Let Your Donors Know How Much You Appreciate Them

Year-end fundraising season is underway. You may have started working on your appeal, which is great. But don’t stop there. It’s just as important, if not more important, to plan how you’ll thank your donors. 

I highly recommend creating a thank you plan, which will help you show gratitude before, during, and after a campaign. 

Many organizations treat thanking their donors as an afterthought and it shows. You can’t do that. It will hurt your chances to get future donations. If someone gives to your organization, they deserve to be showered with appreciation. 

There are many ways to thank your donors after an appeal – by mail, phone, email, on your website, or a combination of those. The more you can do, the better.

Thanking your donors is something you need to do well. Don’t shortchange your donors with a lame, generic thank you.

Make thanking your donors a priority. Here are a few ways to do a better job of thanking your donors. 

Start planning now

Don’t wait until the day after your appeal goes out. Give yourself plenty of time to plan. Write your thank you letter at the same time you write your appeal. Remember, things often take longer than you think.

Figure out what you’ll be able to do. I highly recommend a handwritten note or phone call. Can you do that for all your donors? If not, maybe you’ll break it down by new donors, long-time donors, or donors who have given a certain amount.

I understand that handwritten notes and phone calls may be hard to do right now. At the very least, your donors should get a letter, even if they’ve donated online. Whatever you decide, remember to get started on the content now. 

In the past, the standard was to send thank you letters within 48 hours. If that’s too hard to do now, don’t wait much longer than a week. Make sure you’re ready to go when the donations come in. 

Make your donor’s day with a handwritten thank you note

I love it when a nonprofit sends a handwritten thank you note. This is a rare occurrence, so if you do it, your thank you note will stand out in your donor’s mailbox.

Handwritten notes are great in many ways, but one advantage is you don’t have to write that much. In fact, you can do one in just a few minutes.

You could make thank you cards with an engaging photo or buy some nice thank you cards. Get together a team of board members, staff, and volunteers right after your appeal goes out to help you with this.

Think about how much your donors will appreciate this nice gesture. Here’s a sample note.

Dear Jill,

Thank you so much for upgrading your gift to $75. We’re still seeing more people coming into the Northside Community Food Pantry. Rising food prices are making it difficult for many families to afford groceries. Your generous gift will help a lot. We’re so happy you’ve been a donor these past five years.

Phone calls are another personal way to show gratitude

Calling first-time donors is known to improve retention rates. But you could also call long-time donors to make them feel special.

Again, you want to get a team together to help. This is a great thing for your board to do. You may need to do a short training first. Here’s a sample phone script.

Hi Steve, this is Lisa Walsh and I’m a board member at the Northside Community Food Pantry. Thank you so much for your generous donation of $50 and welcome to our donor family. Your gift will help feed more local families right now. Many of them are struggling due to rising food prices.

Write an incredible thank you letter

If it’s impossible to send handwritten notes or make phone calls, you can still impress your donors with an incredible thank you letter. Many thank you letters aren’t incredible at all and are mediocre at best. You’ll have an advantage if you take some time to create a great, donor-centered letter.

The purpose of a thank you letter is to thank your donors. Keep that in mind at all times.  

Don’t start your letter with On behalf of X organization…. If you’re sending it on your letterhead, it should be obvious it’s coming from your organization. Instead, start your letter with – Thank you, You’re amazing, or You did something great today!

You also don’t need to explain what your organization does. This often comes across as bragging by saying something like – As you know, X organization has been doing great work in the community for 20 years…. Someone who’s donated to your organization should already be familiar with what you do. 

And, don’t ask for another gift in your thank you letter. You did that in your appeal letter. You can ask again another time. Always keep gratitude front and center.

Write separate thank you letters for different types of donors. Welcome new donors and welcome back your current donors. Monthly donors should also get special recognition.

Your thank you letter needs to make your donors feel good about giving to your organization. Let them know how their gift is helping you make a difference. Include a brief story or example. Make it relevant to our current situations.

As with all writing, make your letter personal and conversational. Write to the donor using you much more than we and leave out jargon and any other language your donors won’t understand. Also, you must address your donors by name – not Dear Friend.

A few other ways to make your letter stand out are to use a colored envelope or include a teaser that says Thank You!, and use a nice stamp (You can buy thank you stamps). Hand address the envelopes and include a handwritten note inside that will help make it more personal. You could also include an engaging photo in the letter.

Yes, you do need to include the tax-deductible information, but do that at the end, after you impress your donors with your letter, or include it on a separate page. It’s easiest to include this with the thank you letter or email. Then you don’t have to send it again unless your donor requests it.

Create a more personal online thank you

The thank you plan I reference above gives you advice on how to create better thank you landing pages and email acknowledgments. These often come across as transactional. You need to think of the donations you receive as the start or continuation of a relationship, not a transaction.

Remember, even though your online donors will get an electronic acknowledgment, they should still get thanked by mail or phone.

With all the uncertainty that’s going on, it’s crucial to do a good job of thanking your donors, both now and throughout the year. 

Keep reading for more advice on letting your donors know how much you appreciate them.

Guide to thanking donors

How to Thank and Retain Year-End Donors

Sample Phrases You Can Use to Thank Your Donors

Raise More Money With a Better Fundraising Appeal

Can you believe September is already here? Depending on where you live, you may or may not be getting that nice refreshing air September often brings. 

It also brings us to the start of the busiest time of the year for nonprofit organizations, especially if you’re doing a year-end appeal. 

If you’re falling short of your revenue goals, you may want to start your campaign earlier than you have in the past. Even if you’re not planning on launching your campaign until later in the fall, you should get started on your appeal now. Everything always takes longer than you think.

You need to create an appeal that will stand out and resonate with your donors. That doesn’t mean using the same boring, generic template you’ve used for years.

