"Focus on the fundamentals that we've gone over time and time again."​ -Coach Norman Dale to his players in "Hoosiers"​
"Focus on the fundamentals that we've gone over time and time again."​ -Coach Norman Dale to his players in "Hoosiers"​

Transform Sleepy Readers Into Generous Donors By Using This One Powerful Element

The secret to raising funds for a good cause is the same as winning in sports: Stick to the fundamentals, and give crystal clear instructions about what you want your donors to do next. 

Think of the last great sports movie you watched.

(In my house, it was Hoosiers, about a small but scrappy high school basketball team that makes it all the way to the Indiana state championship.)

Now, put yourself into the players’ shoes right before the big game.

What are you feeling? Do you know what to do?

As the underdog, not only are the odds stacked against you…

You’re tired…

You’re beat up…

And your back’s against the wall.

Coach walks into the locker room, and begins to talk to your solemn group:

Forget about the crowds, the size of the school, their fancy uniforms, and remember what got you here. Focus on the fundamentals that we’ve gone over time and time again.

And most important, don’t get caught up thinking about winning or losing this game. If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners!


One player starts a slow clap…faster…faster…and the players go wild! Huzzzaaah!

They battle, they fight…and ultimately, Coach Norman Dale’s team wins the game.

In sports movies, the good guys and girls always seem to win. 

But why do they win? And what do these and every other sports movie have in common?

Motivational messaging inspires action.

Winning coaches fire up their teams. They speak to players’ souls. They find the right words, at the right time, to motivate their team to action.

And when it comes to crunch time — the final seconds of a game, the shoot-out, the big race — winning coaches give crystal clear directions about what play to run next.

So when players leave the huddle, there’s NO question about what they need to do.

In fundraising, organizations can, and perhaps should, do the same thing for their donors.

No, I don’t mean yelling at donors or breaking clipboards to startle them to action, but rather prepping the donors with enough pre-communication that they not only expect an ask…

But they positively respond with a gift or donation. 

Your communication, and specifically your call to action, is everything!

Fact: readers skim appeal letters. A strong call to action (“CTA”) can quickly turn a passive reader into an active donor. 

How would I know this? Because I’m a fundraiser who’s been on both sides of the ask. I know what happens when language is unclear (rookie mistakes from my early days!)…

And when a CTA is placed juuuust riiiight to lead me down the exact path the writer intended.

Just like a coach leading their team to a championship.

Here’s the end of Coach Dale’s speech from above modified for your next fundraising appeal:

Focus on the fundamentals that we’ve gone over time and time again.

And most important, don’t get caught up thinking about any mistakes in this appeal. If you put your effort and concentration into researching your donors and delivering the best offer you can, I don’t care what the Board says about it—at the end of the day, the fundraising thermometer is gonna show them that this campaign was a real winner!”

It’s usually pretty easy to predict the outcome of a sports movie. But in real life, do you know how your fundraising appeals are going to be received?

For fun, let’s play a little game called…

What would you do next?

“Hey there, I need your help thinking of businesses to ask for sponsorships.”

No problemo. You throw out some local organizations that might be mission-aligned. Offer a list of businesses in the area. Brainstorm some taglines and key phrases that might resonate with the target audience.

Then, thinking you’ve helped that person out, you send her on her way.

Eeeeernt, wrong.

What does the person really want? She wants a sponsorship from YOU! But she never asked directly, and you didn’t pick up on it.

So she left the conversation deflated and probably a little frustrated.

In fairness, you might feel a little confused and frustrated, too.

How could this have gone better?

Let’s change the approach and start with a more direct statement.

How about a simple, “Hey there, I’m looking for sponsorships for My Great Cause and I wonder if your business could sponsor our upcoming 5K. Can we talk for a few minutes?”

Any sentient person would say, “Of course. Let’s schedule a time to talk this week.”

So how can you make your CTA most effective?

  1. Send out a straightforward ask. 

To make your Call to Action as effective as possible, look at your goal for the appeal. What do you want readers to do?

You can send out a straightforward command such as, “Give today!” or, “Sign up for our E-Newsletter.”

There are also more gentle CTAs. For example, “Click to read more,” or “Visit our website.”

2. Salt the oats

If your goal is increasing engagement over time, you might try “Salting the Oats” where you slowly but surely prep your reader for a future ask. This comes from the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

The thing is, if you salt the oats that the horse is eating, you’ll greatly increase your odds of the horse slurping up whatever it is you’re offering.

Horses aside, you can whet a donor’s appetite for giving by thoroughly researching your target audience and learning what they like or dislike. Then, incorporate these emotional triggers in the appeal.

For example, in the case of the sponsorship-gone-wrong above, what if that person had learned that children were my Achilles heel?

She could’ve shared any number of stories about children who had been helped by her program. She could’ve pulled the mom card, the teacher card, the bleeding heart card, the don’t-let-children-go-hungry card…


If only she had shared what her goals were and how I could help, I would have given her that sponsorship.

But instead, she was extremely vague about “brainstorming” other orgs to ask, leaving me utterly confused in the process.

3. Test, test, test

The real way to determine if your CTA is working well is, of course, by testing. A/B test whenever possible to get a clear idea of what’s working and what could be improved.

Is one CTA performing better than the other? Make that change and convert more donors!

No matter what the purpose is for your next communication—a fundraising appeal, a newsletter, a blog post, an annual report—always include a call to action.

And remember to tell your reader exactly what you want them to do. This will reduce frustration for both parties and will increase your donations as well.

Just like Coach Dale said, “Focus on the fundamentals that we’ve gone over time and time again.” 

In basketball, the players dribbled, passed, and shot for hours—days even! Before ever scrimmaging.

In fundraising, stick to the fundamentals of a straightforward ask, salting the oats to make your offer enticing, and test, test, test. You’ll be in great shape for your next appeal.

Call to action:

If you’re feeling like the underdog and could use some help firing up your donors, contact me today at lemonzestcopywriting@gmail.com. For more inspiration, check out my portfolio for examples of how to turn sleepy readers into generous donors. Huzzah!