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What’s in Your Nonprofit’s Future?

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Come and Gaze into My Crystal Ball!

“You will meet a tall, dark stranger, encounter a shaman in Outer Mongolia, and ride a yak.”

If a seer had predicted that future before I met my husband Don, I’d have laughed in her face. It’s true that I love adventure and want to ride every animal that can be ridden, but Outer Mongolia?

Yet 2011 found us crouched with a golden-eyed shamaness in her smoky tent by Lake Khövsgöl.

And yes, I got to ride a yak.

Magic didn’t whisk me there. It was the sweet fruit of a series of steps, decisions made, opportunities offered, and actions taken.

You don’t need magic to boost gifts to your nonprofit, so skip the soggy tea leaves and crystal balls. Focus on what you can do to spark support, right now, next month, and next year. Here’s how you can use sensory language, monthly giving, and planned giving to brighten your nonprofit’s future. Right Now: Grab your donor’s attention with sensory language.

Since the dawn of time, humans have savored stories rich in sensory language and metaphor. In fact, we’re wired for it. We understand abstract or generic language. But more of our brain lights up at words that evoke sight, sound, touch, smell and even taste.

Look at the appeal you’re writing. Can you replace “a difficult period” with “crunch”or “bitter?” Can you describe an “effective” program as one that “illuminates” your constituents’ lives or “flows?” If you do, you will engage both your reader’s body and their intellect.

Let’s say you begin a proposal with a dry recitation of your nonprofit’s history and mission. Make it come alive by conveying the experience of your cause. Here’s how my colleague, Spencer Koelle, opened a proposal for the Elmwood Park Zoo:

Stride through the gates of the Elmwood Park Zoo and meet the steely gaze of a bald eagle."

Sensory metaphors can capture your audience’s imagination. Consider these:

  • It got dark

  • A curtain of darkness tumbled down

Which is more vivid? Which will you remember?

Feel free to create your own original metaphors. Avoid those deadened by overuse or time. The phrase “toe-the-line” may convey limits, but it’s unlikely to evoke the image of a foot. Click here to learn more about the power of metaphors in conjuring visual images.

Next Month: Jump-start your recurring gifts program.

Americans procrastinate.

Almost one third of annual gifts occur in December, and 12% of all giving happens in the last three days of the month. So it’s a great time to convert annual donors to monthly ones, to persuade new supporters to start with recurring gifts, and to plan how to keep these donors once you have them.

Convert your annual donors to monthly givers. These loyal supporters may hesitate to write a big check at the end of this chaotic year, but be willing to make small, monthly donations instead.

  • Invite them to give slightly more than their annual gift. For example, $10 is nothing to a $100 donor. If they give $10/month instead of a one-time donation, they’ll have given $120 by next year.

  • Make it the default on your donate page. It’s called “reduction of choice,” and who doesn’t want a simpler life? This approach ensures more new donors choose monthly giving from the get-go and makes one of your most critical fundraising techniques the star of the show.

Acquire: My brilliant colleague, Jessica El-Zeftawy of the Frederick County (MD) Public Libraries, started a program that’s nearing $1 million in recurring gifts. Here are some of her tips:

  • Advertise, advertise, advertise! Promote your monthly giving program all year long. People can’t donate to your program if they don’t know it’s there!

  • Test your technology: Make sure your website can handle the monthly donations. Outdated (or nonexistent) software can kill your recurring gifts program before it’s born.

Retain: Once you’ve acquired your monthly champions, you want to keep them. Jessica recommends you thank the heck out of them and celebrate their commitment.

  • Celebrate their give-a-versary by sending small, unexpected gifts, such as socks bearing your nonprofit’s logo.

  • Invite them to increase before their year is up. Jessica has automated this. Monthly donors might receive a request to go from $10/month to $12/month after 4 months or 6 months or 8 months. These incremental increases can add up to big dollars for your nonprofit.

Next Year: Start a planned giving program, no matter how small.

The coronavirus has stripped us of many illusions, including that of our own immortality.

We can no longer avoid thinking about our own deaths. Creation of wills and charitable bequests have spiked during the pandemic, according to a new report from FreeWill, a company that provides free online estate-planning tools. March 2020 saw a 400% increase in wills with bequests over last year. When infections seemed to subside, so did creation of wills with bequests; as the number of cases swelled, so did estate planning.

If you have a small development department, planned giving can be intimidating, arcane, and legalistic. But a bequest is the largest gift many of your donors will ever make.

Don’t you want to be included?

Even small nonprofits can take three simple steps to encourage planned gifts:

  1. Add the line, “Have you included our nonprofit in your will?” to your website, stationary, and gift reply cards. Planned giving is more about marketing than it is about lawyers.

  2. Include planned giving in your nonprofit’s gift acceptance policy. Reviewing how your nonprofit can accept gifts is an easy way to get you (and your board) thinking about basic systems, such as how to accept gifts of stock.

  3. Create a legacy society. This entails three simple steps, naming, identification and recognition. Coming up with a cool name for your legacy society is fun, and your board will enjoy it. As in #1 above, provide donors with opportunities to self-identify, to indicate they’ve included you in their estate plans. They don’t need to share the details. Then, recognize them in your publications and events

After all, who among us wants to die having made no impact? Having changed nothing? Legacy societies ensure that we remember donors whose actions have changed lives.

If you’re still a bit squeamish, here’s some language to encourage planned giving. Listen to this free conversation with Dr. Russel James to learn how you can discuss gift planning sensitively during COVID 19.

“Live the life you have imagined.” – Henry David Thoreau

Athletes use visualization, adding as much sensory detail as possible. Muhammad Ali famously imagined his triumph in advance, over and over and over again. The salty smell of sweat, the stark lights, the referee declaring him world champion. Visualization works because our bodies can’t tell the difference between reality and what we vividly imagine. And athlete or not, visualization is easy, accessible, and effective.

You may use negative visualization without realizing it. You worry, “I’ll be late,” or “He’ll hate it.”

Imagine a different future instead. A future where your sensory language makes readers laugh, cry, shiver and want to help. A future where recurring gifts pour in and every faithful supporter remembers your cause in their will.

Imagine and enact these tips, and you won’t need magic after all.

Let me know I can help at

Valerie M. Jones, CFRE

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