2 Fundraising ‘Abilities’ Essential for Engaging and Keeping Donors
Most donors have a built-in distrust of fundraising messages. It’s true partly because people tend to be skeptical of marketing in general and partly because donors are usually skeptical of nonprofits and how they’re run. Gee, wonder why. Charities paying salaries to CEOs in the high six figures. Charities spending like crazy on lavish dinners, travel and more for themselves. Charities collecting billons for disaster recovery and then clamming up when asked how it’s spent. Charities never reporting back to donors on what’s being done with donations. Charities never acknowledging gifts. And on and on.
That’s a lot to overcome, and the “doing good” mantle by itself isn’t going to cut it. Truth is, the questionable actions of some charities tend to tarnish all charities. But, in an effort to polish away that tarnish and restore the shine, there’s a lot we can do in fundraising and donor marketing with the two “abilities”: credibility and likeability.
You build up credibility with donors by communicating things like financial transparency, charity watchdog ratings and—like it or not—reasonable overhead costs. Donors who can’t name even one of a nonprofit’s programs will likely know one or more of these characteristics. It’s a kind of shorthand that donors use for judging and trusting a charity. You can rail against the emphasis on, say… overhead if you’d like, but it’s probably a losing battle. Donors think financial transparency is important, so you just have to go with that and demonstrate it in appeals, on your website and in other materials as much as you can.
Other ways to burnish credibility include things like donor testimonials, beneficiary testimonials, compelling stories and endorsements (both celebrity and non-celebrity). These are tried-and-true credibility-builders to include in appeals and content marketing. Testimonials in particular are sometimes regarded as old hat, but as centuries of marketing lore have proven, they work.
But probably one of the best ways to establish credibility is to show donors how their gifts have an impact. It makes perfect sense. Donors are more likely to trust your nonprofit when you demonstrate that you do what you say you’re going to do.
This is where your newsletter comes in. If your newsletter is donor focused, then the stories you tell will be all about reporting back to donors on the impact they have, the successes they create and the cause that’s being furthered with their giving. But the newsletter has to be donor-focused. If it’s more of a PR vehicle, with articles about the new website design, the hiring of a new program director or the renovation of the headquarters building—and the like—then the opportunity to show donor impact and build credibility will be lost. Donor focus is the key.
Other places where you can demonstrate donor impact include your website, annual report, social media and other content-marketing venues. Donors want to know they’re doing good. It should be easy for them to find that information.
With the possible exception of donor impact, which just about every nonprofit can and should demonstrate, some of these credibility-builders you’ll be able to incorporate into appeals, some you won’t, depending on your charity’s strengths and weaknesses. But communicating as many as you can is vital for donor trust.
This is something that almost any charity can convey to donors, since it mainly involves messaging and copywriting.
A key point in establishing likeability is having the person signing the letter or email sound like a human being, not a three-piece-suit executive, and certainly not like a know-it-all program wonk. So, yes, the copy has to be conversational. But that’s sometimes easier said than done.
Conversational copy sometimes produces reactions in reviewers like: “Our director doesn’t talk like that.” “This is too casual.” This is too dramatic and emotional.” “It’s wrong to start a sentence with ‘and.’” “Don’t use sentence fragments.” And so on. Despite such objections, it’s simply a fact that a formal, stuffy copy voice won’t work. There’s no way around it. The tone must be conversational if it’s going to connect with donors on a personal level.
This means short sentences, short paragraphs and short words. It means writing at about a sixth-grade level. It means avoiding jargon. It means being simple, direct, honest and friendly—you know, just as you’d expect when talking with someone you know and like.
But even beyond all this, there’s another overriding element of likeability that’s crucial. It involves talking to your donor about your donor, not about the nonprofit or its programs. There’s no way to avoid the importance of this. The messaging in appeals must be donor centric, for an obvious reason. You can’t expect people to like you if you’re droning on about yourself all the time. You have to speak to donors with passion and clarity about what’s important to them, including the values they share with your cause and especially how they’re making a difference and how wonderful they are for doing it.
In addition to copy voice, there’s a visual element to likeability. Appeals should be designed to be inviting and accessible. The letter, for example, needs to look like a personal letter from a friend, not a form letter from a corporation. On the other hand, it’s important to guard against letting the appeal become over-designed. If the production values are too high, if the appeal looks too produced and too slick, you can run the risk of turning off some donors, depending of course on who your target audience is.
And even though you are probably not your target audience, it’s worthwhile to take a minute and imagine that you are, and then evaluate your appeal and ask yourself if it’s welcoming and inviting and if what you’re saying seems reasonable and believable.
In this age of donor skepticism—not to mention falling retention rates and the challenges of acquiring new donors—it’s more important than ever for charities to work harder to connect with, engage and retain donors. The why is obvious. In some cases, the very survival of the nonprofit could be at stake. As for the how, putting the two “abilities” into place is a good way to start.
An agency-trained, award-winning, freelance fundraising copywriter and consultant with years of on-the-ground experience, George specializes in crafting direct mail appeals, online appeals and other communications that move donors to give. He serves major nonprofits with projects ranging from specialized appeals for mid-level and high-dollar donors, to integrated, multichannel campaigns, to appeals for acquisition, reactivation and cultivation.