Let’s Try to Stop Using Jargon So Much

Over the last year, 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 that 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 a combination of both). 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

We can 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

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 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.” Well, 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’s a huge 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. Our tutoring program works with high school students who are more likely to fail their classes, be held back, and drop out of school. Last year it was crucial that we were able to provide students with Chromebooks, so they could continue their weekly tutoring sessions virtually. 
  • 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. Tina has to take two buses to see a doctor for her diabetes because there isn’t a good healthcare facility in her community. This made her anxious during the height of the pandemic and sometimes she skipped her regular 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 or with other family members, which isn’t always safe during the pandemic. 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.

Telling Your Stories in the Current Climate

What would Aunt Shirley think?

I always like to use this analogy. Imagine you’re at a family gathering (provided everyone is either vaccinated or taking other measures to stay safe) and you’re explaining what your organization does to your 75-year old Aunt Shirley. Does she look confused and uninterested when you use words like underserved and at-risk, or does she want you to tell her 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. Read on for more examples of why you should stop using jargon.

The Curse of Knowledge: You’re Using Jargon and You Don’t Even Know It

4 Reasons to Stop Using Nonprofit Jargon

Nonprofit Jargon: Do Your Supporters Understand Your Fundraising?

I Have No Idea What You’re Talking About [Nonprofit Jargon]

Why One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Many nonprofit organizations send all their donors and other supporters exactly the same communication, such as appeal letters, thank you letters, and annual reports. One size doesn’t fit all and in the case of a 55 page (yes, that’s right) annual report I received a few weeks ago, the size was XXL.

I’m not a fan of these massive annual reports for any donor. My husband and I would be considered smaller dollar donors and I believe these reports are wasted on them.

You don’t have to do an annual report and if you do, it should be about one fifth the size at the most. I wrote about annual reports a couple of months ago, so I won’t rant too specifically on this.

Here’s another post that asks the question – Is This the Year to Trash that Annual Report?

To the organization’s credit, their annual report is visually beautiful. Maybe it’s a little too nice and I’ll get to that later. It includes several stories and many photographs. They did address how COVID-19 presented a number of challenges for their clients and community. They also mentioned their commitment to racial equity, since 80% of the people they work with are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). It would have been clueless of them not to address these.

It’s clear the organization is very proud of their annual report, as evidenced by the opening line of the cover letter from the CEO – “On behalf of the entire X organization community, it is with great pride – and great appreciation for all our friends and supporters – that I provide you with this copy of X Organization’s Annual Report for 2020.” This is one of the few examples where they thanked donors.

It’s also clear they sent this annual report to all their donors and possibly potential donors instead of creating different types of reports for different types of donors. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

What do your donors want?

When we received this annual report, my husband’s first reaction was “I don’t want them spending our money on some fancy report.” Donors don’t always react well to something that looks too nice or expensive.

“Dale’s” mail (pt 4): everything else…

Since I’m not a typical donor and probably spent more time looking at this annual report than most smaller dollar donors, I know you do need to invest in a budget for donor communications. This organization has a large operating budget and reports that a majority of its expenses were program specific.

Think about how your donors would react if you sent them a huge annual report. Some are going to toss it right in the recycling bin or trash. Others may set it aside to look at later, realize they don’t have time to read it, and then pitch it. Others may flip through it, possibly annoyed that it’s so long. 

Most of your donors should receive a shorter annual report.

Create different types of annual reports for different donors

Why are you producing an annual report? If it’s for your donors, you need to acknowledge their role in helping you make a difference. This annual report rarely does that. It’s very focused on the organization.

I always recommend a short annual report of no more than four pages or an infographic postcard for most of your donors. Smaller dollar donors deserve to feel appreciated, not inundated with a lot of information. You can create slightly longer reports for major donors and grant funders.

This organization has several different programs you can support or you can give to where it’s needed most. They could have sent separate short impact reports for their different programs. Maybe one to people who supported early education and another one for homelessness prevention rather than lumping it all into one big report.

Creating different types of annual reports may be more work, but it probably took a lot of work to produce that massive one. Since the organization has all the information anyway, they could have broken it down into smaller reports. They could also share some of the stories in their newsletters instead. Besides, is a little more work such a bad thing? Personalized donor communication usually pays off.

