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

We all know good writing is critical in fundraising, but even a well-written appeal might leave money on the table if a more strategic word or phrase could have been substituted. So how can your organization ensure you are packaging your message in the most strategic way? Luckily, a variety of studies have been done to determine which words carry the most punch.

The following are five tips I keep in mind when I’m writing an appeal letter, creating a case for support or crafting other fundraising materials.

1. Focus on the end recipient

People would rather give to a cause than an organization, and would rather give to specific recipients than to a cause.

OK: Your gift will help The Autism Center
BETTER: Your gift will help fight autism
BEST: Your gift will help children with autism

When readers think about supporting a nonprofit, they may know generally what you do but not as much about the impact of your services. It’s much more compelling to think their gift is directly going to children (or whatever your nonprofit’s beneficiary might be… students, waterways, the elderly). It’s also essential to give specifics about how your donor’s money will be used—if you’re launching a capital campaign, you might say “Because of you, a child is receiving one-on-one behavioral therapy with the best professionals and will have the opportunity to attend a specialized summer camp.”


2. Talk about what they stand to lose—not gain

As I mentioned in “Not Another Year-End Appeal! 12 Writing Tips to Stand Out & Inspire Action,” I read an interesting study a few years ago that showed people are more willing to donate to keep something than to create something. Apparently fear of losing existing programs/facilities/results is a bigger motivator. I often tap into this angle when writing appeals.

INSTEAD OF: Your gift will create a healthier shoreline for endangered wildlife
SAY: Your gift will protect the diverse wildlife on our shores from extinction

Of course, you need to maintain a fine line so you don’t sound desperate—use “save” sparingly. (Donors want to be part of something successful, so you don’t want them thinking they need to “save” your organization.)


3. Show the consequence of not giving

Many donors get a better idea of how important their donation is when you point out the impact of doing nothing. In an online survey, Dr. Christopher Olivola of Carnegie Mellon University gave people two choices: They could receive $15 for themselves, or have Unicef receive $35. He and writer Shlomo Benartzi described the study in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Mistakes We Make When Giving to Charity”:

“Dr. Olivola’s experiments have shown that people can be nudged to think through these kinds of choices in a more-balanced way, by subtly amending the description. Instead of telling people that they would get $15, he now also reminds them that if they choose that option, “Unicef gets nothing.”

On the face of it, this reminder seems to be unnecessary—clearly, if I choose to keep the $15, then it means that Unicef will not receive the $35. Yet these three extra words make a big difference. In our online survey, adding the reminder that Unicef would get nothing if they chose to receive $15 reduced the percentage of people who selected this selfish option by more than a third. By contrast, reminding them that if they give to Unicef then they get nothing did not impact their choices … a phenomenon Dr. Olivola calls the ‘other-nothing effect.’ ”

The article—which also included data from Giving USA 2016, a report published by Giving USA Foundation, in which The Curtis Group is actively involved—also points out that many donors are misled by a “martyrdom effect.” This means they believe that a smaller gift involving self-sacrifice does more good than a larger gift with no volunteering or marathons or ice buckets involved. So make sure you educate your donors on how they can make the greatest impact (in most cases, through direct donation).


4. Include phrases tied to success

Researchers at Georgia Tech recently reviewed over 45,000 projects on Kickstarter to determine the most common phrases in campaigns that got funded. We can take away some critical lessons from the study—most importantly, that words alone could determine your outcome. The researchers found that language accounted for 58.56% of the variance around success. The funded projects often included language that precipitates success, such as:

  • Given the chance (seed funding)
  • Your continued (sustaining support)
  • We can afford (maximizing donor dollars)
  • Has pledged (challenge gifts)
  • Project will be (details of specific initiative/program)

In an experiment at Indiana University, fundraisers found that using one of these five words when making an ask increased the average gift from $83 to $100 (but only among women!):

  • Caring
  • Compassionate
  • Helpful
  • Friendly
  • Kind

Of course, the most important word to use—and repeat—is YOU.


5. Avoid phrases that are turn-offs

In the same Kickstarter study described above, these were common phrases used in projects that did not get funded:

  • Not be able (too negative; plants doubt)
  • Even a dollar (discourages larger gifts)
  • Hope to get (lacks confidence and concrete goal)

Outside this study, there are other types of words and phrases that can derail your efforts:

  • Jargon (few nonprofits are writing to donors “inside” their industry)
  • Buzzwords (you’ll dilute your voice of authority and could seem like a fad cause)
  • Stuffy, pretentious words (you’ll lose clarity and their interest)
The key is to use smart but simple language, capturing your donors’ emotions and making them feel joy at the thought (and act) of giving. Yes, many other factors affect your fundraising success, from timing to format to who is doing the asking. But research continues to show that word choice is critical, so use that research to give your words power—and payoff.
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2 Responses to “Words to Give By: 5 phrasing tricks that could increase your donations”

  1. kimberly curtis

    thank you – what a great company name which just happens to be mine. Helpful information for my ministry.


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