You need a letter that takes into account what’s going on in 2022. How are the everchanging current situations affecting your clients/community?

Your appeal also needs to be personal – both for your donors and when you write about your clients/community. 

Here are some ways you can create a better appeal.

Make a good first impression 

First, you need to get your donors to open your letter. If you can’t get them to do that, then all your hard work has gone to waste.

Perhaps you’d like to include a teaser on the outer envelope. This doesn’t mean one that says 2022 Annual Appeal. That’s not inspiring. Instead, say something like – Find out how you can help local families put food on the table.

An oversized or colored envelope can also capture your donor’s attention.

You want to be both personal and professional. If hand addressing the envelopes isn’t feasible, make sure your mailing labels look clean, are error-free, and aren’t crooked. Use stamps if you can.

Create an inviting piece of mail.

Share a compelling story

A good appeal letter should open with a compelling story. Focus on a person or family and not your organization. Your donors want to hear about the people they’ll be helping and it needs to be relevant to the current climate. 

Here’s an example – Lara, a single mother with three kids, has gone through a lot over the past couple of years. It’s been hard to find work that pays enough and now groceries are even more expensive. 

But thanks to generous donors like you (or because of our generous donors if you’re writing to people who haven’t given before), she’s been able to get boxes of healthy food at the Northside Community Food Pantry. At first, Lara was embarrassed that she had to rely on a food pantry to feed her family, but she’s always treated with respect and dignity when she visits. 

We want to continue providing Lara and other members of our community with healthy food when they need it.

You could also share a first-person story from a client/program recipient.

Include a photo

Include an engaging color photo in your letter or on your pledge form. Photos can tell a story in an instant.

Next comes the ask

Ask for a donation at the beginning of the next paragraph (after the story). Make sure it’s prominent and clear. Also, ask your current donors if they can give a little more right now. Don’t be afraid to ask your donors to upgrade their gifts. People want to help if they can.

Phrase your ask like this – We’re so grateful for your previous gift of $50. We’re continuing to see more people coming into the food pantry right now. Would you be able to help us out a little more this time with a gift of $75?

Asking for an upgrade can help you raise more money. Also, if you’ve been doing a good job of engaging your donors throughout the year (and I hope you have been), they shouldn’t mind if you ask for a larger gift. Including the amount of your donor’s previous gift is helpful since people don’t often remember what they gave before.

Be donor-centered, as well as community-centered

There’s been some dichotomy over the past two years between being donor-centered and being community-centered, but I think you can be both. What you don’t want is to be organization-centered.

Show your donors how they can help you make a difference for your clients/community and how much you appreciate their role in that. Make your donors feel good about supporting your nonprofit.

At the same time, respect your clients/community by not undermining them when you use terms like at-risk youth or underserved communities. They are people, after all.

Share your success and challenges

Highlight some of your accomplishments, but you can share challenges, too. 

I’m sure your organization continues to face challenges as the pandemic and economic uncertainty continue. But how you do your work is less important than why you do your work. You need to continue to provide healthy food to families while doing it safely.

Show how you plan to continue your work with your donor’s help. Remember to stay donor-centered! 

Personalization is a must

Don’t send everyone the same appeal. Try to send different letters to current donors, monthly donors, lapsed donors, people on your mailing list who haven’t donated yet, event attendees, volunteers, and friends of board members. 

The more you can segment, the better, but at the very least, you must do these two things.

Send a personalized appeal to current donors. They’re your best bet for getting donations. Let them know how much you appreciate their support. If a donor stepped up with additional contributions over the last two and a half years, be sure to thank them for that. These donors are committed to helping you through difficult times.

Also, send a specific appeal tailored to monthly donors, giving them the recognition they deserve. For your year-end appeal, I would thank them for all their generous support and ask them to give an additional gift. You can ask them to upgrade at a different time.

This is not the time to send a generic, one-size-fits-all appeal letter. Go the extra mile for your donors, so they’ll continue to support you.

Your appeal letter should also have a personal salutation and not be addressed to Dear Friend or Dear Valued Donor. How much do you value this relationship if you can’t even use a person’s name?

This may sound like a lot of work, but if you give yourself enough time, it should be doable. Personalizing your letters can also help you raise more money.

Make it easy for your donors to give

Include a return envelope with amounts to check off or an envelope and a pledge form. Show what each amount will fund. Do this on your donation page, too.

Some donors will prefer to donate online. Direct them to a user-friendly donation page on your website. You could create a QR code for your letter 

Offer a monthly or recurring giving option

Monthly gifts can generate more revenue, give you a steady source of income throughout the year, and improve donor retention. Encourage your donors to give $5, $10, or even $20 a month. This may be a more viable option for some of them. 

Be careful and don’t send an appeal to your current monthly donors that invites them to become monthly donors. That’s one reason why they need their own appeal.

Your letter must be easy to read (or scan)

Use short paragraphs and bulleted lists, along with bold or color for keywords, but keep it tasteful. Make it easy to read and scan. Most people won’t read your letter word for word. Use a simple font and 14-point type.

Human attention spans are less than 10 seconds. But go figure, longer fundraising letters (four pages as opposed to two) have been shown to perform better. 

This doesn’t mean cramming a bunch of 8-point text on a page. With a longer letter, you’ll have more space to tell a story and repeat messages. You can also break up the text with a photo, testimonials, and short paragraphs

Quality and readability are key here. Make every word count. 

Think of your letter as a conversation with a friend

You can create a better appeal if you think of your letter as a conversation with a friend. That means not using jargon like at-risk youth and underserved communities. Be specific and use everyday language. Your goal should be for your reader to understand you.

Refer to your reader as you and use you a lot more than we.

Too many editors spoil the appeal

Your entire staff doesn’t need to be involved in writing your appeal. Generally, the more people you involve in writing your letter, the worse it becomes. Fundraising Consultant Tom Ahern refers to this as letter writing by committee.