Write your donor communication in the second person

All your donor communication should be written in the second person using you much more than we. This annual report was written in the third person. You know what’s written in the third person – press releases and other promotional material. This annual report seems very promotional. 

When you write in the second person you can write directly to your donor. Again, is this report supposed to be for donors? It doesn’t seem like it.

Nonprofit organizations often include an annual report when they submit a grant proposal. They may also bring one along when they meet with a major donor. Because they barely referenced their donors, this annual report seems more appropriate for potential funders.

Would it be so hard to include statements such as Thanks to you or Because of our generous donors along with a description of accomplishments (although not 40+ pages of them)? What’s the harm in giving an annual report like that to potential donors? Surely not as high as mostly ignoring current donors.

This happens too much

I see way too many examples of one size fits all communication. Organizations often send everyone the same appeal letter regardless of whether they are current donors, potential donors, or monthly donors. The same is true with thank you letters. 

Donors also have different interests and reasons for giving.  If you recognize this and send different types of communication to different types of donors, you’re letting them know they matter. 

Segmenting Your Donors is More Important Than Ever

When It Comes to Reaching Donors, One Size Doesn’t Fit All

How to Make Your Nonprofit Messages Stand Out

The average attention span for humans is a mere eight seconds. Goldfish have longer attention spans, but they lead much simpler lives and aren’t inundated with information the way we are.

Goldfish pay more attention than humans (but goldfish can’t make gifts)

I feel as if our information overload gets worse every year. And, I don’t need to remind you how much is going on right now. Getting your messages out is never easy, but like everything else, it’s gotten a whole lot harder this past year.

Your nonprofit organization needs to continue communicating regularly with your donors and you need to do it well. With everything that’s going on, it’s possible they’ll miss your messages. 

Here are a few ways to make your messages stand out. 

What’s your intention?

What’s the purpose of your message? What do you want your reader to do? Are you asking for a donation? Maybe you’re thanking your donor or sharing an update.

Think from your reader’s perspective. What would she be interested in or what would make him take action?

Don’t muddle your messages with too much information. Keep it simple and stick to one call to action or type of message. 

Choose the right channels

Most likely you’ll use more than one channel to communicate. Pay attention to the channels your donors are using and focus your efforts there.

Email may be the primary way you’re communicating right now and there’s a reason for that. It’s fast, easy, relatively inexpensive, and almost everyone has an email address. You can quickly get a message out to a lot of people. Also, unlike social media, it’s something you can control. You don’t have to rely on a social media algorithm to hope your message ends up in your donor’s feed.

The downside is people get a huge amount of email from a variety of different sources. The same is true with social media. It’s easy for your messages to get lost in the shuffle. Plus, factor in Zoom and Netflix and at some point people don’t want to look at a screen anymore. 

While you’ll likely use electronic communication pretty regularly, don’t discount direct mail. Your donors are more likely to see these messages. We get far less postal mail than electronic communication. Also, a person can put a piece of mail aside and look at it later. Don’t count on that happening with any type of electronic communication. You can also communicate by phone. This is a great way to thank your donors.

Going multichannel is another option. This is very common for fundraising campaigns and inviting people to events, as well as including a link to your e-newsletter on your social media platforms. This way if people miss your initial message on one platform, they may see it on a different one.

Get noticed right away

Remember, your donors have a lot going on and you need to capture their attention right away.

Your fundraising letters and anything else you send by mail needs to look appealing enough to open. You could put a tagline on the envelope. That doesn’t mean something like It’s Our Annual Appeal. Try something like – How you can help students boost their reading skills. Your envelope should look personal and not resemble a bill or junk mail.

“Dale’s” mail

Once your donor opens your fundraising appeal, lead with a story followed by a clear, prominent ask. When they open your thank you letter, they should be greeted with gratitude.

A good subject line is the key to getting someone to open your email message. Keep in mind that your donor’s inbox is crammed with messages. Don’t use something boring like April e-newsletter or Donation Received. Entice them with Find out how you helped students boost their reading skills. or You just did something amazing today!  

