14 Habits Of Successful Fundraisers

Direct response fundraising, whether in traditional direct mail or digital media, is a combination of art and science. People who do it well have an appreciation for good writing and design, as well as the ability to gain insight from statistical analysis and manage budgets and people. People who do it very well share a number of common characteristics that transcend the tactical.

You can see these qualities in most DRFR leaders today:

  1. They ask a lot of questions. 

Curiosity is a powerful trait that leads people to ask how things work. Winning DRFR’s are usually generalists who have a broad understanding of the processes involved in getting campaigns done, from data to creative to production and analysis. Not content to focus on their one area of expertise, they want to learn something about everyone’s job.

  1. They have a sense of how the public thinks.

The best DRFR’s are well informed about the way Americans think and act. They tend to sense whether a nonprofit’s mission will appeal to a large percentage of people or to just a smaller niche market. It’s critical to have a realistic understanding of the potential audience for your appeal, so you can gauge the opportunity for long-term growth.

  1. They know they are not the donor.

Nearly all direct response donors are older than age 60, so direct response fundraisers are outside the prospect donor pool for almost all their careers. To succeed, a DRFR has to accept this reality and understand what it means. Your donors are not like you and your friends. They are more like your parents and grandparents, probably more “traditional” in many ways than you. Learn to speak to them in language that feels familiar. Even if your mission appeals to a fairly small percentage of Americans, it is probably still a broad group from different backgrounds and life experiences. 

  1. They have a deep respect for numbers.

The beauty of direct response marketing is its measurability. You can precisely compare the cost and income performance of DR fundraising efforts from the largest campaign concept to the smallest detail of copy and graphics. While most of us are not very comfortable with math, successful DRFR’s know that numbers tell the story and are more important than instincts or personal feelings. 

  1. They know that most creativity is actually imitation.

DRFR’s who insist on taking a new path no one has taken before usually fail. In fundraising, like all marketing, imitation of winning techniques is usually the best approach. Top DRFR’s study the strategies of their most successful competitors and copy them as the base starting point. 

  1. They do a lot of testing.

Even the most successful appeals are tested against other variations to see if they can be made better. Audience, timing, media, content, design, premiums, and how much you ask for are all things that get tested. And when a winner is found, it gets tested again.

  1. They know they are often wrong.

Great DRFR’s know their favorite ideas will sometimes be losers. They know how to pivot away from a losing concept and embrace a winner, even if they don’t personally like it. Great DRFRs have good instincts and good ideas, but they are ready to be proven wrong and not let ego get in the way of success.

  1. They are deeply dedicated to their team.

The most successful DRFR’s attract and retain great people around them, and they know these people are the source of much of their achievement. They praise and support the talented people around them. And, they give those people the freedom to succeed and fail and grow. 

  1. They know when to be bold.

After developing a campaign strategy and testing dozens of variations, after analyzing results and increasing volumes cautiously for confirmation, great DRFR’s know when it’s time to move ahead aggressively and take a strong step forward.

  1. They know how to roll with the punches.

We’re in a time of alarming change. The response of the public to your appeals is more unpredictable than ever. A sure-fire campaign that’s worked for years might suddenly do poorly. New media that didn’t work a few years ago might suddenly get hot. Great DRFR’s observe what’s happening and move quickly to keep up with it.

  1. They have lots of industry friends, including their own competitors.

Fundraising is a collegial profession and the strongest DRFR’s build long-term friendships with their colleagues. They tend to be well-connected and actively engaged in industry groups and events. They might avoid people they consider dishonest, but they tend to give people second chances and allow for growth rather than hold grudges. They are respectful and friendly to people at every level, from the most powerful to the least.

  1. They have a basic understanding of the non-sexy stuff.

They aren’t experts in these areas, but the best DRFR’s are knowledgeable about issues like joint cost allocation in accounting, or privacy regulations, or the tax distinctions between (c)(3) and (c)(4) organizations. They take time to follow these issues, and they know who to contact when a true expert is needed.

  1. They have great mentors.

Some have the good fortune to have worked for a great mentor, others seek them out. They are smart enough to know that people who have a long track record of success are a unique source of information and history.

  1. They love what they do.

Not many people start out in life expecting to become a direct response fundraiser. Most people would never even think such a profession existed. The most successful DRFR’s are by nature the kind of people who look for the best parts of any activity, who find what’s exciting and interesting in it, and put their hearts into it. They are determined to learn what it takes to be successful and to adapt and change all the time and to always to have fun doing it.


Stephanie Ceruolo is president of Nonprofit Solutions at Infogroup. Her email is [email protected] Larry May is senior vice president of strategic development for Nonprofit Solutions at Infogroup. His email is [email protected]