How to Prevent the Heartbreak of Boring Fundraising

How to Prevent the Heartbreak of Boring Fundraising


If you think you’re boring your audience, go slower not faster.
 – Gustav Mahler (20th century Austrian composer)

When I come across really boring fundraising copy, I think two things:

The writer was rushed. And she doesn’t seem to care. About the subject. About the reader. About raising money.

I understand, though. Writing is often an afterthought. It’s also too often done by a committee of people who don’t know how to write great fundraising copy. And the result is always the same: boring stuff that’s destined for the bin.

But there is hope. You can easily give your fundraising copy a boost. And it starts with slowing down a bit… and asking yourself these 8 questions.

1. Do you know your audience?

“Isn’t that a little rudimentary?” you may ask in return.

Yes. As in basic, elemental, and essential. This is the rock on which you build your donor communications. Not knowing your audience leads to two kinds of writing: stale and generic. Or sometimes, completely off in the wrong direction.

Look, you wouldn’t set out to write a novel about 16th century Polish monarchs without actually knowing anything about them, would you? Nor would you tell a joke meant for your closest friends to your elderly grandma.

You need to be able to answer some basic questions about your audience before you set pen to paper:

  • Who are you talking to?
  • Why are they listening?

Start with the basics, like segmentation, and from there look at more complex options, like donor surveys, empathy mapping, and (gasp!) having one-on-one conversations with your donors.

2. Do you know why you’re writing?

Before I write anything, I take out a big sticky note and fill in the following sentence:

This is why I am writing to you today:

Here’s a hint. If the reason is “I want to tell you about how awesome we are” or “I send you a letter every Christmas” or “I want your money” you’re writing for the wrong reasons.

Here are some better reasons:

… because there is a problem you care deeply about that only you can solve.

… because there is a problem you cared deeply about, and you helped solve it.

Your reason will be specific, and focused on your donor. Which brings me to my next question.

3. Are you following the “rule of one”?

One donor. One speaker. One concept.

You’d never start a letter with “greetings earthlings”, so why would you start it with “dear friends of ABC org”? Get personal – use your donor’s name, and speak directly to them.

This also applies to your signatory or narrator. You’re not ganging up on your donors, you’re having a conversation about something really important and exciting.

And if the reason why you’re writing is to ask for monthly gifts to support a school lunch program, don’t talk about your milk program, and your art program, and your parent support program, and an upcoming gala.

4. Are you checking your weewee?

Whatever you’re writing should focus more on your donor than on your organisation. As Tom Ahern always says, “circle the you’s.” If your writing focuses solely on your organisation and all the great stuff you’re doing, you’re missing an opportunity to make your donor the center of the action.

Find ways to turn your inward-looking language into donor-focused statements. “We” didn’t give 1200 pairs of shoes to homeless youth, you did.

And when you’re feeling stuck, consider inviting your donor in with statements like “you see, Jane” or “you can imagine” or “would you believe?”

5. Are you being conversational?

Or are you stuck in your “Business Communications 101” class?

Formality is boring. A long-winded, ego-driven, jargon-studded brain dump, filled with cold-fish sales-speak that is predictable yet nonsensical because it tries to make too many points and yet somehow manages to make no point at all (much like this sentence) will get you nowhere.

Your writing should be easy to read – not because your donors aren’t intelligent or educated, but because they are people with busy lives. This isn’t the place to show off your vocabulary. It’s a place to passionately make your case in a way your reader can immediately understand.

Check your sentence length. Shorter sentences are easier to digest than long ones. And yes, one-word sentences are okay.

Check your jargon. Are you using insider language and acronyms that your donors won’t understand? How many multi-syllabic words are cluttering your page? Are you writing at a 4th to 6th grade level?

(This article is at a 6.5 grade level… and that drops below 6 if you delete that one long-winded sentence a few paragraphs above!)

6. Where’s your hook?

Hint: it’s in the first line, or it’s not a hook at all.

When your reader opens a letter, they should immediately see their name, and read something that convinces them to keep reading.

This often means deleting the first three paragraphs of your draft. If your letter rambles about autumn leaves and seasons changing before you get to your point – homeless people die without shelter in the winter – you are at risk of losing your reader’s attention.

7. Are you committing crimes against readability?

You could write the most brilliantly compelling, generous, and passionate letter, but if your font is too small, or too fancy, or a weird colour, it won’t get read. If you are using images, ensure they make a meaningful connection to your message. If you’re asking your donor to make a poverty-stricken family’s Christmas brighter, a photo of a happy child surrounded by toys sends a mixed and distracting message.

8. Where’s your heart?

The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action, while reason leads to conclusions.
 – Donald Calne, neurologist

Plain language is important, but so is passion. If your writing comes across as indifferent or cold, why should your donor care?

Your job is to inspire your donor. You want them to deeply feel what you are sharing with them. You need them to see the connection between the things they care about most and what you are asking them to do. By the time your donor is finished reading, they should emphatically cry “YES!” to whatever it is you’re inviting them to be a part of.

These aren’t the only questions to ask yourself when writing, but it’s a great start.

What’s missing? What do you think are some of the most important things to keep in mind when writing irresistible fundraising copy?



Sheena Greer is Canadian. She serves the non-profit at Colludo, where she also blogs.

Please share your experience with boring writing — or better yet, fixing boring writing — by commenting below. We’d love to learn from your experience.


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4 Comments. Leave new

  • Glynis Corkal (HSC Foundation, Winnipeg)
    September 1, 2017 4:18 am

    Thank you Sheena! Perfect timing as I write a number of corporate proposals – but just because the donor is corporate, it’s still a person reading the letter!!!

    • Thank you for reading, Glynis! And you are so right – at the other end of everything we write is a real human being – regardless of whether they’re sitting at their kitchen table drinking tea or behind a desk when they read. Good luck with your proposals!

  • Denise Murray
    April 29, 2021 5:59 pm

    Hi Sheena
    Your 8 points are noted as a daily reminder. I’ve been writing copy for nearly 50 years; and in one instance for the same client for 43 years. There’s always a need to be reminded of the basics of good copy. Thank you.

  • Janet Ruprecht
    May 5, 2021 3:27 am

    I have a boss who “corrects” my solicitation letter so that it commits most of the 8 crimes. After years of frustration, we have a new CEO who gets it. What a relief!


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