Keep them engaged once they open your message.

Keep it short

In many cases, a shorter message is best. You want a good balance between saying too much and saying too little. All your words should count, so be careful about adding too much filler. That often includes bragging about your organization and explaining what you do.

I recently received an annual report that was 55 pages long. While this is not a post about how to create an annual report, I imagine most donors are going to look at it and think,“I don’t have time to read this.”

Plus, people have short attention spans.

What’s in My Inbox | Shorter attention spans means you need to deliver with your enews

Your goal is to get your donors to read your messages. If it looks long and boring, they probably won’t bother.

Make it easy to read and scan

Besides sending a short message, use short paragraphs and lots of white space, too. Your messages need to be easy to read and scan in an instant. Most people aren’t going to read something word for word. Be sure they can quickly get the gist of what you want to say. Don’t use microscopic font either – use 12 point or higher.

Be personal and conversational

Write directly to your reader using clear, conversational language – no jargon. Don’t confuse your donors with generic messages.

Don’t cast a wide net

It’s important that you send your messages to the right audience and your audience isn’t everyone.

You’ll have more luck with a fundraising appeal when you send it to past donors or people who have a connection to your cause. The same is true for event invitations or recruiting volunteers.

You may want to reach out to as many people as possible, but that won’t guarantee you’ll get more donations or event attendees. Segmenting and engaging with the right audience will bring you better results.

Going back to that annual report, it seemed more appropriate for major funders and prospective funders than smaller dollar donors. It also wasn’t very donor-centered, but I digress. It looks like that organization decided to send all their donors this massive annual report instead of trying to engage smaller dollar donors with something shorter.

Be a welcome visitor

If you communicate regularly and do it well, your donors should recognize you as a reputable source and are more likely to read your messages. If all you do is send them generic fundraising appeals, then you need to make some changes.

When you send email, make sure people know it’s coming from your organization. In the from field, put DoGood Nonprofit or Susan Taylor, DoGood Nonprofit. If you just put a person’s name or info@dogoodnonprofit.org, people may not know who it’s from and ignore your message.

Only send email to people who have opted into your list. Otherwise, you’re spamming them. Some people will choose not to receive email from you, and that’s okay. The ones who do are interested in hearing from you. Give people the option to unsubscribe, too.

Even though people only get a few pieces of mail a day, most of it’s junk mail. You never want any of your letters, newsletters, or postcards to be perceived as junk mail (see above).

By putting in a little time and effort, you can help ensure that your messages stand out.

3 Strategies for Nonprofit Messages that Stand Out in Donors’ Mailboxes

How to Write Awesome Emails Your Donors Want to Read

How You Can Create a More Engaging Nonprofit Newsletter

In theory, a newsletter can be a great way to engage with your donors. In reality, that often doesn’t happen because most donor newsletters can be used as a cure for insomnia. They’re too long and filled with boring articles that brag about how wonderful the organization is.

You can create an engaging newsletter your donors will want to read. Here’s how.

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 Alicia, a single mother who is having trouble making ends meet, but is grateful she can get food for her family at the Riverside 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.

In my last post, I mentioned the importance of having 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. I’m sure you have a lot of stories from the past year that you can share.

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.

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 Better World Foundation will allow us to buy much-needed laptops for our tutoring program.

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 Sarah Davis, Vice President of First National Bank, to our board. Sarah 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 Alicia put food on the table 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.  

Show some gratitude

Never miss an opportunity to thank your donors. Many donors stepped up this past year 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.

Also, make sure your donors can read your e-newsletter on a mobile device.

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, especially 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 your donors will want to read.

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

Nonprofit Donor Newsletters | Print or Enews?

7 Nonprofit E-Newsletter Best Practices

24 Content Ideas for Your Next Nonprofit Newsletter

Photo by Petr Sejba www.moneytoplist.com.

Make Time for Some Spring Cleaning

Spring is officially here and depending on where you live, it may or may not feel like it. Here in Boston, we’re starting to see the beginning of warmer weather.

I’ve been hearing a lot about spring cleaning lately. I know, groan. Some people took on a bunch of cleaning and decluttering projects during the pandemic. I wasn’t one of them. It was too much to deal with, although I did shred two years of financial documents recently. 

