21 and ½ tips for writ­ing bet­ter fundrais­ing materials

Fundrais­ing copy­writer extra­or­di­naire Lisa Sar­gent is back, giv­ing you more essen­tial advice on how to har­ness the pow­er of your writ­ing. In this arti­cle Lisa shares her tried-and-true check­list of 21 and ½ tips that you should keep close by when craft­ing fundrais­ing copy. If you remem­ber these use­ful nuggets, then you’re sure to make your donor com­mu­ni­ca­tions shine… every time!

Written by
Lisa Sargent
June 05, 2024

1. Talk to Aunt Bertha. Whether you write to donors via e-mail or direct mail, keep their ‘picture’ in your mind. Is your average donor 75 years old, female and a grandmother? See her. How does she feel? What’s she thinking? Writing to one person gives your communications an intimate voice... and a human touch.

2. Be a ‘master of exclusion’. That’s what the brothers Heath wrote in Made to Stick (read it if you haven’t). Knowing what to leave out keeps your stories simple. And people remember simple. So don’t introduce too many themes, people, pets, whatever. Keep it simple.

3. Add you, subtract we. (I is good too.) Because of you, 20 children have fresh drinking water. Thanks to you, Fido has a loving home. With your support, five more adults can learn to read. People love to hear ‘you’. So: less ‘we’. Less ‘us’. The magic word is ‘you’.

4. Focus on benefits, hard and soft. Does the donation come with a magazine subscription? Say so. Will it bring 25 pets in from the cold? Say that, too. And pay keen attention to the fact that the famous Seven Copy Drivers* have nothing to do with programmes. People give because you touch their hearts.

    5. Avoid taboo words and phrases. One example: animal welfare organisations must never use copy that objectifies pets. Why? Animal lovers see their pets as people. So it’s always, ‘pets who’ or ‘dogs who’. Never ‘pets that’. Are there no‑no words and phrases in your nonprofit? Avoid them. Do you use a Style Guide? Make sure you refer to it.

      6. Turn on Flesch-Kincaid (or run your copy through Hemingway App). Studies show that even highly educated people read – and recall – more at about a 7th grade reading level (12-13 years old). The Flesch‑Kincaid Readability Test gives you that level automatically. (Note stats for first draft of this report at right, including the 6.6 grade level. This is roughly the reading level of an 11 to 12 year old.) Here’s how to turn it on:

      • In Word, go to Tools. Click Spelling and Grammar. Click Options. Select Show readability statistics. Click OK. You’re done.
      • Lisa’s choice: Try hemingwayapp.com, where you can paste text and have it evaluated instantly.
        Here’s a look at that – I use it almost daily.

      7. Pacing: chop long paragraphs. Aim for six to seven lines for your longest paragraph. And don’t make them all long (or all super-short): mix it up.

      8. Cross channels. In e-news, refer to your magazine or website. In direct mail letters, refer to a great new resource on your website – just make sure the URL (uniform resource locator) isn’t seven miles long. You can include a QR (quick response) code but we always add the URL too, for all readers. Just keep that URL short and snappy.

      9. Break unevenly. If your letters are more than one page long, break the pages in mid-sentence, so reader has to turn the page to finish the thought.

      10. Speak plainly. Choose small words over big, straightforward over cute. Give grandiloquence the heave-ho. Avoid too much jargon. (When in doubt, refer to Flesch-Kincaid test above.)

      11. Beware the voice of despair. If you fixate too long on the nitty-gritty with your readers, they will not get past the horror of your story to enjoy (much less act upon) the rest of what you tell them. Tell a powerful story, but watch the gory.

      12. Get to the point. In that first draft, your lead is seldom where it should be... more often you’ll find it buried in the middle. To spot the real lead, some writers I know literally cover the first paragraph with their thumb. (I rely on two or three drafts.)

      13. Create cliff-hangers. There are successful outliers to this, BUT: fundraising appeals that conclude a story with a happy ending then ask people to ‘give and make more stories like these happen’ typically perform worse than stories that need the donor to give and make the happy ending.

      14. ‘Kill your darlings’. Oft-quoted, heeded less. If you’re attached to a poetic phrase you’ve written – what the late Joan Throckmorton called ‘deathless prose’ – and your ego can’t let it go, it’s probably time to hit delete.

      15. Tell the truth. Your readers and prospects are smart, just like you. They can spot cleverly massaged copy a mile away, just like you. Never, ever, lie.

      16. Make yourself clear. To renew membership... for a holiday fundraiser... to build a clinic. If there’s a specific purpose for writing, say so. To quote Throckmorton: ‘First, make sense’.

      17. Give them a reason to give. Urgency gets better results: ‘Donate $75 by November 4th and the ABC Foundation will match your donation’ is a whole bunch better than ‘Donate $75 today’.

      18. Ask the Big Three. When editing your work, keep three questions in your mind:

      • So what?
      • Who cares?
      • What’s new?
      • If you can’t answer these, revise.

          19. Check under the hood. If the mechanics of your piece aren’t in place, you’ll look sloppy in the eyes of your readers. Always double check:

          • Proper date
          • Correct closing and signature
          • Accuracy of any facts, figures and references
          • Accuracy of any hyperlinks noted

          20. Quadruple your proofing power. Typos happen to us all. But too many make your organisation look sloppy. And spellcheck is not enough. Try four separate proofs:

            • Read on-screen at 200-300 per cent size.
            • Print the piece, then read in your head.


            • Stand up, walk around, and read it out loud.


            • Let the whole thing sit overnight. Read again.

            21. Say thank you. Relationship-building is a two-way street. You can’t do what you do without your donors. Don’t they deserve to hear that? Say thank you.

            21 and ½. Say thank you. Yes, I said it again. Here’s why: in my opinion, it’s one reason donor retention rates have been plummeting into the abyss. Listen: when I give to your non-profit, I’m secretly hoping you’ll be the first to treat me like I’m more than a cash machine. So please, say thank you. Sincerely. Clearly. Promptly. And personally.

              *The Seven Copy Drivers:

              • Bob Hacker and Axel Andersson called them key copy drivers, and there are seven: fear, greed, guilt, anger, fear, exclusivity, salvation and flattery. Remember, though, the best fundraising and donor communications involve a subtle ebb, flow and nuance of emotions – hope, redemption, horror, shock, awe, triumph, grace, gratitude, and donor’s universal truths like the desire to change the world, give to those less fortunate for all you’ve been given, leave a legacy, etc.

              Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the free resources section of Lisa Sargent’s newly revamped website.

              If you’d like to print a PDF version of these top tips to keep on your desk, ready for your next writing session, you can find one, here.

              IMAGES © Canva

              About the author: Lisa Sargent

              Lisa Sargent

              Lisa Sargent (she/her) is head of Sargent Communications. She helps non-profits raise more money and keep more donors through better donor communications. A creative strategist and copywriter, Lisa works exclusively with non-profits on direct mail, email fundraising and donor care communications – acquisition appeals, annual reports, proposals, welcome packages, e-appeals, newsletters, thank you letters and more.

              Lisa’s articles have been featured in Mal Warwick’s newsletter, FundRaising Success Magazine and The Agitator. Lisa also publishes The Loyalty Letter, a free e-newsletter for non-profit and charitable organisations read by subscribers around the world. Lisa has regularly contributed to SOFII over the years, including the wonderful thank you letter clinic, which you can read here.

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