fundraising communications - what works and what doesn't

I'm getting ready to teach a course on fundraising for a Public Relations degree, so I'm brushing up on my reading of the course materials.

I didn't have a formal fundraising education. Back when I got started fundraising, it certainly wasn't taught where I went to school. There were a small number of schools that seemed like they were just starting their fundraising post-grad degrees, but it wasn't a thing like it is now. Back then, most people were still "accidental fundraisers" - people who were passionate about their work and fundraising was part and parcel of working in small nonprofits.

Over the years, I've spent a lot of time reading books, attending conferences and learning everything I could about fundraising. These days, I'm doing more of the teaching, having been able to practice what I've learned for years now.

One thing has been consistent over my career - fundraising communications is unique. It's not like marketing or advertising. And it's very well researched. However, most people who are involved in fundraising in small nonprofits don't realize the body of work and research that goes behind developing fundraising communication best practices.

I've run into the same attitudes and opinions about fundraising communications in just about every organization I've worked in and with. Sadly, most people are dead wrong about fundraising communications and it's costing them!

So, today I thought I would summarize the book: The Fundraiser's Guide to Irresistible Communications by Jeff Brooks because this should be a mandatory read for anyone who ever has to write an appeal, or a case for support, or a newsletter, etc. Here are a few key insights to help you raise more money with your fundraising communications.

1. People don't "like" fundraising communications, but they work

This is so universal, I'm surprised there aren't more jokes and memes about it. People are notoriously bad at evaluating what makes a good fundraising communication piece. Here's the thing. What we "like" - certain information, style, content, etc. - isn't what actually raises money. So, when you look at your fundraising from now on, look at it from a lens with the information below. Please - trust me on this one.

2. Keep it simple

Fundraising communications should be easy to read. The style, language, cadence, vocabulary, and layout should all make it easy to digest and understand. Use short sentences and short words. Write at a grade 4 level. Even if your donors are incredible intelligent (most are) and love the complexity of your organization, when it comes to asking for money, keep it simple and focused.

3. Make it urgent

Why should people give to your organization NOW? Create a singular call to action that is immediate and urgent. Speak directly to the donor in a way that has a clear ask and guidance around what you'd like them to do.

4. Stories, stories everywhere

Use one great story (and use stories everywhere) to convey the impact the donor can have. People give with their hearts and stories are the most effective way to build empathy quickly. Plus, telling the story of one person (instead of using stats to illustrate the scope of the problem) makes the work more urgent and immediate. For more on that, read this previous blog post: stories vs. stats.

5. Donor-centred (donor as the hero)

Your fundraising appeal isn't about your work. It's about the donor's commitment to creating change in the world and what they can do right now to make that change happen. You are the guide, but the donor is the hero. Use "you" more than "we", acknowledge past support and show your understanding of your donors in the language you use and the messages you convey.

6. Balance fear and hope

There is a magical spot in fundraising asks that balances the fear (what's the problem, what happens if we don't ask) with the hope (what we're already doing, progress we've made, what your support can do). Make the need feel acute, but not hopeless. Present a solution, but not something that's already solved.

7. Include a clear call to action

Ask the donor to take a specific action and be clear with the steps. Repeat that same call to action in various ways throughout the letter or document.

Style tips

  • Longer (yes - it's true) - please, please trust us on this one. Longer messages, in both mail and email, consistent out-perform when it comes to raising money.

  • The P.S. is your best friend - we know that post scripts are unnecessary thanks to technology, but people read them in letters and emails. In fact, it's often the first thig people read. Use them as a final reiteration of your call to action and key message.

  • Keep it conversational - grammar is important. But, for fundraising, you can bend some rules to make your writing more conversational. (clearly, starting a sentence with "But" in the way I just did is not grammatically correct and I broke up one sentence into fragments - I know! But it flows and reads easily and carries people through). Think about writing to a friend. Keep it conversational and authentic.

  • Create emphasis - use underlines, bold fonts, headlines and lots of white space to draw attention to certain key messages and calls to action.

Plain, corny and obvious

Brooks beautifully sums up good fundraising communications as "plain, corny and obvious". It might not be the design, language or even content that we like, but it works.

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