I know I should do more. As much as I dislike cleaning and organizing, I’m happy once it gets done. Often getting started is the hardest part.

Your nonprofit organization may have put off some version of your own spring cleaning and decluttering. You were just trying to run your organization during a tumultuous year.

Make time to take on these so-called cumbersome tasks. Just think how happy you’ll be once you tackle them. You’ll also make some much-needed improvements to your infrastructure and donor communication.

Here are a few suggestions to help you get started.

Clean up your mailing lists and database

Has it been a while since you’ve updated your mailing lists? Did you have an influx of address changes, returned mail, and bounced emails after you sent your year-end appeal? This is a good time to clean up and update both your direct mail and email mailing lists.

Don’t wait until right before your next mailing to clean up your donor data. And, if you didn’t communicate by mail over the last year, then you really need to do some what is known as data hygiene.

Even though it’s tedious, have someone who’s familiar with your donors (your development director?) go through your mailing lists and database/CRM (customer relationship management) to see if you need to make any additions, changes, and deletions.

Be meticulous. No donor wants to see her name misspelled, be addressed as Mrs. when she prefers Ms., or receive three mailings because you have duplicate records.

Your donor database is an important tool and it needs to be up-to-date and filled with accurate information about your donors.

CLEAN UP YOUR ACT: DONOR DATA MANAGEMENT FOR NONPROFITS

7 strategies for keeping your nonprofit donor database clean

Run your donor list through the National Change of Address database. It may cost some money to do this, but it’s worth it if you come out with squeaky clean data. Do this at least once a year.

Also, if you haven’t already done this, segment your donors into different groups – new donors, returning donors, monthly donors, etc. You may need to make some changes. For example, if a single gift donor starts giving monthly.

Segmenting Your Donors is More Important Than Ever

You might also want to move some lapsed donors who haven’t donated for several years into an inactive file. Don’t do this until you’ve sent targeted, personalized appeals asking them to donate again. And if you’ve never gotten in touch with any lapsed donors from 2020, you could reach out to them now.

Do the same thing with your email list. It doesn’t make sense to send email to people who don’t respond to it. Give these people a chance to re-engage, and if they’re not even opening your emails, move them to an inactive file.

Spring cleaning for your email list(s)

Maybe you need a better CRM/database. If you’re using a spreadsheet to store your donor records, then you need an actual database. Get the best one you can afford.

Fundraising Software Advice

Spring is about bringing in the new, and a better database would be a wise investment. It can help you raise more money. Organizations with good databases were able to quickly launch an emergency fundraising campaign when the pandemic hit.

Freshen up your messages

Now that you’ve cleaned up your mailing lists and segmented your donors, it’s time to freshen up your messages. As I mentioned in my last post, your donor communication needs to reference the current situations. When it doesn’t, it leads me to wonder if you’re using a template from way back when. 

It’s important for you to update your fundraising and thank you letter templates. If you’re still using vague jargon, such as at risk or underserved, you’re undermining your clients/community. Your donors look at the news every day and see people lined up at food banks or countless examples of discrimination. You can’t ignore this by hiding behind your jargon. Over the last year, we’ve seen a lot of authenticity. Bring that into your donor communication.

This post From Jargon to Generosity references a fundraising letter that opens with “Your gift of as little as $44 can provide quality resources for a child at the children’s home.” What do quality resources mean? Is it healthy food, a warm bed at night, a safe environment with a compassionate staff? Be specific and use language your donors will understand. 

Your thank you letters need to actually thank your donors, not brag about your organization. Make sure your automatically generated thank you emails and landing pages don’t look like boring receipts. Create separate templates for new donors, current donors, and monthly donors.

The Importance of Having a Thank You Plan 

Don’t put it off too long

I know you have a lot going on, but you need to tackle these projects sooner rather than later. Just like the clutter and dust in your home won’t disappear on their own, the longer you ignore it, the worse it gets. 

Take on these spring cleaning projects as soon as you can. You’ll be happy once they’re done. Your donors will also be happy if they don’t get duplicate mailings and a fundraising letter laced with jargon, but do receive a personalized appeal and a stellar thank you letter.

