You Don’t Need to Convince Your Donors

Convince.

There’s an approach to fundraising that believes that your fundraising must convince the donor that what you’re working on is important before they will read your message or give a gift.

This is happening any time you see an appeal start out with a statistic.  “There are over 14,000 children in the LA area aging out of the foster care system each year” is one example.  “43% of the wetlands in Okanagan are currently unprotected” is another.

These stats are meant to communicate to the donor that what’s being written about is Important, that this is a Big Deal

The organization’s thinking goes something like, “If the donor only realized how important and what a big problem this is, they would give a gift.” 

In my experience, this approach does not work very well.

Here’s an approach that works better: believe that your donor already cares.

After all, each gift to your organization is a sign that the donor cares about the situation you’re working on and/or your organization.  Your donors have already put themselves on the hook for your cause. 

If you believe that your reader already cares, you skip the whole “try to convince them” part.  This leads to appeals that:

  1. Tell the donor what’s happening right now,
  2. Give an example (usually in the form of a story) of how what’s happening right now is affecting a person / the wetland / whatever you work on,
  3. Tells the donor specifically what their gift will do to help.

By skipping the whole “we have to convince them this is important” part, the letter or email is free to get right to what the donor is more likely to be interested in: what’s happening now, and what their gift will do about it.

Moving forward, trust that your donors don’t need to be convinced.  They’ve already told you with their attention and generosity.

Two Audiences = Two Approaches

2 approaches.

There’s a big difference between writing appeal letters and writing grant applications.

When you’re writing a grant application you know that it will be read.  In fact, someone is paid to read it.

When you’re writing an appeal letter (or an e-appeal) you know that it will arrive in a mailbox in competition with everything else the donor is receiving.  No one is paid to read it.

That’s a big difference.

The audiences for grant applications and appeals are completely different.  This explains why the writing style for an appeal is different than the writing style for a grant application. 

If your grant applications and your appeals sound the same, one of them is completely missing the mark.

8.25 Seconds

8 seconds.

Let me share two numbers with you:

  • 8.25 seconds — the average length of time a human can focus on a single task.
  • 3 minutes — how long it takes to read the average appeal letter from a nonprofit.

Makes you realize why most fundraising appeal letters don’t work well, doesn’t it?

(By the way, you may read the “8 seconds” stat and think the same thing I thought: wait a minute, people concentrate for longer than 8 seconds all the time.  You and I have watched movies from beginning to end, and we’ve read entire books.  But movies and books are in a category called “preferred activities” – and it’s hard to argue that “reading an appeal letter” is a preferred activity for a donor with a full mailbox.)

So I’m not here to argue that your appeal letters should be 8 seconds long.  But I will argue that making your appeal letters understandable in 8 seconds makes your fundraising more inclusive and opens your organization up to gifts from far more people.

Here’s how to make your appeals “understandable” in just a few seconds:

  • Get to the point quickly.  Do NOT slowly build your case and then make your point (usually the Ask) at the end of the letter.  Save that approach for grant applications.
  • Use visual emphasis (underlining, bolding, arrows, etc.) to draw attention to the most important information.  The ideas you highlight should summarize the letter.

The most successful appeals are two letters in one: a person can glance through your letter and “get the gist” in just a few seconds, and then get the fuller picture if they choose to read the whole letter. 

Writing and designing your letters (and emails) this way is not what your English teacher taught you.  It’s probably not a style that’s preferred by important people in your organization.

But if you can write and design your appeals to remove the barrier of “a person must read the whole thing to get our point,” then you’ve opened up your organization to a new world full of supporters.

Three Rules For ‘We’

Three.

I read an appeal recently where the first sentence was:

“We’re facing a crisis.”

Think about that sentence with me for a moment. Who does the “we” refer to?

As far as I can tell, the possibilities for the “we” are:

  • The organization itself.
  • The writer and the reader.
  • Everyone on the planet.
  • Everyone who cares about the issue the organization works on.
  • Everyone in the city/region where the organization is based.

