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The Proven Formula for Donor Newsletters

The Proven Formula for Donor Newsletters

by Tom Ahern, of Ahern Donor Communications — www.aherncomm.com

In the 1990s, a Seattle fundraising shop called the Domain Group took the garden-variety donor newsletter, stripped it down to its components, and began testing … to see if they could come up with something better. Sort of like rebuilding a hot rod.

Domain eventually developed a formula that made a donor newsletter HIGHLY worth doing: some Domain clients began raking in more gifts through their newsletters than through their direct mail appeals.
Domain had its hot rod. Think about that a moment. Read more ›

Writer’s Tip – Talk about Donors!

Working at an organization for a while is a great way to become both incredibly passionate and deeply informed about its mission. But one thing that such longevity often brings is a loss of perspective about what attracts members or donors to your organization in the first place. You look at all of the great work that you do and ask yourself, isn’t it obvious why we’re worth supporting?
Often, this leads leaders in the non- profit sector to adopt an outreach strategy designed to fill the so-called knowledge gap. They craft appeals that tell donors and would-be patrons about all of the great things the organization has ever done. This way, the organization’s day-to-day efforts can be appreciated by everyone—not just those who are intimately involved.
Problem solved, right?
Not so fast.
As a nonprofit leader, you may think the best way to sell your organization to prospective donors is by talking about all the great things you do. But here’s the thing: most donors find that stuff extremely boring.
Guess what donors don’t find boring? Themselves and the things they care about. It might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many appeal letters focus too much on what the organization has accomplished, and not enough on why donors and prospects should care.
Donor-centric fundraising isn’t just about the mission—it’s about your audience, too.
So how do you write a donor-centric appeal letter that will knock their socks off? That’s where we come in.
Stick around and we will show you how it’s done.

A meaningful appeal letter; speaking to the national mood.

Writing a meaningful appeal letter is much more than relaying your organizations goals to your donors (though this is very important as well).
Effective appeals – the ones that really resonate and capture hearts and minds – possess a certain cultural element, a snapshot of the current national mood. The national mood might be affected by significant events, whether it’s a natural disaster or a tragic mass shooting, heavily influenced by mainstream media. If the United States of America were a single person, the national mood would embody a cluster of emotions and thoughts that she is experiencing right at this moment.

It’s critical to take stock in the national mood because it influences how all citizens feel, who they vote for, and which organizations they give to. However, it’s not always clear how various donor segments of your organization will respond to different events. As a leader of advocacy, it’s up to you to determine what your donor is dwelling on. For example, are they affected by the results of Hurricane Harvey? Is the Texas church shooting fresh in their minds? What about the current wave of sexual assault and harassment allegations made by women against powerful men in Hollywood and elsewhere?

Tapping into the sentiments generated by the constant stream of newsworthy events is a powerful way to channel your supporters’ outrage into action. If it’s convincing your constituents to fill out a check or ballot, your goal is to engineer concrete action by coopting current events.

So, for your next appeal or fundraising letter, tell a story that incorporates the headlines that move your donors to action.

Tell your organization’s story the right way, and don’t be afraid to borrow from the headline.

Need ideas for your organization’s next fundraising or advocacy campaign? Ask us!

The Martyrdom Effect – Recognizing Donors Sacrifice

The martyrdom effect refers to the tendency of donors “to prefer forms of giving that involve significant sacrifice and effort, such as running marathons or taking the ice- bucket challenge.” (see Wall Street Journal article mentioned below). It helps explain why many donors prefer volunteering for a charity instead of donating money – in their minds, the former activity seems more noble and requires more effort on their part. They view themselves as being on the front lines, right in the middle of the action compared to just scribbling a check which seems lazy. Passionate donors want to invest blood, sweat and tears into the causes they believe in, even though a cash donation would go much farther in achieving the organizations goals.

For content writers and communications directors, the takeaway from this is clear – craft messages in such a way that acknowledge the donor’s sacrifice in earning to give and emphasize that the donor is as much a part of the organization’s team as the official staff members. An excellent demonstration of how this is done can be seen in a year-end Doctors Without Borders fundraising campaign letter.

The letter, written on behalf of Executive Director Jason Cone, illustrates very powerful ways in which the donor’s financial contributions earned her a spot on the team.

“This year, you were with us conducting war surgery on the front line in Yemen, feeding starving children in northern Nigeria, rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, and fighting yellow fever in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Obviously, the donor wasn’t literally present for any of the aforementioned assignments, but Mr. Cone’s words still make it seem like the donor is part of the adventure. He continues:

“When disaster struck, you helped our medical teams bring a measure of hope – one patient at a time – to millions of people.”

“The Doctors Without Borders interventions you make possible, have an immediate impact on the communities where we work.”

This intimate sense of inclusion isn’t lost by emphasizing how critical a donor’s monetary gifts are to the nonprofit’s operations:

“…You give us the freedom to spend your dollars wherever they are needed most.”

“…Your support gives our teams the flexibility to act quickly in scenarios where acting fast means saving more lives.”

“Your generosity and commitment this year meant that we didn’t have to choose between vaccinating hundreds of thousands of people against yellow fever… taking part in the world’s largest oral cholera vaccination campaign… or striving to protect over 200,000 children… from deadly childhood diseases.”

This last excerpt is especially powerful because it highlights for the donor how the heroic and highly skilled medical team would be forced to make some very difficult ethical choices without her financial support. The specter of choosing between two patients would paralyze even the most skilled physician.

It is true that DWB is sort of an odd test subject to use in examining how the martyrdom effect can be harnessed to write persuasive copy because no ordinary donor could elect to volunteer her time instead of writing a check to DWB – the work performed by the org’s staff is simply too dangerous and requires considerable training and expertise.  But still, DWB does a good job letting its supporters tag along for the ride figuratively and, in a way, allows ordinary people to live vicariously through their medical staff. Who doesn’t want to be part of an international life-saving expedition?

So even though DWB doesn’t have a problem with donors trying to volunteer their time instead of their earnings, the writers still do a fantastic job tapping into their donors’ inner martyr to maximize their support and passion for the cause of defending non-privileged lives. It is not only the feeling of being valued that is nurtured, it is also the notion of camaraderie that transforms enthusiasm into life-saving dollars.

Editor’s note “We have emphasized the wisdom of incorporating the pronoun “You” in donor communications. The martyrdom effect now helps us understand why the word “you” resonates so strongly with the donor’s psyche.


Segmentation – It Really Is All About Who You Know

Good journalists apply a formula to ensure that every story has all pertinent facts by always including “the five Ws and the H” – Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Notice that Who is first on the list. That’s a very important fact – Who is at the crux of the story?

Unfortunately, many fundraisers forget about “who” is at the crux of their fundraising efforts when it’s time to send out a big mailing. So much time is spent developing the offer, writing and rewriting the appeal letter; deciding on whether programs are accurately and adequately described; debating about which cuddly photos are the most compelling to use, that one vital element is forgotten…the recipient.

Read more ›