How to Create Your 2020 Annual Report

The nonprofit annual report is a mixed bag. Organizations do need to share accomplishments and show gratitude to their donors, but many annual reports are done poorly. They’re often too long, boring, and basically a demonstration of the organization patting itself on the back. There’s often very little appreciation for donors. It’s also time consuming to put together, even when we’re not in a pandemic.

COVID-19 and our other current situations have brought about many changes, or at least they should. You can’t create the same type of annual report you’ve done in the past. I think some of the changes I’m going to suggest should be carried out in the future, as well.

First, you don’t have to do an annual report, but you do have to share accomplishments with your donors. You might want to ditch the annual report and send short progress reports a couple of times a year or monthly e-updates instead. This makes a lot of sense now when things are changing rapidly and you don’t have time to take on a big report. 

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. Shorter is better.

You also need to address how your organization is faring with the current situations – the pandemic, economic downturn, racial reckoning, etc.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you create an annual report that’s relevant during the current situations, won’t put your donors to sleep, and make it a little easier for you to put together.

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 to not 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 this past year and deserve to be thanked for that.

Focus on thanking your donors for their role in helping you make a difference. Get inspired by these examples. I know these are on the longer side, but they still have some good examples.

Oregon Zoo Gratitude Report

Power of Storytelling | The most moving gratitude report I’ve ever seen

How are you making a difference?

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

They also include a bunch of boring lists, 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 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 – In the past year, we have seen triple the number of people at the Northside Community Food Bank. We also had to make changes at our facility so we could continue to serve people safely. Thanks to donors like you, we were 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 –  Leah, a single mother with three kids, lost her full-time job earlier in the year and 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. Leah had never gone to a food bank before and felt ashamed to have to do that. But when she reached out to the Northside 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 a lot of 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 clients, if you have their permission.

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. 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 during COVID-19, since living in a shelter or with other families isn’t 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.

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.

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.

With everything changing at a rapid pace, I hope you’ve been updating your donors frequently. If not, you need to start doing that. 

Whatever you decide, put together an annual report that’s a better experience for everyone. Read on for more information about creating a relevant annual or impact report for 2020.

How to Create a Meaningful Nonprofit Annual Report in the Year of the Pandemic

Creating a Nonprofit Impact Report in the Time of COVID-19

8 Annual Reports We Love

How to Craft a 1-Page Nonprofit Annual Report

On the Road to Better Donor Communication

With all that’s gone on this year, if you’re still sending generic, organization-centered communication, you’re doing a huge disservice.

I know there has been some conflict about donor-centered vs community-centered, and I think we can have both. What you don’t want is to be organization-centered. You can’t communicate with your donors without focusing on them. This is true for any type of audience. Also, donor-centricity leads to community.

Think Twice Before You Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater | Donor-Centered vs Community-Centered

We’re also seeing real people with real problems. Your vague, generic communication that uses demeaning terms such as at-risk and underserved needs to end.

It’s harder to fundraise now, but you need to still do it. You’ll be more successful if you make some of these improvements to your donor communications.

Fundraising Appeals

  • Your fundraising appeal shouldn’t be focused too much on your organization – rambling on about how great you are. Your organization may be great, but let your donors figure that out. Your donors are the ones who are great, and they want to hear how they can help you make a difference for your clients/community.
  • Segment your appeal to the appropriate audience. Thank past donors or reference your relationship to a potential donor. Maybe they’re event attendees, volunteers, or friends of board members.
  • Address your appeal to a person and not Dear Friend.
  • Don’t use vague, impersonal language and jargon your donors won’t understand. Instead of saying we’re helping at-risk youth, say something like – With your support, our tutoring program can help more students graduate from high school on time. It’s been challenging this past year as many schools switched to remote learning.
  • Your appeal should make people feel good about donating to your organization.

