But That’s Not How I Talk!

5 reasons your fundraising writing should NOT read the way your CEO speaks

By Allison Myrick, Associate Creative Director, Regional and National Accounts

If you’ve been in fundraising more than a few days, chances are that you’ve heard an organizational leader read the fundraising materials attributed to their name say:

“But that’s not how I talk!”

You might have even agreed with them and wondered how your fundraising writing should sound, and if you should update the copy to better capture their unique point of view and words of wisdom.

I’m here to state as kindly, but as firmly as possible: No, you should not. Your fundraising writing should not sound the way your CEO speaks, even though they are brilliant, talented and passionate about what they do.

In my 20+ years as a copywriter, I’ve written for organizations of all shapes, sizes and missions. And while it is crucial to capture the heart and purpose of that particular nonprofit, trying to capture your leader’s exact voice can be downright detrimental to your fundraising efforts.

Don’t tune out now… hear me out on this! Your first reaction might be dismay and disbelief, but I urge you to take a few minutes from your busy day and read through these 5 reasons why your fundraising should not sound like your CEO.

1. People don’t want to be talked down to – so your fundraising writing should be written at a middle-school level.

Wait, am I actually insisting that everything you write should be easily understood by your 6th grade neighbor? Absolutely!

But don’t just take my word for it… the legendary Jeff Brooks, fundraiser, author and speaker, has written a post called “Why you should write at the 6th-grade level” that backs up this bold statement.

To summarize his points, readers appreciate having everything spelled out quickly and clearly for them. You’ve seen how attention spans keep shrinking in today’s super busy world, so creating something donors can scan and respond to with a minimum of effort means they’re more likely to give to your cause.

As an English major, I adore multisyllabic words and go a bit gooey when I see gems like “egregious” or “juxtapositional.” But there is a time and a place for those words… and it is NOT in your fundraising campaigns, no matter how smart or well-educated you may be. 

Make donors comfortable and excited about your work by crafting a heartfelt, easy to read letter that builds relationships and gets results.

2. People have short attention spans – so make your copy scannable to highlight the most important parts. 

Have you heard of the F-pattern? Scientists have used eye-tracking technology to create heat maps to show exactly how someone scans through a letter or email. 

Here’s what they discovered… people scan through in a F-pattern, with the areas they spent the most time on being highlighted in red: 

My BDI colleague, Sarah Wallin, wrote a fascinating article titled “Use the F-pattern to optimize your nonprofit fundraising” that explains why it’s critical to layout your fundraising with critical information in these most-read areas.

The sad reality is that most donors don’t take the time to read every word we copywriters so painstakingly craft – shocking, I know. So they won’t understand the nuances of how your Executive Director would humbly, charmingly ask for help versus just saying “Please help.” In fact, all that extra language might even frustrate them and do the opposite by causing them to stop reading and not help at all. Your fundraising writing should sound direct – focus on the headline area and make the major points stand out so they can get the main idea as they scan down the page.

Your donors’ time is precious, so make the most of the gift they give you by making your campaigns more effective and easier to understand.

3. People love to talk about themselves – so use personalization and the word “you” as often as possible. 

When I’m writing fundraising copy, I look through and try to ensure as many paragraphs as possible have the word “you” included. A common mistake many organizations make is making their campaigns all about them and the great work they are doing – completely leaving the donor out of the story. 

As much as your donors may respect and admire your ED and what they have to say, the truth is that they’d rather hear about themselves. They want to feel connected to something greater… to reinforce their identity and self-worth by hearing how “their” gifts are making the world a better place.

In this article titled “The Psychology Of Giving: Important Words To Use In Your Appeals,” the number one “magic word” they say to use is YOU.

The reality is that donor support and financial gifts are the only reason lives are changed and communities are strengthened. They are the heart – you are the hands and feet. So be sure you are drawing them in at every opportunity and reinforcing just how critical they are to your mission.

Another way to make donors feel special is to use personalization throughout your campaign. In emails, this could be in the subject line, opening sentence and later in the copy. In direct mail, this could be in the headline, a prominent call-out, the P.S. or other areas where it makes sense.

Sidenote: No one likes a stalker, so be selective in your use of personalization. Wisely choose where and how often to remind the donor that you know who they are and acknowledge the impact they are making.

4. People want to be entertained – so be sure you are telling an interesting story that makes them the hero.

Storytelling is not a nice idea… it is an imperative. At its base, fundraising is about asking people to give their hard-earned money to your cause. People have a lot of complicated ideas and emotions around money, so it’s key to provide compelling reasons to ask them to part with their treasure.

One of the most basic forms of human communication is storytelling – dating back to the dawn of civilization as a way to interact with each other, conduct business, maintain history and more. So in each and every appeal you send, you must tell a powerful story to keep your donors engaged with your organization. 

And to be clear, this is not a story about you… it’s a story about the donor. There are many aspects to the story that they want to hear:

  • What exactly is the problem and why should I care?
  • Why do you need me?
  • How am I making a difference?
  • How can I help today?

Answer those questions while showing the donor just how inspiring and heroic they are by giving to help others, and that’s a story they’ll want to read!

And if you’re looking to improve your storytelling, The Chronicle of Philanthropy has a great article called “7 Ways to Make Your Nonprofit Storytelling Stronger” with helpful suggestions.

5. People work better in partnership – so find an agency or trusted advisor who can help strengthen your fundraising.

While these basic principles sound easy, ensuring your fundraising writing and materials strike the right tone, time and time again, can be challenging. That’s why it’s critical to either turn to a fundraising agency to help craft winning campaigns or find an advisor who is knowledgeable and objective to review and critique your writing.

You need someone who understands your mission and can help you create campaigns that focus on the donor. Someone who can offer suggestions to feature a more conversational tone… which might mean – gasp! – starting sentences with And or But, and using bullet points, underlining, bolding, ellipses, etc. Someone who knows how to make the donor feel loved, respected and a key factor to the success of your mission.

Plus, if you have a trusted partner on your side, when leadership reads your latest email and says, “But I don’t talk that way,” you’ll know just how to respond!

Wrapping it up – you’ve stayed with me this far and reached the conclusion!

Thank you for indulging me and letting me share my own voice in this article. For so many years I’ve written for other organizations and letter signers that it feels a bit odd to write something with my own name and personal flair!

To practice what I preach, I now go back to my own daily work to incorporate all these fundraising best practices that I’ve shared. Helping our nonprofit partners requires a small sacrifice of self to ensure these campaigns can best speak to donors and encourage them to give to something greater than themselves.

I hope these tips are helpful to you as you tirelessly work to raise funds for your great cause. If you’re looking for some more fundraising writing inspiration, check out my previous article “Essential Ingredients for Nonprofit Copywriting Success.” And be sure to reach out to your team at BDI if you’re a BDI client – our Academy Library has a huge selection of thoughtfully written templates for many of the campaigns you frequently write!

  • Allison Myrick

    Allison Myrick, Associate Creative Director

    Allison Myrick has been writing for both nonprofit organizations and commercial clients for more than 20 years, though her heart is for nonprofits and partnering with them to help those in need. She has extensive experience crafting direct mail, email, websites, commercials and other integrated fundraising campaigns. Some past clients include: AARP Foundation, American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association, AT&T, Citigroup, Humane Society International, Six Flags, Save the Children and U. S. Fund for UNICEF, as well as humane societies, rescue missions and food banks around the country.

More fuel for more impact.

Let's talk.