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The best fundraising writing captures a person’s “voice” without abandoning the rules and practices of effective donor communications.

Careful readers of these digital pages know the perils of letting organizational leadership meddle with fundraising writing and donor communications. It’s not just that too many cooks in a kitchen turn out a mediocre soup; it’s also the case that the kind of writing leadership wants is often directly at odds with the rules and practices of effective fundraising writing. (As Blaise Pascal once wrote, “The direct mail letter has its reasons of which reason knows naught.”)

So, what’s a fundraiser to do when tasked with “writing in someone’s voice”—maybe the president of your organization, a celebrity donor, or some other luminary? How do you reconcile the potentially conflicting tasks of capturing a person’s voice and writing effective fundraising copy?

If this is a dilemma you sometimes face, read on. We’ll break it down together.

What we talk about when we talk about “voice”

The first step to pulling off this balancing act is to get clear on what we’re doing and what’s important. For starters—and this falls under “important”—capturing someone’s voice does NOT mean mimicking his or her writing style. There’s a simple reason for this: most people don’t even have a “writing style,” or at least not one that’s distinctive, memorable, or particularly imitable.

There’s a reasons why imitation writing contests are mostly limited to the likes of Hemingway and Faulkner. They carved out styles so distinctive that anyone can recognize them. (EH: short sentences. Man stuff. Drinking. WF: page-long rambles probably concealing the legacy of slavery and/or incest.) Odds are, your CEO or featured donor is not Faulkner.

But even if they are, you still shouldn’t prioritize the individual voice over solid fundraising fundamentals. Your letter signer might have a penchant for jargon-filled, longwinded prose chockfull of banal pleasantries; that doesn’t mean you should let any of that language creep into your fundraising appeal.

Instead, aim to produce an appeal that seems plausibly compatible with the persona of the signer. And that brings me to my second point:

“Writing in someone’s voice” entails capturing an attitude, not a style. 

We’ve established the fact that most people don’t have a distinctive style, and if they do it’s probably not one you want to replicate. But what people DO have—and what is most important for writing fundraising appeals that are plausibly “from” a person—is an attitude, or disposition towards the world.

An attitude might be combative or measured, tongue-in-cheek or earnest, lighthearted or solemn, idealistic or pragmatic, folksy or urbane. But the key point is that you can convey that attitude not by diverging from “fundraising writing style” but rather by tailoring word choice and tone.

Nor does this attitude have to shine forth in every blessed sentence. You just have to sprinkle in a dash here and there, and avoid words or phrases that clearly clash with the tone. (Don’t let your down-to-earth folksy persona sound like a venture capitalist, or your Catholic intellectual sound like a Protestant prayer warrior.)

Here are a few practical tips for capturing your signer’s attitude in donor communications:

  • Work from caricature, not from real life. You’re drawing with markers, so to speak, not fine-tipped pencils. So, the question you must ask is not, “What is this person like, deep down?” It’s what caricature they resemble publicly. There are probably just a handful of dials to crank up or turn down (sunny or stormy, homespun or sophisticated, etc.), but let’s leave those for another article. For now, the point is this: consider the signer’s position, the work they do, and their general outlook, then conjure up some sentences that capture that stance in broad brush strokes.
  • Consider connotations when choosing words. If your signer is a feisty fighter, choose verbs and images that connote struggle, battle, etc. (And, conversely, avoid all “fighting” words if you’re writing for a peace-loving solution-finder.)
  • Pluck some turns of phrase or keywords from the signer’s past communications. Take a look at past speeches, articles, or other writing. This might sound like it’s contradicting this whole darn article, but it’s not. A light dusting of the signer’s own words is just what the doctor orders when it comes to showing that you’ve done your homework and you “really get who they are.” People love hearing their ideas parroted back to them.

Just don’t let these words, phrases, and caricatures interfere with the effectiveness of the fundraising writing you produce. Your first audience may be the signer (or their proxies), but your ultimate audience is as it ever was: your donors.

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