For an audit of a U.S. environmental defense group, I used the following nine criteria -- all symptomatic of effective donor communications -- to issue report cards on the group's web site, newsletter, and other materials.
• Is the content "donor-centric"?
Does it speak in this voice: "With your help, we can do amazing things. And without your help, we can't. It all depends on you."
• Is it entertaining?
Does it have the necessary virtues of unexpectedness, simplicity, and a conversational tone?
• Is urgency part of the message?
Does it strongly urge the donor to contribute now? Inertia is the real enemy in fundraising. Getting someone to just do it -- to write the check, to go online and give -- is the hard part. Urgency helps move people to take action.
• Does the message somehow talk about loss?
Psychologist Robert Cialdini's famed research found that response improves when your message emphasizes the threat of loss. Chance of loss is far more persuasive than the promise of gain.
• Does it pass the "you" test? You
is the most powerful (and warmest) word in advertising (and, technically speaking, fundraising communications are just advertising by another name). Frequent repetition of the word you
keeps readers engaged. Infrequent use leaves readers cold. Without heavy use of the word you
, your fundraising communications are stillborn.
• Is the communication built for browsing?
People don't read deep most of the time. They browse. It's the only way to deal with the information glut that frustrates us all. I digest four major newspapers a day, all in about 30 minutes. How? I read headlines, and dig in when I find something of special interest to me. The day when you could reasonably hope people would read an article with a weak headline are long over. Web sites -- which are built for skimming -- hastened the day's demise. If your communications do not suit up for skimmers, browsers, flippers, and clickers, you're not playing in the right game.
• Is it convenient to respond to offers?
• Is there accomplishment reporting?
• Are there credibility builders?
In other words, does every communications help establish trust in the donor? Trust and results are the two things donors value highest, according to research conducted by Cone. Nothing new there, incidentally; it has always been so. But with the proliferation of nonprofits -- their numbers rose more than 35% in the last decade -- and frequent reports in the media of fraud, misuse, and poor financial controls (a 2006 Villanova study found that 85% of Roman Catholic dioceses had discovered embezzlement in the last five years), donors' skepticism has flourished.