Your best writer should craft it and then turn it over to your best editor. Whoever signs the letter (your Executive Director?) can take a quick look at it, but don’t send it to a committee.

If you don’t have someone on your staff who can write a good fundraising appeal, then hire a freelancer or consultant to do it.

Besides weakening the content, involving more people takes extra time.

Make a good lasting impression, too

Repeat your ask at the end of your appeal. Don’t forget to say please and thank you.

Be sure to add a PS. People often gravitate to the PS as they scan the letter, so include something that will capture their attention. Here you could emphasize monthly giving, ask if their company provides matching gifts, or thank them for being a donor.

Get your pens out

Include a short handwritten note, if you can. Make it relevant to each donor, such as thanking someone for a previous donation or hoping a potential donor will support you. Hand sign the letters in blue ink.

We could be looking at another tough fundraising season. That’s why you need to spend some time writing a better appeal letter that will stand out and help bring you the donations you need. Good luck!

Keep reading for more advice on how to write a better fundraising appeal.

10 Steps to Create a Fundraising Appeal Letter That Brings in the Money

THINK YOU’RE NOT A WRITER? YOUR GUIDE TO WRITING A GREAT FUNDRAISING APPEAL

How to Write a Fundraising Letter: 10 Tips for Persuasive Appeals (+ Examples)

Image by Howard Lake

How You Can Create a Thank You Plan

Thanking your donors is just as important, if not more important than fundraising. Yet many organizations spend a lot of time putting together a fundraising campaign and treat thanking their donors as an afterthought.

We’re still in a time of uncertainty. While some people have been generous over the last two years, we don’t know how long that will continue.

Prioritizing gratitude and donor relations will help. If you don’t do a good job of thanking your donors, as well as building relationships throughout the year, you’ll have a hard time getting people to people to donate again, which is one of the keys to your success.

This is why having a thank you plan is crucial. It’s not only important when you’re running a fundraising campaign, but also during the “between times.”

Many organizations just thank their donors after they receive a gift and then disappear until the next fundraising appeal. Your donors deserve better than that. 

Thanking your donors is something you need to do throughout the year – at least once a month, if you can. A thank you plan will help you stay focused on gratitude all year round.  

Here’s what you need to include in your thank you plan.

Plan to make a good first impression with your thank you landing page

Your landing page is your first chance to say thank you and it shouldn’t resemble Amazon checkout. It should make a person feel good about giving a donation.

Open with Thank you, Susan! or You’re amazing! Include an engaging photo or video and a short, easy-to-understand description of how the donation will help your clients/community right now. Put all the tax-deductible information after your message or in the automatically generated thank you email.

If you use a third-party giving site, you might be able to customize the landing page. If not, follow up with a personal thank you email message within 48 hours.

Plan to write a warm and personal automatic thank you email

Set up an automatic thank you email to go out after someone donates online. This email thank you is more of a reassurance to let your donor know you received her donation. You still need to thank her by mail or phone.

Just because your thank you email is automatically generated, doesn’t mean it needs to sound like it was written by a robot. Write something warm and personal.

Give some thought to the email subject line, too. At the very least make sure it says Thank You or You did something great today and not anything boring like Your Donation Receipt or Donation Received. And please stop using words like transaction and processed. A donation is not a transaction. It’s the start or continuation of a relationship.

Plan to thank your donors by mail or phone

I’m a firm believer that every donor, no matter how much she’s given or whether she donated online, gets a thank you card or letter mailed to her or receives a phone call.

Try to thank your donors within 48 hours or within a week at the latest. It might be hard to do that right now, but it will be easier if you plan to carve out some time to thank your donors each day you get a donation. Remember, thanking your donors should be a priority. If you wait too long, you’re not making a good impression.

Instead of sending the usual generic thank you letter, mail a handwritten card or call your donors. Making thank you calls or writing thank you notes is something your board can do. 

Find board members, staff, and volunteers to make phone calls or write thank you notes. Come up with sample scripts. You may want to conduct a short training. Make sure to get your team together well before your next fundraising campaign so you’re ready to go when the donations come in. 

Here’s a sample phone script, which you can modify for a thank you note/letter/email. 

Hi Ben, this is Laura Kramer and I’m a board member at the Riverside Community Food Bank. I’m calling to thank you for your generous donation of $50. Thanks to you, we can continue to provide neighborhood families with healthy food. This is great. We’re seeing more people come in right now because of rising food costs, so we really appreciate your support.

You’ll stand out if you can send a handwritten thank you card. I get a few of these a year and they tend to come from the same organizations, which shows you what they prioritize! 

If you can’t send handwritten cards or call all your donors, send them a personal and heartfelt letter. If you’ve been using the same letter template for a while, take time to freshen it up. Don’t start your letter with On behalf of X organization, we thank you for your donation of…. 

Open your letter with You’re incredible or Because of you, the Sanders family can finally move into their own home. Create separate letters for new donors, renewing donors, and monthly donors.

Add a personal handwritten note to the letter, preferably something that pertains to that particular donor. For example, if the donor has given before, mention that. Hand sign the letters, if you can.

Let your donors know how much you appreciate them and highlight what your organization is doing with their donations.

In addition, write your thank you letter at the same time you write your appeal letter. Make sure they’re ready to go as soon as the donations come in. Don’t wait three weeks.

Plan to keep thanking your donors all year round

This is where having a thank you plan makes a difference because as I mentioned before – thanking your donors is something you must do all year round.

You can use your communications calendar to incorporate ways to thank your donors, but why not go one step further and create a specific thank you calendar?

Remember to try to say thank you at least once a month. Here are some ways to do that. 

