature). Do not use the precious “real estate” of the readers screen for boring and unnecessary text. You want the reader to be excited about supporting you, whether that sense of heightened awareness is based on sympathy, empathy, self-interest, outrage, justice – it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that however your message makes them feel, it galvanises them to go to and participate in your Call to Action!
  6. Call to Action – this is absolutely critical in a fundraising email.  The purpose of the mail is to share an immediate, direct Call to Action that your recipients can reasonably achieve while they are reading your mail – for example “Go to our Donate page”, with a big DONATE button; or a big button saying “Get Involved – here’s HOW” (which must link to your website where there would be information on the multiple ways a prospective donor can support your work); include a “Get your tickets here” button, which takes the reader to a ticket-purchase page.  You get the idea. Bear in mind that people are not supporting your “fundraising”, they are supporting your “work” and the cause you are involved with – so use that effectively in your Call to Action!

Those are some basics – now go and craft the best fundraising mail ever! You (and your board and beneficiaries) will be so glad you did!


Is your organisation fit for philanthropy and fundraising?

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Gabrielle Ritchie, Director: The Change Room
27th May 2016
Are you fit for fundraising? What do you need to know to attract funding resources to your organisation?
A quick bullet list for you (ok, it might have got a bit long):
  1. There are no shortcuts in raising money. No quick fixes. No cutting corners.
  2. You have to have your governance in order. This is critical. No donor is going to fund an organisation with poor governance.  See  for the Independent Code of Governance for Non-profit Organisations in South Africa.  You can sign on to the Code.
  3. You have to have a plan – a plan for your work and a plan for your resourcing of that work. You know the line – failing to plan is planning to fail.  For a video discussion of the role and importance of planning in organisations see
  4. You have to be able to demonstrate excellent financial management – where everything tallies, regular financial reports are sent to your funders, and you have annual audited financial statements. There isn’t really any way around this.
  5. You need the skills and capacity to raise funds properly and professionally – however you parcel the work out, delegate to board members, get volunteers on board. Next week I will be posting on the basic skills sets required for effective organisational resourcing – keep a look-out.
  6. Your organisation must be clear about its mission, and must speak with one voice to communicate clear and coherent shared messages.  For good resources on this go to
  7. You must build a profile for your work – traditional media, social media, networking events, community forums etc. However you do it, you must share stories about what you do.  For a video discussion of this in the South African context go to
  8. You must have the required skills to implement your projects. Signs of poor project implementation means you either won’t get the money, or you might have to give money back to the donor.  For a short list of key skills go to
  9. Fundraising is an organisation-wide endeavour. Everyone is involved – either in providing excellent services, implementing great programmes, answering the phone professionally, writing good content and reports, managing the money, making sure your IT network functions, keeping your organisation’s premises clean. Everyone. Make sure they know that, and that they feel part of the team.
  10. Writing an annual report, no matter how short and simple, is a great way to make and keep friends.
  11. You must have a well-crafted case for support – so that you can explain simply and swiftly why what you do is important, and the ways in which your organisation provides unique value to the context in which you work. Know why you are special. Be able to speak about that with confidence.
  12. You know how everyone talks about proposal writing? It is one of the least important parts of the process of raising money. Well, it is not the most important – but for key things that donors look for in your approach to them, here is a short overview called The Power Pitch: non-profits on a mission to attract funding.
  13. The most important part is your capacity to speak passionately and expertly about your work and what you seek to achieve – to donors, to the people you work with, to potential partners, to relevant people in government, to the media.
  14. And finally (kind of…) – know how to engage professionally with your donors and your potential donors. Loads of people are wanting to access funding, so don’t mess your chances up by being sloppy, unprofessional, and by not following the basic rules.
  15. What are the basic rules? Communicate with your donors, be very very sure to thank them appropriately, acknowledge them in ways that work for both the donor and for your organisation, and keep them posted – on progress, on impact, on achievements, on milestones. Even on bad news, failures, things going wrong – don’t hide this stuff. Communicate! An e-mail, a phone-call, a handwritten letter, an image, an invitation to an event – it doesn’t matter how you do it, but keep doing it. Communicate.
  16. To do all that, you have to manage your donor contact data. You must know who supports you and how to contact them. Keeping this data up-to-date, with well-managed information on donor history with your organisation – critical.
Just to say it again – THANK and ACKNOWLEDGE. Communicate and keep contact data.

The Power Pitch: non-profits on a mission to attract funding

image from @deviantART

By Gabrielle Ritchie : Independent Advisor, Consultant and Service Provider to Grantseekers and Grantmakers

What do donors look for in a pitch or proposal?

I had the excellent fortune of being able to participate as an audience member in a Donor Dragon’s Den this morning at Inyathelo (the non-profit for which I was – until recently – director of programmes, where I established and ran amongst many other initiatives a programme to promote South African philanthropy).  I left Inyathelo a few months ago to pursue my own more focused interests, and it is now a real treat to experience as a client the excellence of an organisation with which one has been integrally involved.  What a great use of a few hours, with Eskom’s load-shedding accommodated into the mix and all!

