Speaking in Others’ Voices

While reading this New York Times article about ghostwriting for celebrity cookbooks last month, it made me think about how fundraisers spend their careers writing in the voice of their organizations and its leaders.  Now I don’t think that we require the same sort of acknowledgment as book ghostwriters, but I wanted to draw attention to this skill and how it is something that is not easily explained (or replicated).  As I write, I can still mentally revert back to writing for the Executive Director at my former organization (not to mention the elected officials for whom I worked while in high school and college).

If you are not familiar with this phenomenon, ask some of your colleagues about it.  When I started at International House, I made a point to read through recent correspondence from my boss and the President, as I knew that I would be responsible for preparing document drafts (appeal letters, acknowledgments, stewardship reports, etc.) and wanted to get an idea of their respective voices.  After that, I jumped into my writing assignments and got their direct feedback along the way to learn those subtle nuances (e.g. which words they never use, which phrases are their favorites, what they only say to donors with whom they have close or personal relationships).  I think that it took me about a full year to feel reasonably confident writing in the voices of the Director of Development and President, though even after being at I-House for almost three years they still surprise me every now and then with very particular edits for outgoing correspondence.

How have you honed this skill during your fundraising career?  Do you think that non-profit organizations effectively identify people with this skill?

3 Simple & Impactful Ways to Thank (and Steward) Your Donors

As my fellow Americans are coming off of the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought it would be a good time to share a few ways to be more impactful in how you thank your donors.  To be clear, I see saying thank you as something that is not done only once after a gift is made, as it is really the first step in the ongoing stewardship process.  These three strategies can be deployed by any non-profit organization regardless of its size to thank donors and deepen donor relationships:

  1. Acknowledge every gift
    All non-profit organizations should be sending an acknowledgment letter for every gift that they receive in a very timely manner (some advocate for a 24- or 48-hour turnaround, though I believe it should be done within a few days to avoid falling out of the donor’s memory); these should not simply be the standard form letter, but include some sense of authenticity and a handwritten note from the author.  In addition, it is particularly useful to call or e-mail donors when a gift is received to extend a more personal and immediate thank you; this interaction also provides an opportunity to directly engage the donor in conversation about your work, his/her interests, upcoming events, etc.  During my career in fundraising, I am continually surprised by how few donors get some sort of thank you and how appreciative people are for such a small act.  If your organization does this, you will definitely stand out more to your donors, who will then have another reason to support your mission.
  2. Clearly reiterate key points from solicitation to acknowledgment
    Whether you are at an organization with one annual appeal and one special event or a fundraising shop with multiple appeals and events, it is imperative that you maintain the appropriate message across your communications.  For example, we sent out targeted appeals earlier this year to the alumnae of our Women’s International Leadership Program in commemoration of the program’s 20th anniversary, so I made sure that the celebratory tone was carried through from the acknowledgments, to the thank you e-mails that went out and the gift acknowledgment letters.  By maintaining your message this way, you will not confuse your donors and keep them engaged by invoking what originally inspired them to make a gift.
  3. Connect donors with beneficiaries of your organization’s work
    You should take full advantage of any and all opportunities to bring your donors and the beneficiaries of your work together, whether or not in person, so that they can “see” how their giving is making a difference.  A few examples of this strategy from my work in the last few years have included: inviting a small group residents to I-House’s annual gala (and other special events) to interact with the major donors, honorees and guests to let them see firsthand who benefits from their generosity; regular reports to named room & scholarship donors to provide regular assurance that their gift continues to positively affect our resident community; and the use of a resident-produced video at our 2011 gala to provide a clear perspective of the resident experience, which we have been able to re-purpose for friend-raising and more awareness-building efforts.

As I said earlier, saying thank you should only be the first step in the process of stewarding your donors.  I hope that these three strategies can help you improve your thank yous and overall donor stewardship efforts.  What are some other simple and impactful ways that you have thanked your donors?

Quick Tips: Overcoming Writer’s Block When Writing Appeals

Last month, I took part in #smNPchat — the Twitter chat for  small non-profit organizations interested in learning more about fundraising and marketing.  During the course of the chat, we ended up sharing some great tips on how to overcome writer’s block while working on an appeal.

A few of the best ideas are below:

  • Write longhand — it may allow you to more freely develop your ideas
  • Walk away and come back to it later
  • Get inspiration by spending time with program staff and clients. (Keep your eyes open in the next few weeks for a guest post that further explores this topic!)
  • Make some thank you calls to donors to reconnect with what really inspires them about your organization and its mission.

One tip that has been helpful to me is to write free-form or stream of consciousness to get some basic ideas down and then come back to it another day.

What strategies do you use to overcome writer’s block while working on an appeal (or anything else in your fundraising work)?

Be sure to follow Pamela Grow, the coordinator of the #smNPchat, on Twitter — @PamelaGrow — and take part in the next chat (see chat schedule here).

For more on the topic of writing great appeals, check out Mary Cahalane‘s guest post on Pamela’s blog here.


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