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How to Improve Nonprofit Fundraising Copy: Branding!

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nonprofit fundraising copy

What’s in a nonprofit brand?


Think about the most popular and well-known charities. What comes to mind? I’ll bet you’re able to envision who they are, why they do what they do, and what they do in an instant.

For example, Charity: water. The ASPCA. The ACLU.  Red Cross. The local public television station. The local food bank. You don’t really care how they get the job done; just that the desirable impact is created. And, if you’re a donor, that you helped.

These charities are well-known because their brand is resonant with people who believe their vision and mission matters.

Too often when I review promotional nonprofit fundraising copy – case statements, newsletters, emails, direct mail, and social media messaging – I find it stuffed with unnecessary details. Stuff that doesn’t matter to donors. Your campaign goal. Your process. Your procedures. Your internal jargon. Your deadline.

Donors don’t much care how many years you’ve existed. How big your staff is. How many volunteers you have. How many offices you work from. How many people you serve. How many programs you offer. How many clever acronyms you’ve devised to title your programs.

None of the detailed stuff describes your essence.

The details are trees. You must tend to them internally, of course. They’re what build the forest. But… emphasize the forest in your branding and messaging. Donors care about the forest.

If you look at this existentially, donors don’t care that you exist. There are millions of charities out there which also exist. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S. alone. The world doesn’t need more charities. The world needs more solutions to problems people care about.

Donors care about why you exist.

If that why resonates with them and speaks to their personal, essential values, they’ll give so you’ll continue to exist.

Existence precedes essence, sure. But for donors?

Visualize something great you and your donors can do together. Begin there.

Essence is what it’s all about.

Seth Godin writes in The elegance of nothing about the importance of the BIG PICTURE gestalt of your brand. And that means how you see yourself, how others see you, and how people see themselves when they affiliate with you. Are you a Harley Davidson tribe, or a Mercedes crowd? One is instantly known for freedom and power; the other for luxury and power.

Were I to join your community, what would I primarily be known for? Compassion? Innovation? Vision? Pragmatism? Inclusivity? Morality? Intellect? Empathy? Justice? Conservation? Aesthetics/ Nonconformity? Traditionalism?

Your essence and the donor’s essence must connect.

Godin notes we choose brands when we believe they are comprised by people like us.Our tribe, our group. That when we see the others, we see ourselves.

[T]he brands that matter are voices that choose to matter. Voices that make assertions on behalf of their users. Who market with people, and for them, not to them or at them. – Seth Godin

The best for-profit brands consider the customer the center of their universe.

The best nonprofit brands embrace the donor as the center of their universe.

Michal Rosen writes eloquently about the difference between being organization-centric and donor-centric in What Can Fundraising Professionals Learn from L.L. Bean? I recommend reading the full article, but this one take-away can help you:

One way L.L. Bean has maintained its customer-first culture is that it has developed a list of statements about customers that are shared with each employee as a reminder. – Michael J. Rosen

What could you write about your donors that encapsulates their desires and values?

When you think from your donor’s perspective, it becomes much easier to write compelling nonprofit fundraising copy. Because then you write about what they care about, not what you care about.

And, of course, you too care about what donors care about. It’s just that, somehow, when we wear our ‘insider’ hats we forget about our essence and focus too much on our everyday existence. The need to keep the lights on. To buy a new copier. To pay better wages. It’s not that those things are unimportant, but… those aren’t the reasons you exist. They are things you do along the way towards your destination — fulfilling your mission and reaching your vision.

Understand this: Donors don’t give because you HAVE needs. They give because you ADDRESS needs. And not just any needs, but those donors believe are REAL PROBLEMS they want to help address because they resonate with their personal VALUES. When organizational missions and visions align, philanthropic gifts are given.

Let’s get back to why your ‘brand’ matters.

It’s not simply a marketing exercise. While that may be how it’s traditionally been conceived in your organization, it’s time for a change. Branding isn’t just a logo, color palette or typography. It’s about your very essence. And connecting with the very essence of folks likely to share your vision and values.

Engaging consumers from a marketing-driven approach may work for the short term, but engagement requires a holistic approach. Consumers see one brand, one company, one experience and not a series of disconnected silos experimenting … without a common vision, mission, or process.

Brian Solis

The consumer perspective is at the heart of what matters today. 

What are you doing to conform your brand messaging – what you say/write/show about mission, vision and values – to donors who care about your essential purpose?

Is the message you’re conveying about the donor and what they care about? Or is it more about you?

It can be challenging to make the donor-centered shift, especially when it’s nonprofit fundraising copy you’ve written yourself. Or when it’s copy that’s lived on your website and in your communications for many years, and some of your leaders wrote it. You’ll often hear “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I’m telling you: If your branding and messaging isn’t donor-centered, it’s broke. You may not be getting complaints. You may even be raising money. Guess what? You could be raising more. You could also be making current donors feel better about their engagement with you.