So what is a Donor Dragons’ Den and how did this first Den work at Inyathelo? (I say “first” as I believe there are others to follow!)

Non-profits were invited to submit a one-page written case for support.  From all of the submissions, four organisations were selected to pitch to a panel of six funders, in front of an audience of approximately 100 people from various non-profits and other initiatives around Cape Town. Each pitch needed to be delivered within five minutes – and, along with a spoken pitch, could include powerpoint and other adjunct materials.  This Dragon’s Den was perhaps a little different to the usual DD format as it did not involve funding directly and there was no cash award for the best pitch.

So why did it work so well from my point of view?

It worked for a number of reasons – let me bullet point here:

  • There was a power panel of donors – including corporate funders, private foundations, and community funders.
  • Four non-profits were brave enough to stand up in front of an audience, not only comprising a donor panel but also including 100 colleagues and peers from the non-profit sector.
  • All of us could listen, firstly to the pitches and then to the donor feedback – a fantastic learning opportunity!
  • While there was no funding award for the top pitch, there was a great bag of benefits including tickets to Inyathelo’s upcoming September 2015 Advancement Academy, and a subscription to Inyathelo’s Advancement Academy
  • There was genuine interest and enthusiasm in the room around how each pitch was presented, and in what the donor panel’s comment and feedback was on each pitch
  • The donor panel engaged fully with each presentation, and their detailed feedback on each was thoughtful, careful, constructive and succint – providing insights for all participants to take to apply to their own next set of pitches and their organisational cases for support.

My key take-aways for non-profits, from the donor panel critique, were:

  1. However your case for support is presented, ensure that you tell a compelling story.
  2. Take the donor on a “key points” journey in the short time or space you have to present your case.
  3. The “Donor Grid” is a really helpful frame when selecting what to include/exclude from your pitch or introduction – Story, Statement, Statistics, Solution. There you have it plain and simple.  Provide those in clear, punchy linked narrative, and you are already on a more likely path to success.
  4. Donors see evidence of sustainability as critical – and they don’t only look at funding sustainability.  Donors find it really compelling when an organisation can present or refer to a visible named group of committed drivers/supporters who will BE there for the organisation, and who are deeply committed to its sustainability.
  5. Income generation is a very important criterion in assessment of a case for support. Indicators are sought by donors with regard to viability of income generation. Evidence of active efforts to generate income, based on selling products or services, is deemed a key positive pointer (but, paradoxically, won’t necessarily attract donor funding! Bit of a tightrope there!).
  6. If an organisation is in the brilliant position of getting to pitch directly to a donor, it is the quality of the spoken presentation (passion, integrity, punch) that will win the day – but this must be matched equally with whatever material you leave behind.  A personal pitch and a written piece must work together, and each must be equally powerful.
  7. If you are able to present an in-person pitch, and you do use a powerpoint, ensure that your spoken word matches the powerpoint slides in such a way that pitch and powerpoint both complement and strengthen each other.  One can bring the other down.
  8. It seems REALLY obvious – but you MUST make an ask! The Dragon’s Den panel indicated an appreciation for a specific ask, a specific budget amount for a specific piece of work.
  9. In an in-person pitch, best you know who you are dealing with.  Funding decision-makers are people too – therefore some will appreciate a lot of detail while others are looking for big picture indicators and strategic approach.  Know who you are talking to.
  10. If you have developed a leave-behind pamphlet or one-pager, great infographics work well.  But they need to make a good, stark, unmissable point.
  11. Tell stories that make your organisational work come alive!
  12. It is possible to involve organisational beneficiaries or clients in your pitch or your organisational storytelling.  In-person contributions, though often incredibly powerful, come with a caution from donor panelists around the power politics and possibility of exploiting the holders of those stories.  This is really good to think through and for one’s organisation to be very clear about.

So there you have it.  If you do ever get to pitch to a donor in person.

Most organisations, though, don’t manage to arrange face-time with funding decision-makers.  How, then, do the above points apply when submitting a written case or proposal?

Here is my shot at translating from the “Dragons’ Den” to a “Power Proposal”:

  1. Have a good story – strong, well written, with named individuals even if those names are changed for privacy and protections.
  2. Make a strong statement with your case – illustrating how your organisation provides sound solutions to abiding problems.
  3. Statistics and the use of numbers will provide a punchy, effective, in-your-face illustration of the scale of a problem and the impact of the solution.  Use them – but use them well. As above, great infographics work really well – just as a bad one can really detract from your story.
  4. Make a specific ASK. Mention an amount. Explain the amount. And show through narrative and budget how you will use the funding, what you hope to achieve with that budget, and how such a contribution or investment (yes, use those words!) would support the organisation in achieving specific, defined goals.
  5. It turns out that donors increasingly want to see evidence of sincere efforts to develop income-generating products and services.  Such product development initiatives, and related income, serve to demonstrate effort, intent and integrity on the part of the grantseeker to work toward a real diversification of income streams to support the organisation’s work.  This in itself is a whole topic – one I might get to address down the line!

If you think your organisation’s written case for support or your spoken pitch needs work, take the above into account.  And look out for Inyathelo’s next Dragon’s Den.  It’s well worth a couple of hours!