Easier Said Than Done: The Magic Words of Fundraising
After years of research in the Semantics and Syntax Department at Easier Said Than Done Labs, our scientists have uncovered a startling pair of facts: There are two words in fundraising so powerful they seem to be magic. One has the power to do great good, while the other can cast your fundraising into terrible perdition.
I don't want to encourage superstition, but seriously, these words pack a wallop; you might want to carve them into two large stones and plant the first one to your east and the second to your west so you'll never forget them or use them lightly.
The good word
You. The power of "you" comes from this fact: All fundraising is about one thing — the donor. Everything else — your amazing methodology and competence, your philosophy, your brand, your budget needs, everything — falls behind the donor in importance.
(While researching the word "you," our scientists discovered that the power only resides in the singular form of the word, not the plural, which is flabby and lifeless by comparison. You'll note that "you" singular and plural are exactly the same in most dialects of English. Nevertheless, one has the magic; the other doesn't.)
Donors don't give because of who you are. They give because of who they are. Effective fundraising works with this fact, not against it. An effective message tells the story of how Ms. Donor can change the world through your organization. Ineffective fundraising struggles to make compelling the story of how your organization is changing the world and how Ms. Donor can get involved, too. I'm boring myself just describing that kind of fundraising to you. It's even more boring for donors.
A few years ago, I was asked to create a fundraising letter template to help novice writers write decent letters. I worked for days to come up with a universal and useful outline of fundraising requirements. Then the solution dawned on me. It looks like this:
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.
You see, all the elements of a good fundraising letter — the opening that grabs you, the setup for the ask, the ask itself, how many times to ask, the P.S. — barely matter compared to the importance of making it all about the donor. Get that right, and just about everything else you need will fall into place.
Our researchers also found that the donor's name had exactly the same power as the word "you." Often more.
"You" is the oxygen of the fundraising atmosphere. It makes all life possible. Use it as much as you can.
The bad word
The bad word has even more power for evil than "you" does for good. You might be expecting some exotic imprecation or elaborate profanity. Sadly, the bad word is the most commonly spoken word in English: I.
The funny thing about "I" is that its dark power isn't unleashed when you use it in your fundraising communication; in that context, it's a perfectly useful word — though overusing it makes you sound like a boring nerd, but that's another issue.
"I" does its damage when you use it to talk about your fundraising efforts. As in:
â— "I like it."
â— "I don't like it."
â— "I would never respond to that."
If virtually any sentence about your fundraising contains the word "I," the evil magic will spread like Chianti on a white shirt. That's because "I" causes you to leave reality behind and enter a topsy-turvy world where up is down, big is small, foggy is clear — and you can hardly put three persuasive words together.
(And don't think you can get around it by saying "we" or "my spouse" or "everyone I know" when you really mean "I." The evil magic knows what you're up to and will go to work anyway.)
The reason "I" throws you off track is simple: You are not your donor. You are radically different from your donor in several important ways:
â— You are almost certainly younger.
â— You know too much about the cause, and about marketing and fundraising.
â— You have agendas beyond the work at hand. You can hardly help yourself from "multitasking" in your fundraising.
â— You are paying too much attention. You're being paid to read this stuff! Your donor isn't.
All these things can add up to a screwy perception of what matters in your work that is not in any way like your donor's perception. That's what makes you go wrong.
Here are some of the most common forms of damage "I" inflicts on fundraising messages:
Happy talk. You like to outline your successes. You're motivated by your own competence; donors are motivated to solve problems, not reward your excellence. Any description of the situation that makes you feel good is going to be dull and unpersuasive to your donors.
Trendy design. If you think it's cool, it's probably not appropriate. Donors, let's face it, are not the most up-to-date group. Their tastes are mostly decades behind yours. What looks good to them generally will bore and even annoy you. Besides that, hip design often has the unfortunate side effect of being hard to read. (Oh, don't get me started.)
Complexity. You know how complicated things really are. You know it too well. Fundraising works best when the message is clear and simple. Done right, it's going to seem simplistic, repetitive and elementary to you. That's a sign that it's about right.
Education. We all wish our donors had a deeper understanding of our issues. That's why so many fundraisers go wrong with their zeal to teach donors, to lift them to our higher plain of knowledge. It doesn't work. It doesn't raise funds. It also doesn't educate. Stick to raising funds. Let schools do the teaching.
It can be humbling — almost painfully so — to properly deploy these magic words in your fundraising. It makes your message all about donors, not the cause and organization you're passionate about. It means putting out material that doesn't make your heart soar.
The trick to finding joy in this situation is to get your thrills not from the fundraising message itself, but from the results it creates. After all, that's your job. FS
Jeff Brooks is creative director at Merkle and keeper of the Donor Power Blog. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org