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Writing a letter to ‘lapsed’ donors

23 Feb

From time to time I make small donations to NGOs, just to see the kind of communication I get in return. Last year, I’d made a donation to a large NGO that raises a load of money from individual supporters. I subsequently stopped giving.

This is the letter I got from them last week.

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Let’s take a good look at the letter.

The last time we heard from you was on 2/21/2017 when you made a contribution of 500 for 1 Child with average working days of 232. 

This opening para tells me nothing, except that the NGO has a database and that I’m on it. It also tells me that the form letter that the NGO uses for its lapsed donors needs urgent work as it adds phrases that don’t make any sense (1 Child with average working days of 232.)

We believe you can bring about a remarkable change in the lives of many school-going children. As you are a valuable part of our family, we invite you to continue participating in our endeavour. As in the past, all your future contributions too will certainly help our organisation to impact lives of children with…

These are just words. There’s no compelling reason to give, no emotion. What’s the remarkable change that my donation brought about, or can bring about? Can you show me, instead of telling me? And why many school-going children? Tell me about one such child.

And why ask me to “participate” and not to “donate” or “give”? Words like “valuable part of our family,” “our endeavor,” are fluff. They are words that are so commonly used in marketese – both NGO and corporate – that readers tune them out.

Here’s how I’d write this letter to a “lapsed” donor.

Dear Bharati,

We’ve missed you.

When you gave us Rs 500 in Feb 2017, you made sure that Raju got a fresh, hot, meal every day for six months that kept him focused in class, instead of being hungry. That’s why your donation counts.

Without the midday meals that donations from individuals like you provide, hunger stops children from paying attention, till they completely lose interest and drop out of school.

Now, as we ramp up to meet the needs of a new school year, I ask you to consider supporting us again. Your donation of Rs 950 before 31 March 2018 will ensure that a child like Raju will not go hungry at lunch for a whole year.

Click right here to donate [LINK TO DONATE]

Thank you,



So why is this version better?

  1. It has a compelling personal reason why my donation counts. (Keep a child like Raju fed and focused.)
  2. It creates a sense of urgency that’s legitimate. (The school year is about to begin.)
  3. It makes a concrete ask for Rs 950 with an offer that I can’t refuse (Rs 950 will feed a child for a whole year!)

Words matter. Use them well.

How to get your donors to stay

25 Apr

In April 1992, 25 years ago, a book was published that should have changed the course of non-profit fundraising: Relationship Fundraising, by Ken Burnett. I say should have, because what the book talked about was common sense: Treat the donor like a person and forge a respectful, listening relationship, and the donor will stay with you for a lifetime.

Sounds simple, right? But as it turns out, common sense is awfully hard to implement. In particular, when faced with the compelling attraction and urgency of acquiring donors.

In an article to mark the 25th anniversary of the book, Ken warns against the kind of fundraising that the UK subsequently pursued: “Data swapping, mass direct mail campaigns, unscrupulous tactics and short-term income targets have all had their entrails publicly and painfully examined.”

We in India don’t have look very far to know that we are exactly on this path.

Data theft (aka swapping) is already here. Donors for one cause being solicited by tele-calling agencies for another. Face to face fundraisers diverting donors to causes based on targets that they need to meet. Not paying attention to basic calling courtesy to the donor – or, for that matter, attention to the dignity of the cause or person for whom donations are being raised. Not listening when donors say they do not want to be disturbed.

Here are five ways in which we can still steer this ship on to the right course:

  1. Look at communication as an investment, and not as a cost.

Investing in donor relationships requires good, i.e. effective and sustained, communication. “Good” does not mean glossy. But it does mean putting yourself in the donor’s shoes. What does the donor really want to know? What would make the donor’s eyes light up, strike a ray of the warm and fuzzy that we all need? What would it take to make the donor feel special and feel a part of the cause?

Communicate, consistently, professionally, warmly, and well, and keep doing it. There’s no other way of building long-term relationships.

  1. Technology should make relationship fundraising better, not push us further away from the donor.

We have donor databases, mailing systems, ways of personalisation, and means of communication more advanced than any generation of fundraisers. All of this can make relationship fundraising easier and better.

When we accept that the fundamental premise is to treat the donor like a person, we can customise all these forms of technology in ways that make our communication respectful, courteous, and open to dialogue and feedback.

  1. Plan for the short, medium and the long-term.

A fundraising strategy needs to span the short, medium and long-term. So, while we plan for acquisition – and before the donor walks in through the door – we have a plan for how to nurture the donor in the medium and long term.

  1. Budget for institutional strengthening.

Organisations also need to plan for institutional strengthening, a vital part of which is income diversification. One way would be to have a conversation with long-term donors and sponsors about the need to invest in building capacities in fundraising and communication. For this to happen, donors need to get off the impact bandwagon that seems to be the guiding principle these days and look at strengthening the institutions they fund.