Thank you letters

  • Your thank you letter shouldn’t come across as transactional and resemble a receipt. This is one of my huge pet peeves right now. Yes, you need to acknowledge the donation is tax-deductible, etc, but most donors are more concerned about how their gift made a difference.
  • Your thank you letter (or better yet, a handwritten note) needs to pour on the appreciation. Start your letter with You’re amazing or Thanks to You!, and not On behalf of X organization.
  • Address your thank you letter to a person and not Dear Friend.
  • Tell your donors the impact of their gift. For example – Thanks to your generous donation of $50, a family can get a box of groceries at the Eastside Community Food Bank. This is crucial now since we’ve seen triple the number of people in the past year.
  • Recognize each donor. Is this the first time someone has donated? If someone donated before, did she increase her gift? Acknowledge this in your letter/note.

Newsletters

  • Your newsletter shouldn’t sound self-promotional and focus on all the wonderful things your organization is doing. Since the pandemic, I’ve seen organizations patting themselves on the back because of all the changes they needed to make to their programs. What’s most important is how this is affecting your clients/community. Yes, you may have changed the protocols at your homeless shelter, but that’s because you needed to continue to offer a safe place to those who need it.  
  • Write your newsletter in the second person. Write to the donor and use the word you more often than we. How to Perform the “You” Test for Donor-Centered Communications – Do You Pass? Keep in mind, all your donor communication should be written in the second person. It’s much more personal.
  • Include stories about clients, engaging photos, and other content your donors like to see. Remember, donors want to see the impact of their gift.
  • Use the right channels. Perhaps you only send an e-newsletter, but some of your donors prefer print.
  • Show gratitude to your donors/supporters in your newsletter.

These suggestions for improvement can be used for other types of donor communication such as annual reports, your website, email messages, and social media posts.

Better donor communication can help you build relationships. This is especially important now when your goals should be donor retention and sustaining long-term donors.

9 Best Practices for Communications That Stand Out

Nonprofit Communication Best Practices To Make Communications More Impactful 

How to Give Your Donors a More Personal Online Thank You Experience

Many people donate online now. There’s a good reason for this. It’s usually fast and easy, or at least it should be. You may be opting for an online only year-end campaign this fall, although I do recommend mailing an appeal letter if you can.

One issue with online donations is the poor thank yous that come after your donor has given you a gift. I like to think of what happens after someone donates online as a thank you experience, which consists of a thank you landing page, thank you email, and a thank you by mail or phone, plus additional bursts of gratitude throughout the year.

Even though your thank you landing page and thank you email are automatically generated, it doesn’t mean they need to sound like they were written by a robot.

There’s a human being on the other end and they just did something great by donating to your organization. Don’t they deserve to be lavished with gratitude? Of course they do. Especially in 2020, possibly one of the worst years ever, when we’re dealing with so much and missing out on personal connections.

It’s not hard to make your online thank yous more personal. Here’s what you need to do.

Use words that convey gratitude

First, make a list of words you associate with gratitude. Did you come up with words such as transaction and processed? I hope not, although those are words I often see after I make an online gift. I cringe every time I see transaction complete or your gift was successfully processed.

Words matter and some words of gratitude include appreciate, grateful, and of course, thank you. 

Think of the donations you receive as the start or continuation of a relationship and not a transaction. 

Make a good first impression with your thank you landing page

Your landing page is your first chance to say thank you and it’s usually about as engaging as an Amazon receipt. In fact, I’ve seen online shopping receipts that are more personal than some nonprofit “thank you” landing pages.

Remember to use words that convey gratitude. You could open with Thank you, Kara! or You’re amazing! Capture your donor’s attention with an engaging photo or video. You could also create a thank you word cloud. Include a short, easy to understand description of how the donation will help your clients/community during these uncertain times.

Invite donors to connect with you in other ways such as signing up to receive your newsletter, following you on social media, and volunteering.

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

Don’t let your donors think they only made a transaction.

How to Create Post Donation Thank You Pages That Delight Donors

How To Optimize Your Donation Thank You Page + Examples Of Nonprofits Who Do It Right

Write a thank you email that your donors will appreciate

Start off by thinking of a good subject line. At the very least say Thank You! and not Donation Received. Stay away from the dreaded words processed and transaction. You want your thank you email to stand out in your donor’s overflowing inbox.

Open your message with Thank You or You’re incredible, and not the usual On Behalf of X organization. Then let your donors know how they’re helping you make a difference for your clients/community.

