Messaging to Donors: Content Matters, Length Doesn’t
Editors love to edit. Critics love to critique. And many writers and communication folks love to make sure you keep your messaging short and to the point. There are even seminars you can go to where the presenter drones on and on about the form of the message versus the content.
This is so fascinating to me. As if the form could actually dress up and make lousy content palatable.
When I was a development director, I tested a one-page pithy letter against a 12-page one. The donor offer was the same. The one-pager had the core facts and the logical offer. The 12-pager explored the drama, heartbreak and tragedy of the problem people faced. It was filled with stories and copy that captured your attention and forced you to anticipate the next page of content — all the way to the end.
The 12-pager overwhelmingly won the test. Why? Not because it was longer. Nope. It won because it pulled the donor into the grit and reality of the life of the person the donor wanted to help. It took them to the scene. And when they arrived there, they could not leave. They had to find out what they could do. The letter and all of its messaging was about real life, with all of its drama and emotion, and a practical way the donor could make a difference.
In today’s world of tweets and one-liners, it is so easy to abandon the real reason a nonprofit exists: to deal with the hurt and pain of people around the world. So we dumb down the real-life experience to two or three logical points, and then expect people to actually respond.
It does not work.
When you construct any message to your donors, regardless of the media (email, phone, in-person, video, tweet, letter), I suggest you pay attention to the following five principles, so you don’t fall into the trap of getting off the content so you can pump up the form:
- Identify your objective. Sounds basic, I know. But most major gift officers do not do this or do not do it properly. Are you trying to report back on what the donor’s gift accomplished and how it made a difference? Are you trying to set up an ask? Are you building your relationship and creating trust? Or are you trying to secure information about the donor? What are you trying to do?
- Make sure your message fulfills the objective. Again, this seems so basic. But you cannot possibly know how many times I have witnessed a disconnect on this point. The objective is to tell the donor how their gift made a difference. Instead, in many cases, the MGO is wandering all around the topic or saying something like: “Your gift has made a tremendous difference in [fill in the blank]…” But nothing specific is shared, so the donor does not know that their gift made a difference. Or the MGO is setting up an ask and only shares stats and facts about the problem, and fails to tell a story or take the donor to the scene. I suggest that before you send your message, you read it then ask yourself: “Did I reach my communication objective?” If not, rewrite.
- Don’t worry about length. On Twitter, you have to watch length. But even in a tweet, your choice of words should be emotional and engaging, and point to other resources that can further develop the message. In all messages, develop the idea, story or concept fully as if you were talking (not writing) to a friend who empathizes with the cause or message you are conveying. If you were sitting around with your friend talking, you would tell the whole story with all of its nuances and details — with all of the emotion and heartbreak, with the moments of anger and hopefulness, etc.
- Write a stream of consciousness first draft. So my practice has always been to figure out what my objective is, then what I want to say, and then I do a stream of consciousness capture of the message. By stream of consciousness, I mean writing down everything that is coming to mind as I write regardless of order, syntax, grammar, logic, sequencing or anything that might prevent me from unloading all of my thoughts and feelings about the subject. I even write down stuff I know I will never publish — I just let it flow. Because when you do that, it all comes out. You open your heart and spirit, as well as your head, and it all comes out onto the computer screen. If you feel angry, write that anger down. If you feel down about it, write it down. If what you are writing makes you cry, then cry. If the solution to the problem doesn’t make sense, write down that it doesn’t make sense. You will be amazed at what comes out. Shocked. But it will be good.
- Create the final message. Now it’s time to create the message you will publish. I caution against editing out the emotion. Leave it in. And make sure that what you end up with is a living and true description about what you are trying to convey. It could be the feeling of gratefulness from a person who has been helped (or a problem that has been solved), and now you are passing on to the donor. But the final message, regardless of length, should tell the story in a compelling and engaging way. And do it in a conversational way.
There you have it — my suggestions on how to protect the content of your messaging. Remember the real material you are dealing with is very important. It is real life. Don’t pretty it up. Just tell it like it is. And that’s how to create effective content.
If you’re hanging with Richard it won’t be long before you’ll be laughing.
He always finds something funny in everything. But when the conversation is about people, their money and giving, you’ll find a deeply caring counselor who helps donors fulfill their passions and interests. Richard believes that successful major-gift fundraising is not fundamentally about securing revenue for good causes. Instead it is about helping donors express who they are through their giving. The Connections blog will provide practical information on how to do this successfully. Richard has more than 30 years of nonprofit leadership and fundraising experience, and is founding partner of the Veritus Group.