Messaging to Donors: Content Matters – Length Doesn’t

Where's the content?

Editors love to edit. Critics love to critique. And many writers and communications folks love to make sure you keep your messaging short and to the point. There are even seminars you can attend where the presenter drones on and on about the form of the message vs. the content.

This is so fascinating to me – as if the form could actually dress up and make lousy content palatable.

When I was a development director, I tested a pithy one-page letter against a 12-page one. The donor offer was the same. The one-pager had the core facts and the logical offer. The 12-pager explored the drama, heartbreak and tragedy of the problem that the people faced. It was filled with stories that captured your attention and forced you to anticipate the next page of content – all the way to the end.

The 12-pager overwhelmingly won the test. Why? Not because it was longer. Nope. It won because it pulled the donor into the grit and reality of the life of the person the donor wanted to help. It took him to the scene. And when he got there, he could not leave – he had to find out what he could do. The letter and all of its messaging was about real life with all of its drama and emotion, and about a practical way the donor could make a difference.

In today’s world of tweets and one-liners, it is so easy to abandon the real reason a non-profit exists: to deal with the hurts and pains of people around the world and a planet that needs care. So we dumb down that messy real-life experience to two or three logical points, then expect people to actually respond.

It does not work!

When you construct any message to your donors, regardless of the media (email, phone, personal visit, video, tweet, letter), I suggest you pay attention to the following five principles so you don’t fall into the trap of straying from the message so you can pump up the form:

  1. Identify your objective. It sounds basic, I know. But most MGOs do not do this, or they do not do it properly. Are you trying to report back on what the donor’s gift accomplished and how it made a difference? Are you trying to set up an ask? Are you building your relationship and creating trust? Or are you trying to secure information about the donor? Or something else. What are you trying to do?
  2. Make sure your message fulfills the objective. Again, this seems so basic. But you cannot possibly know how many times I have witnessed a disconnect on this point. When the objective is to tell the donor how her gift made a difference, I’ve seen the MGO wandering all around the topic or saying something like: “your gift has made a tremendous difference in (fill in the blank) …” but then nothing specific is shared, so the donor does not know that her gift made a difference. Or the MGO is setting up an ask, and he only shares statistics and facts about the problem and fails to tell a story or take the donor to the scene. I suggest that before you send your message, you re-read it and then ask yourself: “did I reach my communication objective?” If not, re-write.
  3. Don’t worry about length. OK, it’s true that on a tweet you have to watch length. But even in a tweet your choice of words should be emotional and engaging, pointing to other resources that can further develop the message. In all messages, you should develop the idea, story or concept fully as if you were talking (not writing) to a friend who empathizes with the cause or message you are conveying. If you were sitting around with your friend talking to you, would tell the whole thing with all of its nuances and details – with all of the emotion and heartbreak, with the moments of anger and hopefulness, etc.
  4. Write a “stream of consciousness” first draft. My practice has always been to figure out what my objective is, then what I want to say – then I do a “stream of consciousness” writing of the message. By stream of consciousness I mean writing down everything that is coming to mind as I write, regardless of order, syntax, grammar, logic, sequencing or anything that might prevent me from unloading all of my thoughts and feelings about the subject. I even write down stuff I know I will never publish – I just let it flow. Let it flow. Because when you do that, it all comes out. You open your heart and spirit, as well as your head, and it all comes out onto the computer screen. If you feel angry, write that anger down. If you feel depressed about it, write it down. If what you are writing makes you cry, then cry. If the solution to the problem doesn’t make sense, write down that it doesn’t make sense. You will be amazed at what comes out. Shocked. But it will be good. Sometimes, I write pages and pages and I alternately cry and fume with anger. My wife is used to it because I will get up from my computer, all teary-eyed and sniffling or really angry, and I will go talk to her, letting it flow. Letting it flow. This is good. Then I take the next step….
  5. Create the final message. Now it’s time to create the message you will publish. I caution against editing out the emotion. Leave it in. And make sure that what you end up with is a living and true description about what you are trying to convey. It could be the huge feeling of gratefulness from a person who has been helped, that now you are sharing with the donor. Or a problem to be solved, etc. But the final message, regardless of length, should tell the story in a compelling and engaging way. Remember, when you write that final message, you should write it to your best empathetic friend. And do it in a conversational way.

There you have it – my suggestions on how to protect the content of your messaging. Remember that the real material you are dealing with is very important. It IS real life. Don’t pretty it up – just tell it like it is. That’s life like it really is. And that’s how to create effective content.

Richard

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