How to Win Donors by Writing From Your Heart

Mary Cahalane

What do you treasure?

She’s not sure why she still has them after all these years.

Letters. Love letters. From friends and more than friends. From her childhood, really. It was so long ago.

But there they are, buried in the basement with other memories. Wrapped in a red ribbon. Treasured.

Every once in a while, she pulls them out. Chooses one and reads it. She smiles… a little embarrassed. A little wistful.

She should have tossed the letters years ago. But she keeps them.

To remember what she felt.

To remember who she was.

To be her young self again.

That’s the power your words can have – if you use them well.

That’s the power of emotional writing

But you can do even more. The written word can also move us to act.

How seriously do you consider your words?

Do you create something your reader might save and cherish? Do your words make her want to do something?

You won’t, if what you write isn’t all about her.

And you won’t be able to make it all about her if you don’t tap into your own emotions.

Writing for your donors: the easy steps

Yes, there are some “tricks” you can use to improve your appeal. Simple things, really.

1. Change the font

If you’re not already using one, switch to a serif font. It wins readability tests. And what’s easier to read gets read. While you’re at it, bump up the size as well. Fourteen is the new twelve. Your older readers (and most of your readers are probably over 50) will love you for it. Better yet, they’ll read you for it!

2. Indent the paragraphs

Indenting your paragraphs invites the reader in. She’s not faced with intimidating blocks of type, so she’s more likely to give it a go. While you’re at it, keep the paragraphs short. I don’t like to go over 5 lines. And I use many one line paragraphs – especially where I want to emphasize something.

3. Underline

Speaking of emphasis, go ahead and underline. But not everything. Think of it like a spice. A little makes a big difference, too much makes a mess.

4. Send it back to 6th grade

Or even better, 4th. Use the built-in Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tool in Word. Or try this readability calculator. Get there with short sentences and simple words. Clear, simple writing is easy to read – so it gets read.

5. Make sure you use the word “you” often

Highlight every instance of “you” in your letter. If the page isn’t covered in highlighted text, go back and reword it. Donor communications giant Tom Ahern says: “you is glue”. He’s right – it’s magic. It connects your reader to you. And when you rewrite that way, it makes you put your donor at the center.

6. Write like you talk

Forget your 7th grade English teacher. Use contractions. Start sentences with “And” or “But”. Use ellipses… Sentence fragments. Whatever it takes to make it sound like one person talking to another. You’re not going for “official” here!

7. Read it out loud

Yeah, your office mate will think you’ve lost it. But you can hear what your eyes alone don’t pick up – awkward phrases, stiff wording… things that just don’t work.

The important part: emotions

There’s one thing you can’t reduce to a formula or a checklist. And it’s one too many people avoid when they write to donors.

You have to wear your heart right out there on your sleeve.

Maybe even on the front of your shirt.

In neon.

To make your writing effective, to make it feel sincere, you have to dig into yourself.

You have to let go a little and allow yourself to feel all the feels.

Pretend a little

Back in my pre-kids life, I enjoyed performing. I loved to sing and dance and act. Performing meant I had to get into my character, think about her emotions and live them – even if just for a little while. Doing that means developing your sense of empathy – for your character and those she interacts with.

But while I did that, I had to be constantly aware of my audience. It wasn’t an exercise for me – I was doing it for them.

Think about your audience

I was writing a thank you letter recently. And I realized I was doing pretty much the same thing as I did as an actor.

No, there wasn’t a character. But there was an idea, a profile, of the person who’d be reading the letter.

I had to feel what that person would feel if I wanted to create something she would treasure – even for a few moments.

The same goes for your next appeal letter. You need to feel what you want your reader to feel.

You have to become your reader.

As the donor, you want to think about:

  • How will I feel when I read this?
  • Is it about me?
  • Why should I care – why should I get emotional about this?
  • What is it I should do to help?

But you also need to think about who your reader wants to hear from. (I didn’t save letters from the phone company, after all.)

And then you have to become the writer, too.

As the writer, you want to consider:

  • What is it I’ve experienced that will tell the story?
  • What do I feel every day when I see the problems a donation will help?
  • How do the people we serve feel about the work?

Note I’m not suggesting a list of programs here. You don’t want to include an organizational resume.

You’re selling benefits (to the community, the people you help, the donor) not features (all the cool things your organization does).

You will not amaze people into giving by explaining how wonderful your organization is.

There are other characters to consider, as well. If you’re telling a story about someone your organization has helped, you need to get into his skin.

The bottom line: empathy and vulnerability

Actors expose their emotions to an audience. It can leave them feeling raw, exposed – but also exultant. It’s a very human experience.

So is giving. And your writing needs to be as vulnerable, exposed and human.

You have to offer your reader something valuable – the feeling she matters. The feeling he has the power to do something. The opportunity to share someone’s problem or experience someone’s joy.

The chance to feel.

That’s how you win hearts – and donations.


Mary Cahalane is part of the Neon One Consulting Network. She specializes in Donor Focused Copyrwriting. Check out her partner directory profile to learn more. 

Looking for a tech solution to manage your donor communications and marketing? Check out Neon’s nonprofit marketing and communications software

Showing 2 comments
  • Kimberley Rudd
    Reply

    Mary: Terrific tips, wonderful words and heavenly sharing of the Hemingway app! I’d never heard of it before, but I know many people who could use its support. (OK, that includes me — I’m always striving to be more clear!) Thank you for writing this article.

  • Mary Cahalane
    Reply

    Thanks very much, Kimberley!

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