The 9 words that inspire prospective donors to give

A little compliment goes a long way

When requesting gifts, it can help to tell prospective donors what charitable people they are, John Hanc reports for the New York Times.

Organizations that build this principle into their donation request letters can see great success, as Sharp Healthcare did. For 10 years, the institution has sent prospective donors a letter that appeals to readers' sense of fairness. It reminds former patients that the hospital provided a service to them—and nudges them to make a gift in return.

The author of the letter, Tom Ahern, is considered one of the country's leading writers of fundraising messages. He emphasizes that the language of messages really can make all the difference.

"You have got to make your donors feel good in order to retain them," Ahern says. 

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His assertion aligns with research into why people give. Psychologist Jennifer Shang of Plymouth University has identified nine adjectives found in successful fundraising messages—and all of them have a moral tone.

The nine words are:

  • Fair;
  • Kind;
  • Compassionate;
  • Helpful;
  • Caring;
  • Friendly;
  • Generous;
  • Honest; and
  • Hardworking.

The words "describe a core sense of who people actually are, as well as a core sense of who people would ideally like to be," Shang says. For example, in one of Shang's studies, a public radio station that thanked donors for being "kind and compassionate" saw 10% higher rates of giving among female donors.

However, Shang warns that organizations shouldn't simply pepper their messages with the adjectives. Rather, she says, they should use them to craft a compelling "opportunity [for donors] to reflect on who they think they are."

Writing an appealing message is more important than ever before, says Jeff Martin, a senior consultant at EAB who researches advancement.

"Nonprofits today have more trouble than ever cutting through the noise that their prospective donors are bombarded with daily," says Martin. Not only are fundraisers sending out appeals more frequently, he explains, but there are also more nonprofits demanding donor attention. The number of charitable organizations has tripled in the past few decades.

"That means it’s no longer enough to simply have a good cause to promote," Martin says. "Fundraising organizations, including colleges and universities, must craft compelling solicitations that capture mindshare and inspire action" (Hanc, New York Times, 10/31). 

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