I recently attended a conference for a national nonprofit. I wanted to learn about their structure, how they raise money, and how we can help our friends who work for that organization. It was a great weekend of fun conversations, intense fundraising workshops, and lots of learning. The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was the nonprofit’s unique set of terms and jargon — it was like they were speaking another language, sometimes. It was often a struggle to keep up.
You know who else might feel like that? Your donors. The nonprofit world has its own set of phrases, jargon, and technical terms that don’t make sense to someone outside the sector. To take it a bit further, many fundraisers tend to use very formal language that can further alienate donors. If your goal is to establish a good rapport with your supporters and keep them involved with your organization, using stiff, formal language is holding you back.
You might have a hard time separating your fundraising know-how from your writing, but remember that you are not the target audience for your organization’s communications. Avoid using sector-specific language (example: “we’re a Methodist-affiliated 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to….”) and use language that’s more layman-friendly. Stay away from complicated words that could easily be replaced by simpler terms. When you’re talking to your donors, use their names instead of addressing them as “Dear friend” or, more horribly, “Dear donor” (yes, I have actually seen that in real life).
Many nonprofits are drafting their year-end appeals, preparing thank-you letters and receipts, and planning their holiday newsletters. Here are some tips to make sure you don’t alienate your donors by being too formal:
- Pretend you’re writing an e-mail to your best friend. If you wouldn’t use specific words or phrases with them, you shouldn’t use them when speaking to your donors.
- Have someone else read it. Ideally, they’d be someone who has no connection to the nonprofit sector and would be able to give you an honest assessment of whether or not your writing sounds too formal or full of jargon.
- If you can’t find someone to review your writing for you, try the Hemingway app. It’s a neat tool that will automatically evaluate your writing and suggest ways to make complicated text more clear and bold.
- Take a break before you edit. If you return to a letter or e-mail after some time away from your desk, you’ll be able to edit more efficiently. Cut extra sentences, make sure you use clear words, speak warmly, and simplify everything you can.
Communicating with your donors is absolutely the most important thing you’ll do as a fundraiser. Make sure you’re drawing donors to you by using warm, approachable language in your newsletters, appeals, and thank-you letters. Flooding them with jargon and long, complicated sentences will only push them away. Simplify, simplify, simplify — your donors will appreciate it!