You want to follow the rules of writing a good thank you letter. The key word here is good. It amazes me how many thank you letters/emails don’t do a good job of saying thank you.

You won’t be able to segment much, but you should be able to distinguish between single gifts and monthly donations.

Speaking of monthly donations, many organizations send their monthly donors an email acknowledgment each month. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what’s wrong is many of these are just plain boring and usually include the same generic message each month.

Your monthly donors have made a long-term commitment to you. You can show the same commitment to them by writing a better thank you email and mixing up the content by sharing updates. This is even more important now.

You can include a donation summary or receipt with your thank you email, but that should be at the end – AFTER you pour on the gratitude. I prefer the term donation summary because it doesn’t sound as transactional.

Remember, you’re a human writing to another human. Don’t make your message sound like it was written by a robot. Write something warm and personal.

Examples of Email Thank You Letters to Online Donors

Best Fundraising Thank You Emails for Your Supporters

Don’t stop showing gratitude 

Since your thank you landing page and email are automatically generated, you can’t make them as personal as a handwritten note, phone call, or letter. That’s why you need to do at least one of those for your online donors. An online thank you is not enough. Also, your donors may not see your thank you email, but you want to make sure they feel appreciated.

You also want to keep thanking your donors throughout the year – at least once a month if you can. If it’s too hard to use mail or make phone calls right now, you can keep thanking by email, as well as social media. A personalized thank you video is another great way to show some gratitude.

You want to give your donors a thank you experience. Your thank you landing page and email acknowledgment are just the beginning. Make them engaging and personal and keep up that theme as you continue to show gratitude to your donors throughout the year.

Get Ready to Pour on the Gratitude

You may have started working on your year-end appeal. Just as important, if not more important, is planning how you’ll thank your donors. 

Some of the themes of 2020 should be –  this is more important than ever and planning ahead.

Many organizations leave thanking their donors as a last-minute to-do item and it shows. You can’t do that this year, as well as in future years. You may have a harder time getting donations right now. If someone gives to your organization, they deserve to be showered with gratitude. 

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.

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. 

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, get started on the content now. 

Brighten 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 this, 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 and it shouldn’t take too long. 

How to Write 3 Minute Thank You Notes

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 with this.

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

Dear Lisa,

Thank you so much for upgrading your gift to $75. We’ve been serving three times the number of people at the Northside Community Food Bank. 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 some donor love

Calling first-time donors is known to improve retention rates. But you could also call long-term 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 virtual training at first. Here’s a sample phone script.

Hi Bob, this is Diana Turner and I’m a board member at the Northside Community Food Bank. Thank you so much for your generous donation of $50 and welcome to our donor family. Your gift will help feed more local families during this difficult time. 

How to Call Donors Just to Say Thank You for Donating

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 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 or You’re amazing! Here’s another example from a letter I recently received – What a great friend you are to …….

You also don’t need to explain what your organization does. This is usually done in a braggy way 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. 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 the current climate.

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! If you can hand address the envelopes, use a nice stamp, 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.

An example from an organization that did it right

I mentioned the opening line from a recent thank you letter I received. This organization, a local theatre that’s unable to do live performances until sometime next year, did a lot of things right with their letter. Starting with sending the letter right away. I was surprised to get it so quickly, although 48 hours is what’s recommended, but rarely followed.

The envelope was hand addressed and the letter included phrases like – you are providing a sense of stability and hope as we all continue to navigate through these uncharted waters, and X theatre is still here – and is still strong – because of you! The phrase because of you is a must in a thank you letter. This letter also included a handwritten note saying – Looking forward to welcoming you back……

With everything that’s going on right now, it’s crucial to do a good job of thanking your donors, both now and throughout the year. In my next post, I’ll share some ways to improve your online thank yous.

Here’s more on thanking your donors.

5 Donor Love Must-Do’s for the COVID-19 Crisis

How to Write The Best Thank-You Letter for Donations + Three Templates and Samples

A Guide to Crafting the Perfect Donation Thank-You Letter

5 Thank You Letters Donors Will Love

How to Create a Fundraising Appeal that’s Relevant in the Current Climate

September is here. It’s my favorite month and the more moderate temperatures and lower humidity are a nice respite from all the uncertainty going on in the world.

