Fixing Bad Communication

Why do most Messages from the President – and donor communication in general – stink?

From “Winning: The Five Truths of Fundraising:”

The single best piece of advice I received in my entire career was when a young colleague had the nerve and the courage to remind me, “Rob, it’s not always about you.”

It is not always about us, but it often sounds like it is. Most donor communication reads like this:

“What I have to tell you is so important, and I have so much to tell you, that to make it fit in this space I have to use really small type and if you need to squint to read it, I hope you will,” or:

“I’m about to approve this and just read it again and gosh, it sounds like I’m bragging and you know, I guess I am!”

That’s the hard truth.

There are 7 ingredients to make your donor communication sing:

One: Mark Twain wrote, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” Marcus Tullius Cicero, for heaven’s sake, wrote: “You know that I write slowly. This is chiefly because I am never satisfied until I have said as much as possible in a few words, and writing briefly takes far more time than writing at length.”

Take the time.

Two: When the reader sees short paragraphs and a comfortably larger type size, this subconscious reaction happens: “Aah, I’m going to like this.”

Next, think of the three points you want to make in what you’re about to write.

Now, stop thinking about what YOU want to say. Remove yourself from the thought and instead think, “Is this what will inspire my donors?” The question you ask is not what you want to say but what do your donors want to hear.

As often as possible, no matter the type of communication, make every effort to tell a story, even the briefest of stories.

Here is the Golden Rule of Effective Donor Communication: Do not write to be read. Write so that it appears you are speaking to your donor. And more specifically, write as though you are sitting with, and speaking to, your grandmother.

And last, practice. It makes perfect. The best practice? Write two notes to donors every day.

Here is, hands down, the most perfect communication I’ve ever heard. It’s so perfect I’m typing it from memory:

“On your wedding day…When everyone is looking at her…She’ll be looking at you… So rent your tuxedo from the Men’s Wearhouse…And you’ll look almost as good as she does… Men’s Wearhouse…You’ll love the way you look, I guarantee it.”

42 words. Tells a story. Explains the return on investment. Issues a call to action. Brilliant.

Effective communication is not easy. But it’s so worth the effort.

The book that explains the beauty of our craft. “Winning: The Five Truths of Fundraising” is available now in print, eBook and audiobook on