I swear to goodness gracious I am not a fundraising geek. This wasn’t my chosen profession, after all. I was an educator and a pretty good one at one time. However, marriage takes you in directions you never thought you’d go (or never even dreamed in your wildest dreams of going).
I married a sweetheart of a girl 28 years ago as of March 12, 2017. After a few years as a development professional, Sue decided she’d start a direct mail business catering to nonprofits. That was 25 years ago.
I encouraged her to go ahead and get the entrepreneurial spirit “out of her system.”
Hah! The joke sure was on me. I had to resign from education because of the success of Sue’s “little diversion” as I called it. She needed help to grow what was quickly a thriving business.
Little did I know that I’d be learning a whole lot about nonprofits and annual appeals and donor retention and…well, you get the picture.
I had taught high school English to inner city teens. It would be kind to say that their writing skills were not up-to-par. I like to think that I helped many of them improve their communication skills— both verbal and written.
What I’ve learned in my time helping nonprofits write donor-centered annual appeals is that this is not the place to show off what a big vocabulary you have. In fact, just the opposite. I call it writing for the “common denominator.” What I mean is the best response to direct mail nonprofit appeal letters comes from writing at a junior high level. Some say 7th grade and no higher. I say the writing should be between 6-8 grade level.
As many of you know, I do my own version of a readability study for my clients and what I have learned over the years is that about 97% of the fundraising appeals that I read – and I read a lot of them - are written too much like a well-researched case study.
Here’s How to Do It Properly
It’s hard for me to say this because it goes against everything I used to teach my students so many years ago: you should write like you speak.
As hard as that is for me to type, the evidence of its truth is hard to deny at least for appeal writing.
Here’s an example of two paragraphs. One of them is written all ‘erudite.’ The other is written much more directly and simply. See which you think would pull the best response.
This first one is not from a client. I received it in my mailbox at home recently:
We all need XYZ hospital to continue to diagnose problems in their earliest stages and to fund innovative research that helps people in our community and all across the U.S. Anyone who has been informed of a medical concern knows how comforting it is to receive quick confirmation and follow up if treatment is necessary-rather than anxiously waiting for results to come back.
Contrast that paragraph with the one that I re-wrote just for fun below – I know, I know. I said a wasn’t a fundraising geek.
Janelle had been feeling ill and losing weight. Her husband, Ray, insisted she see her family physician, who sent Janelle to XYZ hospital for a few tests. Janelle recalls that the wait for the test results was torture. Every time the phone rang her heart skipped a beat. While the diagnosis turned out to be cancer, she was able to be treated quickly and is recovering very nicely.
While the 2 paragraphs don’t exactly convey the same words, I hope you can see that it does convey the same message. I think you’ll also see that the first paragraph appealed to the brain, while the second one, the one I re-wrote engaged the heart because it allowed you to visualize whho was being helped—a real person.
So the next time you want to Wow! your reader, do it with emotion which is the trigger for gift giving.
Is your experience with annual appeal letter writing similar? Different? Please let us know right here.