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How to raise (more!) money with words

Last week, I attended an Association of Fundraising Professionals Detroit Chapter event featuring donor communications expert Tom Ahern. He combined his knowledge of crafting effective fundraising messages with best practices of copywriters from the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. Ahern illustrated his points using marketing samples from various nonprofits—including some present at the event.

I couldn’t possibly relay all the tips Ahern provided during his day-long seminar. But I’d like to highlight seven takeaways that can, when applied well, help you make more meaningful connections with donors. And that leads to more dollars!

  1. Write for 6th graders

Not literally. Ahern actually means write short and simple sentences in plain English. As you run your copy through the spelling and grammar check in Microsoft Word, take a moment to review the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics (a topic I addressed in a previous blog entry). Ahern suggests aiming for a Grade Level Readability of 6. Too many fundraising pieces have a score of 12 (the highest level). That means the writing is clunky and a chore to read. Your audience will likely toss these unread letters in the recycling bin.

  1. Use a larger font 

The average age of first-time donors is 61-70 and the average age of active donors is 70-87, according to data Ahern presented from the Salvation Army. Older donors are in a better position than millennials to give their surplus income to charity. People tend to “age into” their prime giving years, starting at about age 55. Do older readers a favor by presenting your donor communications in a 14-point font size. Anything smaller might get tossed.

  1. Make your copy donor-centric

Remember: the donor is your fundraising department’s customer. Most nonprofits are donor-negligent—they spend too much of their time talking about how great the nonprofit is (“We did this, we did that, we’re amazing”) instead of making the donor the center of attention. Reciprocate your donors’ generosity by making them the star. (“With your help, all these amazing things happened. And without your help, they won’t.”)

  1. Avoid ‘tactful’ jargon

What resonates more with you: “ending food insecurity” or “ending hunger”? Avoid insider jargon and phrases like “inquiry-based programs” that mean nothing to your donors. Use terms that resonate immediately with everyday folks. Don’t fret about possibly offending the people you serve. Your depiction of a hungry man is only a snapshot in time that will cease to exist as your nonprofit raises more funds.

  1. Identify the common enemy

In all your donor communications, present the donor with an enemy to defeat. Depending on your nonprofit’s mission, the enemy might be hunger, homelessness, cancer, pollution, AIDS, etc. Make the donor the “hero” in defeating the enemy. If you’re having problems identifying your enemy, then you cannot raise the funds you seek.

  1. Use the word ‘you’

A key to building donor loyalty is using the word “you” as an emotional trigger. Again, practice reciprocity with your donors by telling them what they did to help defeat the common enemy. (“Your gifts gave this family a home and a fresh start.”) Use “you” early and often—don’t save it for the end of a donor success story.  Ahern’s point hit home the other day when I received a very effective letter to donors from a prominent national nonprofit. “You,” “your” and “yours” appeared 16 times in just two pages.

  1. If you don’t do things differently, you won’t raise more money.

Your donor communications copy can continue focusing on your programs, or it can shift to what donors help you achieve. You can continue writing in boring corporate speak, or you can turn that copy into engaging material that creates a personal connection with donors. You can maintain the status quo of your poorly performing website, newsletters, direct mail pieces and donor reports (tip: call them “gratitude reports” instead), or give them all an overhaul.

Don’t sit still. Use these tips to make some changes and start raising more funds!

Have you applied any of these strategies in your own donor communications? If so, what kind of results have you achieved? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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