Do your organization a favor. Get your thick skin back from the dry cleaners and conduct a self-audit.
I audit donor communications for part of my living: websites, newsletters, appeal letters and the like. Then I issue "report cards" on their effectiveness, based on industry best practices.
Trust me, there is no work more emotionally gratifying than pointing out what's horribly wrong in stuff that other people wrote. Sheer bliss.
In my audits, I use nine basic criteria, which I've outlined below. To increase giving and retention to their loftiest levels, donor communications MUST be effective in all nine areas. There are many other criteria, incidentally. But these nine cover the fundamentals.
Try a do-it-yourself audit. Take any vital donor communication and judge it against these nine criteria. (If I may suggest? Most nonprofit newsletters are rank with shortcomings.) Keep the tissues handy.
Is the content "donor-centric"? Does it say, over and over, somehow: "With your help, we can do amazing things. And without your help, we can't. It all depends on you." Example newsletter headline that meets this criterion, "Your staggering generosity helps thousands of RI women..."
Is it entertaining? Does it have the necessary virtues of unexpectedness, simplicity, and a conversational tone? Example newsletter headline that meets this criterion: "Oops: Federal tinkering accidentally ends discount birth control, a benefit available to lower-income women and families since 1990."
Is urgency part of the message? Does it strongly ask the donor to contribute now? Be aware: inertia is the real enemy in fundraising. Getting someone to "just do it" -- to write the check, to go online and give -- is the hard part. A sense of urgency helps move people to take action. Example newsletter headline that meets this criterion: "Donors: Start your checkbooks."
Does the message somehow talk about, or suggest, the chance of loss? Psychologist Robert Cialdini's famed research found that response from your target audience will increase if your message emphasizes the chance of loss. He also discovered that the chance of loss is far more persuasive than the promise of gain.
Here's an example of "loss writing" from a recent front page article in the Planned Parenthood of RI newsletter: "Donors: You are our only hope, as it turns out. Growth is a wonderful thing. We're thrilled that people use PPRI more than ever. But growth brings with it a perennial problem: finding the money to pay for it all. This year PPRI must raise an extra $400,000 in gifts to meet surging demand for core programs." Where's the loss? It's implied. If PPRI doesn't raise that added $400K, the article hints, it won't be able to meet demand -- and the community loses.
Does it pass the "you" test? Get out a red pen (I prefer the boldness of a Sharpie). Then get out a vital donor communication such as an appeal letter or newsletter; or print out your website's home page. Apply red pen to paper. Each time the word you appears -- in any of its forms (yours, you'll) -- circle it. Good donor communications will look like they have the measles.
You is the most powerful (and warmest) word in advertising. (If you're turning your nose up, please note: technically speaking, fundraising communications are just advertising by another name.) Frequent repetition of the word you keeps readers engaged. While infrequent use leaves readers cold.
Is the communication built for browsing? Particularly, are the headlines effective?
People don't read deep most of the time. They browse. It's the only way to deal with the information glut that frustrates us all. I digest four major newspapers a day, all in about 30 minutes. How? I read just headlines. I only dig in if I find something of special interest to me.
The day when you could reasonably hope people would read an article with a weak headline are long over. Websites -- which are built for skimming -- hastened the day's demise. If your communications do not suit up for skimmers, browsers, flippers, and clickers, you're not playing in the right game.
You should be able to read a headline and its subhead (which work together as a unit) and know exactly what the gist of the story is. If you're at all puzzled, then the headline's a failure. Failed headlines are the #1 reason donors do not respond to newsletters.
Is it convenient to respond to offers? Again, it's all about inertia. Make your offers ("Do you want to do more? Sign up for monthly giving online now!") easy to respond to, and more people will.
Is there accomplishment reporting? I.e., what are your results? This is the #1 thing donors care about: "How did I change the world by sending you a check?" At least a third of every donor newsletter should talk about results.
Are there credibility builders? In other words, does every communications help establish trust in the donor? Trust and results are the two things donors value most, according to 2007 research conducted by Cone. Nothing new there, incidentally; it has always been so. But with the proliferation of nonprofits -- their numbers rose more than 35% in the last decade -- and frequent reports in the media of fraud, misuse, and poor financial controls (a 2006 Villanova study found that 85% of Roman Catholic dioceses had discovered embezzlement in the last five years), donors' skepticism has flourished.
LOVE THY READER: The Science and Secrets of Effective Nonprofit Communications by Tom Ahern - from his top-rated workshop of the same name Volume 5, Number 4 --- Copyright Tom Ahern 2008. Visit www.AhernComm.com. Copyright 2008 by Tom Ahern -- All rights reserved