Friday, April 22, 2016

Brevity is Best with Donors

For years, I've been receiving wordy emails and long page filled letters from nonprofits. Every time I receive one, I wonder aloud, who reads this stuff? Well, turns out it's not your donors. Thanks to a great new study from Abila on donor loyalty, we now know that donors want us to stop overwhelming them with text. Same thing goes for those lengthy videos we've been sending them. There's a famous quote that says If I had more time it would have been shorter- Then why are we so verbose?

Is it because our missions are so important? Is it because we can't stop talking about ourselves and how fabulous our work is? Or is it because we've always written that way?!

Check out this great chart:

I'm often quoted as saying you have one screen to get to me, yup and that screen is the size of my phone. If it goes beyond that you lose your donors, we now have proof of that. The same is true in video. Check out this infographic:

These stats are from donors of all generations and giving behaviors, this crosses our entire donor spectrum. So why then as a digital donor am I constantly receiving 4 page letters in the mail? Are we blind to what our donors wants and needs are? Or is change too difficult in our organizations?

Your personality with your donors needs to change. You need to avoid the danger zones of communications. Here's what donors said drives them away from your organization.


Can you say, "the area of greatest need"? I don't know anything more vague and boring than some annual fund appeals. I often advise my clients to stay away from terms like these and discretionary funding. They're so vague and dull. What about changing lives or inspiring others? All of that is whitewashed in our jargon filled text that is uninspiring and we have to get to the 17th paragraph in the case for support to figure out why we should give or continue to support?

It's time for a donor revolution with our communications. We have to inspire people, incite them toward emotion and be originals. with 1.4 million nonprofits in the US alone, if we don't stand out, we're sure to become irrelevant.  What are your thoughts? More from the Abila study next week, for now I'm gonna go crank Prince in my headphones and let a true original inspire me.



  1. Can you give us an example from an organization that does it really well?

  2. Time and time again Charity Water rises to the top. Give a gift and see their magic with text

  3. Great points! Can you recommend any webinars or other resources for donor relations writing?

  4. I've come across some research to indicate that longer fundraising letters often perform better. I won't rehash all of that here, but I do want to emphasize this takeaway: Content should drive length.

    If you have a long, bloated letter from the Executive Director, then you should shorten it (and probably rethink the entire appeal). However, if you have a good story about someone who benefited from your organization's services, and if you have photos to help you tell that story, then a longer letter is perfectly justified.

    If photos aren't possible with your appeal, then use white space well. Bold words. Add headers or lists. Vary sentence length.

    Most donors will merely skim our letters (at best), regardless of length. I challenge all of us to focus less on the length of a letter and more on the story we're trying to tell.

    But that being said, yeah--nobody watches long fundraising videos. :)


    P.S. Don't forget a strong P.S. with a clear call to action.

  5. Thanks, interesting stuff.
    But be careful. What donors say they want is not always connected to what they respond to.
    I had a focus group with two packs, one massive - long letter, lots of lifts. The other pack tiny.
    In focus groups 100% of donors said they prefer the short one.
    They said things like 'a waste of money', 'I don't need a big story', 'I don't have time to read it', 'Just tell me the problem, the solution and how I can help'.
    In a proper 50/50 test, the small pack raised $150,000. The large pack $900,000. In nearly all our tests, big pack , long letter wins. But, as 'Unknown' says above, it should be driven by content.
    A bad big pack won't beat a great short pack.
    Same applies to emails. Longer usually wins, but donors say they want shorter.
    With research like this, always be careful with what donors say, rather than how they behave.
    None of us like long letters - suppliers, charities, bosses, boards, chairman's wife. They are pain, harder to write, longer to check and more expensive. But they usually raise more net income for cause, increase donor loyalty and life time value and get much higher average donations. More here...

  6. Why do long letters work better despite donors saying they don't want them?
    1) You have to tell a great story. Some stories are short:
    "For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn."
    But few of us have Hemingway's genius, and rare opportunities like that happen in fundraising.
    Story needs a start, middle and end.
    2) Need to repeat the offer.
    3) Need to be clear about what your money is going to do.
    4) Need to thank the donor.
    5) May need to explain what the charity does.
    6) Demonstrate need.
    7) Demonstrate solution.
    It is hard to do that in less than 3 pages usually.
    My most successful letter, which got about 50% response rate was more than 10 pages long.
    The best sustainer conversion pack we produced has an 8 page letter.
    BUT the same charity best mail pack was just two pages - because they had an emergency. Easy to get across and include all tactics in a short letter.
    Best high value pack is about six pages long.
    Be REALLY really careful with interpretation of qualitative and quantitative data.
    Someone asked for tips in a webinar: I have a series coming up on mid value donors, and one of them is about writing (featuring Tom Ahern). More info, and a good long pack dissected here:

  7. Thanks for offering your perspective and knowledge Sean - As some of us know, Pareto has tested a lot of this stuff to death and there often are no "absolutes", especially as they relate to direct response.