Why smart fundraisers pay attention to pronouns

nonprofits, fundraising, donations, donors, donor communications

“I would love to get together for coffee.”

“Would love to get together for coffee.”

The difference between these two sentences may seem subtle, but it’s actually staggering:.

The difference, obviously, is that the second sentence drops the “I”. Why is this so earth-shattering? And why should you care? Because pronouns reflect power dynamics. Pronouns could reveal just how many cups of coffee you may need to have before they cut you a check.

When you’re in the power position, you use pronouns less often. You’ll drop them altogether. You won’t notice you’re doing this. We all do it subconsciously.

Using the example above, the second response would indicate that the donor is still mulling over whether your organization will be on their Philanthropic Hit Parade. They’re holding their cards close to their chest, one eyebrow raised. Their pronoun-free response is their subtle way of saying, “Still on the fence, dear fundraiser. Make your case and I’ll ponder.”

We can figure all of this out simply by looking at a measly pronoun? Yep, that’s right. Pronouns. I, we, he, she, us, them. These itsy, bitsy words matter. A lot.

“I” is the single most frequently used word in spoken and written texts. Indeed, thanks to Professor James W. Pennebaker and his research team, we know that “I” accounts for 3.64% of all words used. That alone is interesting as it reflects what we care about most–ourselves. To be clear, being focused on yourself doesn’t make you a self-centered jerk. It means you’re human and, therefore, hard-wired to focus on survival. Just cuz a tiger is no longer chasing you across a tundra doesn’t mean your brain isn’t fighting to survive. It just looks a little different these days.

Focusing on ourselves is inevitable. And our language reveals this.

Pronouns and the larger category that they fall under called “function words”, are your linguistic BFFs. Paying attention to them can pay off in a big way. The more you use “you” and “your”, and the less you use “I” and “We”, the more you speak directly to what the donor (as a human being) cares about most–him or herself.

If your goal is to engage donors, mind your p’s and q’s and absolutely, positively pay attention to your pronouns. 

Making them think or making them feel

Part of our jobs as do-gooders is to make people feel things. Because feeling things makes people do things…good things. One feeling that is particularly effective at generating engagement and action is empathy—the  ability to experience the feelings of another person.  Helping your audience feel the feelings of those they are—or can—help helps them see themselves in the story and encourages their participation.

This mailing from the UK’s National Asthma Campaign, circa 1991, is a good example of involving an audience in the story. Few can resist the invitation to experience 30 seconds of asthma, even if just out of curiosity. And then they immediately imagine their life with asthma. And they realize that life with asthma ain’t easy.

Don’t get me wrong, making people think is important too.  But we frequently bombard people with facts, when sometimes what we need to do is help them feel.

Engagement starts with goats

goatI’ve been thinking about the concept of “engagement” a lot lately and boy do I have some      opinions on thank you notes that are engaging (or not), which I shared in a guest blog post over on Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog.

Here’s a little history lesson, word-nerd style: the term engagement came into popular use in the 1600s and referred to a “formal promise”. It makes you think about the lead-up to that promise, doesn’t it? I mean, people don’t just willy nilly enter into formal agreements with other people unless they feel there’s a darn good payout on the other end.

Whether you’re talking about marriage, a business partnership, or a pinky promise at recess, when it comes to a formal promise, there’s an exchange of something that both parties value.

In the seventeenth century, when all this engagement business got its start, it could have been some goats or a parcel of land—each. But think about it today, in the context of your work. Supporters are gifting you their money, their time or their attention.  What are you doing to hold up your end of the promise?

(Image courtesy of chrisroll / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

5 Small & Deadly Mistakes to Avoid

MistakesA few weeks ago, Harvard Business Review blogger Kyle Wiens wrote a post about why he won’t hire people who use poor grammar. The comment section became a veritable grammar smack-down, with over 1,400 people weighing in.

