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12 Ways Your Fundraising Writing Will Make Your English Teacher Cringe

Visionary nonprofit leaders collect stories to give voice to the voiceless. It is how we ensure others get heard. When, with integrity, we tell their story, we pass them our microphone and they help us understand, learn and see the world through their eyes. This kind of storytelling moves donors to join with us to see our mission accomplished.

When we stop talking about ourselves and instead focus on telling our constituent and beneficiary stories, our mission and vision get broadcast. It is this third party endorsement that is so much more powerful than our first party solicitation. Focusing on the great impact of our mission in our beneficiary’s lives puts the “fun” back in fundraising.

But fundraising writing differs from the writing they taught us in high school. Truthfully, our English teachers would likely cringe if they read our fundraising writing.

This hits home when your fundraising writing gets rejected by a professional who encounters it. Often it is your boss or even your board who approves your fundraising collateral. Trying to be helpful, they will try to make your writing fit their paradigm. It can hurt your feelings. It can hurt their fundraising.

12 Ways Your Fundraising Writing Will Make Your English Teacher Cringe

1. Fundraising writing has a specific goal

To start with, fundraising writing begins with a specific need: to motivate donors to give. It is not journalism. Getting people to give involves pushing people past their human selfishness to join you in making history.

No small thing!

2. Fundraising writing is conversational

The following writing is a celebrated line of prose from a true classic. It is beautiful and correct, but this kind of writing is useless for fundraising.

“And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible.” — JOSEPH CONRAD, “HEART OF DARKNESS”

Great fundraising writing sounds like two people having a conversation. Done well, it feels like someone is talking to you. Conversation has a rhythm and syntax that is unlike written English. You can copy someone’s actual speech, but it is unreadable, hence the skill. Some key features are:

  • Short and simple sentences; most under ten words

  • Sentence fragments; In real life conversations, these are the norm

  • Contractions; actual conversations are full of them

  • Smaller words; get instead of acquire, fix instead of alleviate

  • Uses cliche; like bulls in china shops, ordinary people use them all the time

  • Abrupt topic switches; in fundraising writing, we don’t have time to sweat the transitions

  • Easy to read; low reading level (sixth grade or so), short sentences and short words

  • Short paragraphs; often one or two lines

  • Emphasis; underlining, boldface, highlighting, italics

  • Lots of margin; between paragraphs and even after periods

  • Subheads and other entry points

  • Seeks the drama; focuses on conflict, brokenness and things that need to change

  • Clearly shows the problem that needs to be solved

  • Recruits the reader by appealing to their values and beliefs

  • Focuses on emotion and feelings

3. Fundraising writing is filled with “YOU”

“You” and its variations (you’d, you’ll, you’re, your, yours, yourself, and you’ve) are like flytraps for your readers, calling out to them and making them pay attention to what you’re saying. Using “you” words also keeps your writing oriented toward giving the donor the credit for the good things they’ve helped make possible, which makes them feel good. And donors who feel good about giving to you will keep giving to you. - Bloomerang

Fundraising writing is not an efficient account of an event. Aimed at the heart, not the head, it puts the donor inside the story. It makes the donor a character in the story.

4. Fundraising writing can be LONG

When appeals are written well, longer letters perform better. Ask donors if they would rather read a short or a long letter and they will quickly tell you, “short.” But in reality, they respond better to longer letters. Hope you caught the key here, when appeals are “written well.” When written badly, it doesn’t matter the length!

5. Fundraising writing is repetitive

No one, that is NO ONE, reads your writing from top to bottom, word for word like you and your proofreading boss. Donors glance at your writing and grab nuggets here and there. Understanding this, fundraising writers repeat their calls-to-action. Fundraising writing understands that WHAT IS NOT REPEATED IS NOT REMEMBERED.

You know how we know that MLK wanted us to remember that he had a dream? HE REPEATED IT OVER AND OVER!

Repetition is a rhetorical tool that fundraisers use to help their ideas take root and raise money for their mission. My children used repetition to get what they wanted. And when they repeated it often enough, I gave them what they wanted!

6. Fundraising writing is simple

Great writing in a fundraising appeal focuses on two things: 1) There is a problem and, 2) You can be a part of the solution. All the details in between the problem and the solution impede your message.

This kind of simple writing that is aimed at and connects with donors will not likely connect with your internal audiences (your program staff or boss). Knowing this can keep you from depression. Your donors care less about how your organization brings change and more about the fact that it brings change.

7. Fundraising writing is urgent

Yesterday I heard a news report saying that the number of food insecure households in America has increased to 30% nationwide. This is astounding if you stop and think about it. And here is the problem: most people won’t stop and think about it. This is a fact with no urgency or emotional power. This kind of factual journalism is worthless for fundraising. Breaking through the noise requires storytelling that focuses on one person:

Last time I saw Susan she was in a horribly weak state. It was because she hadn't eaten in days..

This is not about hunger, it is about one person who is starving that demands a response. Fundraising writing with urgency moves someone from not giving to giving.

8. Fundraising writing shows vulnerability

Being vulnerable in fundraising means being vivid and specific about what can happen if donors don’t give. Great fundraising collateral helps the donor see the costs of inaction. Fundraisers help donors see the world with their gifts and the world without their gifts.

If Susan doesn’t get some food soon, her body will explode in stress hormones that will leave her in anxiety or depression. In time, she will lose touch with her body’s hunger cues.

9. Fundraising writing aims for a response now

Giving now and not later matters in great fundraising appeals. A phrase like would you consider giving hope, or would you think about giving hope are weak substitutes for give a gift today.

Susan can’t go for many more days to get the food she needs. She needs for you to give a gift today.

10. Fundraising writing is emotional

Donors give because something emotionally moved them to give. Then, after they have decided to give, they look for rationality. Giving money away is not a rational decision! This is why fundraising writing is about people, not statistics and facts.

11. Fundraising writing calls donors to specific action

Great fundraising writing gives donors specific reasons to give. Ineffective writing invites donors to give to abstract definitions in general ways. They do it when they invite donors to:

  • Give hope today

  • Help us help our beneficiaries

  • Stand with us today

  • Please show your support

  • Join us in our cause

Fundraising writing that does not give donors specific reasons to give practice the weakest form of fundraising. Past generations gave with these weak calls-to-action because people trusted institutions and saw it as their civic duty. Not today. Times have changed. Donors driven by duty are a dying breed.

You can do a poor job on every other part of fundraising, but mess up your specific call-to-action and you will fail.

A great fundraising CTA is specific, asking donors to do something specific, not vague. Instead of asking donors to provide hope, ask them to provide a piping hot, nutritious meal.

12. Fundraising offers have a specific cost

Rather than vague asks for support or hope with no price, give your donors specific attributes and cost.

  • $1.25 provides one meal for a hungry person

  • $25 provides counseling for one person

  • $200 provides one semester’s education

  • $1500 pays for one student's education for one year

Keep writing fundraising collateral that inspires people to join us in changing the world!

David ​ ​ ​


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