One Size Fits All? (Not So Much)

One Size Fits All? (Not So Much)


22 August 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I was amused recently by another Vu Le blog post. It was written in response to an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (Why I Stopped Donating to Your Organization), written from the perspective of a donor, in which the donor was lamenting not being recognized appropriately. The donor was asking for better communication in between requests for money and suggesting that charities focus on smaller gifts and donors in addition to large ones, keep the longer relationships in mind, know more about why donors give, and respond promptly to questions and gifts. His message was simply this: charities that completely ignore me stop getting my money.

Le lampooned this article as being so much whining from a donor who didn’t understand that nonprofit leaders have much more important things to do (Why I’m No Longer Donating to Your No-Good, Very Bad Organization). Le’s posts are often scathingly funny, and this was no exception.

Both pieces are well worth reading.


But there IS a problem, and I believe Le’s post misses the point. The nonprofit world is a competitive marketplace. If you fail to communicate appropriately with donors (at every level) – if you forget that donors are people and treat them more as ATM machines – you will lose in the long run, regardless of how unfair that might seem.

Sure, you have better things to do. Sure, donor stewardship is a pain. But if you are the nonprofit in your community that takes forever to get back to donors who have questions, or thank them for giving when they do, and if everyone else communicates right away, you look bad, and donors stop giving money. And conversely, if you are the organization in your community that responds right away when others do not, you look great, and donors will tend to give more.


More and more, it feels to me like we’re trying to raise more money by cutting corners. Doing something once and expecting it to work under every scenario.

I see this when saying thank you to those who support us becomes a chore – waiting a week or two to collect enough checks to “warrant” spending the time to get acknowledgements ready.

I also see this in appeal letters that ask members to “be generous” again this year instead of asking for a specific amount of money based on what they gave last year and what you know about why they give.

I see it in the prevalence of “remit” envelopes with ask amounts that start at $25 and get sent even to people who gave $100 last year.

I see this with land trusts that have just one “landing page” for their website (again starting at $25), with options for giving monthly, giving one-time, giving annually, giving through their will, and volunteering – instead of using multiple landing pages for the same purposes.


The truth is that “the donors” are not singular and monolithic. Treating them as if they were is NOT the best way to raise money.

Taken to a logical extreme, the best way to raise money would be to know each donor so well, that you know why they might choose to make extraordinary gifts. To actually remember that they are individuals. Address their specific interests and passions. And tailor each specific ask those specific reasons. Show that you KNOW what they gave last year (by thanking them for it) before asking for this year’s gift. Don’t use labels on the envelope.

It’s not very efficient. It doesn’t do you any good, either, if it costs your organization $100 in time to raise $25 in donations. And for some organizations, it’s not even possible, given the realities of available time and competing demands for it. That’s why we segment and simplify. But the more bespoke your approach, the better the result will be.

In other words, when you “appeal” to someone based on their known specific interest in a particular project, program, or outcome, they will give more money than when you communicate to them more generally.


So how, in blazes, are we supposed to learn their specific interests?

I’m so glad you asked! Here are five ideas:


Ask them.

Use the acknowledgement process. “Here are three of our current priorities. Which of them would you be most interested in learning more about?

Keep track of the responses you get in your CRM.


Host themed events

Provide a series of three events (two in person and one virtual) that provide a brief “update” on a particular land trust project or program. Don’t ask for money directly but tilt the presentation toward showing why additional funding might be needed. Show them that money from donors like them is making a difference. The people who attend will be those specifically interested in that project or program. Keep track in your CRM.

Rinse and repeat for several other projects – perhaps as often as three or four times in a year.

HINT: Most land trusts put these programs together for Board meetings anyway. Those programs could be adapted for more general use. PLUS, asking a Board member to make the presentation will take you farther than leaning on staff to do it.


Host engagement events targeted at specific ages

Library lectures are unlikely to draw audiences younger than 50. Bike races are unlikely to draw audiences older than 70. Grandparent/grandchild events are less likely to draw people in their 30s and 40s.

On the other hand, each of these events is likely to draw an audience of those whose connections to the organization are very similar. By getting together, they are not only engaged individually, but they will tend to reinforce each other’s commitment as well.

Keep track in your CRM.


Simplify the website landing page

People give for emotional reasons. The more intellectual information you require from them when they want to give, the less inclined they will be to give impulsively. Instead of listing all the possibilities and asking donors to choose, make giving simpler:

__________ $35                     __________ Other

[Optional] What motivated you to make this gift today?



If you MUST use pre-printed Remittance Envelopes, use them ONLY for those who gave less than $100 last year

Letters that start with Dear Friend, or Greetings! are bad enough. But when the letter asks the recipient to “be generous again this year,” when they are addressed using a label, and when the response device is a pre-printed Remittance Envelope – the combination sends the unmistakable message of anonymity. And the leap from there to a feeling of “my gift really counts” and “I am valued” is a very long one.



In the end, remembering that donors are people, too – with their own interests in giving, reasons to be involved, and communications needs – will help you raise more money.

Cutting corners cost you money in lost opportunities, most of which you will never see. And whining about having to work that hard is just – whining.



Cheers, and have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Wunderphotos1951 courtesy pixabay



Share this!
  • Robert Ross
    Posted at 10:35h, 22 August

    Thank you David for posting both articles, both raise a very important strategic issue. From a personal perspective I’ve been amazed over the past several years that many executive directors and some development officers express and apparently operate under the thoughts expressed in Vu Le’s blog post. Admittedly, as a donor only, interested in helping development officers raise money for their charities, I have a strong donor bias. Those attitudes distress me. Simple formula, admittedly not always easy to implement. Ask, thank, tell, tell, tell, tell, tell, tell, tell [at least], ask, thanks, tell, tell …. [repeat regularly]. Do that, and you will make me a loyal donor.

  • Alice Hudson Pell
    Posted at 09:11h, 22 August

    Yes, yes, yes! It’s so hard to find that “sweet spot” between personalization and efficiency, but it’s so important!

  • Sally Cross
    Posted at 08:01h, 22 August

    I too admire Vu Le and the passion he has for the nonprofit sector. However, you’re correct, he tends to overlook the emotional aspect of giving.