7 rules for effectively communicating to donors

By Greg Leitner
Senior Director at Greater Mission

A strong donor communications program is the basis of great relationship-building for your non-profit.  The newsletters, e-mails, annual reports and updates you send out to your donors will become the foundation on which your donor relationships are based. 

In creating hundreds, if not thousands, of donor communication pieces, I have come to believe that there are 7 fundamental rules for amazing donor communications: 

Rule #1 – Look at Donor Communications as a System and a Process 

Donor communications aren’t “one-off” items. Don’t think in terms of “this newsletter” or “that e-mail.” Think in terms of your entire donor communications system. In order to have an effective communications system, you need to have a donor communications plan in place that incorporates your overall development strategy. 

Rule #2 – People Like to Feel Like Part of a Team 

Remember that people – all people – like to feel like part of a team. Everyone on Earth wants to feel like they are joined in a relationship with other people who are all marching towards a common goal. 

Thus, one of the key strategies for your communications efforts should be to make people feel like part of your team. Talk to them as peers. Ask them for their suggestions. Keep them constantly in the loop. Make them feel like you’re all one big team working towards a common vision (you are, aren’t you?!) 

Rule #3 – Donors Like to Invest in Causes Bigger than Themselves. Cast a Big Vision! 

It is important to understand that people like to be caught up in a larger vision. Most people get “stuck” in their daily routines. They get up, go to work, eat meals, play with the kids on the weekends, retire and do some traveling or relaxing, and grow old watching the grandkids play. 

Because most people don’t like the fact that they get stuck in a “standard” routine, they like to break free by getting caught up in bigger stories and visions. Epic movies, great novels, and a night at the symphony are all ways to escape the humdrum and get caught up in a larger story. 

Your communications process has to be focused on engaging people in your vision and allowing them to escape the routine by working with you to meet your common challenges and accomplish your common mission. 

Rule #4 – Write for Your Donors/Community, Not Your High School English Teacher 

Great donor communications doesn’t need to be perfect, they just need to “work.” And communications pieces that work are written in a conversational tone that is easily understood by the vast majority of people who are reading them. 

This means no high-brow language! No acronyms that people don’t understand. No sentences that start, “Our multi-disciplinary team-based approach to forensic interviewing…” 

Great donor communications feel conversational… they sound like someone is talking to you. Pieces like this are easier to read. If people feel like your newsletter or annual report is difficult to read or understand, guess what? They’ll stop reading it! It’s ok to use sentence fragments or extra punctuation, and to start sentences with prepositions if doing these things makes your communications easier to read. 

Of course, your item still needs to look like it was written by a professional, so typos are out, as is sloppy writing. You want your donor communications to be conversational, but not sloppy. 

Rule #5 – Appeal to Your Readers’ Emotion 

Non-profit communication should be emotional… after all, you are doing life-saving, world-changing work! The best of them appeal to readers’ deepest feelings and desires, things like their faith, their worldview and beliefs about humanity, their hope for a better world for their children, their sense of justice and fairness, etc. 

People want to get involved (and donate) when you touch their soul. Sound over the top? It’s not… it’s what works. The best newsletters, e-mails and annual reports appeal to emotion without feeling sappy or contrived. Use stories. Use pictures, if appropriate. Show the concrete difference your organization is making in the world. Connect people with your mission and your results. Make them feel what you are saying, instead of just reading what you are saying. 

Rule #6 – Talk About YOU and WE Not I and ME 

Your donor communications should be written from a first person perspective, meaning you talk about “I” and “we” instead of “the organization,” or “the charity.” But – and this is super important for writing successful letters – mostly what you should be saying is “you,” meaning “you, the donor.” Your letters should focus on your work, yes, but really should focus on the donor you are writing to. 

This means talking about “your past support,” “your concern for the poor,” “your assistance with this project,” “the difference you can make.” 

“You” is one of the most important words in a non-profit fundraiser’s vocabulary. 

Rule #7 – Make Your Communications a Two-Way Street 

People like having conversations, but hate being “talked at.” In order to be really effective with your donor communications, you need to view the process as a conversation, not a lecture. Donor communications are a two-way street. 

This is easy to say, but harder to actually do. I have found that some of the most effective ways to make your donors feel like they are having a conversation with you through your communications are to send out surveys on a regular basis, take online polls, solicit feedback from your donors / readers, hold online “office hours” or “roundtable discussions” for your donors on your website, and include contact information, including a phone number, in all of your donor communications items. 

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