  • Send cards or email messages at Thanksgiving, during the holidays, on Valentine’s Day, or mix it up a little and send a note of gratitude in June or September when your donors may not be expecting it. Try to send at least one or two gratitude messages a year by mail, since your donors will be more likely to see those. And you don’t need a holiday or special occasion to thank your donors. Thank them just because….
  • Invite your donors to connect with you via email and social media. Keep them updated with accomplishments and success stories, as well as how the current situations are impacting your work. Making all your communications donor-centered will help convey an attitude of gratitude. Be sure to keep thanking your donors in your newsletter and other updates. Emphasize that you wouldn’t be able to do the work you do without your donors’ support.
  • Create a thank you video and share it on your thank you landing page, by email, and on social media. Go one step further and personalize it. 
  • Send a warm-up letter or email about a month before your next campaign (no ask). This is a great way to show appreciation BEFORE you send your appeals.
  • COVID makes it tricky to plan an open house or tours right now, but you could do something virtual to let your donors see your nonprofit up close and personal. Also, a virtual gathering or tour may be easier to pull off. 
  • Keep thinking of other ways to thank your donors. You can repeat some of the ones listed above over the year.

The tactics that work best are going to differ for each organization. I would definitely send something by mail a few times a year. Email and social media may not be as successful, especially if your donors don’t use electronic communication very much. You could survey them to find out their communication preferences, as well as their interests. This will help with your engagement.

Creating a thank you plan will make it easier to keep showing appreciation to your donors all year round. You need your donors right now, so don’t hold back on that always-important gratitude.

How Are You Sharing Stories With Your Donors?

People have been sharing stories of various kinds for centuries. I’m a big reader and always appreciate a good story.

Your nonprofit organization also needs to share stories in order to connect with your donors.

Donors want to hear your stories

I imagine you’re not using stories as much as you should. That’s a mistake because people respond better to stories than a bunch of facts and statistics. Stories bring the work you do to life by using everyday language to create a scene.

You may be reluctant to use stories because it’s more work for your organization, but that shouldn’t stop you. Summer is a good time to come up with some new stories.

Your stories need to be relevant

I don’t need to tell you the world has changed over the last two years. Your stories need to take the everchanging current situations into account. We may be done with COVID, but COVID isn’t done with us. We’re also seeing inflation and a possible recession. Let your donors know how all this is impacting your clients/community right now.

Create a culture of storytelling

If you create a storytelling culture in your organization, you can make storytelling the norm instead of the exception.

Work with your program staff to create stories that will help you connect with your donors. Everyone needs to understand how important this is. Share stories at staff meetings and/or set up regular meetings with program staff to gather stories. 

When you put together a story, ask.

  • Why is this important?
  • Who is affected?
  • Why would your donors be interested in this story?
  • Are you using clear, everyday language (no jargon) to make sure your donors understand your story?
  • How are your donors helping you make a difference or How can your donors help you make a difference?

Client or program recipient stories are best. Remember, donors want to hear how they’re helping you make a difference for your clients/community.

Another way to find stories is to put a Share Your Story page on your website. This could be a good way to get some current, relevant stories.

Language is important

Please stop using jargon such as at-risk and underserved. These terms undermine your clients/community. These aren’t terms your donors use, anyway. Use language they’ll understand. 

You also don’t want to give the impression that your organization is coming in to save someone. This is especially important if the majority of your staff and donors are white, but your clients are people of color. This is known as white savior complex. Most likely that’s not intentional on your part, but watching how you tell your stories will help you avoid that. Be respectful of your clients/community.

Your stories aren’t about your organization

Keep in mind that your stories aren’t about your organization. Your organization may have had to make a lot of changes over the last two years to do some of the work you do, but that’s not your story. Your story is why this is important for the people/community you work with. 

Maybe you had to change the way you run your food pantry, but what’s most important is that people in your community continue to have access to healthy food. 

Make your stories personal 

Tell a story of one (person or family). Use people’s names to make your stories more personal. I realize you might run into confidentiality issues, but you can change names to protect someone’s privacy. You could also do a composite story, but don’t make up anything.

Use different stories for different types of communication

Create a story bank to help you organize all your stories. You want to use stories as much as possible. Use them in your appeals, thank you letters, newsletters, updates, annual reports, website, blog, and other types of social media. 

While you can come up with some core stories, they’ll be slightly different depending on the type of communication. 

In a fundraising appeal, you want to highlight a problem or need. Let’s return to the food pantry example. Here you can tell a story about Lisa, a working single mother with three kids who’s having trouble feeding her family because of rising food costs. 

In your thank you letter, you can let your donors know that because of their generous gift, Lisa can get healthy food for her family at the Westside Community Food Bank.

Then in your newsletter, annual report, or update, you can tell a success story that because of your generous donors, Lisa doesn’t have to worry so much about how she’ll be able to put food on the table.

Make connections with your donors by sharing stories. In my next post, I’ll write about sharing visual stories.

Don’t Take a Vacation From Your Donor Communication

Summer is here, although once again, we’re not having a normal summer. More people are traveling despite rising gas prices, airport delays, a tough economy, and the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, we all deserve some kind of a vacation. I hope you’ll get a chance to take one. I know you’ve been through a lot. 

This may be a quieter time for your nonprofit, but you don’t want to be too quiet and ignore your donors. Something the pandemic taught us is we should communicate more during tough times. This would be a great time to do some relationship building.

You should be communicating with your donors at least once a month and that includes the summer months. Don’t make the mistake of taking a vacation from your donor communication. Continuing to stay in touch with your donors will help you when you launch your fall fundraising campaign. 

Here are a few ways you can connect with your donors this summer, as well as throughout the year, and build those important relationships. 

Say thank you

Nonprofit organizations don’t thank their donors enough. You don’t need a reason to thank your donors. Just do it and do it often. You’ll stand out if you do.

