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Since the recession in this country, charitable giving in the United States has stagnated, so nonprofits are looking for new ways to attract donors.

At a recent conference of fundraisers in Chicago, NPR's Pam Fessler discovered plenty of for-profit businesses eager to help.

PAM FESSLER: Have you started to notice more writing on those fundraising appeals you get in the mail? Maybe Post-it notes with things like: Hi, Pam. Hope you can join us. Or a smiley face and lots of exclamation marks -something that looks like it was written just to you.

Mr. KEITH KANODE (Client Services, RST Marketing): Also, we can tilt the text, so we can write uphill. We can write downhill. We can change the leading as well.

FESSLER: Keith Kanode is with RST Marketing of Forest, Virginia. He's showing me his company's latest product, Real Pen, a machine that can churn out hundreds of these letters a day.

Mr. KANODE: I think if you can't speak one on one with a donor, your next best option is a personalized, hand addressed-looking package.

FESSLER: So I have to ask the obvious.

Now, does it bother you at all that this is, like, phony personalization?

Mr. KANODE: No. I hear that from just random customers, and some people, it does offend. But, you know, I don't think so. I don't think most donors expect the president to hand address every note.

FESSLER: But clearly some do, or his company wouldn't have 81 machines working round the clock.

Charities know they have to struggle these days for a donor's attention. There are 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S., all competing for funds.

Mr. JIM O'BRIEN (Vice President, Sales and Marketing, ThinkShapes Mail): Jim O'Brien, VP of sales and marketing for ThinkShapes Mail, in Tampa, Florida.

FESSLER: O'Brien says you can't really count on people opening letters. So his company offers postcard-like mailers in eye-catching shapes - something people might read and stick on a fridge. He holds up a paw-shaped card sent out by an animal society.

Mr. O'BRIEN: So this is really getting noticed and getting looked at before they throw it away. Let's be honest. A lot of them go in the garbage.

FESSLER: A fundraisers' worst nightmare.

A survey released at the conference found that nonprofits that invested more in fundraising last year were more likely to see donations go up. And there are oh-so-many opportunities.

Scott Juhl is with Winspire, a California company that provides big-ticket items for charitable auctions, for a share of the proceeds.

Mr. SCOTT JUHL (Winspire): We have things like tickets to the Country Music Awards and VIP experience for "Dancing with the Stars."

FESSLER: Juhl says donors today are looking for something different.

Mr. JUHL: The last auction that I was at, there was a whole table full of baskets that were covered in cellophane. And it was either local spa certificates or smelly soap. You know, how many can you get? What they really need is they need something that's a wow experience.

Ms. TALINE LEVONIAN (PlaytoGive): So as you clear the tiles...

FESSLER: At a nearby booth, Taline Levonian of PlaytoGive demonstrates a computer game called "Jade Monkey." Her company helps nonprofits use online gaming to raise funds.

Ms. LEVONIAN: It's kind of like a walkathon or a bowl-a-thon, same sort of concept. But instead of having a real event where you're actually participating, it's a virtual event. So it kind of makes it a lot more convenient for people who are very busy these days.

FESSLER: And it reaches a younger audience. That was the big buzz here: how to use the Internet to attract new donors and to keep them engaged. People no longer just want to write a check.

Mr. ERIC RUBIN (Salsa Labs): Online giving is about, you know, making people feel like they're part of a larger community that is taking action for your cause. And then, you know, fundraising is just a piece of that.

FESSLER: Eric Rubin is with Salsa Labs, a company that helps nonprofits manage their online activities.

Mr. RUBIN: So if somebody shows up on your website, you create a Salsa user engagement page, or a signup page or a fundraising page or a petition they can sign around your cause.

FESSLER: And supporters can then share those pages with friends, via Facebook or Twitter, connecting the nonprofit with a whole new batch of potential donors - which is what it's all about.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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