As a non profit focused follow-up to Wiens’ post, I did one on why I wouldn’t give to non profits that use poor grammar. Based on how much traffic that post got, it’s clear this grammar stuff gets people all hot and bothered.

Why would posts about things as mundane as commas, semi-colons and apostrophes unleash such a fervor?

Because in people’s minds, sloppy grammar amounts to sloppy work. And few people want to support a sloppy org, let’s be honest.

Grammar isn’t the only small thing that turns out to be a big turn-off. Here’s a list of the Top 5 Small but Deadly Mistakes to Avoid (if you want happy supporters):

  1. Failing to honor someone’s request to not receive direct mail: Really, seriously take them off your list. No excuses.
  2. Not sending timely thank you notes: If someone can’t remember making the gift for which you are thanking them, you’ve missed your window for a gracious, heartfelt, “we value you” moment with that donor. Bummer. Ditto for volunteers, advocates or anyone else who has done something nice for your organization. Apps like Red Stamp and the ongoing consistency of the US Postal Service can help you make this happen.
  3. Misspelling someone’s name (yeah, I know this is close to grammar but it merits its own spot): One time? Okay. More than that—especially for your most committed supporters—is poor form. Nothing says, “I can’t be bothered” like consistently writing Addams instead of Adams.
  4. Poor phone etiquette: If someone has taken the time to pick up the phone to call you, they should be treated well. From the first “hello” to a smooth transfer to a courteous sign-off (“Thanks for taking the time to reach out. It means a lot to us!”), the phone experience matters. Basic phone etiquette can go a long, long way to happy supporter-dom.
  5. Cross-channel inconsistency: Okay, this one isn’t exactly small, per se, but it’s deadly if you don’t get it right. With the advent of social media, keeping consistent across channels is a challenge. If I first meet you on Facebook and then I visit your website and it looks like it was last updated in 1999, I’m going to wonder what the heck is going on with you. Facebook says modern. Animated gifs not so much. (If you’re stuck on this, this post might help.) Ditto for messaging. If your board chair describes what you do in a way that is inconsistent with the brochure she’s left behind for you to peruse, this doesn’t instill confidence. It erodes it. Confidence leads to trust and trust is the cornerstone of both initial and ongoing engagement.

Some of these traps can be handled with process improvement, some are a question of culture and values and others are a matter of carving out time to get your house in order. Can’t tackle all five? Prioritize them from most egregious to least and, over time, work your way through the list.

Here’s to sweating the small stuff!

I won’t give to non profits who use poor grammar

Last week, Kyle Wiens wrote a post for Harvard Business Review that unleashed a torrent of comments (724, at last count).

Kyle runs iFixIt and Dozuki. He hires a lot of people. He gives every single one of them a grammar test. For him, it’s a litmus of a candidate’s attention to detail. If you don’t pass the test, you don’t get hired.

This approach wouldn’t work for everyone, Wiens admits, but it works for him and, boy howdy, did people have opinions about his approach.

Most didn’t disagree that grammar is a pretty good proxy for attention to detail. What bugged them was that, in their opinion, Wiens didn’t use good grammar in the article itself. Nor syntax. And his word choices weren’t always up to snuff. None of these things are earth-shattering. Irksome, perhaps, but not huge deals in the Grand Scheme of Things.

So why all the outrage? Everyone has their “thing”. Maybe yours is when someone uses “alot”. (The word doesn’t exist. It’s “a lot”.) Or “its” instead of “it’s”. Or maybe typos are like fingers on a chalkboard for you. These small things are a big deal to people. They represent something bigger.

A poorly placed comma may not fuss you a bit–but it’s not about you AND it might be costing you big time when it comes to engaging donors, volunteers and supporters. They all  have their “things”. Do you know what they are?

Messaging Cheat Sheet inspired by the Cygnus Donor Survey


Demographics, fundraising, donors, messaging
Young and old may all give blood. But not for the same reasons!