This is a good time to do something personal, such as sending a handwritten thank you card. I have a subscription to a local theatre. Every year during the last show of the season, they put a thank you card, along with a piece of chocolate (!), on our seats. Usually, it’s a pre-printed card, but this year they gave out handwritten cards. I was touched. This theatre, like many others, didn’t put on live performances for a year and a half. They weathered some tough times, but got through them thanks to their donors. 

You can do something similar. Pour on the gratitude and let your donors know how you much you’ve appreciated their support over the last few years. Again, try to make it personal. If handwritten cards sound like too much, you could send a postcard, make a video, or connect through email.

You don’t need anything fancy and make it easy for yourself by keeping it simple. There are so many ways to thank your donors. It’s okay to have a little fun and get creative.

Send an update

If you haven’t communicated with your donors much since your last appeal, send them an update sharing your success and challenges. You could combine an update with a thank you, if you’d like.

Try to send something by mail if you can. Your donors are more likely to see your messages if you send them by mail. You could consider an infographic postcard.

I know mail is expensive, but a postcard shouldn’t cost too much. It’s also a quick way to share an update with busy donors. Also, consider that this investment could pay off if your postcard (or handwritten card) entices a donor to give again and possibly upgrade.

If it’s impossible to send something by mail right now, you can use email.

Tie in current situations

I don’t need to tell you there’s a lot going in the world right now. Will certain policies or budget cuts affect your organization? Many states are working on their budget for the next fiscal year.

Share ways your donors can help – perhaps by contacting their legislators, volunteering, or making a donation.

Advocacy alerts can be a great way for people to engage with your organization. Be sure to thank participants and keep them updated on any outcomes.

When all levels of government make funding cuts or policy changes, the need in the community grows, which puts more burden on nonprofit organizations.

Make room for improvement and plan ahead

The summer can be a good time to make improvements in your existing communication. Spend time finding some engaging stories and photos for your newsletters and other updates.

Start working on your appeal and thank you letters for your next campaign. Make sure they focus on building relationships and are donor-centered. Segment your donors by different types – new, renewing, monthly, etc.  

If you’re feeling pinched financially, you may want to start your fall campaign earlier – September/October instead of November/December. I’ll write more about this in future posts, but a few ways to raise additional revenue are to invite current donors to join your family of monthly donors and reach out to your lapsed donors.

For now, keep relationship building front and center. Keep communicating with your donors. They want to hear from you. Don’t take a vacation from your donor communication.

Are You Still Using Jargon?

Over the last two years, we’ve seen many examples of real problems affecting real people. We’ve also seen more authenticity. So why are some nonprofit organizations still using jargon in their donor communication?

They may be using the same, boring templates they’ve used for years or they’re so used to some of these terms they don’t realize they fall flat with their donors. I think people use jargon because it’s insider language that makes them feel like they’re “in the know” in their professional community. It’s easy to slip into jargon mode in your work environment (whether that’s in person, virtual, or hybrid). But the danger comes when jargon creeps outside of your insular world and into your donor communication.

People need to understand you to connect with you

Sometimes we get lazy and use jargon when we can’t think of anything fresh and original. Instead, you see appeal letters, thank you letters, newsletter articles, and annual reports laced with cringe-worthy terms such as food insecurity, at-risk youth, underserved communities, and impactful. While donors may know what some of these terms mean, they’re vague, impersonal, and can come across as demeaning.

Are You Speaking The Same Language As Your Donors?

How to do better

You may know you need to freshen up some of your messages, but aren’t sure how to start. You may also have a lot going on and feel pressed for time. 

Sometimes you need to give a little more information. Let’s look at these problem terms and what you can say instead. You may use some of these terms internally and they might be in your mission statement, but please try to limit them when you communicate with your donors.

  • Food insecurity The USDA defines it as “a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” That’s a mouthful! I’ve never liked the term food insecurity because it’s so impersonal. We’re hearing this term a lot right now because it continues to be a big problem. Let’s go a step further and put it in human terms by describing a situation where a single mother has to choose between buying groceries and paying the heating bill.
  • At-risk means there’s a possibility something bad will happen. Instead of just saying at-risk students or youth, tell a story or give specific examples of something bad that could happen or has happened. Our tutoring program works with high school students who are more likely to fail their classes, be held back, and drop out of school. Remote learning didn’t work for many of the students in our community and they have fallen behind. 
  • Underserved means not receiving adequate help or services. Instead of saying we work with underserved communities, explain what types of services these residents don’t receive. Maybe it’s healthcare, affordable housing, decent preschool education, or all of the above. Tell a story or give a specific example. Mara has to take two buses to see a doctor for her diabetes because there isn’t a good healthcare facility in her community. This makes her feel anxious because not everyone on the bus wears a mask, so sometimes she skips her appointments.
  • Impact means having an effect on someone or something. How are you doing that and why is it important? Again, give a specific example. Thanks to donors like you, we’ve helped families find affordable housing so they don’t have to live in a shelter, with other family members, or in their car. Now they have a place to call home. And, let’s please all agree to stop using the word impactful.

Tell a story

This is why stories are so important. You can get beyond that vague, impersonal jargon and let your donors see firsthand how they’re helping you make a difference for your clients/community.

Make Connections With Your Donors by Sharing Stories

What would Aunt Shirley or Uncle Ted think?

I always like to use this analogy. Imagine you’re at a family gathering and you’re explaining what your organization does to your 75-year-old Aunt Shirley, or maybe it’s Uncle Ted. Does she look confused and uninterested when you use words like underserved and at-risk, or does he perk up and want you to tell him more when you mention you’ve been able to help homeless families move into their own homes?

Stop using jargon in your work environment

Another way to help you transition from jargon to understandable language is to stop using it in your work environment. That means at staff meetings and in interoffice written communication. Maybe you go so far as to re-write your mission statement to make it more conversational. And telling staff and board members to recite your mission statement as an elevator pitch is a bad idea unless you can make it conversational.

