Ask yourself this.
What type of communications is really driving your fundraising?
Because if you’re serious about raising funds – as opposed to raising awareness or educating people – then you need to be incorporating tried and tested direct response techniques into your appeals.
Instead, I find fundraising appeals are often hijacked by the following types of communications. Each has their place – just not in fundraising.
In different ways, each of them has the effect of killing the emotion in fundraising or making your appeals decidedly donor-unfriendly. Both of which mean you’ll take a hit in income.
Corporate communications in your fundraising?
This is about promoting an organisation’s brand. Some people may use other words to describe it but it comes down to this.
It may include public relations and media relations which often incorporate journalism-style comms (see below). But at its heart, corporate comms is about communicating an internal message set by internal senior staff which usually has no relevance to donors.
Usually written to please the CEO and Board members, it’s often about communicating strategic vision in abstract terms about partnerships, leadership, quality control, synergies and “outcomes”. But it has little about individual beneficiaries and their problems, hopes and fears.
In fact, corporate comms people have an innate dislike of anything that doesn’t refer to stakeholders, best practice, innovation and all those horrible jargon-oriented words that are meaningless to donors.
Corporate comms are also written either in the third person or using the dreaded “we” that spells death to fundraising income since it should really be all about “you” the donor.
And there’s no faster way to kill any emotional connection with your donor than to use corporate comms style in fundraising.
Here’s an example of fundraising copy that is far too influenced by corporate comms.
In order to meet best practice standards and deliver world-class quality care to cardiac clients, our eminent long-serving cardiac unit has a requirement for the most up-to-date state-of-the-art cardiopulmonary resuscitation equipment.
Aaaargh! Just shoot me right here and now.
Academic communications in your fundraising?
This is all about research. If your charity has anything to do with medicine, science or research of any kind, chances are your fundraising copywriters will end up fighting with the academics at some stage.
Research is important. Accuracy in research is important. Accuracy is important when publishing research in an academic journal.
But complete and utter technical accuracy is not necessary in fundraising communications where 99% of your donors are not doctors, scientists or researchers.
In fact, complete and utter technical accuracy is not necessary in any communications where the primary audience is not doctors, scientists or researchers.
As a former journalist, I was obsessed with accuracy. But when translating medical jargon into layman’s terms, it’s often not possible to be exactly and technically accurate. Otherwise nobody can understand what you’re writing about.
The same thing applies to fundraising communications. By an insistence on being completely and utterly technically accurate, you make it harder for your donor to understand your cause. You remove all the emotion. And you strip your appeal of language your donor can connect to.
A few years ago I did an appeal for a new cardiopulmonary resuscitation machine (even typing that is tricky). Otherwise known as a CPR device, it was nicknamed the “thumper”.
I was told that some medical staff objected to this device being called a “thumper” as it was not technically accurate. I never quite understood why this was the case. But thankfully, the fundraising staff said we could go ahead and call it a “thumper” if I wanted to.
And yes, I did want to! It paints a much clearer picture in the donor’s mind than cardiopulmonary resuscitation machine – or even CPR device. It also gives the donor an almost sensory idea of its role in helping to restart the heart.
Although I have a feeling that saying “restart the heart” might be technically inaccurate. Perhaps I should say “deliver continuous chest compressions to a patient in a state of acute cardiac arrest”. But “restart the heart” is easier to understand. It also rhymes.
(Incidentally, that thumper appeal performed well beyond expectations.)
Program communications in your fundraising?
For the people who develop your services and programs, this is all about quality.
It’s about how they provide better services or care, use the best methodologies and develop inclusive, sustainable, evidence-based programs (yes, I actually read those program reports).
All of this is probably excellent information when you’re trying to prove you’re worthy of government funding or a grant.
And all of this is the wrong kind of information for your average donor. As I’ve written about elsewhere, you need to use stories about beneficiaries because people give to people – or animals or trees. As long as you can show the donor the impact or change their gift will bring about, 99% of them will not care what methodologies you use.
Here’s an example of fundraising copy too influenced by program comms.
Happy Kids Charity has over 50 years’ experience in delivering holistic, evidence-based community development programs that cater to the needs of diverse persons. We use a unique, specially-developed methodology that has proven effective in alleviating the effects of poverty and conflicts on vulnerable or disadvantaged people.
(There was a dash of corporate comms thrown in there too.)
This is about reporting of the facts. (Although these days this is changing to entertaining reporting of the facts ie. clickbait.)
Some charities have excellent ex-journalists working for them, especially in producing their donor newsletters. They understand things like the inverted pyramid, how to find a lead and the importance of quotes to add colour to a story.
And usually, journalism-style comms is better than corporate comms for one reason. Journos are trained to sift through mounds of research and information and turn it into a news story that the layperson can understand.
This means ex-news writers who come into a charity will be horrified over corporate-style comms. They strive to remove every bit of jargon where possible (as an ex-journalist myself, I have done this). This is a good thing.
The problem is these writers often don’t understand fundraising communications or direct response techniques. They try to remove everything in a direct mail letter and donor care newsletters that is emotional and drives the donor to action.
Journalism traditionally was about informing people about the news. But fundraising is about persuading people to donate.
Journalists also have an innate dislike of the call to action. If you’ve ever tried to get something promoted in one of the mainstream newspapers, you’ll know how hard it is to get them to agree to include a direct call to action such as “DONATE NOW by calling 1300 000 000”. You’re lucky if they’ll agree to print your web address – more likely they’ll tell you to take out an ad.
Here’s an example of fundraising copy written by an ex-journalist.
Cutting response times during disasters will save lives, according to International Emergency Response Director Malcolm Smith.
With the increase in natural disasters, we are conducting community awareness and training for a new best practice early warning system.
A bit of program communications in there too.
Instead it should be all about the donor and what their gift can do.
Your gift will feed a hungry refugee family in war-torn Syria
We need your help to roll out a unique, specially-developed methodology that has proven effective in alleviating the effects of poverty and conflicts on vulnerable or disadvantaged people.
DONATE NOW to save lives during natural disasters
We need funds to raise awareness of our new best practice disaster early warning system.
Keep cardiac patients alive with the “thumper” when you give today
We need to source funding for new cardiopulmonary resuscitation equipment.