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Three Irrefutable Truths about Successful Donor Communications

Three Irrefutable Truths about Successful Donor Communications

May 25, 2018
Margaret Battistelli Gardner

Every nonprofit organization has a vision, a mission, a goal. Every one of them has a story to tell (about itself), and every one of them has stories to tell (about the people it serves and about impact, about how bad situations got better, how problems got solved and about the help of passionate donors).

Your vision, your mission, your stories…  they’re fabulous. Noble. Life-changing. Life-saving. Certainly enriching, and a step toward making the world a safer, saner, more hospitable, or just more beautiful and better, place to hang out.

But none of that means squat if you aren’t communicating with your donors, potential donors, evangelists and other supporters. Consistently, genuinely and in the right way. Jack Smith might happily write you a $500 check — if he knew your organization existed. Mary Brown probably would remember you in her will – if you showed her the difference she made during those 10 years she gave $50 a month via EFT. And that gaggle of perky millennials who turned your fundraising run into a girls-day-out to support a friend before brunch and margaritas last June? They’d blow up social media in a heartbeat if your stories moved their hearts as well as their feet.

What you share with the world – and especially the world of donors and other supporters – and how you share it is a make-or-break element of your fundraising success. There are a ton of big-picture best practices and myriad nuances that shift according to channel or audience, but here are a few overarching fundamentals to consider.

You must get out of your own navel.
The days of inward-looking communications are over. (Actually, they were over more than a decade ago, but some organizations don’t seem to have gotten the memo.) When someone says, “Tell your stories” do you hear, “Tell everyone how awesome you are or how smart our CEO is”? If so, you’re on the wrong track. The stories you want to tell are about the people you serve and – this is crucial – the impact that your donors have made possible.

Anything else is just chatter… and solipsistic chatter at that. They’ll get bored. They’ll get tired of hearing about YOU. They’ll find another organization that suits their passions and has better ways to communicate with them and lets them know where they fit into the good work that’s being done.

You must show – and don’t sell (most of the time).
Remember your nephew Jimmy, who you only hear from when he shows up for a visit once a year? On. His. Birthday. Sure, you hung out when he was a cute little kid. But now he’s 18, not as cute, and you both know he’s only there for one thing: the birthday cash. Whether you go on with the charade or shut it down, it doesn’t feel good. It’s not something that leaves you happy and proud to be Jimmy’s auntie. It just leaves you feeling used. That’s how your donors feel when all you ever do is ask. Mix it up.

Whether you’re writing direct mail, emails, social media posts or reaching out to connect with major donors… share your stories (see rule #1 above), share useful information, educate, entertain, illuminate. Make the relationship real. When you make the effort to keep people engaged, the “ask” feels more heartfelt and like an easy, organic part of the relationship. It’s another consideration that has been a best practice for years now, but for those of you who missed the email: Don’t be a Jimmy.

Keep consistent. (But that’s not as easy as it might seem.)
You have a brand. You’ve worked long and hard (or paid a marketing firm to work long and hard) to create a look and feel, a voice, a tone, a color scheme even that will make your organization stand out amid the ever-increasing traffic in the nonprofit/fundraising sector. Seems like it would be easy enough to stick with that and keep your look and your messaging consistent.

Where it gets sticky is when you take channels and audiences into consideration – and, yes, you must. Facebook, for example, has something of a playground feel to it, but if your brand is more reserved, you don’t want to swing from the virtual monkey bars and act the fool online. If your brand leans toward long-form messages in direct mail, you’ll have some work learning how to dole them out in Twitter-approved doses. Is your email or snail mail pushing a specific campaign? Make sure visitors to your website can find it – easily – when they visit or click through. And make sure that even very focused campaigns carry the thread of your brand throughout and connect to the organization. Like the other two, this rule came into play years ago, but the new channels and new ways to connect make it even more important to stay simultaneously current and vigilant about your messaging and the many forms it has to take.

Donor stewardship often is compared to dating – you know… don’t propose marriage on the first date. But it’s not as simple as the number of dates you have. What really makes a relationship commitment-worthy is how well you communicate and the effort you’re willing to put in to keeping it real and making it last.


Margaret Battistelli Gardner

Margaret Battistelli Gardner is the podcast coordinator for Lighthouse Counsel and also has been crafting fundraising communications for Lighthouse clients since 2008. She has been a writer and editor for more than 30 years. From 2003 to 2015, Margaret was editor-in-chief of FundRaising Success magazine and currently is a communications specialist for the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.