Why smart fundraisers pay attention to pronouns

nonprofits, fundraising, donations, donors, donor communications

“I would love to get together for coffee.”

“Would love to get together for coffee.”

The difference between these two sentences may seem subtle, but it’s actually staggering:.

The difference, obviously, is that the second sentence drops the “I”. Why is this so earth-shattering? And why should you care? Because pronouns reflect power dynamics. Pronouns could reveal just how many cups of coffee you may need to have before they cut you a check.

When you’re in the power position, you use pronouns less often. You’ll drop them altogether. You won’t notice you’re doing this. We all do it subconsciously.

Using the example above, the second response would indicate that the donor is still mulling over whether your organization will be on their Philanthropic Hit Parade. They’re holding their cards close to their chest, one eyebrow raised. Their pronoun-free response is their subtle way of saying, “Still on the fence, dear fundraiser. Make your case and I’ll ponder.”

We can figure all of this out simply by looking at a measly pronoun? Yep, that’s right. Pronouns. I, we, he, she, us, them. These itsy, bitsy words matter. A lot.

“I” is the single most frequently used word in spoken and written texts. Indeed, thanks to Professor James W. Pennebaker and his research team, we know that “I” accounts for 3.64% of all words used. That alone is interesting as it reflects what we care about most–ourselves. To be clear, being focused on yourself doesn’t make you a self-centered jerk. It means you’re human and, therefore, hard-wired to focus on survival. Just cuz a tiger is no longer chasing you across a tundra doesn’t mean your brain isn’t fighting to survive. It just looks a little different these days.

Focusing on ourselves is inevitable. And our language reveals this.

Pronouns and the larger category that they fall under called “function words”, are your linguistic BFFs. Paying attention to them can pay off in a big way. The more you use “you” and “your”, and the less you use “I” and “We”, the more you speak directly to what the donor (as a human being) cares about most–him or herself.

If your goal is to engage donors, mind your p’s and q’s and absolutely, positively pay attention to your pronouns. 

Making them think or making them feel

Part of our jobs as do-gooders is to make people feel things. Because feeling things makes people do things…good things. One feeling that is particularly effective at generating engagement and action is empathy—the  ability to experience the feelings of another person.  Helping your audience feel the feelings of those they are—or can—help helps them see themselves in the story and encourages their participation.

This mailing from the UK’s National Asthma Campaign, circa 1991, is a good example of involving an audience in the story. Few can resist the invitation to experience 30 seconds of asthma, even if just out of curiosity. And then they immediately imagine their life with asthma. And they realize that life with asthma ain’t easy.

Don’t get me wrong, making people think is important too.  But we frequently bombard people with facts, when sometimes what we need to do is help them feel.

Engagement starts with goats

goatI’ve been thinking about the concept of “engagement” a lot lately and boy do I have some      opinions on thank you notes that are engaging (or not), which I shared in a guest blog post over on Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog.

Here’s a little history lesson, word-nerd style: the term engagement came into popular use in the 1600s and referred to a “formal promise”. It makes you think about the lead-up to that promise, doesn’t it? I mean, people don’t just willy nilly enter into formal agreements with other people unless they feel there’s a darn good payout on the other end.

Whether you’re talking about marriage, a business partnership, or a pinky promise at recess, when it comes to a formal promise, there’s an exchange of something that both parties value.

In the seventeenth century, when all this engagement business got its start, it could have been some goats or a parcel of land—each. But think about it today, in the context of your work. Supporters are gifting you their money, their time or their attention.  What are you doing to hold up your end of the promise?

(Image courtesy of chrisroll / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

5 Small & Deadly Mistakes to Avoid

MistakesA few weeks ago, Harvard Business Review blogger Kyle Wiens wrote a post about why he won’t hire people who use poor grammar. The comment section became a veritable grammar smack-down, with over 1,400 people weighing in.

As a non profit focused follow-up to Wiens’ post, I did one on why I wouldn’t give to non profits that use poor grammar. Based on how much traffic that post got, it’s clear this grammar stuff gets people all hot and bothered.

Why would posts about things as mundane as commas, semi-colons and apostrophes unleash such a fervor?

Because in people’s minds, sloppy grammar amounts to sloppy work. And few people want to support a sloppy org, let’s be honest.

Grammar isn’t the only small thing that turns out to be a big turn-off. Here’s a list of the Top 5 Small but Deadly Mistakes to Avoid (if you want happy supporters):

  1. Failing to honor someone’s request to not receive direct mail: Really, seriously take them off your list. No excuses.
  2. Not sending timely thank you notes: If someone can’t remember making the gift for which you are thanking them, you’ve missed your window for a gracious, heartfelt, “we value you” moment with that donor. Bummer. Ditto for volunteers, advocates or anyone else who has done something nice for your organization. Apps like Red Stamp and the ongoing consistency of the US Postal Service can help you make this happen.
  3. Misspelling someone’s name (yeah, I know this is close to grammar but it merits its own spot): One time? Okay. More than that—especially for your most committed supporters—is poor form. Nothing says, “I can’t be bothered” like consistently writing Addams instead of Adams.
  4. Poor phone etiquette: If someone has taken the time to pick up the phone to call you, they should be treated well. From the first “hello” to a smooth transfer to a courteous sign-off (“Thanks for taking the time to reach out. It means a lot to us!”), the phone experience matters. Basic phone etiquette can go a long, long way to happy supporter-dom.
  5. Cross-channel inconsistency: Okay, this one isn’t exactly small, per se, but it’s deadly if you don’t get it right. With the advent of social media, keeping consistent across channels is a challenge. If I first meet you on Facebook and then I visit your website and it looks like it was last updated in 1999, I’m going to wonder what the heck is going on with you. Facebook says modern. Animated gifs not so much. (If you’re stuck on this, this post might help.) Ditto for messaging. If your board chair describes what you do in a way that is inconsistent with the brochure she’s left behind for you to peruse, this doesn’t instill confidence. It erodes it. Confidence leads to trust and trust is the cornerstone of both initial and ongoing engagement.

Some of these traps can be handled with process improvement, some are a question of culture and values and others are a matter of carving out time to get your house in order. Can’t tackle all five? Prioritize them from most egregious to least and, over time, work your way through the list.

Here’s to sweating the small stuff!

I won’t give to non profits who use poor grammar

Last week, Kyle Wiens wrote a post for Harvard Business Review that unleashed a torrent of comments (724, at last count).

Kyle runs iFixIt and Dozuki. He hires a lot of people. He gives every single one of them a grammar test. For him, it’s a litmus of a candidate’s attention to detail. If you don’t pass the test, you don’t get hired.

This approach wouldn’t work for everyone, Wiens admits, but it works for him and, boy howdy, did people have opinions about his approach.

Most didn’t disagree that grammar is a pretty good proxy for attention to detail. What bugged them was that, in their opinion, Wiens didn’t use good grammar in the article itself. Nor syntax. And his word choices weren’t always up to snuff. None of these things are earth-shattering. Irksome, perhaps, but not huge deals in the Grand Scheme of Things.

So why all the outrage? Everyone has their “thing”. Maybe yours is when someone uses “alot”. (The word doesn’t exist. It’s “a lot”.) Or “its” instead of “it’s”. Or maybe typos are like fingers on a chalkboard for you. These small things are a big deal to people. They represent something bigger.

A poorly placed comma may not fuss you a bit–but it’s not about you AND it might be costing you big time when it comes to engaging donors, volunteers and supporters. They all  have their “things”. Do you know what they are?