  1. Build in ethical standards for fundraising.

As an agency working exclusively with not-for-profits, we’ve listened to dozens of problem statements from our clients on the way fundraising in currently being done. All this has resulted in us putting in place a system of checks and balances that are firsts for the not-for-profit space in many ways. We find that putting it down in writing – so that everyone understands what our ethical obligation to the clients and donors and people we serve are – and ensuring that these are legally enforceable, helps.

Ken concludes his article with a dire warning: “If you are reading this in a country that isn’t part of the U.K., watch out. There’s a regulator about. He or she could soon be coming after you, as ours did for us.” Nuff said.

Can you guilt a donor into giving?

12 Apr

The short answer is, “Yes, the first time, you might be able to.”

The better question is: Will a donor who’s given to my cause because of guilt become a long-term supporter?

The even shorter answer is, “Probably never.”

Let’s see how guilt plays out in the place where it’s used most often in fundraising in India: Tele-calling.

The other day I get an agency call raising money for a medical emergency to do with a child. The caller painted a picture that was graphic and designed to press the guilt button. The inference was: “If you don’t give right now, this child will die.” All designed to evoke extreme emotions that are uncomfortable, to say the least.

Guilt in such circumstances might induce a donor to give right then, if only to just get away from the call and its associated feelings of discomfort. But think about it: What is the common human response to anything that provokes feelings of extreme discomfort? Avoidance. Cross the road, close the book, turn the page, not pick up the call, kind of avoidance.

When our communication uses guilt as a recurring motif, our donors will avoid us with a “oh no not these guys again” kind of fervour.

So, if the donor will not stick with the cause in the long-term, why do tele-calling agencies use such guilt-inducing scripts again and again?

Because, most agencies get paid on acquisition. Aka the number of donors they recruit. Not on whether the donors stay with the cause in the longer term. In fact, if the donor drops out, it’s to the agency’s advantage, because they can now be “re-recruited.”

In the long term, overuse of guilt as a motive leads to empathy fatigue, where people start to tune out genuine appeals for help as a matter of course. And that has huge consequences for the entire fundraising sector.

Ponder over this before you sign off on your tele-calling script. I’m off to delete a message from a friend on my Facebook wall that reads: “I’m gonna unfriend some people this week. Let me see how many on my friends’ list copy, paste this message exactly and post it on their timelines, while turning cartwheels at the same time. Do this within 12 hours, or you’ll be unfriended.” Hmm… threat-based fundraising, anyone?

Fundraising is more than just getting donors in. It’s about retaining donors.

5 Apr

Plan for it now – or never.

Did you know? Research shows that the donors you worked so hard to get in through the door in the peak fundraising season – from Dussehra last year right up to 31st March this year – are already leaving, or have left.

Consider these findings, from a study on Fundraising Effectiveness Survey conducted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and The Urban Institute in the US.

  1. A gain of every 100 donors in a year is offset by the loss of 105 donors who just stopped giving.
  2. For every Rs 100 raised, not-for-profits lose Rs 96 because of a drop in other donations.

Let’s unpack these facts for you.

  1. A gain of every 100 donors in a year is offset by the loss of 105 donors who just stopped giving.

Which means that you end up spending more money every year replacing the donor who just left.

And the sad part is: These donors didn’t need to, probably didn’t want to, leave.

Donors don’t just stop giving. They stop giving because we stop listening to them, or paying them attention. When we treat them like real people – rather than numbers on a database – they stay.

  1. For every Rs 100 raised, not-for-profits lose Rs 96 because of a drop in other donations.

Which also means that you worked hard to raise money to replace the money you would otherwise lose.

And why do you lose that money? Because most not-for-profits pay more attention to donor acquisition, and not as much to what they call donor retention.

Acquisition is what’s in fashion. Acquisition is what consultants and agencies sell you. Acquisition is what the leadership wants to see to decide next year’s fundraising budget.

And that’s the trickiest chicken and egg problem we’ve seen. So here’s a word of advice.

This year, when you present your fundraising plan and budget, take a long-term view. Plan for donor nurturing, in addition to acquisition.

And this is the right time to do so. Most non-profits tend to look at post March giving, leading up to May and beyond, as a “dry” period. But in our experience, it’s anything but. Giving tends to continue over the summer months. But more importantly, it’s when donor nurturing can be at its peak.

As the ink dries on your fundraising plans, ask yourself this. Issues of long-term development and social justice require committed, regular and continued support.

How do we influence one-time supporters to become long-term investors in these issues?

How do we move them from being one-time charitable givers to committed donors and finally, investors in long-term development and social justice?

If you want to talk at length about this, feel free to email me.

We have news for you

20 Mar

Listen up. Barapani is a full service fundraising company now.

