How to crack the code: better communications for new donors

A decision is made with the brain. A commitment is made with the heart.

- Nido Qubein

Why do givers give?

There’s a good reason people are willing to invest thousands of dollars for volunteer vacations. While there are certainly critiques of this practice, it’s not hard to understand that people want to give their time and money to see first hand how they’re improving (or at least seemingly) the world with their own efforts. 

It’s hard to SEE and FEEL the impact of donating to a charitable organization. If you’re a first time giver you might see an appeal, feel compelled to give, send money through PayPal, and receive an automated thank you email from the organization. After that you’re most likely to hear again when there’s another appeal. I can tell you from experience this process doesn’t make me feel at all connected with the organization or more willing to give again.


donor communications

the questions donors are asking

There are no lack of deserving organizations that individuals have to choose from when deciding to donate. Because of this it’s crucial that we understand donors and what they’re looking for out of a relationship with a nonprofit. 

You’ve got to try to remember what it’s like as an individual who is new-ish to giving. At the forefront of your mind, keep the question they’re asking:

Why should I give to this organization rather than another?

Your first impulse may be to flood them with impact statements and raw numbers to prove your organization’s worthiness. While this is the right approach to make with grant funders, by doing this with individuals we're assuming they have something to compare those numbers and statements to. 

What does 4x return on every dollar invested really mean?

Why does that matter?

Is it uncommon? 

With what I can give, can I really make a difference?

These are the questions everyday donors are asking. 

bridge the distance between your donors and your beneficiaries

This is a given, but I’ll remind you - make your donor communications as human-centered as possible. Offer your donors opportunities to participate in person. Give them a glimpse into the latest advocacy fight you’re taking on. Invite them to share their skills with your organization. 

These steps are more than sharing success stories and estimates of what their donation will allow for your organization. Yes, these are also hugely important but they don’t allow your donor to become more personally and emotionally invested, which is what the new generation of donors is looking for. 

If you can invite your donors to join you, they have agency to participate, not just send a portion of their paycheck. 

Not all donors will want to participate further; some just want to give. But at least you're giving them the possibility of taking the next step in building a relationship with your organization.

how to treat new donors...differently

We have a real opportunity as individuals now have the means and desire to engage in philanthropy from a younger age. Recognizing first-time donors sets the stage for continued giving and transforming annual givers into major gifters.

So, where to start? 

The simplest move is to recognize first-time donors as first-time donors! They made a decision to give to your nonprofit over others, which is cause in itself to recognize them. Regardless of the amount, celebrate their act of generosity in a more explicit way than an automated thank-you email. 

Take a cue from major brands. Cultivating “brand loyalty” from this first transaction is what turns an impulse donation into an emotional commitment with your mission. Don’t forget to do this before asking them for another donation! You don’t want to burn them out before inviting them in. 

If you’re interested in learning more about millennial donors, check out this short video and if you want to hear a little more about donor loyalty, spend seven minutes of your time with this one. Enjoy! 

The real reason blogging is different than how you’re writing

The other day I heard a friend joke that she has a Master’s degree and still can’t write a blog post. I laughed…and then cringed…because deep down I know the struggle. 

Academia teaches us the formal way of writing. You start with an executive summary, move on to the background, dive into the findings, and finish up with a conclusion. This means we don’t actually get to the insights and recommendations until the end of the report, which often ends up being 10+ pages. If they get through the whole piece, readers struggle to capture the big takeaway.

how to blog better

This is the way we learn to write “professionally.” The more we write this way, the more unnatural it feels to write succinctly, putting the main point up front.

Writing this way is counterintuitive to blogging well. 

Think about the way you consume information. When you’re on Facebook and see a link to an article, do you click on it and read word for word? Probably not. 

If you want to improve your organization’s blog, I’ve got seven tips you can implement starting today.

7 tips for better blogging

  • Include a strong title.

I find this to be the hardest step and because of that I keep it until the last step. Forcing yourself to adopt a title before you’ve got the content laid out is just not a good idea. I find these tips helpful for generating a blog post title that’s interesting to readers.

