Fundraising uses a style of writing that’s personal, repetitive, simplistic, old-fashioned, and just plain messy. Those from journalism school, academia, or business can be in for a shock.
But as I discuss in my book, The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications, the strange conventions of fundraising are the result of decades of experience, discipline, and head-to-head testing.
In the small space here, I’ll share five approaches that should filter into practically every piece of correspondence with your donors.
1. Make It Solvable
So many fundraisers think the size or intractability of a problem is what makes it compelling. What they’re missing is that donors don’t want to solve a problem because it’s big. They want to solve it because it’s solvable.
You’ve heard that 22,000 children die from hunger-related causes every day. That’s mind-boggling. I spent years looking for ways to make that fact vivid. I talked about how many children die in a given year (917) or minute (15). I painted visions of emptied-out American towns with populations of roughly 22,000, like Portsmouth, New Hampshire, or Fairfax, Virginia.
But it never worked. If you want action, you must help donors feel the pain of hunger by seeing it play out in one life. Then give them the opportunity to save one life—then another and another. That’s how you’ll get them working with you to solve big problems.
2. Make It Uncomplicated
Simplicity is a challenge for many of us. We’ve become experts in our causes and we’ve mastered the complexity of our organizations’ work. We know the shades of gray. That’s all fine. But bring that complexity to your fundraising and you’ll fail to motivate donors.
No matter how complex your organization’s work, your fundraising must reduce it to a simple essence non-experts can understand and understand quickly.
For example, a lot of organizations say their true goal is to spread hope. But hope, as beautiful and inspiring as it is may be, is a weak fundraising proposition. You have to talk about the concrete actions that lead to hope: helping farmers grow more crops, resettling displaced families, or feeding hungry children.
Donors haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about your cause. Very few will ever become an expert like you—they have other things on their minds. But they can still wholeheartedly support your work if you speak to their level of understanding, not yours.
3. Give a Call to Action
Call to Action is a bit of ad agency lingo that means exactly what is says: it’s the specific action you want people to take. Pick up the phone and dial a number. Go to the store and look for a specific product. Go to a website and sign up for something. Or, in fundraising, make a gift to accomplish some specific good.
Some fundraisers bury their call to action under layers of abstract verbal fluff. They say things like “Your support could bring hope to some special kids.” That’s not straightforward enough to do the job. “Special kids” could apply to anyone on the planet under 18. “Hope” may be the thing with feathers that perches in the soul but it has no single, specific meaning. Even the word “support” doesn’t mean “donation” to everyone. Talk that way to donors and they won’t understand you.
A real call to action leaves nothing to the imagination. “Your gift of $25 or more—sent by December&bnsp;31—will give low-income kids in our community soccer uniforms, so they can compete joyfully in this character-building sport.”
4. Say You
In fundraising, every sentence should be directed to the reader. And many sentences should include the word you. One of the oldest and best self-diagnostics for fundraising copy is to print out your message and do the following:
- Circle every occurrence of the word you.
- Underline all first-person pronouns (I, me, us, we, our, and the like).
When you do, you should see lots of circles and few underlines. If you don’t, your fundraising copy is out of balance and likely to underperform because it fails to address the donor and make the cause about him or her.
5. Know Your (Older) Audience
Think about the ways you talk with your elderly relatives. Tone, vocabulary, subject matter, allusions—they’re different, probably very different from your discourse with coworkers and friends.
When you write fundraising copy, you’re not talking to people like your pals, so it’s wise to keep three things in mind:
First, don’t be clever. Irony, puns, and cool allusions don’t cross generational lines well. Be clear and plainspoken. Be so obvious that there’s no possible misreading of your message.
Next, avoid hype. Your donors weren’t born yesterday. They know that something claiming to be the greatest ever probably isn’t so great. Hype impresses the young and inexperienced.
Lastly, be straightforward. Older people have little patience with symbolism and wordplay. Just tell them what’s up. They know life is too short to bother with uninteresting riddles.
Jeff Brooks is author of How to Turn Your Words into Money and The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications, from which this article is adapted.