Let’s stop using jargon when we can use clear, conversational language instead. Keep reading for more examples of why you should stop using jargon.

Too Much Jargon, Too Little Time: 3 Easy Tips to Simplify Your Copy

Nonprofit Jargon: Do Your Supporters Understand Your Fundraising?

How Jargon Destroys Nonprofit Fundraising & Marketing

Your Nonprofit Newsletter Should Engage Your Donors, Not Bore Them

A newsletter can be a great way to engage with your donors. Unfortunately, that doesn’t often happen because most donor newsletters can put you right to sleep. They’re too long and filled with boring articles that brag about how wonderful the organization is.

The good news is you can create an engaging newsletter your donors will want to read. Here’s what you need to do.

Think about what your donors want

You need to include content that will interest your donors. You also need to reference the current situations. Do you think your donors would rather read an article about your CEO receiving an award or one about Marla, a single mother who is having trouble making ends meet, but is grateful she can get food for her family at the Eastside Community food bank? 

The answer should be obvious. Your donors want to hear about how they’re helping you make a difference for your clients/community.

If you’re a larger organization, you could create different newsletters for different programs or one specifically for monthly donors.

Don’t shy away from a print newsletter 

You may opt not to do a print newsletter because it’s expensive and takes too much time, but you’re making a mistake if many of your donors prefer print.

I think you’ll have more success if you can do both print and electronic newsletters. I recommend a short e-newsletter once or twice a month and one to four print newsletters a year.

Many organizations put a donation envelope in their print newsletter. This is a proven way to raise additional money and you may be able to recoup your expenses.

You can also save money by creating a shorter print newsletter (maybe two pages instead of four) or only mailing once or twice a year. You can print them in-house, as long as it looks professional.

Be sure you have a clean mailing list. If you can get rid of duplicate and undeliverable addresses, that’s another way to save a little money.

Donors are more likely to read a print newsletter. But ask them what they like, and listen to what they say. If a majority of them prefer print, then you need to find a way to accommodate them.

Share your stories

Each newsletter needs to begin with a compelling story. If you’re making a difference, you have stories to tell.

Client stories are best, but you could also do profiles of volunteers, board members, and donors. Focus on what drew them to your mission (more on that below).

Create a story bank that includes at least four client stories to use every year.

Make Connections With Your Donors by Sharing Stories

Don’t stray from your mission

A common article I see in many nonprofit newsletters is one about a foundation or major donor giving a large gift. This may be accompanied by a picture of someone holding a giant check. Of course, you should recognize these donors (and all donors), but why is this gift important? How will it help your clients/community?

For example – This generous $50,000 grant from the Eastside Community Foundation will help us serve more students in our tutoring program. Many students have fallen behind since the pandemic started.

Something else I see a lot is a profile of a new board member. Instead of focusing so much on their professional background, let your donors know what drew them to your organization. We welcome Lisa Clark, Vice President of First National Bank, to our board. Lisa has a brother with autism and is very passionate about finding ways for people with autism to live independent lives. 

Write to your donors

Write your newsletter in the second person, emphasizing you much more than we. Be personal and conversational. Say – You helped Marla feed her family or Because of donors like you, X number of families have been able to get healthy food every week. 

Leave out the jargon and other language your donors won’t understand. Write as if you’re having a conversation with a friend.

I’m not a fan of the letter from the CEO because those tend to be organization-centered instead of donor-centered.  

Pour on the gratitude 

Never miss an opportunity to thank your donors. Many donors have stepped up over the last two years and they deserve to be thanked as often as possible. Every one of your newsletters needs to show gratitude and emphasize how much you appreciate your donors.

Make it easy to read (and scan)

Most of your donors aren’t going to read your newsletter word for word, especially your e-newsletter. Include enticing headlines and email subject lines (if you don’t, your donors may not read it at all), at least a 12-point font, and lots of white space so your donors can easily scan your newsletter.

Stick to black type on a white background as much as possible. Colors are pretty, but not if it’s hindering your donor’s ability to read your newsletter. Photos can be a great way to add some color, as well as tell a story in an instant.

Use the inverted pyramid and put the most important story first (client story or profile), keeping in mind your donors may not get to all the articles.

Keep it short

Your print newsletter should be no more than four pages. Limit your monthly e-newsletter to four articles. Some organizations send an e-newsletter twice a month. Those should be even shorter – maybe just two articles. People have a lot going on and don’t want to be bombarded with too much information.

Do the best you can

For some of you, putting together a newsletter may be too much to take on right now. You don’t have to do an actual newsletter, but you do need to keep your donors updated.

Do what you can, but be sure to update your donors at least once a month. You may find you have more success with shorter, more frequent email updates and postcards with an infographic a few times a year.

Create an engaging newsletter that won’t bore your donors.

Keep reading for more information on how to create a great donor newsletter.

Nonprofit Donor Newsletters | Print or Enews?

Worthwhile Nonprofit Newsletters: Content Donors Adore 

Tips for Using your Nonprofit Newsletter to Get More Donations Without Even Asking

10 Nonprofit Newsletter Ideas and Examples to Save for Later

What Casablanca Can Teach Us About Nonprofit Organizations

Casablanca is one of my favorite movies. I’ve seen it many, many times and I always discover something new in that wonderful script. This year it turns 80 and with a few exceptions, it’s still very relevant now.

Over the past several years, the story of refugees fleeing Europe mirrored what was going on in other parts of the world. Now we have a new set of refugees and the storyline of the Germans invading France parallels what’s going on in Ukraine.

If you haven’t seen the movie, and I highly recommend it, here’s a synopsis. Warning – does contain spoilers. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’re probably familiar with many of the quotes.

