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Donation Letters: 5 Scary Writing Mistakes and How to Fix Them

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donation letters

If you write your annual appeal, then you know how frightening the job can be. So much rides on you finding just the right words … for the right audience and at the right time. 

And like a scary movie, there are many other things that are out of your control. A big one is that very few of your coworkers know how contrarian donation letters can be. We hear:

  • “Keep it short.” But there’s evidence that longer donation letters – when written well – work better. 
  • “Sound more sophisticated.” But shorter sentences and simple words are easier for donors to read. 
  • “Make it prettier.” But donors tend to like simple design with more underlining and bold type then we would normally use. 

And all that leads to a fair amount of second guessing your work. That comes in the form of margin notes, all too often from a host of well-meaning editors who may not know the donor as well as you do. 

And to me, that’s the real horror show. Everyone needs an editor. But no fundraiser should have to send an appeal that they know isn’t going to perform as well as it should because their editor was a committee. 

Letters by committee are easy to spot because they contain the same mistakes, over and over. It’s like watching one of those films where the teens are trapped in a house and someone decides they just have to go into the basement. 

But you don’t have to go down those stairs to your doom. Here are five of the most common writing issues and how you (and your editors) can fix them in your next appeal. 

1. Speaking to the crowd

We write a lot of nonprofit communications in broadcast style, from one person to many people. Most advocacy, program announcements and events fit into this category. 

But a donation letter is a 1-to-1 conversation. It’s you, asking a close friend, for money. To do this, your language must shift from “I,” “we” and “our work” to “you” and “your.” You must step down from the podium and get personal. 

The fix: Look at your appeal and count up the “you” language vs. the instances of “I,” “we” and “our.” Rewrite so the donor is the clear hero of the story. 

2. Using Olympian language & grammar

In school, we learn the “proper” way to write. We avoid fragments and sentences that start with conjunctions. We flaunt our vocabulary of multi-syllabic words and technical jargon. We cling to serial commas and semicolons. 

These are wonderful rules … for a grad school paper or a legal brief. But they don’t reflect real conversation. And they can lead to writing that is at best, hard to read, and at worst, makes the donor feel excluded. 

The fix: Activate the readability statistics feature in Word. When you run spell check, this feature will show whether your writing contains passive voice, can be read easily and at what grade level you’re writing. Aim for 0% passive, at least 50% readable and a single-digit grade level. If someone grumbles that you’re “dumbing it down,” remind them that only 2% of Americans read at the college level. Scary, but true. 

3. Guessing who the donor is

When you write an appeal, you need to have a clear picture of the donor in your mind. Or better yet, taped to your computer. This will help you to keep the tone personal and to connect with what’s most important to her. 

I say her because the average U.S. donor is a woman between the ages of 55-75, though it’s possible your donor could be different. The point is, if you’re writing to please everyone then you run the risk of pleasing no one. 

The fix: Build a donor persona. Begin with market research to uncover donor demographics and psychographics – their attitudes, motivations and behaviors. You can hire a firm to do this or do your own research by using a survey, leading a focus group and/or interviewing donors one-on-one over coffee. Then capture what you learn in a customizable persona template. Update the persona as you gain more information on how they respond to your appeals.

4. Muddling the message

Donation letters have to balance emotion with logic. But what order should these be in? Neuroscience suggests that when you lead with facts, the brain tends to get defensive. Data dumps don’t sway us. The opposite happens when you lead with an emotional story. Our brains perceive it as more truthful. 

But simply telling a story isn’t enough. It also has to lead to a larger message. Think redemption, dignity or unconditional love. It’s your job as the writer to choose details (facts) that advance that one big idea and remove those that distract from it. 

The fix: When you sit down to write, ask yourself questions like: What do you know about the donor’s values? What is the single, most persuasive thing you can say? Why should they believe it? What epic emotion are you trying to evoke? If you’d like to put a process in place for these questions, consider using a creative brief. This is a 1-2 page document that marketers use to order creative work like copywriting.  

5. Forgetting to repeat the ask

In many forms of writing, repetition is a curse. Editors will cut out repetitive words and phrases to reduce word counts. 

But in fundraising writing, it’s essential to repeat the ask several times throughout the appeal. This is because donors won’t read your entire appeal – they’ll skim it. (Hello “beautiful” bold and underlined text!) And most people need to hear the same thing over and over before they take action. 

The fix: Make your ask at least four times in your appeal. Three times in the body of the letter and once in the postscript or P.S. Most donation letter templates also include teaser text at the top that can be used for another ask. 

It’s natural to be a little squeamish about writing your annual appeal. After all, nearly a third of annual giving occurs in December alone. 

But there are best practices that you can put in place today to help your nonprofit thrive in the strange, upside-down world of donation letters. 

Just stay out of the basement. 

When so many nonprofit letters read like a deadly tax receipt, why would you miss the opportunity to lift your donor’s heart? Download this basic thank you letter template as a starting point to crafting an effective acknowledgement!

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  • Brenda

    Useful post, It’s best to learn from other’s mistakes than to feel the urge to commit one by oneself & then think of learning. I think we’ve all made some of these mistakes to some degree or another.
  • Laura Ingalls

    Thanks Caren and Jason! The two I see the most are forgetting the donor is the hero of the story and failing to repeat the ask.
  • Caren Hansen

    Thanks for sharing. This is really helpful information!
  • Jason Chmura

    Great tips. It's so easy to fall into some of these bad habits - especially speaking to the crowd - but this is a great reminder. Thank you!
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