Fundraising Ninja

8 Secrets of Fundraising Ninjas

1 Comment

You’ve heard about regular ninjas. They’re highly trained people with such well-developed fighting skills that they appear to have supernatural abilities.

I don’t know if this kind of ninjas are mythic or real.

But I do know that there are fundraising ninjas. And they are absolutely real.

I’ve known a few.

They’re a lot like regular ninjas but less buff and a lot slower-moving. Also, they are somewhat less terrifying.

But fundraising ninjas do possess seemingly magical powers: Zing! Response rate is up 12%! Whoosh! Donor retention rates are in the top quartile for your charity sector! Zap! Your tired old address labels are now getting a great average gift!

That’s the awesome power of a fundraising ninja.

Here are eight tricks from fundraising ninja masters. I can’t guarantee you’ll attain full fundraising ninja status just from reading this column, but these ninja techniques just might give ordinary people the impression that you have special fundraising powers.

  1. Have a newsletter

The newsletter is the throwing star of the fundraising ninja. It slices through donor retention problems — and often does so while raising superb net revenue.

To do its “magic,” it has to be a donor-focused newsletter: That’s where you complete the circle, proving to donors that their giving makes a difference.

You do this with dramatic stories about the great things that happen because donors give. Every story makes it clear that it was possible “because of your giving.” It’s a powerful way to encourage donor connection with your cause — they’ll stay with you because they know they’re making a difference.

It doesn’t work if your newsletter is a brag-a-thon about how great your organization is. A newsletter like that is nothing like a throwing star; you might as well fling blobs of cookie dough at your foe.

  1. Put it in writing

Ninja archers never miss. That’s because they become the target. In a single flawless gesture, shooter, bow, arrow, and target become a unity.

The fundraising ninja never misses either. They accomplish this by putting the fundraising call to action in writing and doing so before the work on a fundraising project starts.

The fundraising call to action — the specific action you want donors to take — often gets blurred, hidden, or entirely lost. But when you put the call to action in writing first, you know without question whether it’s there, and you know if it has been drained of its power.

If people need to argue about what exactly the call to action should be, the debate should happen before all the other work is done. The worst possible way to figure out what you want to say is to keep trying to say it until you think you’ve got it. That’s how a fundraising rocket degenerates into a fundraising damp futon.

  1. Everything is a story

Even the most clumsy non-ninja knows how important stories are in fundraising. The ninja knows a deeper truth: Everything is a story. That is, everything should be a story.

A typical fundraising story is one that illustrates in a human and emotional way the need for the donor’s gift and the impact the gift will have. That’s just one kind of story. There are others:

  • A good deal (like matching funds) can be a great story.
  • A looming deadline can be a gripping narrative in the hands of a strong writer.
  • The best story of all: The donor’s history of generosity.

All of these things can be emotional, powerful stories. You just have to write them that way.

  1. Colored paper

I’ve heard that when regular ninjas create direct mail, they use all black paper and invisible ink that becomes legible only when boiled in dragon blood.

The fundraising ninja has a similar trick, but it’s much easier on everyone (especially dragons): Use colored paper for the return envelope. This usually boosts the response rate. It doesn’t cost much, but you can count on an improved response.

  1. Don’t use a photo

This trick requires the courage of a honey badger and the guile of a jackal. Because everyone knows that photos can be powerful motivators for charitable giving. They have the power to touch the heart directly in ways words can’t.

But fundraising ninjas know that photos can also be significant demotivators when they fail to communicate the right message — which happens astoundingly often.

Photos often accidentally give the message 
”everything is just hunky-dory here” more loudly than the words that are desperately trying to say there’s a problem that needs solving.

Sometimes, people in photos look like they have the wrong emotion for the situation. You mean to show need, but they look annoyed or even furious. Many photos are just messy and confusing, so viewers don’t get any particular message.

No photo at all is a much better choice than going with the wrong photo. Don’t be afraid to let words do the work for you if you don’t have the right photos. It’s far better than letting the wrong image hijack your message.

  1. Be old-fashioned

It’s said that ninjas are so fast, they can slip back through time and punch you back before you even know you’re fighting with them in the first place.

Fundraising ninjas have a similar ability: They are always a few decades behind the times in their communications and design styles. This gives them power because fundraising is aimed overwhelmingly at older people. That’s who gives.

What looks corny and dated to young people often looks comfortable and appropriate to donors. Design you and I like is often confusing and unattractive to donors.

People may snicker at your old-fashioned ways, but it works. While everyone else is laboring to get random people to “like” them on Facebook, the fundraising ninja is cranking out corny, old direct mail … and raising a ton of money.

  1. Your mantra: you

They say every regular ninja is assigned a mystical word that calls forth strength and cunning. Fundraising ninjas all share the same mystical word: you.

You is the word they intone over and over as they write fundraising materials. They use it to directly address the donor instead of creating abstractions about the cause. They use it to put the donor in the middle of it all because that’s where the donor wants to be. They use it to remind the donor of her values and beliefs — the reasons she gives. The fundraising ninja makes every fundraising message into an exciting story that features the donor.

And that’s what moves donors to give.

  1. You are not the audience

This is the most powerful trick of the fundraising ninja, the one that truly makes you seem to have magical powers. When you master this one, you are a true fundraising ninja.

You see, ordinary fundraisers judge the quality of their work with this principle: If I like it, it’s good; if I don’t like it, it’s bad.

That is a dungeon of their own making. Because what they like and dislike reveals almost nothing about its effectiveness. In fact, it’s quite likely the exact opposite of what works: If you love it, it’s not going to work!

The people we are communicating with in fundraising are not us. We are different in key demographic, psychographic, and attitudinal ways. Using your own taste to judge is like using a thermometer to learn if the soup has the right amount of salt in it.

Fundraising ninjas get so good at ignoring their own likes and dislikes, they almost develop a sixth sense that allows them to like the things they don’t like — and connect with donors in amazing ways.

I hope you’ve seen how you can tap into the secrets of the fundraising ninjas. It’s available to any fundraiser who chooses to do so.

Let that be you!

Are you ready to dig into even more fundraising ninja secrets? Take my online masterclass, Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab.


  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

    View all posts
Previous Post
Free Toilet Paper! How Much Is It Going to Cost?
Next Post
Here’s How to Start Your Christmas Now

Related Posts

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Kelcey Taber
    June 19, 2020 8:21 am

    ” …you might as well fling blobs of cookie dough at your foe.” COME ON! That is so good I can’t stand it. I never read your writing without an out-loud “gut-laugh” at least once! Thank you Jeff!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.