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12 Tips for Improving Your Donor Communications

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How to Use Social Media to Improve Donor Loyalty

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In his book Building Donor Loyalty, Dr. Adrian Sargeant states “If nonprofits are to succeed, they need to develop fundraising practices that reflect the genuine needs of donors, inspire commitment to the cause and build loyalty over time. Building loyalty begins with effective donor communications practices. Here are 12 tips for improving your donor communications:

Twelve1. Humans have a ‘helping gene,’ science says. We are hardwired to assist the needy. And we feel a bit badly when we don’t. Make sure your audience knows you need them. Repeat this mantra a thousand times a year in your communications, in whatever words: ‘Thanks to you, this important work is possible. And without you, it cannot happen.’

2. According to Dr. Jen Shang, a psychologist who studies philanthropic behavior, ‘There are nine adjectives Americans use to describe a moral person: kind, caring, compassionate, helpful, friendly, fair, hard-working, generous and honest.’ Use these adjectives often in your donor communications. Don’t just say ‘…your gift….’ Say instead ‘…your compassionate gift….’

3. Most charities do not know there’s a difference between ‘corporate’ communications and ‘donor’ communications … and as a result leave vast amounts of potential charity unclaimed. Corporate communications are about how great the organization is and favor the pronoun ‘we.’ Donor communications are about how great the donor is and favor the pronoun ‘you.’ When one children’s hospital switched from corporate communications to true donor communications, donations soared 1,000%. Trust me: there’s a lot at stake.

4. Successful direct mail appeals are quite simple. At heart, they are love letters to donors and prospects, woven through with clear cries for help.

5. London-based researcher Richard Radcliffe told me, ‘Donors are staggeringly ignorant of the causes they support.’ He didn’t mean that was a bad thing, I should add. He meant, ‘Lucky us! We don’t have to explain all that much to get someone to give.’ Stop over-explaining.

6. The real money is made when you connect with a person’s pre-existing values and experiences. That’s an emotional and intimate connection. You do not talk someone into giving to your cause. You connect with what’s already in their heart.

7. Give your donors a job. Talk about a rip in the universe ‘that only you, the donor, can mend.’ E.g., ‘Why does the community hospital need your help? Because so much of what patients and families love about coming here — from the advanced technologies to the comforting environment — is only made possible thanks to your generous support.’ Offer people a chance to do important and exclusive good, and they will respond.

8. Technically, ‘fundraising’ is simply ‘sales’ by a different name. Who, then, are our ‘customers’? Fundraising’s customers are its donors. What do we sell them? Not goods or services. We sell them love, gratitude, admiration, and profound appreciation for their generous acts. Love your donors, and they will return the favor in spades.

9. A picture’s worth a thousand words, the saying goes. But it should say, A picture’s worth a thousand words … that you don’t have to write … and I don’t have to read. We both benefit. You can often tell your donors a compelling story faster with photos than with prose. Also: don’t go too heavy on the smiley face. Research shows that sad photos raise far more money than happy ones.

10. Are you flattering your donors enough? Neuroscience says the human brain just plain enjoys flattery, even when it’s deliberately false. Bottom line: you cannot flatter your donors too much. But they’ll love you for trying.

11. The average age of the American donor is far older than most people suspect. At one major hospital system I know, donors are on average 75 years of age. A major US direct mail firm says its donors don’t reach their ‘giving peak’ until about age 65. What are the implications? For one thing, experts recommend using 14-point type for eyes older than 60. Are your appeal letters set in type that large?

12. Printed newsletters, done properly, can raise astounding amounts of money. But emailed newsletters generally don’t, 20 years of experience have shown. Print and digital newsletters are not interchangeable equivalents. They are very different media that produce very different results. I know a print newsletter that raises a half million dollars annually from about 10,000 donors. Yet the same agency’s digital newsletter is a flop.

Consider implementing these small changes to your donor communications strategies and tactics to begin building donor loyalty.

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  • Andrea Beaulieu

    Tom, I enjoy getting your newsletter, and I love how you take concepts and communicate them very clearly. You mention the storytelling power of the photo, but don't mention in your list the value of telling a story, although I believe you are a fan. That's one of the most powerful ways to connect with values and experiences. One of the things I notice working with clients is many don't know how to tell a story using the story format, so don't experience the impact a good story can have. Helping them do that is one of the most rewarding things I get to do, and the most fun. Thank you for sharing this information. It's such a gift.
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