How Donors Read Your Letters
The oldest piece of advice in the world of fundraising copy is probably this: “You are not your donor.” Everybody knows this, but as old Hamlet said, “It is a custom more honored in the breach than the observance.”
That’s because empathy may sound easy, but it is actually quite hard to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It takes determination, practice and genuinely caring about the person you’re writing to.
Yet, if you want to send out persuasive messages that motivate people to send you money, you have to understand how they are reading and understanding what you say.
Assuming you’ve gotten them to open your outer envelope and look inside (more on that coming soon), here is how the majority of readers will make their way through your letter:
All that copy that the writers, proofers and approvers labored over trying to get every detail just right? Ninety percent of it is going to sail right past your readers. They’ll glance at the sections of your letter in the following order:
- The Johnson Box, if you use one.
- The first paragraph… if it’s short and to the point.
- The signature.
- The P.S.
And only then will they glance through the body of the letter that you poured all that blood, sweat and tears into. Even then, they’ll be looking for highlights, graphics and keywords that happen to catch their eye.
They’ll Barely Think About What You Say
In most cases, your thoughtful, well-reasoned case-for-giving won’t move them one whit. They’re looking for passion and powerful emotions. Words that will inspire them to give, not just passively offer a few logical reasons why they should.
They’ll Be Grateful for a Little Repetition
If you have a single, salient point (and you should) that they can easily understand, they’ll be glad that you drove it home several times in a simple easy-to-grasp way.
They’ll Look for the Parts That Are About Themselves
If they’re donors, they already know who you are and already like you. Talking too much about yourself will do more harm than good.
If they’re prospects, you have to describe who you are and what you’re about, of course, but it must always be in the context of what the donor can accomplish (i.e. “You will help save a life,” “You will help us make a difference.”). The less the copy is about them, the less of it they will read.
Saying, you are not your donor is true, but it barely scratches the surface of the many differences in how you and your donors or prospects experience your fundraising message. Your appeals will find far greater success if you can stop thinking so much about what you want to say and focus more on what your donors and prospects want to hear.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.