Stephen Pidgeon: Donor communications need a bit more warmth

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

Donor communications from two charities recently warmed my soul. The detail and intimacy with which they were delivered will be commonplace one day, but not until charities grasp the importance of communication that is neither story-telling platitude nor an aggressive demand for yet another donation.

You would get the first letter if you sent a cash donation to Médecins Sans Frontières. It's a thank-you letter, but it's light years away from the bland nonsense served up by the majority of charities – "Dear Mr. Pidgeon, thank you for your kind donation of pounds X." Why do charities use such boring, predictable copy? Sadly, it's because many fundraisers don't understand the value of warm, intimate correspondence.

MSF's letter begins: "My name is Alex and I wanted to welcome you to MSF and to tell you personally how we will spend your money. I am a water and sanitation engineer." As a donor, that's exactly what I want to read about. There follow details of life in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the shining strength of the refugees crossing the border from South Sudan.

Throughout, Alex reassures me that my donation will be changing the lives of these proud people. And he ends with a sweet analogy. "If the volunteers and workers are in the front row of the MSF scrum, then you supporters are the back row. Without your weight and effort, everything would collapse," he says.

The analogy is pretty basic and the writing not particularly good, but it is real: Alex has made a genuine effort to make sure that I understand the importance of my gift to the charity. Apparently, the letter generates piles of further, warm correspondence. I'm not surprised – it shines like a beacon. And Alex actually wrote it himself.

The second is an excellent email from Simon Scriver, head of fundraising at the sexual abuse charity One in Four Ireland. He copies part of a note from someone the charity has supported, adding the simple sentiment "I thought this was lovely – I hope you do too". The note had cheered him up, Simon says, when he'd had a miserable week with a cold. "As you know, man-flu can be very dangerous," he writes.

That sort of intimacy, the humour and charm, is what's lacking when most charities write to their supporters. The current clamour to "tell stories" doesn't improve the quality of communications unless the potential donor feels part of the story – and without engagement, there will be no donation.

Of course, writing stories well is difficult enough. But making the copy run the gauntlet of a charity's approval process is a guaranteed killer. Any intimacy or warmth is driven out of it and the arid communication that results becomes just another demand for money. That's not communication – that's shouting. And charities do that a lot.

Stephen Pidgeon is a consultant and a teacher

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