Right Value, Wrong Place


Something happened to me in 2002 or 2003 and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It’s foundational to our approach to fundraising.

I was part of a team serving a large, national charity you’ve likely heard of. They focus on hunger here in the US.

This organization did not like to use the word “hungry” to describe their beneficiaries. They preferred the phrase, “food insecure.”

The team I was a part of were pretty sure that asking a donor to “help a child that is food insecure” would raise less money than asking a donor to “help a child that is hungry.”

The organization allowed us to do a head-to-head test. The results came back and what we suspected was true: when the organization asked donors to help a child who is hungry (or “suffering from hunger” or something similar) they raised more money. And when they asked donors to help a child who is food insecure (or “suffering from food insecurity” or something similar) they raised less money.

The results of the test were shared with the higher-ups at the organization. The ruling came back:

“We’re going to stick with using ‘food insecurity.’ It’s more accurate. Please continue to use ‘food insecurity’ moving forward.”

I was outraged at the time. This organization was making a choice that they knew would cause them to raise less money and help fewer people! (I was also pretty young and hadn’t yet experienced that things like this happen all the time.)

Looking back, my impression is that their decision seemed to be driven by two ideas:

  1. They valued sounding professional
  2. They valued being perfectly accurate

While I agree in principle with both of those values, I’ve come to see how much those values applied in the wrong places can cause an organization to raise less and do less than it could.

On Sounding Professional

The most successful fundraising organizations concern themselves with writing and talking in a way that their donors can quickly understand. They value being understood by the audience more than they value sounding professional.

And the most successful organizations differentiate between audiences. They sound professional when they are talking to other professionals, like partner organizations, foundations, etc. And when communicating to individual donors (who aren’t professionals!) organizations make the generous choice to speak in the donor’s language, not professional language.

On Being Perfectly Accurate

The most successful fundraising organizations tell stories and use language that is representative, not perfect. They know that being perfectly accurate is for experts and professionals – and they know that individual donors are not experts or professionals.

It’s true that “food insecurity” is a more accurate description of a host of scenarios that describe the families this organization helps. It’s also true that “hungry” is an accurate description of one of the most common scenarios that describes the families that this organization helps.

“Hungry” is perfectly legitimate. It’s just not as complete as the organization’s experts would like to be.

Their insistence on accuracy over understandability cost them revenue and impact.

Interesting sidenote to writers: the “hungry vs. food insecurity” conflict is an example of the weird instances when being more accurate can make a piece of communication less clear.

Inclusive, Not Exclusive

At Better Fundraising we help organizations see how positive organizational values like “sounding professional” and “accuracy” can accidentally cause them to create fundraising that’s exclusive.

And we work with them to make their fundraising more inclusive.

When an organization makes its fundraising more inclusive it’s often an uncomfortable process. You have to say things differently than you’re used to. You have to say different things altogether. You even format your communications differently!

But when organizations keep their beneficiaries in mind, it’s not a particularly hard process. And it’s incredibly rewarding when more money starts coming in, from a more inclusive group of donors, and more good gets done.

The Dreaded SASA LELE!

Sasa lele

Posting this because it’s fun. And it’s a perfect way to end the recent mini-series of posts about heat maps and first sentences.

I hope it rings true that all of us occasionally write and/or design things that make perfect sense to us… but causes our audience to give a quizzical, “huh?”

I’d describe a SASA LELE as any time internal folks think the writing/design/messaging is communicating well, when it’s actually causing confusion and lowering fundraising results.

Here are two “fundraising SASA LELEs” that I see all the time.

The positive appeal letter that communicates that everything is going great. There are pictures of happy, healthy people. There’s a story about someone who is doing great.

There’s 4 pictures and 500 words communicating that things are going very well… and two sentences asking for support.

SASA LELE! The message most donors receive is that everything is going great and their support is not needed right now.

The other example is the appeal letter that starts off with a Thank You and assumes the donor will keep reading.

But you know from the heat maps that a significant percentage of donors will only read the first part… think the letter is some sort of thank you note… remember that they have a bunch of other mail and bills to go through… and put the letter in the recycling.


And here’s a “hot take” for you – SASA LELE does more actual damage to organizations’ fundraising than the mythical “donor fatigue” ever has.

In your direct response fundraising, every word you write and every design choice you make needs to be with the purpose of helping that piece of communication do its one job.

So be clear. Get right to the point. Don’t be conceptual.

Any time you find yourself working on a piece of fundraising where donors need to understand the gist of it at a glance, work like crazy to make it clear, and beware SASA LELE!