Here are a few Casablanca quotes that can apply to nonprofit organizations.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

One of the most important words in nonprofit communication is you. When you write to donors and other supporters, you need to write directly to them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen as often as it should.

I just received an annual report from an organization that was quite liberal with its use of the word you. Hats off to them because most annual reports go heavy on organization-centered language. 

Here are a few examples.

You’re feeding kids today.

You gave more students access to school nutrition.

On the front line, you helped the helpers.

As fundraising expert Tom Ahern says, “You is glue.” Writing directly to your readers, using you much more than we, helps establish important connections. No one wants to hear you brag about yourself.

Do Your Donor Communications Pass the “You” Test?

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”

There are a plethora of nonprofit organizations out there that your donors can choose from, but they chose yours. Once they have, your goal should be to keep them for a long time. 

Unfortunately, many organizations spend a good deal of time on getting donors, but not on keeping them.

“Louis, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

One key to keeping your donors is establishing a relationship with them. Building relationships is just as important as raising money.

Work on keeping your new donors and getting that ever-important second gift, also known as the golden donation. Once you get that second gift, your donors are more likely to keep giving.

Keep that beautiful friendship going!

Fundraising Should be About Building Relationships, Not Making a Transaction

Besides quotes, here are a few scenes and themes from Casablanca that are relevant to nonprofits.

The passion of La Marseilles

My favorite part of Casablanca is the La Marseilles scene. The Germans are singing “Die Wacht am Rhein,” a patriotic German song, when Victor orders the band to start playing “La Marseilles,” the French equivalent. The bar is filled with refugees trying to escape to freedom. They all start singing with such a passion, which moves me every time I see it. 

Nonprofits also have a passion for their work. It would be hard to succeed if you didn’t. Plus, many of your donors are passionate about your cause.

Bring some of this passion into your fundraising letters and other donor communication instead of the usual same old, same old.

On the front lines

Before Rick came to Casablanca, he ran guns to Ethiopia in 1935 and fought in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Even though these countries had their own armies, Rick saw a need and headed to the front lines to help make a difference.

Nonprofit organizations are also out on the front lines. We’re seeing countless nonprofits working with refugees who are fleeing from Ukraine. We’ve seen nonprofits stepping up during the pandemic and also working to combat racism, economic crises, and climate disasters. They’re often going above and beyond what the government and other institutions provide. 

A story of resilience

Throughout the movie, there is an underlying story of resilience. After the two years we’ve been through, resiliency is a common theme. Not that it’s easy, but going through difficult times can make us more resilient.

How to Build Nonprofit Resilience: Three Strategies to Strengthen Organizations

Casablanca has its serious parts, but there’s also romance, intrigue, and a surprising amount of humor. It deserved its Oscar for best screenplay, as well as best picture. You might find it a nice escape from everything that’s going on in the world.

Steer Clear of Generic Communication

Are you still sending all your donors the same appeal and thank you letters? In these letters, you never thank a donor for their past support or acknowledge they’re a monthly donor.

If that’s not bad enough, many of these letters use vague and impersonal language and even worse, jargon.

Since the pandemic started, some nonprofits have done better and have created more nuanced, personal communication. Let’s keep this up and all do better. Your donors deserve that.

Steer clear of anything generic and create something more personal. Here’s what you can do.

Segment your donors

Your donors aren’t the same, so they shouldn’t all get the same letter. Segment your donors into different groups as much as you can. At the very least, create different letters for new donors, repeat donors, and monthly donors. You can also personalize letters to lapsed donors, event attendees, volunteers, etc.

I emphasize segmenting your donors a lot in my posts because it’s so important. Donors like it if you recognize their past giving or anything that shows them this is more than a generic, one-size-fits-all message.

Make This the Year You Segment Your Donors

Donor Segmentation | Comprehensive Guide + Tips For Success

And while we’re on the subject of personalization, please stop sending Dear Friend letters, as well. You’re not being a good friend if you don’t even use your donors’ names.

I know this will take more time, but it’s worth the investment. So is a good database to help you with this. Your donors will feel appreciated and are more likely to give again, possibly at a higher level.

Use language your donors understand

If you use vague, generic language and jargon, you’re going to instantly bore and/or confuse your donors. Most of your donors don’t have a medical or social services background. They don’t use terms like food insecurity, at-risk populations, and underserved communities, and neither should you.

Connect with your donors by using language they’ll understand. Instead of talking about food insecurity, give an example of a family choosing between buying groceries and paying the heating bill.

What do you mean by at-risk or underserved? Are high school students less likely to graduate on time? Do residents of a certain community not have good health care nearby? Is housing too expensive? Get specific, but at the same time, keep it simple. Also, terms like at-risk and underserved undermine your clients/community. Remember, these are human beings you’re talking about.

Let’s Try to Stop Using Jargon So Much

How Jargon Destroys Nonprofit Fundraising & Marketing

A great way to steer clear of generic language and jargon is to tell stories. Most people respond better to a human-interest story than a bunch of boring statistics.

Make Connections With Your Donors by Sharing Stories

Why your good story leads to a better world

Make time for improvement

You may be between fundraising campaigns right now and have a little more time (maybe). If so, work on segmenting the donors in your database, if you haven’t already done that. Segmenting your donors isn’t a one-time deal. Make changes as needed. For example, some of your single-gift donors may have upgraded to monthly. If you can do this after every campaign, you should have fairly up-to-date information on your donors.

In addition, dust off those templates and freshen up your appeal letters and thank you letters. We’re living in an ever-changing world and you need to acknowledge current situations in your communication. Create letter templates for different donor groups and replace your vague, generic language with something clear, conversational, and specific.

You can also use this time to add new stories to your story bank or start putting one together, if you don’t already have one

Have someone outside your organization, a friend or family member, look at your messages. Something that’s clear to you may mean nothing to others.

