Jargon is the Bane of Fundraising

I get a lot of direct-mail and e-mail fundraising at my house. That’s by design. I donate, and I actually get excited when one of the organizations I support rents my name to others. I totally agree with Axel Andersson, a German direct-marketing entrepreneur, who said, “Creating direct mail without studying other people’s successful direct mail is like trying to do brain surgery without studying brains.”

Looking at the stack of mail I’ve accumulated over the last few weeks, I’m surprised how often jargon slips into copy. We don’t want to “dumb down” our copy (although some of our colleagues may suggest that’s our goal), so we overlook the fact that many of the people reading the e-mail, newsletter or direct-mail letter haven’t thought a great deal about us since they read our last communication. (And that may have been much longer ago than when we last sent something to them.)

A new book crossed my desk a few weeks ago. It’s one of those short books that takes minutes to read but can keep you thinking long after you close the cover. “Native Tongue,” byDavid L. Goetz, is all about “translating your message into the language of prospects,” according to the subtitle.

I recently logged onto a website in Portuguese. Because I truly wanted to learn about the organization (a nonprofit in Brazil), I let Google translate it for me. Parts of it were crisp and clear; other parts were downright hilarious.

Is that how our fundraising appears to our supporters? Like it’s been subjected to a heartless translation machine?

Dave Goetz (who I have known for years – but don’t hold that against him) notes several ways we train prospects to ignore our communication. Since the book is short enough that listing them all is probably a violation of copyright laws, I’ll mention just one: “Too much copy that feels like it was written by the same ad agency. Change the names, and the text is the same.”

In other words, we focus on the part of our work that is common to many instead of what we do that is unique and one of our core competencies.

One of the worst offenders of this is our teasers and subject lines. Cover up the logo and it’s hard to decide which of five (or more) organizations it came from.

When was the last time a fresh idea from a nonprofit made you proud to be part of this industry? Are we content with highly overused phrases in fundraising copy instead of always looking for a better way to say it?

I’m short on answers, but after seeing the dearth of creativity in the fundraising hitting my inbox and mailbox, I’m challenging myself to find ways to communicate what’s unique instead of falling back on what’s commonplace. I think donors want to be excited about making a difference (a much overused phrase!). How can I help them do that?

I’m thinking about it. How about you?

Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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