Your supporters are human, and you are too – so why not talk to them that way?

While on the one hand, I think we should all try to read our organization’s communications as if we are aliens from time to time, I think we need to write and speak very much from the most human part of ourselves.

The decision to give a gift to charity – whether a small annual gift, or a large legacy gift – is made from a place of emotion and for personal reasons, rarely is it from logic or formal thinking. Yet many appeals that I see coming across my mailbox are written using the formal organizational voice rather than a personal voice. This is inevitable in some ways, as most of them are written by someone other than the signatory. So, what can we do to connect on a more human level?

Write more personally

Know your own voice – Each of us has a literal voice that is different than anyone else’s. Not only does it sound different; we also use specific speech patterns, vocabulary, inflections, turns of phrase, and so on that makes our voice recognizable and unique.[1] This is true of your personal written voice as well. While you want to remain professional in your tone, ask yourself how your work persona communicates – are you subtle or more blunt? Are you sometimes humorous or always serious? Do use more metaphors or similes?

Even details as small as your letter and email sign off phrase (if not organizationally mandated) says a lot about your voice. Are you more comfortable with: a) Respectfully, b) Respectfully yours, c) Sincerely, d) Best wishes, e) All the best, f) Warm regards, g) Blessings, h) Cheers, i) Thank you, or something different entirely? What do you think it says about you and your approach? If you spend a bit of time thinking about your communication style, you’ll start to uncover the heart of your unique voice.

How would you say this? – You may get templates from your communications department, a consultant or a structure that has worked in the past you need to follow – but don’t be afraid to make it your own! If you see something worded in a way that is not how you would say something, ask to change it. After all, if you are speaking to your donor in person you want your words to reinforce what they read. Using the same phrasing will be more natural and will seem like you.

Use ‘I’ more, and ‘we’ less – Yes, your organization does things on a large scale, as a team, in partnership with your supporters, etc. but to make things more personal, be sure to speak as an individual – using ‘I’ when appropriate. This may take the most re-thinking, and may seem almost scary at first for some. You may be used to standing in the shadow of your organization, and this will bring you out more into the forefront. But for donors to feel a personal connection, it is important to mix actual people speaking in their own words into the communication streams sometimes, rather than what may seem like a generic, authorized message from charity headquarters.[2]

Include their name (and more if you can!)

Donald Trump reads things if he’s mentioned by name (and so do your donors) – I know many people were a bit horrified to learn that the Security Briefing notes for the White House now strategically include Donald Trump’s name as often as possible so he keeps reading… and obviously we hope that the President of the United States has the mental fortitude to read important documents without needing the added pull of personalization… but really, this is a very human instinct. Your supporters are interested in your cause of course, but they are also keenly aware of anything to do with themselves. So where appropriate, and without sounding stilted, try to work in their name in your correspondence, as you would if you were in person.

Relate things to their specific area, mention programs they’ve indicated interest in, etc. – Hopefully you are capturing great data in your database which tells you the preferred areas of giving your supporters are responding to, and are recording survey data where they rate the top programs they are interested in. Even if you aren’t yet doing that (and I’m sure I’ll write something on that in the future!), then I know you have their address. This simple piece of data can help you customize your messaging to highlight new programs in their area, fundraising for specific things that would be of benefit to people in the reader’s community, or perhaps add a PS to let them know about an upcoming event near them.

If you do have additional data, with today’s printing capabilities including simple variable data imaging you can tailor images to your donor pools – use images that are the same age range as your donor, that reflect the type of environment they live in, represent the current weather (i.e. have photos with snow in the winter, buds in spring, etc.), and always endeavour to show people more than facilities, equipment or buildings.

Make it relatable, use specifics, and tell a story

Share your own experiences – Stepping out of the shadows and telling donors about your own experience of your organization’s mission/vision/values/purpose can be quite powerful. But what can also be extremely insightful to a donor, and compelling on a very tangible level, is the day-to-day impacts that are why you get up and go to work each day. Do you have a story about meeting a service recipient who looked healthier or happier? Do you volunteer for your organization in some way? If so, why? Have you recently become a financial supporter – either giving a cash gift, or becoming a monthly or legacy donor? What was that process like for you? Why did you decide to do it at this moment in time? Did you take a walk in an area that was protected by work you’d been directly involved in (and which donor’s gifts likely were too)? There are so many small snapshots of a day that your donors can relate to which will give them perspective about who you are, what your organization does, and how they are helping make the world a better place.

Put a human face on things – It is crucial to tell your donors about individual human impacts not only masses of stats about your organization’s work in the world. Yes, the scope of what you do is impressive, and there will indeed be donors who very much want to hear about the yearly numbers – but you also need to share individual details. Feature one person’s story in an article or ad. Focus on one day-in-the-life in a video. And when I say “put a human face on things” I’m being quite literal. We are hardwired to respond to faces – it is one of the first things we focus on as newborns, and in fact, the brain has a specific circuit for recognizing faces [3]. Ideally have one person’s face on the front of your brochure – and make sure you can see their eyes [4].

Follow a narrative arc – If you’re with me so far, and are convinced you want to feature a more relatable, specific story, it is important to build that story in the most effective way to engage your supporters. As with faces, humans respond most to stories. We are geared to understand the world in narrative form because “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” [5]

So, to take a brief step back, what is the narrative arc (sometimes called story arc, dramatic structure, or Freytag’s Pyramid)? I could tell you, and describe the stages, and write bullet points of key elements – but instead, I’ll share this story of Ben and his father.

Ultimately, your aim is to sound like you are having a conversation with your individual reader, not like you are at a podium in front of a large audience. The more you can reflect your own personality, use language just as you would in speaking, keep things relevant and personal (to both you and your supporters), share stories, and put a human face on your organization, the more you will find donors are willing to speak with you, respond to you, and form a bond with you – and in turn, feel more connected to your organization as a whole.


[1] Literary Devices, Terms and Elements

[2] Don’t get me wrong – I’m *definitely* not suggesting going totally off brand, or throwing communications standards or key messaging out the window. But I think we can generally tell when someone is speaking in their own words and from their own experience rather than repeating talking points they’ve memorized, and the same difference comes across in writing.

[3] 10 Scientific Reasons People Are Wired To Respond To Your Visual Marketing

[4] Note: while it sort of works for Oprah, it is best if it is not your Executive Director. Make sure to feature a diverse range of people so donors have a better chance of seeing a person they relate to in some way.

[5] Scientific American: It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories

About the Author


Aimée Lindenberger is passionate about her role in helping charitable organizations make the world a better place. Armed with her degree in Graphic Communications Management, double minors in Marketing and Multimedia, a tender heart and insightful mind, and nearly twenty years of marketing and communications experience, she has worked with charities across Canada, helping them build fundraising programs. Aimée loathes buzzwords and loves actionable strategies. (Oops! Were those buzzwords?)

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