If more and better sounds good to you, here are a few actionable tips:

1. When you write, think about who you’re writing to.

This works best when you write to one person (or persona). If they know something about you already you’ll write something different than if they don’t (e.g., prospects vs. donors; volunteers vs. clients; clients vs. family/friends of clients).  

2. If there are different types of audiences for the philanthropic opportunity you’re offering, segment your audience and write several variations of your message.

Trying to be all things to all people results in a message that’s pablum. No one likes it or is excited by it. If donors have consistently earmarked their giving for a particular program (e.g., cats vs. dogs; children vs. seniors; scholarships vs. performances), then writing to them about your overall mission may be a disconnect. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck if you narrow the audience to whom you’re writing.

3. Avoid use of the words “we,” “our,” and the name of your nonprofit.

When the headline on your website says “We do XYZ” or “ABC Charity Serves At-Risk Moms” the donor can’t quite see themselves in the picture. Your goal is to empower the donor to be the change they want to see in the world. Use a lot more “you.” [If you use Bloomerang, the Ahern Audit can help with this].

nonprofit fundraising copy

EXAMPLE: This Charity: water monthly giving landing page doesn’t talk at all about what the organization does. It simply says what will happen when donors give: “People will get clean water each month.” How? “Thanks to the Spring community.” In other words, you can join this community of like-minded people and make a difference. Why might you want to do that? “It’s about impact, goodness and making history.” Branding and fundraising messaging doesn’t get better than this.

nonprofit fundraising copy

EXAMPLE: I googled ‘American Red Cross’ and was taken to this home page (which they clearly switch up depending on what’s going on in the world at a point in time.) The message is donor-centered, focusing on what the donor can do to provide a solution to a specific problem that’s been in the news. Brilliantly, below they make a non-monetary call to action which they tie into the coming season premiere of the popular Game of Thrones television series.

4. Consider what donors don’t care about before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

I’ve intentionally phrased this in the negative to make a point. A lot of what you’re writing about leaves donors cold. Here are examples from one case statement draft and one appeal letter draft I was recently asked to review.

EXAMPLE CASE STATEMENT: The [name of city] program is already excellent, with a capacity to serve up to 3,000 mothers at any given time. More than 130 registered are employed by 8 network partner organizations operating from 11 sites that together serve the entire city. Our vision is to assure that this amazing program does not lack the resources that it needs to reach its full potential in New York City.

Alas, this is 100% organization-centric. Plus it’s filled with numbers guaranteed to make a reader’s eyes roll back in their head. And what, exactly, does this ‘excellent,’ ‘amazing’ program do? The case statement goes on to attempt to explain it, but that assumes the prospective donor hasn’t already stopped reading.

EXAMPLE APPEAL LETTER: Your support gives at-risk children and youth opportunities to succeed—yet, there is an increased demand for our services, and we need your help. In 2009, our programs were at 20 sites serving 7,000 children and youth year-round in [A, B and C] Counties. Since then, we lost $120,000 in funding due to cutbacks in local government budgets and foundation portfolios. As a result, our programs have been reduced to 10 sites serving approximately 2,000 young people in [A, B and C] Counties. What’s more, we have a waiting list with 5 under-resourced schools in low-income neighborhoods that could benefit from your continued/additional investment.

Alas, donors don’t want to hear about you and your problems. They want to hear success stories. They want to be inspired and uplifted. They certainly don’t want to see a 6:2 ratio of the words “we” and “our” to “you” or “your.”

The secret to branding from a consumer/donor perspective?

Think big picture essence, not small picture existence.

You have a mission. A purpose. Donors can help you get there.

Your donors are looking for purpose. You can help them find it.

The relationship between organization and donor is a symbiotic one.

Just like the relationship between Harley Davidson and their bikers.

Consider incorporating this into your mission statement, because it reframes existence to encapsulate essence:

“We exist because people need to give,” or 

We exist to help donors find meaning.”

When you think about it, if you can make people happier and healthier simply by facilitating philanthropic behavior, that’s got to be a win/win/win – for the philanthropist, your organization and the larger society. Right?

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  • Michael J. Rosen

    Claire, I'm glad to know my post resonated with you, and I'm honored that you included a bit of my insight in your excellent article. Thank you! As you suggest, being donor centered requires an organization's commitment; it's not simply a communications tactic. There have been a number of times when I've been impressed with a business brand only to discover that it had little or nothing to do with the actual company; it was like the advertising agency never bothered to learn what their client was really like. It's essential that customer-focus or donor-focus be an organizational strategy and not simply a tactic. Your post does a great job of explaining why that's so important along with terrific tips for making it happen.
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