Quit throat-clearing and write confidently in your fundraising communications.
Throat-clearing is a scourge in fundraising communications. By “throat-clearing” I mean anything that aims to clear away brush before articulating the main purpose of a communication. So why is it so common in the nonprofit world?
WRITING IN FEAR, NOT CONFIDENCE
First and foremost, nonprofit writers are writing in fear of the reader’s response, rather than in full confidence that what they have to say is worth sharing. A common manifestation of this tendency toward throat-clearing is the opening paragraph (or two…) that tries to make the case for why the communication is actually necessary. In their more egregious forms, these communications read like a plea for forgiveness. “Here’s why we’re adding this to your inbox clutter; please don’t be mad at us!”
To the reader-fearing writer, the worst possible outcome of a communication is a raft of unsubscribes or—heaven forbid—an angry email. This outlook points to the heart of the problem: a failure to understand the purpose of these communications. Your communications, like it or not, are utilitarian.
To be clear, I don’t mean that your communications should be transactional. You do want to make your donor the hero of the story while writing in such a way that your donor identifies more fully as a member of your community of constituents. As I have argued elsewhere in these pages, though, the relationship aspect is conditional—a delicate balance of relational and transactional.
DID IT RAISE MONEY?
In a similar vein, when it comes to evaluating the success of your letter or email, the criterion is pretty simple: Did it raise money? When you visit a donor, you and she both know why you’re sitting in her living room. The game of pretending that you just want to be friends is silly, counterproductive, and ultimately a bit disrespectful. In the same way, throat-clearing only delays your readers’ arrival at your actual point—and risks losing some on the way.
On the other hand, communications—and in-person asks—that boldly and directly state your point perform well. Donors appreciate forthrightness and your desire not to waste their time. It also bears noting that the angry responders and the unsubscribers are not your core constituents or best donor prospects. Don’t try to ameliorate this cohort at the expense of your fundraising effectiveness or your core people. As natural as it is to conclude otherwise, the squeaky wheels almost never speak for the majority of your constituents.
(And if you determine that you are frustrating your core people with your communications, take the hint and re-evaluate your strategy, because something more problematic is most likely afoot . . . it's not that you are writing to them, but more likely what or how you are writing to them.)
A close cousin of the throat-clearer is what we might call the program-vomiter. For this writer, the worst possible outcome is some reader, somewhere, not knowing every intricacy of every program their organization executes. Or perhaps the program-vomiting is a species of throat-clearing. Both deem an extensive preamble necessary to preempt and articulate the ask, rather than trusting that the reader is already on your team—and is motivated by something other than the gritty details. Neither conveys confidence, with the program-vomiter smacking of an ad man who brings eight different ideas to the pitch meeting—not something you do if you have confidence in any of them!
A surprisingly effective antidote to both is to write the first draft of your communication and then lop off the first two or three paragraphs. This approach allows you to indulge your wildest inclinations toward throat-clearing while ensuring that the final product actually raises money. It also helps you realize that much of what you write in your original opening can be incorporated later if not discarded altogether.
THE WRITER-READER COVENANT
I’ve been quite hard on this poor hypothetical development writer, so allow me to critique the reader here too. In 2020 at a previous job, the chief executive and I woke up one morning to a livid email about our failure to acknowledge the murder of George Floyd in our recent solicitation letter. The problem? The letter had been sent out two weeks before Floyd’s death. Moreover, what would such an acknowledgment have achieved, other than throat-clearing? Fearing that some reader somewhere would refuse to get out his wallet if we didn’t acknowledge the death of George Floyd does not make for the composition of effective fundraising copy.
That said, it's hard to fault the throat-clearer in his throat-clearing when his readers fail to come to the table with even a modicum of charity.
Remember: charities need to raise money to achieve their missions. I will not apologize for sending out solicitation letters and emails. If you’re tired of emails, meet the charity whose mission you ostensibly care about halfway and simply delete them. But please recognize that fundraising is something we need to do in order to accomplish everything else. Conversely, the writer ought not to abuse the reader, either by overwhelming her with communications or failing to express gratitude regularly. It is, to be sure, a delicate balance, but one that needs to be struck with far more charity.
At the end of the day, writers must write confidently in order to raise the funds needed to accomplish the mission of their organization. They shouldn’t be apologetic about that. It's a time-honored tradition that has sustained American civil society throughout the ages. At the same time, readers, in an age of content overload, must recognize this and will respond accordingly. Hopefully with a gift but, at minimum, with respect for the goal of the writer. Achieving this balance will cultivate better writers . . . and readers. Then, together, they might make civil society just a little bit better.