Ever seen an appeal you just hated?
I mean, really hated?
Most of my career, I’ve focused on annual giving – and especially on communicating with donors. I often open and look at the solicitations I receive. I usually have professional opinions on the appeals. But even so, I’m always surprised by the negative reactions of other nonprofit people to appeals.
Not that they criticize, but what they criticize.
I find myself responding the same way time after time. If you’re the donor communications person, maybe this list will help. Share it with the colleague who wants to change your appeal simply because she doesn’t like it. Or the board member who would NEVER respond to something like this.
The thing is, your colleagues or you don’t have to like what works. But you’ll do what works if you want to raise money.
Here are the complaints I see most often:
I don’t like how the appeal looks
Under this category put “that’s not our brand font” and “serif fonts are so old-fashioned!” You can also add “I hate underlining!” and “why is that font so large?”
Most of these come down to a fear that the appeal doesn’t properly reflect how with it the organization (or its employees) is.
But that shouldn’t matter. Unless your organization is one of the very rare ones whose annual donors are very young – maybe in their 40s – your donors don’t care how hip you appear.
They’re not modern. And if they can’t read what you send them, they won’t be your donors for long, either.
So if your appeal looks like something created on a typewriter, it may feel just right to your donors.
And if you prioritize being cool over being read, you might want to consider a different career path.
That informal language is undignified
An appeal is not a business letter. Say it again. Keep saying it until you believe it.
An appeal should read like a letter from a dear friend. Or better yet, like a phone call from that friend, transcribed.
So yes, there will be contractions, because people use contractions when they speak. (Listen to yourself next time and note how often you do.)
Yes, there will be incomplete sentences. And ellipses… and – dashes.
There will be sentences that begin with a conjunction.
And all of it is perfectly OK. Because (see how I did that?) this appeal shouldn’t sound like business correspondence.
It should sound like a heartfelt request you are making of a kind person.
What’s with all this urgency?
This can make some nonprofit staffers feel embarrassed. They desperately want to tell the world “we’ve got this under control!”
I get it. And you don’t want people to think your organization isn’t doing its work well.
But a key part of your work and mission is fundraising.
Unless you’re entirely funded, you need donors. They’re part of your work.
You might put your best face forward to an acquaintance who asks why you’re selling the house. You’ll tell her the positives. But your best friend would know that you’re down-sizing because of a job loss. Two different audiences.
Your donors are not outsiders. They are either already insiders (because they support your work) or you’re inviting them to become insiders.
That means you have to admit you need help.
And if you don’t need help urgently, right now, why should someone interrupt their own busy life to write you that check?
Remember, you’re not asking for yourself. You’re not really asking for your organization. You’re asking for the people you help.
If your mission is a “nice to have”, not a “must have”, why would people send you money they could otherwise spend on must haves?
That emotional language – isn’t it manipulative?
This too can embarrass nonprofit people. Some people are more comfortable sticking to nice, distant, professional facts.
Facts aren’t going to raise money.
Why? Because we don’t make giving decisions based on facts. (Yes, even you don’t do that.)
This isn’t to say that donors are silly people who make irrational choices. The idea that emotions are frivolous should be tossed. It’s nonsense.
Without emotion, we are not able to make decisions. Our hearts live in our brains.
And here’s the truth: rational requests are safe. You don’t put yourself on the line by asking. You’re merely presenting some facts.
But could you outline the perfectly logical and emotionless reasons you love your spouse? Would you?
You can’t pull away from emotion if you want to raise money.
Emotion is not only the language that donors react to, it’s the language of our work.
You need to be comfortable in that language to raise money.
Get used to fear, and anger, and worry. Become adept with kindness and flattery and guilt. If you want to write fundraising appeals, emotions are your tools.
And emotion isn’t by itself manipulative, any more than telling your child you love him is.
Are you telling the truth? Will you do what you say you will do with the money?
Then emotion is good. It’s being vulnerable – letting people in who can help you.
Emotion is also what donors receive from responding to your appeal. Speaking about the need with honest emotions allows donors to fully share in your ups and your downs. It’s their reward for good work. Don’t cheat them.
Those instructions are so bossy!
Why tell a donor exactly what to do?
Because you want her to do it.
Because expecting her to not only give but expend the effort to figure out how to manage the response device you created isn’t going to work.
If someone asked you for directions to the town library, would you point down the street, or give them specific directions? Would being specific be helpful or bossy?
The most important thing to remember
You have knowledge that is far deeper and more nuanced about your organization.
That doesn’t mean your preferences will be better – it means you have to work to see your mission from a donor’s point of view.
Your appeal is not about your organization or about you. Your appeal is about your donor and about the people (or animals or sometimes things) who need them.
So don’t worry about how this appeal makes you look. Or whether it displays your new font and colors properly. Or if it’s dignified.
You’re the messenger. And your job is to create a message that will be heard and that will demand a response.
We actually know a lot about what works
Using your personal aesthetic as a guide is likely to steer you in the wrong direction.
I get plenty of appeals daily that make me roll my eyes. (Nickel packs, for one.)
But it’s likely I see so many because they’re working. So does my distaste make them unethical? No.
Would I send one if I could be shown it would work? Maybe.
There are fundraising communication experts who have spent decades studying this field. If you’re not one of them, you should seek out their expertise. The great news is that in the spirit of our sector, a tremendous amount is available – for free – online. (You’re reading some right now!)
Read what they have to say. Benefit from their hard-won knowledge. Experiment by applying their success to your organization.
Then trust your donors.
They’ll tell you – by how much money they send – whether you’re reaching them or not.
Photo thanks to Ryan McGuire.