Achieving "Goldilocks" Perfection in Your Fundraising Communications

Before you read any further, I have a confession to make- I am an English major.

Not I was an English major, but I am one. No, I'm not still working on my degrees- I finished them long ago (yay!). But, once a fusspot, always a fusspot-at least when it comes to language.

Which is why it might sound odd when I tell you that you need to be less formal in your fundraising communications, not more. When I say informal, I do not mean lazy, or imprecise-you're not excused from the rules of proper grammar. Those rules still matter, and they always will (sorry, but you really did need to pay attention in English class!).

What is important, is to make sure your writing is accessible and friendly. The last thing you want to sound like is a walking textbook full of arcane, lengthy, dense prose. Your donors have very limited patience for your writing, whether it's a direct mail piece, your newsletter, or your annual report. Now is not the time to impress your readers with how many years you've been reading the thesaurus. Your writing can be just as elegant and eloquent-more so, even-if you keep it simple and to-the-point.

One of the greatest compliments I ever got about the publications I write, was when a co-worker told me many years ago, "reading our newsletter feels like I'm sitting down and talking to a good friend." It was a casual remark, but I was very flattered, and many years later, I still smile when I think of it. She could not have said anything nicer, and the fact that we achieved one of our main goals-to make our marketing communications more likely to be read and remembered-was the icing on the cake.

Here is an example from George Orwell, the author of the classic novels "Brave New World" and "Animal Farm." He takes a well-known passage from the Bible, riveting not just for its message but also its lyricism, and "translates" it into modern-day gibberish:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

"Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."

Ask yourself: which passage would you rather read? And which one would you rather have written?

Keep it clear, simple, straightforward and elegant. You're not trying to impress your 11th grade composition teacher, you're trying to be sure your donors read what you're spending time, money and energy sending them.

Talk to them like a friend, and chances are good, they will-and they will be.