Copy That Communicates (Even If It Won’t Get an ‘A’ From Your English Professor)

I love being able to correctly express my thoughts in writing. I actually count among my most prized possessions a copy of now-out-of-print “Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions” by Harry Shaw and have bookmarked many websites that cover grammar.

But I am also a realist.

That means I understand that the purpose of copy for fundraising is to get read (or at least scanned), be understood and generate a response. It’s not to earn a gold star from the grammar police.

Striking a balance between those who love to conjugate verbs and those who never met an infinitive they didn’t want to split is challenging. Letter-signers especially can be a bit sensitive, not wanting to look like English 101 dropouts to those reading the appeal letters and e-mails.

Of course, now we have a shorthand way of talking, too — Internet slang — so there’s another entire camp when it comes to writing, IMHO. (Just proving I can sling the slang, too!)

With that said, here are some tips for writing fundraising copy that is readable and lends itself to action — even if it just gets scanned.

Know your audience
If you are writing to the American Association of Retired English Teachers (assuming there was such a group), you would definitely want to write in a way that didn’t make its members want to get their red pens out and put an “F” at the top of the page. But for almost everyone else, it’s more about how you communicate. Write to the audience, not to your colleagues or board members.

Short
Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Generally speaking, keep your copy straightforward and easy to understand. If you are using a word that is common to your specialty but maybe not to your audience, don’t be afraid to explain it in more everyday terms.

Bolding and underlining
The main purpose of bolding and underlining some of your copy is to guide the eye of the (human) scanner. You want him or her to get all the main points in the quick scan according to your copy. “Problem exists. You want to help solve it. Here’s a solution. Here’s what your gift will do.” Don’t overdo the underlining and bolding, but make it matter.

Commas and other punctuation
Serial commas or not? Who cares? And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry — it’s just something that divides the loyalists to the “Chicago Manual of Style” from those loyal to the “AP Stylebook.” The same is true for two spaces vs. one between sentences. If whomever you are writing for doesn’t have a preference, just be consistent.

But that doesn’t mean you can abandon the comma altogether. No, that much-maligned little guy still matters. Someone gave me this example last week of how the lack of a comma can change totally the meaning (and make you a candidate for 25 years to life).

Let’s eat, Grandma!
Let’s eat Grandma!

I’m working on my doctorate, and we have to use the “APA Publication Manual” for all written work. I hate it. I totally disagree with it on some things. But as someone said to me a while ago, “What’s the end game here? To try to prove a point with the American Psychological Association or to get your doctorate?”

Bottom line: It’s not worth all the arguing that takes place over commas, spacing, underlining, bolding and which style guide trumps. It’s all about communicating. When you write fundraising copy — online or offline — it’s a conversation between two people. And the most important thing is that your written “conversation” is understood and leads the potential donor to take action.

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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