A subscriber sweetly wrote to ask:

“Do you think the nonprofit world needs a grammar book all its own?”

She wondered because she was discouraged. All across our massive and very verbal industry, she’d tripped over grammar crimes and misdemeanors.

Were fundraisers a bit illiterate and in need of a remedy?

Smile GrammarTo make her point personal for me, she served up some sales copy written about one of my own workshops. “Cringe-worthy,” she deemed it.

True, the sales copy had a couple of skid marks; a misplaced apostrophe or such. “Of course,” she hastened to add, “I know you didn’t write it.”



“In fact,” I replied, “I did write it. Yet I’m not cringing.

“That particular workshop oversold, I’m relieved to say.

“Not only was every chair taken … all the leaning wall-space was taken … and the entire carpet was taken. We just prayed the fire marshal wouldn’t wander in.

“Which means my nay-grammatical words did the job they were hired to do: sell.”

Look, here’s the financial bottom line, fundraisers (and grammar police): accurate, school-room-caliber, academy-approved writing will add almost, virtually, infinitesimally nothing to your sales.

Perfect grammar contributes the LEAST to making money for your mission.

Odd behavior, ain’t it

For the one-thousandth time:

Fundraising, that glorious profession you devote your energies to is … just … SALES by a different name.

And … as in any other form of sales … your job, fundraiser, is to move me (your puzzled prospect) from my native, warm, pleasant, untroubled inertia into the bold, troubling act of making a gift of my hard-earned money on behalf of your mission.

Given the never-ending and savage competition for resources that Darwin described in the natural world, it is pretty bizarre behavior to give away money to strangers.

And yet …

… we do so freely, repeatedly, bewitched by sadness and hope and love and wonder and a chance to do something for someone else.

Donors are buying a story they can write themselves into, as Seth Godin points out.

They’re experiencing first hand the pleasure and power of giving away their assets in an attempt to help others, as neuroscience points out.

They are sacrificing … and sacrificing feels wonderful!

Of course, admittedly it’s more of an inconvenience than a real sacrifice. “Nobody gives away their lunch money,” as a veteran Miami fundraiser once whispered in my ear.

What he meant was: if I give you $30 million, it’s because I can easily afford it. A 10-dollar gift from a compassionate pensioner scraping by is far more sacrificial than my casual $100 gift to a new charity that has momentarily intrigued me.

To repeat

Fundraising is sales.

Donors are customers.

Embrace it. Get over it. Ditch your delusions. Whatever.

If a couple of lonely grammar hawks spot a split infinitive racing across the open ground of your prose, who cares?

Grammar purity will NOT affect (not “effect”) sales.

In conclusion

So … does the fundraising industry need a grammar book all its own, dear subscriber?

Heavens, no.

In fact, stiff and learned grammar can be the enemy.

All donor communications should sound like conversation, the late (and extraordinarily successful UK-based copywriter) George Smith advised. He rested his opinion on years of proof.

And you and me talking? Nothing grammatical about that. Know what I mean, jelly bean?

This post originally appeared in the Ahern Donor Communications newsletter.

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Tom Ahern
Author of four books, Tom Ahern is considered one of the world’s top authorities on donor communications.
Tom Ahern

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