  • You have to hook ‘em.

You’ve got to get your readers interested enough to want to keep reading without giving away the point of the article right away. The first few paragraphs are especially important if you’re emailing your blog posts and want readers to click through to your site. So keep them engaged and wanting to learn more. 

  • Then get to your point quickly.

People generally read the first few paragraphs and the last. While you don’t want to give it all away up front, you do have to get to your point rather quickly. If you ramble too much you risk losing people off the bat.

  • Say what you mean.

The great thing about blogging is that the most effective posts are generally written in a conversational tone. When you read your post out loud it should sound similar to the way you speak.This means go light on jargon and if there’s a more direct way to say something, do it. Please trust me when I say that simplifying does not take away the value or intelligence of your message. It simply allows your message to be more easily consumed by more people. 

  • Include subtitles and lists for scanability.

We live in a scan culture. We’re bombarded by digital stories on all platforms and decide within seconds if a story is worth spending time on. Using subtitles and lists helps break up text in your post and gives readers a sense of the content without having to read through the body copy.

  • Keep it short.

According to Medium, the ideal blog post is a 7 minute. This is around 1,600 words. If you have a lot of photos in your post, they recommend keeping your post to 1,000 words or less. Shoot for this and edit every word (and sentence) out that doesn’t have to be there for reader’s to understand your story.

  • Include strong visuals.

Good photos won’t make up for weak content but they do add emotion to your posts. One to two photos is adequate for most posts. Check out this post for free stock photo sites. 

  • Practice consistency.

My opinion is that if you don’t blog consistently you shouldn’t have a blog at all. Not only does consistent content bring relevancy to your brand, it also helps you as a writer. Remember the old adage practice makes perfect? There’s a lot of truth to that. Blogging at first might feel painful, but give it some practice and you’ll find yourself coming up with blog ideas during meetings, when you’re consuming information, and even when you’re in the shower. I can vouch from experience. 

What are some things that have helped you become a better blogger?

How to interview key stakeholders about your brand

What should I say?

How should I say it?

No matter how creative or strategic you are, at a certain point you’ve been stuck. No matter how many times you start to write you hit a wall. 

It isn’t just that you’ve said it before—because actually repetition supports a strong brand message. It’s that you’re not sure how to speak to your audience about the topic at hand in a compelling way



Gathering others’ perspectives on a topic, ideally, should come before you begin to even set a direction for your material, product, or campaign. This process is part of the discovery phase of strategic communications. 

Sometimes referred to as in-depth discussions, stakeholder interviews are a structured way for you to explore how others feel, talk, and associate with your organization and/or program.

in depth interviews communications planning.jpg

Notice I said structured? That’s because this is different than calling up your program manager and asking her what she thinks about your current website.

Instead, you’ll want to make a list of at least five stakeholders to participate and ask the same set of questions with each of them. This will help you theme all of your data after the interviews, more easily allowing you to pull common takeaways and insights that you can craft your message around. 



Setting a structured interview guide might seem counter intuitive to having an open, honest conversation. But actually, it helps others feel like the conversation is focused even if they do go more in depth on a question or two. There’s always the ability to come back to the topic at hand. 

Having an interview guide is also critically important to setting and sticking to roles. Your role as the interviewer is to set the context, ask questions, and listen. It’s not the time to share your opinions or perspectives. 

Try to keep your conversations to 30-40 minutes, max. You may not get to all of your questions. Plan for that by ordering questions or marking the “must-ask” questions in advance with an asterisk. 



I've put together a list of questions to get you started. Of course you'll want to add any that are specific to your objectives, but aim for a list that is this length, give or take.


Did you use this guide to prep for a stakeholder conversation? Let me know how it went!

4 places to find FREE stock photos online

Good images are hard to find. If you don’t have an unlimited budget to purchase stock images (and who does?) and you have limitations on using photos of your programs and/or beneficiaries (hello confidentiality), finding photos for your materials is a headache.

