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Thursday, January 18, 2018

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You're Writing, But They're Not Reading. Improve Your Odds
Tom Ahern

April, 2007

Let me first remind you of one thing that's kind of special about fundraising communications.

They are NOT really about trying to get people to read.

They ARE about trying to get people to ACT.

If you can get people to act as you'd like them to (send a check, volunteer, ask for information about bequests, or such) MINUS much reading, then fine: mission accomplished.

Richard Radcliffe, the great UK researcher, has said: "Donors are staggeringly ignorant of the charities they support." But that's not a cause for despair. They just don't NEED to know that much to conclude that you're worthy of a gift.

That said, however...

Lengthier reading CAN improve your fundraising success

Still, there are real benefits for your organization when readers spend minutes (rather than seconds) with your newsletter, case for support, annual report, website, special email alert, briefing, white paper, or catalog.

I can think of at least three big advantages:

>> Reading is a form of commitment. The more a donor reads, the deeper the commitment becomes. That in turn will tend to increase donor loyalty and improve your donor retention rates.

>> The longer that your donors spend reading, the more likely they are to encounter and give serious thought to ideas such as making a charitable gift in their wills. (What's the number one reason people neglect to leave a gift to charity in their wills? The thought just doesn't occur to them, research shows.)

>> The longer that your donors spend reading, the more your organization's perceived value will grow in their minds. You will be seen less as a begging bowl and more as a deliverer of worthwhile, interesting news and information. This will in turn inspire trust. Your donors will begin to value your organization as a leader and authority in its field. Which is wonderful, because leaders attract bigger gifts.

So here's the secret to keeping them reading

You keep someone reading in small steps.

And don't expect a total commitment. People almost never read to the end. Assume that no one will read much past paragraph three of whatever you write, and you will properly armor yourself against disappointment. To keep someone reading that far, though, is easy enough.

Do this. In the very first sentence, tell me something either NEW or INTERESTING. And try to keep it very SHORT.

NEW means tell me something I don't already know, something that I will find worth knowing. Introduce me to someone intriguing, a character in an anecdote, maybe. Tell me something that overturns my expectations. Surprise me.

Caution, though: when I say INTERESTING, I mean interesting to a donor. Don't assume that your staff's interests are the same as your donors' interests. The two interests might, in fact, be completely different.

Your staff loves the nuts and bolts of how your programs work. Donors, on the other hand, don't much care how the machinery runs. They do care about what you've accomplished or intend to accomplish with their gifts.

Apply this cardinal question to everything you write: Why would a donor care about what I've just said?

Don't try to write fancy, either. Just say things straight out; in SHORT, simple, jargon-free sentences: subject, verb, object. Then do it again. And again.

Do something different. Maybe start with a one-word paragraph. I guarantee, if you start an article, say, with the word "Beware!", all by its lonesome, that people will continue reading to the next paragraph.

Let's learn from a recognized master.

Joseph Sugarman writes what are called "long-copy ads."

His ads look like essays, and they are WILDLY successful at selling gadgets. He's penned a brilliantly helpful book, Advertising Secrets of the Written Word.

Getting people to keep reading? There's really nothing to it, Mr. Sugarman insists. "Make [your] first sentence so easy that your reader is almost compelled to read it," he says. A typical Sugarman first sentence: "It had to happen."

He points out, "The purpose of the first sentence is to get you to read the second sentence." And the purpose of the second sentence is to get you to read the third. And so on. Each sentence is a baby step to the next sentence.

It's the same for any piece of writing. The purpose of the first sentence is to get you to read the second sentence. And so on. That's really all you have to do.

Write on.

This article is adapted from his new must read book is Tom Ahern’s new book, HOW TO WRITE FUNDRAISING MATERIALS THAT RAISE MORE MONEY, available from Emerson & Church - Ahern is recognized as one of North America's leading authorities on how to make nonprofit communications consistently effective. He speaks frequently in the U.S. and Canada on reader psychology, direct mail principles, good (and not very good) graphic design as applied to fundraising and nonprofit branding. He is a writer and president of Ahern Communications, Ink., a consultancy specializing in capital campaign materials and other fundraising communications. He has won three prestigious Gold Quill awards from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). His offices are in Rhode Island and France. To learn more go to


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