Steer clear of your generic communication with something that shows your donors how much you appreciate them by recognizing who they are and giving them engaging content they can relate to.

How You Can Create a Better Annual Report

What do you think of when you hear the word annual report? If you’re a donor you might think “Oh, it’s that long, boring thing I don’t have time to read.” If you’re a nonprofit professional, you might think “It’s such a pain to put together.”

What do you do? Organizations need to share accomplishments and show gratitude to their donors, but is the annual report the way to do that? It can be if you do it well. 

Unfortunately, many nonprofits fall short with this. Most annual reports are too long, boring, and basically a demonstration of the organization patting itself on the back. There’s often very little appreciation for donors. And yes, it’s time-consuming to put together.

It’s possible to make this a better experience for both donors and nonprofit organizations. Here’s how.

You don’t have to do an annual report

One way to make this a better experience is to not do an annual report at all. This doesn’t let you off the hook for sharing accomplishments with your donors. You could send short progress reports a couple of times a year or monthly e-updates instead. This makes a lot of sense if taking on a big report sounds too overwhelming.

If you decide to do an annual report, I encourage you to move away from the traditional multi-page one. Aim for something no longer than four pages. Bigger isn’t always better.

Why One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Your annual report is for your donors

Keep your donors in mind when you create your annual report and include information you know will interest them. Also, donors have a lot going on, so that’s another reason not to create a huge report that they may or may not read.

You might want to consider different types of annual reports for different donor groups. You could send an oversized postcard with photos and infographics or a one-to-two-page report to most of your donors. Your grant and corporate funders might want more detail, but not 20 pages. See if you can impress them with no more than four pages.

Make it a gratitude report

Donors want to feel good about giving to your nonprofit. Think of this as a gratitude report. You may want to call it that instead of an annual report. Many donors have stepped up to help during the past two years and deserve to be thanked for that.

Focus on thanking your donors for their role in helping you make a difference. 

What’s in My Mailbox | This Nonprofit Gratitude Report Shines

Why You Should Stop Saying “Annual Report” (And What to Call it Instead)

Address the current situations

We’re still in a pandemic, which I’m sure is affecting your work. We’re also dealing with a precarious economy and the heightened awareness of systemic racism. Your donors will want you to address these situations and focus on how they’re affecting your clients/community. I go into more detail about this below.

How are you making a difference?

The theme of many annual reports is look how great we are. They’re organization-centered instead of being donor-centered and community-centered.

They also include a bunch of statistics, such as the number of clients served. You need to share specific accomplishments that show how you’re making a difference.

Focus on the why and not the what. I know your organization has had to make a lot of changes due to the pandemic, but what’s most important is why you needed to do that.

You can say something like this – Over the past two years, we have seen triple the number of people at the Riverside Community Food Bank. As COVID rates fluctuate, we need to ensure that we can continue to serve people safely. Thanks to donors like you, we are able to meet our demands and provide local residents with boxes of healthy food.

Phrases like Thanks to you and Because of you should dominate your annual report or any type of impact report.

Tell a story

Donors want to hear about the people they’re helping. You can tell a story with words, a photo, or a video. 

For example – Diana, a single mother with three kids, has been trying to make ends meet with periodic work. Ever since the pandemic started it’s been a struggle for her family. She could barely afford groceries, rent, and utilities. Diana had never gone to a food bank before and felt ashamed to have to do that. But when she reached out to the Riverside Community Food Bank, she was treated with respect and dignity. Now she’s able to bring home healthy food for her family.

Make it visual

Your donors have a lot going on and won’t have much time to read your report. Engage them with some great photos, which can tell a story in an instant. Choose photos of people participating in an activity, such as volunteers working at a food bank or a one-to-one tutoring session. Be sure to get permission if you want to use pictures of clients.

Use colorful charts or infographics to highlight your financials. This is a great way to keep it simple and easy to understand. Include some quotes and short testimonials to help break up the text.

Be sure your report is easy to read (and scan). Use at least a 12-point font and black type on a white background. A colored background may be pretty, but it makes it hard to read. You can, however, add a splash of color with headings, charts, and infographics.

Write as if you’re having a conversation with a friend

Beware of using jargon. Most of your donors don’t use words like underserved or at-risk, and neither should you. Use everyday language such as – Because of you, we found affordable housing for over 100 homeless families. This is even more important as COVID-19 continues to be a part of our lives and living in a shelter or with other families isn’t always safe. Now, these families have a place to call home.

Write in the second person and use a warm, friendly tone. Use you much more than we.

Skip the donor list

Think twice about including a donor list in your annual report. It takes up a lot of space and there are better ways to show appreciation. If you feel you must have a donor list, you could put one on your website or just include major funders. 

Planning is key

I know putting together an annual report can be time-consuming. One way to make it easier is to set aside a time each month to make a list of accomplishments. This way you’re not going crazy at the end of the year trying to come up with a list. You can just turn to the list you’ve been working on throughout the year.

This will help ensure that your 2021 annual report doesn’t go out in the middle of 2022. Ideally, you should send out an annual report by the first quarter of the following year. When nonprofits sent out their 2019 reports after the pandemic started, it seemed irrelevant.

You also want to create a story and photo bank and you can draw from those when you put together your annual report.

Creating a shorter report or an infographic postcard will also help make this easier for you. Remember, you also have the option of not doing an annual report and sending periodic short updates instead.

Whatever you decide, put together an annual report that’s a better experience for everyone. Here is more information about creating a great annual or impact report.

Useful Tips & Resources for Your Nonprofit’s Annual Report

Your Nonprofit Annual Report: 10 Things to Include This Year

Nonprofit Annual Reports: 8 Essential Tips [& Template]

How to Craft a 1-Page Nonprofit Annual Report