Even though photos are more available and accessible online than ever, you can’t just download an image from a website and use it as your own without explicit permission, even if you do attribute it to the original source

I’m here with a solution that will bring a modern look to your materials for free.

youth development washington dc nonprofit

My favorite sites


My first stop always. Easy search function. Browse cultivated collections. No attribution necessary.


Search by topic, color, or photo orientation. Lots of close-up shots that evoke emotion. 


Probably the largest out of all three, but it’s a mixed bag in terms of quality. You can also search for illustrations, graphics, and videos.


This is a new one to me. Someone actually reached out about it recently and I love how different this site is from other stock photo sites. I really like that they have a focus on promoting diversity and peace and particularly like their World Face collection. 


How to search for photos

I’ve laid out the best places to search for photos, but how you search for them is about as important as where you search. 

The first mistake I see most often is searching for the obvious subject of the photo. For example, if you’re looking for a photo to represent a team you search, “team.” 

In my experience your search results will yield a majority of two options: a group of people high-fiving or a sports team huddled in action. 

At the very best these options are overused. At the worst, you’re risking your audience focusing on the image—because it’s unsophisticated—itself rather than the accompanying message.  

When searching for photos, think about the feeling you want to convey. Is it peace? Energy? Freedom? Search those terms and see what you come up with. 

peace liberty nonprofit communications

Maybe you need an image that plays a more subtle role or one that serves as a design that grounds the rest of a document. Try searching use words like “background,” “geometric,” or “pattern.”


Other tips

A lot of stock photo sites will have collections of images that are the “best of” and “most downloaded.” It probably goes without saying, but try to avoid these so you don’t end up seeing your photo on everyone else’s blog. 

While most photos are free for use and don’t require attribution, some do. Make sure you read the use permissions when downloading your photo. 

While I highly recommend these sites, for any medium that gets a lot of exposure, such as your website or an annual report, try to swing for a paid option. You’re more likely to find the exact image you’re looking for and won’t have to worry as much about duplication. 

Are there other sources you’ve found especially helpful? Share them here!

Your job descriptions say a lot about your organization

Salary commensurate with experience. Excellent benefits package including health covers; paid annual, sick, and holiday leave; and other benefits. Work is generally performed in an office setting. Travel around the DC metro area and extended hours may be occasionally required.

Sound familiar?

Of course it does. This is the standard language included in (what I would estimate) 99% of nonprofit job descriptions. It’s so standard it’s almost frustrating to read. When I see this on the bottom of a job description is has the same meaning to me as legalese - I understand it has to be there but it does nothing to help convince to want to learn more.

how to write a nonprofit job description

What about this one?

Giant Rabbit offers a supportive and collaborative work environment; we strive to foster internal leadership and professional growth among our staff. We offer a flexible working environment—we’re all in the office on Mondays and Wednesdays, then staff are free to work from home the rest of the week if they prefer. We have an office culture that’s supportive of our staff’s family lives and artistic pursuits. We’re interested in candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds, because different perspectives among our staff make us better at work.

Wow. Can’t you visualize exactly what it must be like to work here?

Notice you don’t see anything about health insurance and retirement; for full-time employees those are pretty much a given. What you do see is a focus on what makes this company different. And it’s clear they’re different on purpose.


What you should be sharing

That last example may feel too forward for your organization, and if so that’s okay. What prospective employees are thinking while reading your job posting is:

  • Will I fit in?
  • Their mission is great, but how do they support employees?
  • What would my days look and feel like if I joined this team?


An organization's description, gone right

Here's an example of a beautifully written JD, pulled right from Idealist:

At the very heart of RTC are our core values: leadership, teamwork, service, respect, quality and effectiveness—in a casual and fun work environment! These values inform how we treat each other, how we relate to external partners and how we go about our daily work.

