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. 

Your & Yours – Use Often [#WordsThatWow]

[This is the latest post in our #WordsThatWow series. We recently wrote about We & Our. Today, we move to a different set of pronouns that merit your attention: You & Yours. Thanks to Tessa, our intern for writing this post and reminding us of the power of pronouns!]

Some of the best marketing advice I’ve ever received, from Claxon’s own Erica Mills (who was quoting Peter Drury), is this: “Donors don’t give to you. They give through you.”

In other words, people give to you because of the difference you can help them make in the community. You are a conduit. By giving you money, they allow you to rock at what you do–be that caring for kids, feeding the homeless, or fighting cancer. But it’s about the people and places you help–not you, the organization. And yet, many organizations speak and write to their donors as if the organization is at the center of–or is the hero of–the story.

For instance, does this sound familiar? (Imagine a recent donation thank you letter you’ve received, or maybe even sent).

Thank you for your donation to Organization Awesome! We have made huge strides this year. We have successfully implemented three new programs to move our mission forward. But there’s more to be done. In the coming year, we plan to…blah, blah, blah. 

If you write messages like that, your donor will not feel like they’re a part of the change. Why? Because it’s all about you. Not about them and the amazing things they have made possible.

But how about this?

You are amazing! Your recent donation to Organization Awesome has made so much possible for our community. For instance, did you hear about the three new programs we implemented this year? They having a huge impact and we couldn’t have done it without you! Your donation allows us to continue making progress on behalf of the people we serve and the community we all love. With your help, our mission will be achieved. Thank you again.

A simple change in pronouns can make a huge difference. The first example was all about ‘we’ and ‘our’. The second was all about ‘you’ and ‘your’.

This shift in pronouns doesn’t apply just to donation letters; it also applies to any of your messaging. Imagine a conversation in which you are telling someone about your organization. Hearing you and your will show your listener how the cause relates to them, make it more personal, and is more likely to get their attention. For example:

We make Seattle safer and healthier by stopping harmful chemicals from contaminating the air.


We make your city safer and healthier by making sure the air you breathe is clean.

So, go out and get personal! Use your and your as much as you can. If you have someone’s name, use that too. When you make it personal, people are more likely to get and stay involved with your organization.

We & Our – Use with Caution [#WordsThatWow]

nonprofit, nonprofit marketing, fundraising, language, best practices

[This is the latest post in our #WordsThatWow series.]

We. It seems like such a nice word, doesn’t it? Like a big hug. Only it’s a word. A word-hug, as it were. Ditto for ‘our’. 

“We are creating opportunities for girls across our state.”

‘We’ implies we’re all in this together. Working hard to make our state a better place. That’s a good thing,  isn’t it? Yes, it is, but here’s the thing: often ‘we’ aren’t all in this together.

“We’re putting an end to human trafficking.”

“We make sure every kid can become a great reader.”

“We feed our neighbors.”

When you read those sentences, to whom is the ‘we’ referring? That’s right, the organization. And this where ‘we’ goes awry. It’s not about you and your organization. It’s about the people you serve and the people who make it possible.

Often, when using the word “we”, nonprofits actually alienate the very people they want to include. We, us, our and ours (a.k.a. first person plural pronouns) quickly become an exclusive group, with the organization on the inside and donors, volunteers, supporters looking in. (Hence the cliché “us versus them”.)

The good news is: It doesn’t have to be this way. You can use these first person pronouns as a tool to include everyone who plays a part in helping your organization meet its mission.

Check out the phrases Tessa, our word-erific intern, used in a recent thank you letter:

 “We appreciate your commitment to a sustainable future. Together, we will create a world free of environmental injustice.”

Did you catch which “we” was referring to the organization’s staff, and which was including the donor? It’s the same word, but the distinction is in the context.

This is why we, us, our and ours can certainly be used, but should be used with caution. Sometimes, they can be powerful tools to make others feel involved in your cause. But other times, they can make people feel separate from your cause. Pay attention to your context.

We appreciate you reading our blog post. By learning more about language, we can better achieve our missions. (Get it?!)

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?