Posted , by Melissa James, Marketing Director. Topic: Donor Communication.

While we hate to disillusion anyone right after the holidays, I need to set the record straight about a certain mythical figure. You might have been sending letters to it for years. But unfortunately, there’s no such thing as… the General Public. All too often, nonprofit communications are written for this “audience,” and the message misses the mark.

Knowing your audience is key to any successful fundraising or marketing effort. Your angle needs to play into the needs and desires of the audience you target—and inspire them to take a specific action. It seems simple enough: Donor communications ask for money and volunteers, and client communications encourage people to take part in the opportunity being offered. Whether “client” at your nonprofit means patient, student, member, resident, pet owner, etc., your clients are usually a different audience from your donors.

But things can get sticky when multiple dissimilar groups are receiving the same message. And even when nonprofits succeed in compartmentalizing communications to their different constituents, there are times when both clients and donors are going to be exposed to the same message—for example, both will be viewing your website home page, the lobby of your building and your social media posts.

As you write each communication, it’s critical to have your target audience in mind… but also be mindful of who else might end up seeing these words. Here are some strategies that can help:

1. Clearly define the target for each communication.

Who is this communication trying to reach? Just saying “clients” or “donors” is insufficient.  Before you start writing, you need to drill down to the details—e.g., “prospective donors who have attended at least one event, earn $100,000+ and are interested in the arts,” or “single-parent families with at least two children who have used our services for fewer than five years.”

By doing this, you can figure out how many different versions of that letter or e-blast you might want to send. Then create subdivided recipient lists. (Some organizations create actual personas for each target type, so they can feel like they’re writing to a real person.)

2. Consider what motivates each audience.

Some messages work only for one group or the other, while a few can be successfully overlapped. Feel free to print this Venn diagram and keep it handy when writing:
Audience Messages Venn DiagramRule of thumb: Your most successful communications will be the ones directed strategically at a single, unique audience. Therefore:

  • When writing to a single audience, use messages from only the donor or client circle.
  • When writing to a mixed audience, try to use messages from the middle section

3. Be aware of the “where.”

Writing to a clearly defined audience is pointless if you’re not actually reaching that audience. Knowing who your organization’s donors and clients are means knowing where to find them. If you run a food pantry, you would not try to reach clients through a business journal. But that might be an excellent place to reach clients for a suicide prevention service. And yes, sometimes the “where” will be a place—physical or virtual—that includes both your clients and donors (arts and culture organizations will feel this most acutely). In these cases, it’s especially important that you don’t give the wrong impression. On that note:


4. Don’t give the wrong impression.

Direct mail is one of the few ways you can be reasonably sure that only your intended audience will see the communication. In most other cases, there is going to be some level of donor/client overlap, and you therefore must choose your words carefully. It’s a fine line to walk—you can’t speak too vaguely about your organization, because you need to inspire action. But if you say the right thing for the wrong audience, it can really backfire:

  • Making the organization sound “too prosperous” can attract clients but leave donors thinking they are not needed.
  • Trying to pigeonhole the population you serve, for the sake of a snappy headline or dramatic story, can attract donors but alienate clients who don’t fit the mold being portrayed—or don’t like how it sounds in print.

Rule of thumb: Write strategically for your intended audience but ask yourself, “What would a donor think if they saw this client communication?” and “What would a client think if they saw this donor communication?”


5. Make the right choice of voice.

Just as you would change your tone and word choice based on who you are speaking to (while still maintaining your personality), your brand voice should be consistent and yet fluctuate based on your audience.

Perhaps you write with contractions to your clients (to feel more personable) but spell out the full words for donors (to feel more professional). It helps to come up with a few key phrases that can work for any audience (such as a tagline) and rely heavily on them when your audience will include a donor/client mix.

Above all, as you write to these two audiences, bear in mind that clients could someday become donors—and donors could become clients. 

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