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The Good and Evil Words of Fundraising

The Good and Evil Words of FundraisingFundraising has two magic words. One is enchanting, the other has sinister force to weaken your writing. When you control these two words, as I explore in my book, How to Turn Your Words into Money, you can wield wizard-like powers.

The Good Magic Word: You

The power of you comes from the fact that good fundraising is always about the donor. Your organization's methodology, the competence of your staff, your vision statement, your philosophy, your brand ... talking about these things isn't really fundraising. At best, these are incidental topics within the conversation about how the donor is going to change the world.

Here’s a truth about fundraising that some people find distressing: the reason donors give has more to do with what's going on in their heads than what's going on in your organization.

While you struggle to articulate how awesome your programs are, donors' real motivations are like these:

  • Donor A gives because when he was young, classical music saved him from suicide. Now he's driven to make music as widely available as possible.
  • Donor B's heart overflows with love for the Virgin Mary. She gives to specific causes because she believes Mary cares especially for young mothers in need.
  • Donor C is ambivalent about his prosperity. He feels better when he gives to help the poor and disadvantaged.
  • Donor D gives to prove to herself that she's a better person than her sister.
  • Donor E survived cancer and gives to celebrate and pay it forward so others may someday overcome the disease.

Don't let the indirect, sometimes illogical nature of these motivations make you think they’re inferior. If you do, you'll miss the point of fundraising. Look at your own motivations for giving, and I can almost guarantee you'll find your reasons are similar.

But here's the hard part: We rarely know those inner motivations. Even Big Data doesn't know. You could ask every single donor what's going on in his or her head, and you still wouldn't know. They can't—or won't—articulate it.

That's where the magic of you comes in.

When your fundraising is all about how Ms. Donor can change the world through your organization, you dovetail into the story in her head. You may not know Donor A's backstory or Donor D's relationship with her sister, but you're being relevant if you make the message about them.

I was once asked to create a fundraising letter template to help novice writers. I struggled for days to come up with a universal outline. Then the solution dawned on me. Every fundraising message looks like this:

Dear Friend,

You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. Yes, you. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You.



P.S. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You. You.

All you have to do is sprinkle in some interesting nouns, some lively verbs, and a call to action.

Okay, that's not helpful in a practical way, so let me make it a bit more realistic:

When you see a homeless person sitting on a park bench, or sleeping under a bridge, you wonder what you should do. That's the kind of person you are.

Do you give a homeless person some spare change? Is that kind and helpful, or does it just make things worse?

That decision is up to you. But let me tell you something you can do that you'll be completely confident is the right thing: Send a gift to cover the cost of having homeless people stay at our shelter.

When you send your gift, you'll know you're meeting real needs, not supporting addictions.

Your donation will make their lives better. Not just for a few minutes, or a day, or even a few weeks. You'll help them find permanent change. Get them off the street and into a joyful, productive new life that every person wants and deserves. You'll improve our whole community.

Even through you tell the donor what your organization does, you make her part of the story.

The Sinister Word: I

That's I in all its forms, including me, we, us, our, and all the others. This word is the most commonly spoken in English. It can be hard to avoid.

I has evil power in two distinct arenas:

First, if you overuse it, it’ll make your message about you or your organization. That's not good fundraising. It reads like this:

We are the top provider of services to the homeless in the tri-county area. Every night we provide safe, welcoming shelter to more than 3,000 men, women, and children.

And our whole-person approach to recovery is the very best way to help the homeless. Studies show we are 40 percent more effective at bringing about long-term change for the homeless than any other program in the area.

Most of the things that make you great won't move people to action. I'm not saying those things are unimportant. They just don't stir people.

Talking about yourself is poor fundraising, but the evil power of I really bubbles from the cauldron when you use it in your office discussions about fundraising. When you use I statements like these:

  • "I like it."
  • "I don't like it."
  • "I would never respond to that."

How you feel about the fundraising doesn't matter. Not a whit. What your donors experience is the only thing that matters.

When you base your judgment on your own response, you’re sure to get it wrong. You'll make it too complex. Too modern. You'll focus on processes, not outcomes. You'll describe how wonderful things are since your organization got involved. You'll miss the problems your donors can solve.

Almost any time you have the feeling you've said something awesomely persuasive, take that as a sure sign you need to revise.

It can be humbling—almost painfully so—to use the magic words you and I correctly. It makes your message all about donors, not the cause and organization you're passionate about. It means saying things that motivate them but may not inspire you.

Here's the trick: Learn to get your thrills not from fundraising messages that make you or your boss feel good but from the results your work creates. After all, that's your job.

And that's the magic.

The Good and Evil Words of FundraisingJeff Brooks, one of America’s premier fundraising writers, is author of How to Turn Your Words into Money and The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications.

Topics: fundraising writing Donor Communications Donor-Centric Content