Tell Donors How They Helped in 2020

woman lying on leaves looking up at sky as if thinking

Nonprofits, it’s time for those annual letters from your CEO to your donors. Whether they be for fundraising or an annual report or your last newsletter, I want to issue a plea: If yours begins with, “2020 has been a tough year for everyone. Here’s what we’ve done to get through it,” get out a clean sheet of paper and start a new draft.

Now is not the time to extol how hard you worked. It’s not the time to inform your supporters how you turned in-person events into virtual ones or made the “tough, but right” decision to let your staff work from home.

Instead, now is the time to thank your supporters for keeping your services available to the people who need them.

I can’t help thinking no word will ever be 
as full of life as this world,   
I can’t help thinking of thanks.

I know you really did work long and hard. Few organizations had a script for a pandemic. My point, though, is that whatever you accomplished in 2020 was possible because of those who supported you … and now’s the time to say thank you.

Why do donors give?

Remember, donors don’t give to your organization because they care about it. They care about the people, animals, environment or whatever part of society it addresses. Fortunately for us, our supporters continued to care during 2020 while they also were struggling with economic uncertainty, sick family members, children learning at home, elderly parents and so much more.

Their struggles have been intensely personal. So I hope you can see that hearing you managed to write an annual report during the pandemic will sound out of touch at best … and maybe a little insulting.

That’s how I felt when I read a 902-word (really) e-letter from a local nonprofit this week. Below are examples from the letter of some of the most egocentric-sounding parts of the message – mistakes I hope you’ll avoid in your own 2020 messaging.

In the introduction:

‘It’s hard to comprehend all the challenges our organization has faced in 2020. … Our staff has been on the front lines of this pandemic.’

Nope, they have not. “Front line worker” has taken on a specific meaning, thanks to COVID-19, and this definition shouldn’t be co-opted. Imagine an ER nurse reading such a line.

In paragraph 2:

‘We had to dig deep and exert enormous effort to implement completely new ways of doing things.’

If this doesn’t sound like patting oneself on the back, I don’t know what does. “Dig deep” and “exert enormous effort.” Really? Think about the parent who, without warning, had to start working from home while helping their school-age children learn virtually and adjust to the family being together 24/7. Now that’s digging deep in all kinds of ways.

16 bullets of accomplishments (yes, 16!):

These business-as-usual “milestones” included producing an annual report, “transitioning” (buzzword) events to virtual platforms, and “deciding to continue to provide staff the option to work from home.”

By this point, we’re about 650 words into the letter and the CEO has neither mentioned how any of these successes benefit the people they serve nor thanked the supporters who made them all possible.

Only in the closing does the writer say thank you – well, they “express appreciation” to those reading the letter “for your willingness to stand by us and ensure our sustainability.”

Those words aren’t likely to produce a warm glow.

Outside of the board and maybe a few of the biggest donors, supporters don’t want to hear how the organization adapted to challenges, especially when everyone else is doing the same.

This worthy nonprofit missed the chance to connect to donors with genuine stories about who supporters helped during the pandemic. That’s what donors want to hear about: how they are changing the world through you.

photo by Greek Food – Ta Mystika
poetry from “Slant,” Copyright © by Suji Kwock Kim

Want more? Read why your nonprofit’s About Us page shouldn’t be about you.

Why Your Nonprofit’s ‘About Us’ Page Shouldn’t Be About You

copywriter about us web pages

Your nonprofit is only as strong as the people who support you. Does your copywriting reflect this understanding?

As my friend and fundraising expert Derrick Feldmann says, people support you when they believe in a cause: Eliminating homelessness. Climate change. Animal rescue. Saving children. They believe in improving society, not in funding your organization.

Why, then, does your “About Us” web page talk almost exclusively about you?

Here’s my argument: Your copywriting has to evoke an emotional response – and About Us doesn’t mean what you think it does.

