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For Nonprofits: Is Your End-of-Year Communication Donor-Centered?

The day before Thanksgiving, I received 2 differently sized envelopes from local charities that I support that share similar missions. I assumed they’d be donation requests and looked forward to reading the content! Yes, I genuinely enjoy a great donation request letter, especially one that's well written and makes me feel good inside about supporting the organization. Unfortunately, some organizations still have yet to learn the difference between a solicitation letter and a great donation appeal.

Here's what I experienced when I opened the mail that day.

Charity 1 didn’t have an appeal. It was a folded greeting card, that said "We are grateful for your support. Thank you." with a woman's name on it. It wasn't a well-executed mailer. A missed opportunity. Charity 2, on the other hand, sent a letter on their letterhead, telling me that they needed my support to get money from a matching challenge. There wasn’t much to it, beyond “A donor gave us a challenge; if you donate, you can help us raise X amount of money by this end date”. This, too, was a missed opportunity.

With so many years spent reading books and articles about improving donor communication, it’s impossible for me not to read this kind of communication with a critical mind. I’m confident, and research has shown, that organizations could successfully increase their revenue if they had better donor-centered-communications. And this isn’t exclusive to just the nonprofit sector. Improving communication to customers is something any business can benefit from (but that’s for a different article). For nonprofits, it is especially important when donors get hit with so many end-of-year appeals at the same time.

So how could these organizations have taken advantage of their communication and converted me (and many others) as a donor?

Here are 5 ways these appeals (and yours) could be improved:

1. Make it personal. Share the impact that your organization has on one client. Research has shown that donors connect more with the story of impact of one individual, and are more likely to donate for the first time, or donate again. While I liked the lack of an ask, personally, I think Charity 1 missed a great opportunity (at an actual cost) to share a story of impact with their thanks. Who exactly signed my card? Was I to assume a client signed it, or a board member, or a staff member? Was my support important to the person who signed my card? How were they positively impacted through my previous donations?

The card could have had a dramatic difference had it said

“Dear Daniela,

Thank you for your support. Your support provides me the opportunity to improve my life by receiving XYZ services. Happy Holidays!

-Jane ”

In Charity 2's letter, there was no story at all. Most donors don't give because you have a deadline, or because you have a challenge to meet. They give because they care about the cause you serve. Charity 2 should have included a brief story of impact before making their ask.

Charity 2 could have used the following type of format for their letter:

“Dear Daniela,

Thank you for your previous support. Because of you, Jane was able to attend our program and improve her life.

Will you continue to make an impact on Jane and others who attend our program by making another donation before the end of the year? An anonymous donor has pledged a matching gift for all donations made between now and the end of the year, which would double your impact!

With $100,000, our organization will be able to serve more people and improve more lives! To make a donation, please go on our website.

Thank you and Happy Holidays!"

Whatever your organization's mission is, you can personalize your communication to your cause in a way that will help your donors connect more with the mission.

2. Make the donor feel like a hero. To do this, don’t forget to start with a thank you. Thank them for their previous gifts, or their future gifts, or just for sharing their contact information and telling you they’re interested in your mission. Then, let them know how they fit in to the impact story you’re sharing with them. It doesn’t matter if the donor gave (of will give) you $25 this year, or $1 million. Their gift has impact on your organization. And the more you can make them feel like they can have impact, the more likely you are to encourage them to give.

3. Happy. Smiling. Faces!

Think about all of the advertisements you ever see from any of your favorite retailers: If people are part of the commercial, they look happy while enjoying whatever product they’re trying to sell. Jewelry – happy couple faces; Children’s toys – happy smiling children faces (and happy parents, too!); Pet supplies – happy everyone faces, including happy puppy faces. People connect with people (and always cute animals). And, we’re all going along our lives aiming for happiness in whatever way we can get it.

People choose to make donations, and continue to make them, because the idea that they’re making a difference in the world gives them a positive feeling. So give them a positive feeling of impact by showing them an image of their impact.

Do be cautious to not take the “Happy smiling faces” too literally, though. Maybe the story you’re telling can have an individual who’s concentrating on a task. Or a person who looks strong and determined. But, make sure you share an image of an individual. And, please, please, for the love of all the technology of 2017, make sure you have a good quality image included! There’s no excuse these days for a poor, blurry picture when even our phones take better photos than cameras did 5 years ago.

4. Grammar matters! This one’s a no-brainer, but I often find myself shaking my head when I open an e-blast or a letter from an organization with very simple grammatical errors. Check, double-check, and then ask a colleague from a different department to double check anything you send out. Misspellings and poor grammar can make your work look sloppy, and even if it may not be the biggest dealbreaker for most donors, why take the chance?

Whether you’re printing and mailing your appeal (though, hopefully you’ve already sent that out by now), or you’re digitally sharing it this season, these tips can make a big difference in converting your donors and maximizing your dollars. And these tips can also be utilized for all aspects of your organization’s communication, even if it’s not for an appeal!

If you’re an organization that already does this, please share your experiences of positive impact in the comment section. If you use some of this advice for your end-of-year communication, please share the type of impact it had!

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