For now, let’s set aside how important first sentences are and how it’s not ideal to start an appeal with a sentence with multiple meanings.

Instead, let’s focus on that “we”…

The next time you read a piece of fundraising, I can almost guarantee you that you’ll see a “we” that could refer to at least a couple of groups. I make this error in my own first drafts all the time.

Over time I’ve developed three questions that I ask myself when I see the word “we” (and its close cousin, “us”). These questions are an easy way to make your fundraising writing to individual donors more clear and more impactful.

Can I make it abundantly clear who the “we” refers to?

This results in changes like this:

  • From “We care about the…” to “The staff and I care about the…”
  • From “We need to save the wetland…” to “Everyone who lives in this watershed needs to save the wetland…”

Fundraising that’s crazy easy to understand lowers the cognitive load on the reader. That keeps more people reading, and results in more money being raised. Clarity is good.

You get it. And speaking of “you”…

Can I directly include the donor?

This results in changes like this:

  • From “Together, we can…” to “Together, you and I can…”
  • From “We don’t want to cut back…” to “You and I don’t want to cut back…”

Directly including the donor with the word “you” gets them more emotionally involved, which increases the likelihood of them giving a gift.

And finally…

Can I remove the organization entirely?

Two examples for you:

  • From “We need your help more than ever…” to “Your help is needed more than ever…”
  • From “A gift today helps us make transformations like this possible.” to “A gift today makes transformations like this possible.”

Focusing the donor’s attention on their role, as opposed to the organization’s role, is a surefire way to keep individual donors more engaged in direct mail and email.

Any time you see the word “we” or “us,” ask yourself these three questions. You’ll make your writing more relevant to your readers, which is key to raising more from your readers.

Three Lessons from Writing Fundraising with Chat GPT

Writing robot.

I recently had an experience with AI that opened my eyes to a couple things that I think you’ll benefit from knowing. Here’s the story…

At Better Fundraising we have a letter that asks donors to consider leaving an organization in their will. We create versions of this letter for our customers, and it’s quite successful.

But we want to make it easy for all our customers to create their own version of the letter.

So, I pasted the letter into ChatGPT and asked ChatGPT to “anonymize” it. My goal was to keep the letter the same, but take out the organization it was written for, resulting in something like a template.

ChatGPT successfully anonymized the letter… but without being asked added a mass of nonprofit-ese. It took short, simple sentences and made them longer & more complex. It took casual language and made it formal. It took personal writing and made it corporate. Ugh.

Lesson #1: Chat GPT does not naturally differentiate between the types of writing needed for different types of fundraising. AI lumps “grant applications” and “direct response e-appeals” and “brochure copy” all under “fundraising.” In a nutshell, the letter it wrote for me “had too much grant application in a direct response fundraising appeal.” The writing for those two types of fundraising should be significantly different – but AI doesn’t know that.

Lesson #2: The dataset that AIs are based on is full of fundraising writing that’s overly formal, lacks specificity, and is difficult to read. This is a “garbage in, garbage out” situation – if most of the writing that ChatGPT used to create its understanding of fundraising is poor, then the writing that ChatGPT creates is going to be poor.

So, to be more specific and teach ChatGPT what I was looking for, I went ahead and wrote the anonymized letter/template myself. Then I pasted my version into Chat GPT and told it that my letter was they style I was looking for.

For fun, I asked it to analyze the letter and describe what was different about my version.

Here’s how ChatGPT replied…

Let’s analyze the differences between the two versions.