It’s Not About You

Your website gives you a chance to show potential supporters who they’ll be and what they can achieve when they join you. This will require language that creates a vivid picture in their minds of a place where “us” includes them making a difference.

Consider the following real example from a nonprofit that offers services to and advocates for adults and children with disabilities:

As America’s largest nonprofit health care organization, [Organization] is committed to the comprehensive health and wellness of the more than 1.4 million people it serves each year and is prepared to respond to the needs of the one in four Americans living with disability today with outcomes-based services for all disabilities throughout the lifespan.

This 54-word sentence reads like an encyclopedia entry, not authentic copywriting meant to move us to action. We can’t visualize what it’s like to be part of this group, and we won’t feel an emotional connection to the people who need help. The language feels clinical and cold, keeping us from feeling the strength of their belief.

It’s About Them

Now, contrast it with a page called “Who We Are” from a nonprofit that serves the families of hospitalized children:

They’ve created have a picture in my head: a sick child who needs Mom or Dad around to feel safe. I’m in that room, and “What can I do to help?” is my gut reaction. The only way this could be better is if the story was told through one family’s experience.

Raise Your Hand Texas also did a pretty good job touching my emotions:

I like the clear language and focus on the students. How could the writing be more appealing? Would you feel the need more viscerally if this story was shared through the impact on one student?

In reality, research has shown that people respond more positively when they hear about one person in a situation than when they hear about a hundred. A large number feels overwhelming – “That’s too big a problem” – while an individual makes it easy to think, “I could help one child.”

Speak to Your Audience’s Heart

As with any communications piece, keep your audience in mind when writing your About Us page. They don’t need or want a recitation of your accomplishments, or the definition you put on grant proposals, or a formal business statement. They want to feel a sense of belonging, a desire to join with you in a cause they already have feelings about.

By the way, look at the language you use to tell your nonprofit’s history, too, since it’s often on the About Us page. Is it focused on buildings and organizational growth, or on an expanding ability to serve more individuals?

4 Ways Not to Choose a Hero for Your Next Fundraising Appeal

female boxer happy

(This post has appeared on my LinkedIn and at Achieve’s website.)

In nonprofit fundraising, telling the story of someone who has directly benefited from an organization’s services is the most effective way to move a potential donor to action. Finding such a story can be difficult, of course, but that doesn’t mean you should take the easy route.

No matter what kind of time crunch you’re in, avoid these pitfalls in writing a nonprofit fundraising appeal:

1. Don’t use a board member’s story.

Maybe a member of your board of directors was once a beneficiary or an on-the-ground volunteer. But if they’re on the board during the fundraising campaign, find someone else to feature in your campaign. Telling a real person’s story gives your organization credibility, so don’t run the risk of negating your authenticity by using an insider.

2. Don’t select a subject by consensus.

Your internal team is not the audience. Each of you is too invested in your own viewpoint to be objective. You also may be biased because you know the candidate or for any number of other reasons. Given all that baggage, getting everyone to agree too often devolves into selecting the lowest common denominator. Seek advice from outside your inner circle.

3. Don’t use a story simply because a big donor suggests it.

Donors, staff and volunteers undoubtedly are your best sources for finding story subjects. However, that doesn’t mean you should select a particular subject simply to please them. Doubling your fundraising results from last year will please them much more than using a story that doesn’t move your audience to action.

4. Don’t let communications and development work in silos.

I could write an entire post about why communications and development departments that work together get the best results. In the 2017 Nonprofit Communications Trends Report, only 34% of communications staff reported being consulted about fundraising decisions. These organizations are missing out – and giving yours a chance to get ahead. Be the nonprofit that keeps territorial fights out of the discussion, and you’ll see truly stunning results.

All this boils down to one thing: Don’t let too much of an internal focus derail your fundraising efforts. Keep your target audience and the behavior you want them to exhibit at the forefront when you’re selecting someone to feature in your fundraising materials.