Fall is the busiest time of the year for nonprofit organizations, especially if you’re doing a year-end appeal. The current climate (pandemic, economic downturn, heightened awareness of systemic racism, having to cope with all of this, etc)  will require you to create a new, more relevant appeal, although many of the components will be the same.

Even if you’re not planning on launching your campaign until later in the fall, you should get started on your appeal now. You need to create an appeal that will stand out and resonate with your donors.

A couple of things. You must address the current climate in your appeal. Instead of the usual boring, generic letter, you need to specifically address what’s been going on since the pandemic started. 

Also, your appeal needs to be personal – both for your donors and when you write about your clients/community. Be sure to check in with your donors and wish them well.

Here are some ways to create a better, more relevant 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. That doesn’t mean one that says 2020 Annual Appeal. That’s not inspiring, especially now. 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 – Sarah, a single mother with three kids, was laid off earlier this year and had trouble finding enough money to buy groceries for her family. But thanks to generous donors like you, she was able to get boxes of healthy food at the Northside Community Food Bank. Sarah was embarrassed that she said to rely on a food bank to feed her family, but she is treated with respect and dignity each time she visits. 

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.

Here’s more information on creating stories and photos.

Telling Your Stories in the Current Climate

How to Engage With Your Donors by Using Visual Stories

Make a prominent 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. I know we’re in an economic downturn, but don’t be afraid to ask your donors to upgrade their gift. People want to help if they can.

Phrase your ask like this – We’re so grateful for your previous gift of $50. We’re serving three times the number of people at the food bank right now. Would you be able to help us out a little more this time with a gift of $75?

Your donors know times are tough. Also, if you’ve been doing a good job of engaging your donors throughout the year (this is so important now), they shouldn’t mind if you ask for a larger gift. Including the amount of your donor’s previous gift is helpful since people often don’t remember what they gave before.

Be donor-centered, as well as community-centered

There’s some dichotomy right now 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 by using terms like at-risk youth or underserved communities. They are people, after all.

Share your success and challenges

I’m sure this has been a challenging year for you. Maybe you’ve had to do things differently, but how you had to make changes to your food bank is less important than why you had to do it. You need to continue providing healthy food to families, while doing it safely.

Highlight some of your accomplishments, but you can share challenges, too. A theatre where I’m a subscriber had to shut down in March and won’t be able to open again until sometime next year. Understandably, this created a budget shortfall and they’re trying to raise $100,000 by December 31.

Show how you plan to continue your work with your donor’s help. Remember to stay donor-centered! You need your donors right now.

Personalization is more important than ever

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 now. Let them know how much you appreciate their support. If a donor contributed to an emergency campaign earlier in the year, be sure to thank them for that. These donors are committed to helping you through this difficult time.

Also, send a specific appeal tailored to monthly donors, giving them the recognition they deserve. You can ask them to upgrade or give an additional year-end gift.

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

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.

How To Create Donation Tiers That Drive Donations

Some donors will prefer to donate online. Direct them to a user-friendly donation page on your website.

Donation Page Best Practices For Nonprofits; Tips for Great Donation Pages

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. 

How Monthly Giving is a Win-Win for Your Nonprofit

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.

It’s fine to go over a page, especially if you’re breaking up the text with a photo and short paragraphs. I know longer letters can perform better, but donors have a lot going on, so if you’re going to write a longer letter, make every word count. You can also add a quote or short testimonial. These can be powerful and it helps break up the narrative.

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.

How to Perform the “You” Test for Donor-Centered Communications – Do You Pass?

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.

This could be a tough fundraising season. That’s why you need to spend some time writing a better, more relevant appeal letter that will resonate with your donors and help bring you the donations you need. Good luck!

Read on for more advice and resources on writing a better fundraising appeal for the current climate.

10 Tips for Nonprofit Direct Mail Fundraising During COVID-19

3 Strategies Every Nonprofit Should Use for Year-End Fundraising in 2020

7 Wise COVID-19 Fundraising Templates

Image by Howard Lake