10 Words Your Donors Can’t (or Won’t) Read

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Cut Out Nonprofit Jargon to Reach More Donors

When you write a donation letter, you’re writing to a friend. This friend knows you, and cares about your cause enough to give you money.

You’re not writing to a co-worker. And you’re not trying to impress your boss.

Yet I see donation request letters all the time that use nonprofit jargon. Every industry has these words.

When jargon helps and hurts

Jargon serves a purpose when you use it with co-workers. These words show that you’re part of the team and you know something about your sector.

But when you use them with donors, it can say the opposite. “Your time isn’t very important to me, so I’m going to make you stop and read a lot of long words you haven’t seen since college.”

Or worse yet, “The way I’m using this word is unfamiliar to you because you’re not really part of the team.”

Your goal should be to make it easy for a donor to read your appeal. And you’ve already got at least three things working against you.

1) Literacy is low.

Every 10 years, there’s a study done of global adult literacy. The latest study found that over half (52 percent) of people in the United States have basic or below-basic reading skills.

That may not be surprising to you. But here’s the kicker.

For the first time, the study combined the upper two literacy levels into one. That’s the high school and college skill levels.

Why? There are so few people now (2 percent) with college-level reading skills.

And just 10 percent of Americans can read at a high school level!

2) Technology is making literacy worse.

Maybe you’re thinking, “But our donors are the 2 percent ... or at least the 10 percent!”

Fair enough. But I bet they have computers and smart phones, too.

Because we’re online so much, we scan for useful information rather than read things word for word.

This is especially true in email appeals. And it applies to donation letters, too.

What grabs people’s attention in our always on world? Microcontent.

  • Headlines

  • Subheads

  • Bold-faced text

  • Italics

  • Underlining

  • Lists

  • P.S. or postscript

These things might not make your donor appeal look pretty. But they will make it more readable.

3) There are some long words you probably can’t ditch.

If you work for a wildlife group, you probably have to say “environment” and “conservation.” Groups that work in the medical field may need to use precise medical terms e.g. Alzheimer’s and leukemia.

But know that these long words slow – or even stop – readers. If you haven’t turned on readability statistics in Word, do that now and you’ll see what I mean.

Aim for copy that is:

  • 0 percent passive

  • 60 percent readable or higher

  • 9th grade level or lower

And if you have to use a long word somewhere, make it up somewhere else with short paragraphs, short sentences and short words.

Here are 10 jargon words that make it harder for donors to read your appeal.

Alleviate

This words sneaks into phrases like “alleviate poverty” or “alleviating a patient’s anxiety.”

Say this instead: ease, reduce, lessen

Perpetuate

This word lurks in “perpetuate the cycle of violence” or “social media perpetuate myths that lead to depression.”

Say this instead: keep, spread, maintain, continue

Eliminate/Eradicate

Animal welfare groups “eliminate useless euthanasia.” Food banks “eliminate waste.” Doctors “eradicate smallpox.”

Say this instead: end, defeat, do away with, reduce

Innovative

Few organizations actually “foster a culture of innovation and excellence” or use “innovative, cutting-edge techniques.”

Say this instead: new, creative (or just explain why it’s novel rather than use adjectives)

Intensive

Education groups often have “intensive training.”

Say this instead: in depth, thorough, complete, sped up

Comprehensive

How about a “comprehensive organizational assessment” or “comprehensive programmatic approach?”

Say this instead: in depth, thorough, complete

Sustainable

This may be a useful term for conservation groups. But there are shorter ways to say “sustainable solution to poverty.”

Say this instead: keep going, lasting

Initiative

For example, the United Nations has a “global initiative to fight human trafficking.”

Say this instead: drive, effort, campaign, project

Implementation

The international sector often reports on the “implementation status” of projects.

Say this instead: carry out, perform, apply, achieve, practice

Capacitate

Nonprofits “capacitate marginalized populations” and engage in “capacity-building activities.”

Say this instead: build skills, increase knowledge, boost potential/power to act

When you write a donation letter, get rid of the meaningless jargon.

Make it easy for donors to understand and trust you. That’s the first step to convincing your friend to give.

Laura Ingalls is CEO of Abeja Solutions and co-creator of Beezable, a tool that automates direct mail fundraising. She’s produced for CNN, served as a humanitarian spokesperson in Iraq and led award-winning nonprofit and corporate communications teams. Read more from Laura.