Penelope Burke and the team at Cygnus Applied Research recently released the Cygnus Donor Survey: Where Philanthropy is Headed in 2012.  For fundraisers in the United States and Canada, this is a gold-mine. So much useful, practical, actionable info–it’s a must-read.

Some of the most interesting nuggets had to do with how to engage donors in different age brackets. In his most recent newsletter, Tom Ahern also addressed this issue. He reminded us that “To write persuasive copy, you need to see the person you’re writing to…in your head.” Tough to conjure up a mental image if you don’t factor in someone’s age.

The survey also revealed that two out of five donors could have given more last year but simply weren’t persuaded to do so.

Don’t leave money on table just because your messaging doesn’t factor in age and motivation.

Although far from comprehensive, here’s an extremely high-level “cheat sheet” for how to craft messaging to connect with three different (and admittedly very broad) age groups:

Under 35: Focus on your COMMUNITY and how they can help grow it. Make sure it’s easy to read on a mobile phone.

35-65: Focus on IMPACT. Real-life stories about what their dollars are doing with good stats to back it up. (Remember not to go right for the head, however. Heart then head. Heart then head. Repeat.)

65 on up: Focus on NEED. They’ve given enough to know the drill and they want to cut to the chase–what does your organization need. Make it clear and they are happy to oblige.

These aren’t mutually exclusive, mind you. Younger donors care about impact and older donors want to hear stories. You’ll be in good shape, however, if you focus on their main motivator first and foremost.

I thank you

non profit thank you, donor communicationsLast week Seattle nonprofits were gearing up for GiveBIG on May 2. There was a lot of pre-thanking going on, e.g. “Thanks in advance for supporting us on May 2!”

Of lesser importance but relevant to this post, last week was also my birthday so I’ve been thanking people left, right and center. (It was a really good birthday!)

All this thanking got me wondering: what does it really mean to thank someone?

The phrase “Thank you” comes from Old English. Over time, we shortened it from “I thank you” to simply “thank you”.

On balance, this isn’t a big deal. Language evolves. But when it comes to non profits and donor communications, by losing the ‘I’, we lose an opportunity to deepen our relationship with our supporters.

It’s easy to toss around “thanks” or “thx” or “TY” (twitter-speak for Thank You). Using the whole expression makes you think about what comes after with  more intention.

I thank you for joining the fight to find a cure for cancer.

We thank you for joining the fight to find a cure for cancer.

Thank you for joining the fight to find a cure for cancer.

Very similar but very different. Simply by adding one little word (and therefore being clear about who is thanking whom and for what) you can create a deeper sense of connection to your organization and your cause.

Next time you thank someone for supporting your cause or volunteering or advocating or joining or anything else, try using the original phrase beginning with ‘I’ or ‘We’. How does it change the feeling of the sentence? How does it make the person on the receiving end feel?

I thank YOU for reading this post…and for making the world a better place every day!



Just stop saying just

When did misusing the word ‘just’ become so popular?

Just is either an adjective (“That was a just response to the claim.”) or an adverb (“We just submitted the grant.”) But we’ve started using it as a weird, apologetic qualifier.

“I just wanted to check in and see how that report is coming along.”

Just a quick note to say we’re still interested in meeting.”

“It’s just me.”

In all of these instances, it’s being used to say, “Hey, I don’t want to bug you…” It’s a subtle apology. Sometimes subtle apologies are in order. But there’s a disproportionate use of the word just to the amount of apologizing that needs to be happening. Especially when it comes to nonprofits and their work.

“We just wanted to let you know that we tutored 827 students this year.” This sentence could have been plucked directly from many a donor communication piece. If you’re the donor, you want to hear that your money is having the impact you wanted it to have. You don’t want your attention diverted to what didn’t happen. By simply taking out the word, it changes the entire tone.

“We wanted to let you know that we tutored 827 students this year.” Heck, without the word just, I’d be tempted to throw in an exclamation point.

So, please, just stop using just. You have no reason to apologize.


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?