Why is it that so many nonprofit newsletters, annual reports, and even fundraising letters sound like a Ph.D. thesis? Why are they so formal and impersonal? It often seems as if someone likes to show off their big vocabulary.
Unfortunately, when you do this, there’s a good chance your donors will lose interest. It’s hard enough to get them to look at your messages in the first place. Make it easier for them by dialing down on the formality and being more personal.
Here’s what you can do.
Write in the second person
All your fundraising letters, thank you letters, newsletter articles, etc. should be written in the second person. Pretend you’re having a conversation with your reader. Keep that person in mind when you write and think about what they would want to read.
Use the word you much more than we. When you’re having a conversation with someone, do you spend a lot of time talking about yourself? I hope not.
Use language your donors will understand
Quiz time. Which sounds better? a) food insecurity or b) a family choosing between buying groceries or paying their heating bill? How about a) at-risk youth or b) high school students who might not graduate on time?
I hope you answered b for both questions. Jargon is confusing, and even if your donors know what the word means, it’s boring and impersonal. The second two examples give a clearer picture of the need your donors will help you meet.
Mistakes were made when you decided to write in the passive voice
I’m not a fan of the passive voice because it weakens your writing. Like jargon, it distances you from what you’re trying to say.
Another quiz. Which one sounds better? a) Over 5,000 meals were served at the Riverside Community Center or b) Our volunteers served over 5,000 meals at the Riverside Community Center. What was your answer?
In addition to using the active voice, use strong, active verbs and avoid adjectives and adverbs. Say depleted instead of really tired.
You want your readers to take action whether it’s donating, volunteering, or reading a success story. Active language will help with that.
Back to school time
Write at a sixth to eighth-grade level. You’re not dumbing down; you’re being smart because you’re making it easier for your readers.
Don’t use a lot of fancy words. It makes you sound pretentious. You don’t want your readers to have to hunt for a dictionary. Most likely they won’t, and they’ll miss out on what you’re trying to say. Your goal should be for your donors to understand you.
Now, forget what you learned in English class. It’s okay to start a sentence with a conjunction and use sentence fragments.
Do some serious editing
It’s important that you take time to edit before you send your messages. Check for passive verbs, adjectives, and adverbs to see if you need them. Also, be on the lookout for jargon and SAT vocabulary words. Can you simplify?
Read your content out loud. Do you sound like a friendly person or a robot?
Readability programs such as Flesch-Kincaid (this link contains examples of other readability programs, as well) might be useful because it determines grade level and finds passive sentences. I’ve never used the Hemingway Editor, but some people like it. None of these are perfect. It’s best if you can get into the habit of producing clear, conversational writing.
Always think of your readers
Your donors are busy. They don’t want to slog through a newsletter that looks like a legal brief. Skip the formalities and give them something they’ll enjoy reading.