  1. Directness: Your version gets straight to the point, with a direct appeal right from the start. My initial version began by establishing context, potentially adding unnecessary fluff.
  2. Specificity: While my version aimed to generalize various aspects, your version maintained specificity in areas crucial to the appeal’s emotional resonance, like discussing the importance of the work done by the organization.
  3. Language: Your language is more personal and direct. For example, “You didn’t have to donate, but you did.” is a straightforward acknowledgment of the donor’s choice to give.
  4. Structure and Flow: Your version flows more like a conversation, emphasizing gratitude and then transitioning to the ask. It feels more personal and less formal.
  5. Reference to Beneficiaries: Your letter consistently references the beneficiaries of the work, focusing on the impact the donations have. My version was slightly more focused on the organizational aspect.
  6. Narrative: Your letter includes a personal story about revising wills, making the ask more relatable. While my version had this as well, the context and personal touch felt stronger in your version.
  7. Call to Action: Your version includes a clearer call to action, specifically about using the enclosed card for notifying about the bequest. It gives readers a tangible next step.

In summary, while both versions aimed to maintain the letter’s integrity and goal, your version manages to be personal, direct, and emotionally compelling.

Color me impressed with how well ChatGPT defined the differences between our approaches. And I couldn’t help feeling that the AI had given me a compliment, which was weirdly satisfying.

Those seven principles above are GREAT advice for writing effective direct response fundraising. When you are creating appeals, newsletters, e-appeals, etc., follow those tips and you’ll immediately be a more effective Fundraiser. I bet you could paste any piece of individual donor fundraising into ChatGPT or any other AI, then ask the AI to modify it by applying the 7 principles above, and the fundraising would be more effective.

Lesson #3: AI looks at all fundraising writing as equal – it doesn’t know how each piece performed, so it doesn’t know which approaches and types of stories raise more. At Better Fundraising know from experience & data that “personal, direct, and emotionally compelling” fundraising writing will tend to raise more money. But ChatGPT doesn’t know that because it doesn’t see results!

ChatGPT does not know that one appeal letter got a 2% response rate and another one got a 5% response rate. So when ChatGPT creates fundraising, it’s pulling from “everything it’s seen, regardless of how it worked.” When Better Fundraising creates fundraising, we’re pulling from “everything we’ve seen that we know worked great.” There’s a big difference.

ChatGPT is an incredible tool. But, at least for now, there’s no danger that it’s going to replace an experienced Fundraiser.

PS — If you’re interested in learning more about creating fundraising with AI, there’s a popular video of me using Chat GPT to write an appeal on the fly for an organization that I’d never spoken to before. People like it because you’ll quickly see all the strengths and negatives of using AI to write fundraising for individual donors. You’ll be able to decide whether it’s a good tool for your workflow or not. You can watch the video here.

Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter

appeal

People ask me all the time,

“How do you start your appeals? I have the hardest time with that.”

If starting appeals or e-appeals is something you can have trouble with, check out Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter.

The tips are easy to follow. And they make beginning your next appeal or email a snap.

By the way, I think first sentences, subject lines and teasers are becoming more important in our work as Fundraisers. Getting and keeping people’s attention is harder than it’s ever been.

The people and organizations who can reliably create great first sentences are going to have a larger impact.

Writing Tip: Put the Most Important Information First

important

There’s a writing principle you should live by:

Put the most important information first

Here’s what I mean.  Here’s a sentence from an e-appeal I edited recently:

Industrial, resource-heavy growth threatens Maryland’s fragile wetlands.

This sentence does what we were taught to do in school: explain and provide context, then make the point. 

Let’s look at it again, this time with a simple sentence diagram (apologies if you get flashbacks to middle school):

Industrial, resource-heavy growth
<           explains the context            > 

threatens Maryland’s fragile wetlands.
  <  idea that matters most to the donor  >

The problem is that in the mail and email, the end of a long sentence is less likely to be read than the beginning of a sentence.  (Look at a heat map and you’ll see how little most people read when they first look at your fundraising.)

So you want to put the most important information first, and then explain.

So how should you write the sentence above if you assume that many readers are only going to read the beginning of a sentence?  You’d write something like this:

Maryland’s fragile wetlands are threatened
  <  idea that matters most to the donor  >

by industrial, resource-heavy growth.
<           explains the context            > 

Writing in this way is one of the reasons that effective fundraising in email and the mail feels different from what your English teacher taught you. 

