Will One Charity’s Surprising Year-End Email Make You Look Bad?

This week, I received a surprising email from a national charitable organization. The email was so unusual that I need to tell you about it.

Like you, I’m deluged by emails from charities that arrive from the days leading up to #GivingTuesday through December. Most of the messages are from nonprofit organizations that forgot about me all year except now that they want my money. Most care nothing about me. None offers to help me or be of service to me. Most of the emails are just terrible.

One awful email came with the subject line, “Welcome to [I’m deleting the name of the organization].” Sounds nice enough, right? There’s just one tiny problem. I’ve been a donor for decades and even did a tour of duty as a trustee of the large organization. Ugh!

Given the garbage in my email Inbox, I was a bit relieved when I received a remarkable email from the Charities Aid Foundation of America.

WARNING: The email is so wonderful that it just might make you and your organization look bad.

Look for yourself, then I’ll explain why this is a near-perfect email and why you should immediately do something similar before it’s too late:

[Note, the actual email formatting was a bit better than the image I was able to capture for you. Ah, technology!]

Let me explain why this email works so well.

The email came from Ted Hart, President & CEO of CAF America. The subject line read simply, “Extended Holiday Hours.” I’ve never received something like that from a nonprofit before, so it stood out. I was intrigued enough to open the email.

Right at the start, the email was about me rather than the sender. After wishing me a happy holiday, Ted recognized that this is a busy season for me. Then, he told me that his organization is extending its holiday hours to better support me (not “all of our supporters”). If the expanded hours, until 8:00 pm EST, do not work for me, Ted said scheduled appointments are available for me. He then provided an email address and phone number when encouraging me to reach out if I needed any help or answers to questions.

The P.S. provided an opportunity for engagement along with a useful link. Ted wrote, “As you’re considering making your charitable gifts this holiday season…” Notice that he did not say, “As you consider making a gift through CAF America.” The message was concerned with my total giving, not just the giving that would affect CAF America. To help me with my philanthropy, Ted provided a link to one of his organization’s blog articles: “5 Things to Know this Charitable Giving Season.”

In the closing paragraph of the main body of the email, Ted writes something that sums up his tone and message:

It is our pleasure to be of service to your domestic and international philanthropy on a timetable that suits you best.”

I tested CAF America. I called Ted after 5:00 pm EST. Guess what? He answered his phone! I did not get his voice-mail. I did not get bumped to a member of his staff. I was able to reach the organization’s President & CEO, the guy who sent me the email. After normal business hours. On the first attempt. Impressive.

I love Ted’s email because it was focused on me and my needs. It let me know the organization is there to be of service to me. And Ted provided me with an article that could be quite useful at this time of year.

Upon reflection, Ted’s email did not entirely surprise me. I’ve known him professionally for years. Ted advocated donor-first fundraising (also known as donor-centered fundraising) long before it became popular. His email, and the message it contained, are certainly donor-centric.

Sadly, that stands in stark contrast to the emails that most other charities send. Most only want my money, don’t care about me, don’t offer me assistance, don’t give me an opportunity to engage, and don’t provide me useful information.

Do you work for one of those shameful charities or are you a superstar?

Ask yourself these questions:

Have you wished your supporters and potential supporters a Happy Holiday?

Do you just ask for money, or do you also offer service?

Have you acknowledged how busy your supporters are? Do they know you appreciate their time as well as their money?

Are your messages all about your organization (e.g., I, we, our) or are they focused on the recipient (e.g., you, your, yours)?

Are your messages sent from one person to one person, or are they institutional communications to “all of our supporters”?

Is your organization shortening its holiday hours for its own convenience or extending them for the benefit of your donors and prospective donors?

Are you just asking people for something or do you give them something they will find useful?

Do you just speak at people or do you give them a chance to engage with you? Do you give them your email address and phone number? Can they actually reach a live person on the first try?

Your answers to the above questions will tell you whether CAF America is making you look bad. Fortunately, if your organization is falling short, there’s still time.

My holiday gift to you is the gift of the fine example from CAF America in time for you to improve your own outreach efforts before the end of the year:

  • Minimally, maintain normal business hours throughout the holiday season.
  • Better, extend your business hours during the holiday season.
  • Notify prospects and donors someone will be available to assist them.
  • Let supporters know they’re appreciated.
  • Provide people with meaningful, useful information.
  • Give people an opportunity to engage.

Thank you, Ted and CAF America, for your kindness and terrific example. I know that donors who need your organization’s assistance will value the extended hours. I also believe that people who don’t take advantage of the extended hours will still appreciate that you care about them.

If you follow CAF America’s excellent donor-centered example, you also will have happier, more loyal supporters. If you want donors to show your organization some love, you better be sure you’re showing them the love.

What are you doing (or now planning to do) this holiday season to show supporters you care about them? Please share your great ideas below.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

12 Responses to “Will One Charity’s Surprising Year-End Email Make You Look Bad?”

  1. Excellent piece Michael, thank you for sharing!

  2. I say, “ROCK ON” Michael! I too am deluged and tired of the “one way you have to help us because we are so important, it is about us, NOT about you”, messaging that most NPO’s put out. Yes, their mission is important and in most (not all!) cases they are doing good work. But really, is it any wonder so many struggle when their outreach is oriented in the way that it is. Thanks for sharing.

    • Kelley, thanks for your kind comment. I’m glad my post resonated with you. As you know, donors have choices. Will they give to the charity that values them or the one that treats them like an ATM? Bravo to the fundraising professionals who know the right answer.

  3. Michael,
    Thank you for sharing this. What a great reminder to keep our donors at the center!

  4. Michael, Nice to see after years in the business you can still be delighted. Kudos to CAF. Happy New Year!


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