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Love thy donor

publication date: Oct 22, 2013
author/source: Janet Gadeski

Donor communication has just one guiding principle according to Tom Ahern – to lavish “slobbering, unstinting thanks and praise” on the people whose gifts fund your charity’s mission. Fail at that, and you are guaranteed to have a donor retention problem. Seventy percent of donors do not give a second gift – and the reason, says Tom, usually lies in uninspiring communications that focus on the organization rather than the donor.

Tom shared his wisdom in a September workshop for the Golden Horseshoe Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Here are just some of his strategies and tips to transform your donor communications into powerful tools for appreciation and retention.

  • Count the number of times that the words “we” and “you” appear in your donor communications. What would those numbers be if the donor was truly the centre of your donor communications?
  • With direct mail, try for “mental nods” that will make recipients open the letter, read through it, and take action. Something like this, for example, could be printed on your envelope – From xxxxx, M.D. (the authority figure draws attention) If you believe in Hospice as much as I do (mental nod) open immediately. (tells recipient what to do next). Similar language can be used in the body of the letter.
  • Flatter the donor: You’ve given this mom and her son hope. Thanks to you, John’s life is changed forever.
  • Give your donors an important job that only they can do. Talk about what they make possible, not about their money: Kids like Jenny need heroes like you.
  • The word “you” is a profound emotional trigger. It’s more important than anything else you can say. Eye motion studies have shown that people don’t usually read beyond the first two paragraphs unless they’re engaged. Start your “you” language in the first paragraph – don’t save it until the end.
  • “When the staff hate it, that’s a good sign.” A newsletter that talks about “our” great work may give staff an ego boost but doesn’t reach your donors at the emotional level. Don’t waste space on a message from the CEO or Executive Director.
  • Use surprising headlines to tell the story in a nutshell: Is Your Baby Racist? Exploring the Roots of Discrimination
  • No matter how many suffering people your charity wants to help, stay away from statistics. Donors grasp a compelling story about one starving individual much more easily than they can understand thousands or millions in the same situation. Stories about identifiable individuals raise twice as much as stories about statistics.
  • Balance joy and need in your newsletters. Too many happy faces suggest that the problem is solved.
  • Use coupons even if no-one actually cuts them out. They function like a big billboard that says “We need your help.”
  • Boost the frequency of giving by using seasonal language, suggesting that the donor will give more than once a year: My summer donation is enclosed on a reply card, for example.
You can find more tips from Tom at

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