Words are a powerful tool. We are taught from a young age to respect the power of our words and the impact they might have on others.
Our words especially make a difference when it comes to fundraising.
Our industry talks about being donor centric in the words we use to engage and solicit our constituents. Sometimes, though, we fall short in achieving that ideal. Most of us stick to the same tried-and-true language without critically reflecting on its meaning, its effect on our constituents, and its effect on our bottom line.
Let’s take a look at three of the most common words and phrases that we use as a community, then assess other options that could better reflect our intentions.
1. “Need” → “Opportunity”
“Area of greatest need.” “We need your support.” “Your gift fills the need for…”
As fundraisers, especially in education, we often tell our constituents what we need. And more importantly, we tell them that we need something (gifts, volunteers, time, etc.).
The reality is that our institutions are not needy. Refugees from war-torn countries are needy. Your community’s homeless are needy. But our institutions are not. There are many ways to make your institution better, more effective, and more attractive to potential students—but they aren’t needs.
Instead of using the word “need,” consider using the word “opportunity.” An area of greatest need becomes the area of greatest opportunity. Rather than telling our constituents that we need their support, perhaps we can describe the various opportunities available for their investment.
This small tweak in language will help empower your donors to propel you forward, not simply help you stay afloat.
2. “Gifts” and “Donations”→ “Investment”
In the millions of email and direct mail solicitations that go out each year, the most common refrain is to ask for someone’s gift or donation. And you know what? For the most part, this seems to work.
Looking at industry-wide renewal rates, however, it seems that most institutions and organizations struggle to renew their donors from year to year. A recent AFP report found that the average donor renewal rate is only 46 percent.
High amounts of time, effort, and resources go into creating and running consecutive giving societies. But are we stunting that progress by using the words “gift” and “donation” to describe the commitments of our constituents?
In truth, our institutions don’t actually want gifts and donations. Those terms imply one-time occurrences with no future commitment or engagement. You make a gift and you move on.
What we really want is the continued support of our constituents.
When donors invest in our institution, they feel connected to the end results. The successes or failures of our students, staff, and faculty come back to their involvement. Donors who feel like they’ve made an investment will stay involved to ensure that their contributions make a positive difference.
So instead of asking for a donor’s year-end gift, try asking for their continued investment at the end of the calendar year. Remind them that this place is their own and that they can help guide its direction and success. Use your language to help create long-term relationships between your institution and its constituents.
3. “You”→ “We”
Most of the articles about fundraising language advise fundraisers that we can’t use the word “you” enough. It’s generally agreed upon that “you” is donor-centric and makes constituents feel like they are a part of the solution.
On the other hand, the word “you” also implies that the donor is in this alone. “You” does not speak to the collaborative efforts of a group.
As an industry, we should always strive to create partnerships between our institutions and our donors. This is not to say that we shouldn’t use “you” at all—but don’t forget to include “we” in your messaging.
It takes the collective “we” to achieve what we do. Remind your constituents of that every chance you get.
When it comes to fundraising, our words absolutely make a difference. The smallest details can often make the biggest impact. I encourage you to be intentional about your word choices as you craft your next appeal or solicitation.
Learn how the annual giving team at Oklahoma State University is better personalizing their asks this year.
Josh Foladare is the senior director of alumni relations and annual giving at St. John Fisher College and formerly the director of annual giving at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. When he is not helping raise money to make the colleges great, you can find him brainstorming new ways to explain what he does at work to his friends and playing with his two rescue dogs. Connect with him on LinkedIn.