We’ve taken the past few months to think hard, work on the numbers, and get this together for you.

Digital. Tele-calling. Events. Major donor fundraising. Media planning and buying. Full on fundraising, as we’d say in Bangalore. And a research lab to back this up.

We’ve been around as Barapani for seven full years now. And there’s one thing we’ve been focused on: How to get you and your not-for-profit to raise more money year after year for your work.

We have been around as the funding environment has evolved in the past couple of decades.  We have seen the rug being pulled from under the feet of some of us all too soon, as priorities of countries and donors have changed.

We’ve walked along with those of you who’ve been truly visionary and recognised that the road to building a committed base of long-term support does not lie in a single viral campaign or a flash mob, but in the often mind-numbing task of filling out donor details on an Excel sheet (or its rich-cousin alternative).

Not all of you have causes immediately attractive to an evolving public. Not all of you have something to offer that can be captured in a soundbite. We’ve walked alongside you as well.

In short, we’ve been around long enough to know a couple of things.

  1. What works very well in fundraising.
  2. Even more important. What doesn’t work in fundraising.

And so, today we’re announcing the start of a new Barapani. One that’s bigger, better and more focused on what you need.

Thank you for walking with us.


How to make statistics dance

1 Mar

“Imagine the world as a street. All houses are lined up by income, the poor living to the left and the rich to the right. Everybody else somewhere in between. Where would you live? Would your life look different than your neighbours’ from other parts of the world, who share the same income level? Welcome!”

This is Dollar Street, an online visual tool that makes everyday life on different income levels understandable. An invention of Anna Rosling Rönnlund at Gapminder, Dollar Street is an example of how data can be brought to life.

For not-for-profits, data is indispensable to effective communication. But the gap between using data and effectively using data is a wide one!

Most not-for-profits bung in a statistic in communication materials and expect the statistic to grow a mouth and tell its story.

Let’s put this to test.

Organisations that work on child sexual abuse in India often quote this statistic on prevalence:

More than 53% children in India report facing one or more forms of sexual abuse. (National Study on Child Abuse, April 2007)

While horrific to people working in the field, the statistic by itself does nothing to drive home why it is so.

But try telling it like this…

Every second child growing up in India has been sexually abused in one or more forms.

… and the appalling reality of child sexual abuse becomes instantly clear.

The first thing you can do, therefore, is: Bring your statistic to life. The simple act of rewriting the statistic above makes it much more real.

You can also add another layer of clarity by depicting the statistic as a visual. Even a simple illustration, as above, helps the reader visualise the extent of the problem.


The second thing you can do, therefore, is: Give your statistic a face.

And then you have a completely different level of use of data, where your data tells a story, paints a picture, illustrates a complex problem, often all of these at the same time.

See below a Slate infographic that shows how different groups of people in the Syrian war relate to one another. This infographic is all the more ingenious because it uses easily recognisable emojis to express how the different actors view one another.


Which brings us to the third point: Make it dance.

The Dollar Street example that we started with is an extreme example of the third level– it’s data that you can see and almost touch. It’s data that’s now a story.

Send us a statistic that you often use for your work – and we’ll pick the first one we get and turn it into a walking talking creature.

The #1 tip that makes your donate button click

13 Feb

Ask early, they say. Ask often, they say. The answer, you’d think, lay in a sprinkling of donation buttons on the website: Donate. DONATE NOW. DoNaTe (animated). Not so.

If the mystery of the perfectly positioned donate button has you confused, you’re not alone. Where should you put the donate button on your website? Above the scroll, of course, so that a reader can see it without moving down the page. But what else? While a lot of opinions exist on the colour, shape, size and font of the donate button, these are – while important aspects – not the #1 factor that drives potential donors to click.

The #1 factor to consider is not so much what you do with the donate button – as what you do around it. How do you engage your website visitors in a conversation that leads up to the donate button?

It comes back, as it usually does in fundraising, to storytelling.

The most powerful reason to give that you can offer your donors is a chance to be part of the change your work brings about. Bring that change alive for them on the website. Not in a separate link called “stories of change” or worse, “success stories” or ugh, “case studies.” Tell your story right up on the home page and let it dance.

People give to people, and not to organisations. We’ve heard that often enough. But how often do we find organisations describing themselves on the most prime real estate on the homepage: “We are a charitable trust aimed at xxxxxx,” and plonking the donate button right next to that! No donor will be moved to give by the registration specifics of your organisation. No donor will be moved to give by a jargon-filled statement of work – no matter how impressive or how enduring. No donor will be moved to give by the list of luminaries on your board.

What does, will and continue to move a donor is your mission. The reason you exist. The story of how your work helped a woman pull her children out of manual labour and gave them back their childhood, with a full belly and lessons at school. The story of how a village artisan now provides jobs to other artisans in his community.

