The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

Five Ways to Keep a Donor’s Eyes Glued to What You Write

Five Ways to Keep a Donor’s Eyes Glued to What You WriteIf you as a fundraiser are disappointed with the results of your writing, here’s one thing I can promise. You could be doing much better. There’s only one thing standing in your way.


I’ve written about the ways we need to reframe our communications in How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money and Making Money with Donor Newsletters. What I’ll share here are five easy-to-adopt techniques that are all but guaranteed to arouse interest and generosity in your donors.

1. Seek action above all

Fundraising communications aren’t about getting people to read. They’re about getting people to ACT—act in ways that further your cause, such as giving to an appeal, making a matching gift, buying a membership, making a bequest, attending an event, answering a survey—the list goes on and on.

The reality is that people will read very little of what you send them. They don’t have the time in their busy lives. And most nonprofit communications aren’t sufficiently interesting to win devoted readers.

Rather than think of your donors as hungry readers—and mistakenly ply them with pages of prose—view them as action figures you can bring to life with precision communications that deeply respect their emotional needs and their time.

2. Speak to your donors’ interests

Donors have special interests. Here’s a short list of things they care about deeply:

  • Your accomplishments. What did you do with my money? Are you making a difference?
  • Your vision. If I choose to give you more money, what amazing things could you do with it?
  • Recognition. Are donors like me vital to your work?
  • Your efficiency. Can I trust you with my money?

Of these four interests, the most critical will be, without doubt, your accomplishments. Your donors are your investors. They’ve staked your specific mission, hoping you’ll change for the better a piece of the world they care about. In your communications, it’s your responsibility to keep them well informed of your progress.

3. Tug at their heartstrings

Mostly, people give from the heart. The head is a bit player.

We assume just the opposite. In our post-industrial, technologically enhanced world, we worship reason. We believe our ability to work our way intellectually through problems sets up apart as a species and yields huge benefits. And it does.

But, as neuroscientists have discovered, reason has surprisingly little to do with decision-making. People don’t give to your organization because they’re made a coolly calculated decision to support you. They give because you’ve moved them somehow, sometimes in ways that don’t sound all that charitable. Flattery, greed, fear, and guilt are important emotional triggers, for example. But, then, so are hope and joy.

Engage people’s emotions and the world is your oyster.

4. Use anecdotes, and tread lightly with statistics

When it comes to raising money, are statistics better?

“Our city has 2,700 homeless people roaming its streets.”

Or are anecdotes better?

“Meet Henry. He doesn’t smell very nice. And he’s ashamed of that. Because he wasn’t raised that way. But it’s hard to stay clean when you’re homeless.”

Anecdotes win, hands down. Especially anecdotes about a single person (“Meet Henry”).

In fact, statistics have the sad distinction of actually deflating charitable giving, according to Dan Ariely, author of the New York Times bestseller Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. In a head-to-head comparison of individual donor response, anecdotal evidence (stories) raised more than twice as much as statistical evidence (numbers).

Scientists, insiders, and policy people love data. But numbers engage the rational part of our brain—and that part is a cheapskate, neuroscience has discovered. Stories, on the other hand, spark our empathy—and that part of our brain is where generosity proudly resides.

5. Do the “You”

The word “you” has super powers. “You” is the single most profit-generating word in advertising. It is sweet to the eye and ear and it keeps people reading.

The “you” test, which I’m proud to say I invented, is the quickest, surest way I know to judge whether materials are basically “donor ready.” And it’s dirt simple. With a red pen in hand, circle each time the word “you” appears in your communication—any form of “you”: you’d, you’ll, you’re, yours, yourself, you’ve.

Gaze at the results. If you see red circles all over the place, you’ve passed the “you” test. If you see few red circles, and if there are large spaces without any circles, you’ve failed. Passing the “you” test means you could raise lots of money. Failing the test means you won’t.

Five Ways to Keep a Donor’s Eyes Glued to What You WriteTom Ahern is author of How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money, from which this article is adapted. His other books include Making Money with Donor Newsletters and Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes.

Topics: Fundraising