Additionally, this approach occasionally results in using the passive voice. This bothers people sometimes because the rule they live by is to ’never use the passive voice.’ The rule *I* live by is that, on behalf of beneficiaries, I’ll break any grammar rule I need to in order to create more effective communication.

Because beginning with the idea that matters most to the donor will make a few more people “get the message” your fundraising is sending.  That causes a few more people to give, which causes your organization to do more good.

It’s a great, free way to get a little more out of each appeal and e-appeal!

The Magic Words in Fundraising: “Let’s Try It”

learn

In my last post, I shared what it felt like to realize that marketing rules and fundraising rules were different. Click here to see how well I handle being wrong.

Being willing to learn the rules for fundraising writing changed everything for my organization, and for me.

I walked away from my learning and writing adventure with an appeal letter that was like nothing my organization had ever tried before.

  • The letter was direct and clear.
  • The writing was simple, around a 5th grade reading level.
  • We told donors in a clear way what the problem was and how they could give to help solve that problem.
  • We included a story that illustrated the problem.
  • We asked donors to give multiple times throughout the letter.
  • The letter was FOUR PAGES LONG, plus there was a full-sized reply sheet.
  • The font was large and readable (15 pt!).
  • And the design was simple… a lot like plain old letterhead with a few design elements.

I printed out the letter and walked into my boss’s office. I watched his facial expressions as he read it.

Nothing.

And then he said,

“Sarah, I don’t know if this will work. I’m somewhat skeptical. But let’s try it.”

“But let’s try it” – these turned out to be the magic words.

That letter where I followed FUNDRAISING rules raised five times what the previous year-end appeal raised.

And it changed the way we did direct mail and email fundraising.

Even though the new way of doing things was a lot more effective, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

But it turned out the things I learned served me well, even when the world changed completely.

Next time… fundraising when the world turns upside down.

Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

Read the series

Let’s Break Some Rules!

Rules

If I’m in an empty parking lot with nobody around as far as the eye can see, I will still follow the arrows and not cut through other parking spots to get where I need to go.

I’m a rule follower.

But today I’m going to ask you to break some rules.

Grammar rules.

Because when you break some of the grammar rules you’ve been following most of your life, something interesting happens. Your writing comes alive, and you start to sound like a real person.

The purpose of direct response fundraising writing is to build a relationship with your donor. What’s the best way to do that? By sounding like a human!

Are you feeling uncomfortable?

I get it.

At first, breaking grammar rules bugged me. Now… I delight in it! Because I’ve seen how much more donors connect with a letter or email that sounds like it’s coming from a real person.

So let me suggest a shift in thinking.

Instead of thinking, “I’m breaking the basic rules of grammar,” shift to “I’m writing with a more personal style that better connects with donors.”

This is the art of direct response fundraising writing.

You see, the most effective writing in direct response fundraising includes imitating how people talk in real life conversations. This means you do things like…

  • Start sentences with And or But.
  • Vary your paragraph length. Use a short one-liner, then a three-liner, then maybe a two-liner. No long hamburger paragraphs from grade school!
  • Sprinkle in em dashes — and ellipses … (I call these … drama dots) for dramatic effect or a break in the rhythm.
  • End a sentence with a preposition sometimes (GASP!).
  • Use a sentence fragment to make a point (DOUBLE GASP!!!).

Remember, you are not writing a grant application. Grant applications have their (very important) place. But… have you ever willingly read a grant application?

If you are getting pushback internally, please read this post.

You must do better than grant application writing to keep your donors reading.

The more your direct response writing reflects a living, breathing, emotional, messy, interesting human being… the more likely your donors will keep reading and keep engaging with your mission.

And that’s what this is all about, right?

Break free from grammar rules and let me know how it goes! Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.