The story need not be long – indeed, on a website, it can’t be. And resist the temptation to tell the whole story in four lines (Meena was poor. But thanks to us, now she’s working at xx).

How much of the story to tell, and how to tell it, are important judgments to make. A good story, when told well, moves people into clicking. Right then. Right there. And that’s where you need the donate button. Right around the most persuasive copy on your website – the story of change.

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See how the story of David and Dinesh gives you a flavour of the kind of change HOPE foundation has brought about: an incentive for young children to stay in school. The excerpt does not dwell at length on their family background, nor on the long-term changes in the family, but on just their love for dance. While a reader can click on the full story, the excerpt still tugs at the heartstrings. And the donate button is right next to it. Stories like these helped HOPE foundation take their online fundraising through the website up by 700+ per cent.

You can also do all of the above by evoking a picture of the problem that you’re addressing, and how the reader can be part of the solution. More on that, another day.

We’ve got nine more tips like this one to get your website in shape to raise money. Download our cheat-sheet, 10 ways your website can raise more funds, right here.

What is your donor’s creative impulse directed towards? And how does that affect your fundraising?

22 Aug

Most human beings think of themselves as being creative. Paul Arden’s book, “It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be” takes a look at a human life’s creative cycle through this diagram.


Let’s take a look at the years from the age of 15, right up to wherever you’d like to. Imagine your donor as a person situated somewhere on this circle of life. Which stage of life is she in? What is his creative impulse directed towards? Is she consumed by a need to change the world, in the throes of political awareness, hell bent on success or in a state of reinventing herself?

And then, take a look at the piece of communication that you’ve just put together for this donor. Does it speak to that impulse?

Are you thinking about bringing out a generic brochure? A word of advice: Don’t!

21 Aug

It hard, it’s cruel, but the No. 1 destination of most generic brochures is – I’ll say it out loud – the dustbin.

A generic brochure – also called an information brochure – is usually an A4/A5 sized brochure spilling over with information and stamp-sized photos. These are handed out by the armsful at conferences and workshops, and they are left behind – except by the most inveterate brochure collector – in the hotel room. (They’d have left it behind at the breakfast table, except that you had your beady eye on them!)

And that’s because it’s a generic brochure.

The dictionary defines generic as thus:

generic /dʒɪˈnɛrɪk/

adjective: characteristic of or relating to a class or group of things; not specific.

The noun is even more damning: a consumer product having no brand name or registered trademark (as in generic drugs).

Oops – did you see what just happened? The brochure, that very thing that you thought would sear your brand into the minds and hearts of people – could end up doing the very opposite.

You could have your logo on it in the biggest size possible, but it will still be unread and unloved.

And that’s because we sent it out into the world without an audience, a purpose, a message or an ask.


How to solve the problem of generic brochures

  1. Every brochure must have an audience in mind.

Who is the brochure for? And it has to be specific – individual donors who give up to Rs 5,000, large donors who give upwards of Rs 25,000, companies, and so on. It cannot be “the public at large.” If we wanted to address the public at large, we would call a rally and not print a brochure.

The target audience of the brochure determines the case for support that you make. It dictates the kind of language you use. And it determines the ask you make.

  1. Every brochure must have a purpose and message.

Why are you producing this brochure? What is your main message? And how will it be used?

You could say something like,

“The purpose of this brochure is to attract the attention of the 15 donors who fund reproductive health and rights, among the 100 who will be at the conference.

I want to let them know that we have pioneered an innovative way of engaging local religious leaders in family planning. I plan to talk to each of them face to face for five minutes, and leave this brochure behind as a reminder of the key points of our conversation.”

Ah-ha! Here’s a clue to planning the content of your brochure.

Instead of looking at it as the definitive A-Z guide to everything that you do, look at the brochure as a reminder to the reader of key points. And if that grabs their attention, they will go to your website for more information – or better still – call you!

The more well defined your target audience segment is, the more effective your brochure will be.

  1. Every brochure must tell the reader what to do.

So now that the reader has read your beautifully designed brochure with just the right amount of content, what do you want her to do? “Hmm. Nice” is not an acceptable answer. That’s the equivalent of “Whatever!” with the accompanying shoulder shrug.

You want the reader to do something for you, while they are basking in the afterglow of your awesome brochure. Something like:

  • Like our page on Facebook
  • Visit our website and check out this campaign
  • Fill in this response coupon and write out a cheque
  • Call the office to volunteer or drop of school supplies

A lot of small not-for-profit organisations might say, “We don’t have the money to produce different brochures for different audiences.” Then produce just one, for your most important target segment. For the others, use your annual report!

I remember years ago, Tribal Health Initiative in Sittilingi using copies of an article on them that appeared in The Reader’s Digest as a brochure for the longest time.

Tell us about the challenges you face when bringing out your brochure. Till tomorrow, then.

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