According to Foundation Center, there are just 12 items on the checklist for beginning a nonprofit organization. It’s really not that hard; in fact, more than 46,000 additional organizations received their 501(c) status from the IRS between April 2015 and March 2016, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

While I’m touting statistics, here’s one more: A Gallup poll found that more than eight in 10 Americans gave money to charity in the last year (or at least said they did).

And yet, there is one last statistic that makes fundraisers stay awake at night—the sorry state of donor retention overall, and especially retention of first-time donors. You may be better or worse than the national average (46% and 25% respectively), or you may have no idea, but that doesn’t change the fact that, as an industry, we continue to churn through donors.

And thus, the job of fundraising gets harder and harder.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how nonprofit organizations differentiate themselves from other organizations, primarily because this is the time in the course when my students have to write a case statement for a nonprofit of their choice. I stress over and over, “Why should I give to your organization, and not another, similar one?”

I know from experience that there is often a gap between the activities that an organization does and the activities it promotes. In response to the challenge of limited time and attention of donors and prospects, fundraisers feel forced to simplify and present concepts that are more quickly grasped. It’s challenge to clearly show what’s distinct when research shows our average audience member has an attention span of just eight seconds (compared to goldfish with a nine-second attention span).

So we look for shortcuts. But, as Heath Shackleford, writing for Fast Company, reminds us:

  1. A logo does not equal a brand.
  2. A website does not equal a digital presence.
  3. A Facebook page does not equal an engaged community.
  4. A press release does not equal press coverage.

I suggest a nonprofit differentiates itself to its donors when it is:

Genuinely personal.

It’s easy to talk at donors but not always to them. We send communications, but we don’t really communicate. Vow to do what you can to make your organization’s donors know that you know they are individuals, not simply part of the mass of donors.

Openly thankful.

Donors chose to give to your organization. Saying “thank you” is the first step to showing them that they made a good choice. Is it really saving money when we ignore a basic courtesy that could be the difference between retaining and losing a donor?

Actively listening.

We plan our strategies, agonize over every word in our eAppeals and direct mail letters and consider dozens of images before we settle on just one. For me, every fundraising project I did felt like my first-born child, and I bristled when it was criticized. But communication is personal and remembering always that “I am not the target audience” can remove the sting of “constructive” criticism – and even lead to improvements.

Proud of what makes it different.

What do you do that sets you apart from everyone else? Why does the world (or at least the town) need your organization? You won’t be “one size fits all,” but you just may have a more significant (e.g., lasting) relationship with the donors you have. Jack Trout in his 2000 book Differentiate or Die wrote, “If you ignore your uniqueness and try to be everything for everybody, you quickly undermine what makes you different.”

It takes work to differentiate and to make that difference meaningful to your audience. In Trout’s words, “If you build a differentiated product, the world will not automatically beat a path to your door…. Every aspect of your communications should reflect your difference. Your advertising. Your brochures. Your Web site. Your sales presentations.”

Forget the other 1.5 million nonprofits; just be the one that your donors trust to fulfill the good and differentiated mission that matters to them.


Pamela Barden, CFRE, is a Direct Response Fundraising Strategist and Copywriter. With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations.  She specializes in writing fundraising copy, P.R. materials and instructional articles, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy.

As Vice President and Group Director at Russ Reid (2006–2009), she was responsible for the management of the largest single account for this marketing agency specializing in nonprofit fundraising.  Her nonprofit experience includes leading the fundraising work for International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (2001–2006); World Relief Corporation (1988–2001) and Youth for Christ/USA (1979–1988).

Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from the DMA, a Distinguished Instructor for UCLA Extension, adjunct instructor at University of La Verne and a weekly columnist for “Today in Fundraising.”

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