How, What or Why? Your Nonprofit’s Donor Messaging Should Focus on This.

It’s that time of the year—we’re busy making plans for the year ahead, setting goals, and calendaring things out—and doing it all with the feeling that anything is possible. It’s a nice feeling. 

Many of you are busy planning your fundraising activities for the year: crafting the strategies you’ll use and tactics you’ll deploy to acquire more donors, retain the ones you have, and close more gifts. One critical component of your success relies on an aspect that sometimes gets overlooked—your messaging.

Is the content in your direct appeals working? What about your email messaging? And don’t forget your acknowledgment letters. 

What should your donor messaging focus on to be successful?

Not on the what.

I see a lot of planned giving messaging focused heavily on the “what”. What is planned giving? What are the types of planned gifts?

Educational content is valuable and has its place, but content that focuses too much on the what often forgets the why. The passion for the nonprofit’s mission is, well, missing.

And not on the how.

The how is a close cousin to the what. But with the how, we can find ourselves knee-deep in the minutia of giving vehicles—CGAs, IRAs, CLTs, CRTs, DAFs, etc. This type of messaging comes across as transactional, leaving donors feeling overwhelmed and disconnected.

Worse, as Dr. James explains in Words that Work, the more technical we get, the less interest donors have.

Tip: Save the what and how of planned giving for your calls-to-action. Offer your supporters more information by asking them to complete an online form or send back a reply card to receive a brochure, guide or some other type of collateral. Doing this, you’ve kept your mission front and center while getting people interested now to raise their hands.

Instead, focus on the why.

The why is where the passion lies.

Charitable giving is how donors connect to the meaning they’re searching for, the legacy they want to leave, and the difference they hope to make. Often, that connection starts with the stories you tell about the cause, the people, the places and the animals you serve: why you do what you do and why their help is needed and valued.

Use your content to build and reinforce connections with your donors, to form a family-like relationship—not a contractual one, existing on the strength of the what and how of giving. Dr. James reminds us that “Simple, conversational, family words work. They match the social, emotional, empathy systems. This encourages giving. Formal, contract, finance words don’t. They trigger the math, logic error-detection system. This can block giving.”


It’s a good idea to have a handful of willing participants from your target audience read your content and provide feedback. (You are generally not your own audience, and it can be hard to get out of your own way.)

Listen to what they tell you. Were they moved? Did they feel connected to your mission? Did they understand why you exist, why your work matters and why you need their help? Would they consider making a gift after reading your message? If the answers are yes, you’ve done your job.

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