To make these values real, we are committed to creating an internal culture that—

  • Gives all of us the opportunity to participate in decision-making
  • Fosters a stimulating and rewarding work environment that encourages teamwork and cooperation across the organization
  • Recognizes and celebrates high-quality work
  • Supports our professional development
  • Helps us to balance the demands of work and home life in a manner consistent with achieving our personal and organizational objectives
  • Creates an atmosphere conducive to friendship and fun


Small tweaks, big impact

Identify these things and promote them! If you allow for flexible working arrangements, say that! If the majority of employees participate in and/or lead committees focused on engagement, diversity, and special events, then say that. Whatever it is that is woven into the fiber of your work culture, share it.

It may seem like such a small tweak - an insignificant effort. But think about the time and money that goes into recruiting. And think about the reach that your job descriptions have. Far more people are reading these than the “about” page on your website.

At the end of the day it’s what makes you different that is your biggest strength. And in the marketplace of do-gooders, if you want to claim the top talent you’ve got to share your story.

My 2018 reading list

There are two types of people:

  1. The person who starts a book and if they can't get into it, they put it down and move on to the next.
  2. The person who starts a book and forces themselves to get through until the bitter end, even if they aren't enjoying it at all.

Without a doubt I'm number two.

This means at any one point in time I've probably got 2-3 books I'm working my way through. It also means my Amazon wish list gets books added to it by the week.

Because I'm interested in what makes people tick, I've wondered what it is about me that makes me want to power through even when a book isn't serving me. I think it's probably got something to do with feeling like I owe it to myself to finish everything I begin.

I've decided to start off 2018 with a bit more focus. I've gathered a small collection of books that will provide direction for my life and career. I'm dedicated to learning from these and sharing my lessons here. Some I've started before but haven't completed, others are brand new.

communications books for nonprofits


Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown

I watch, read, and apparently frame quotes by Brené. Not only is she a fellow social worker, she is intentional with every message she delivers. If you're new to her work you must first read her TED Talk.

I'm excited for her newest book because of my own priority on collaboration in work and life. This one, I'm sure, is one that will end up with underlines and highlights on every page.


To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink

Don't be scared away by the title; this isn't a book about how to make a quick million. It's about getting comfortable with the idea of yourself as a salesperson. Pink argues that we sell things—ideas, experiences, products—every day through persuasion and it doesn't have to feel icky.

I bought this one a while ago to apply to donor cultivation. This time I'll read a bit more closely for the communication-specific takeaways Pink shares.

Presenting Data Effectively by Stephanie Evergreen

This is the second Evergreen book I've owned. While the first was focused more on choosing the right chart for your data, this one has a wider lens—helping researchers apply communication and cognition principles to their presentations and publications. She's the only one I know of who is playing big in this space and I've found myself endlessly flipping through her books for quick application tips.

Her blog and newsletter are also incredible resources that I actually look froward to receiving in my inbox.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda

An actor teaching scientists to communicate better. Catchy, right? I've read conflicting reviews on this book, so I'm going in with the intention of grabbing as many "sound bites" of wisdom as possible.

In the Company of Women by Grace Bonney

This is a beautiful coffee table book. But it's so much more than that. This book documents interviews with over a hundred entrepreneurial women. I really appreciate Bonney's intention to make this book inclusive of all female entrepreneurs' experiences, not just those faces you'd typically see promoted in mainstream media. When I'm yearning for a little pick-me-up this one is sure to provide the encouragement and inspiration I need.

Domino magazine

This is a design magazine. What is it doing on a list of business reads? Good design ideas come from the best designers, many of whom are featured in this publication. I've found that immersing myself in visuals and information presentation in its highest form brings me inspiration that I don't often get from nonprofit materials.

Personal reads

I'm also keeping a list of others to dive into over vacations, before bed, and any other time I can steal away by myself. Some more serious than others, but all promise a little distraction from very full yet fulfilling days—hello two babies under five. What's on your reading list?

I Was Told to Come Alone

When Breath Becomes Air

Your Best Year Ever


The Gypsy Moth Summer

Little Fires Everywhere

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying