Words that Move Donors to Give | npENGAGE

Words that Move Donors to Give

By on Dec 8, 2010


Words that evoke interpersonal involvement move donors to give, but according to a recent doctoral dissertation on fundraising language, the industry does a poor job at it.  Frank C. Dickerson, Ph.D. used corpus linguistics to review and measure fundraisers’ letters to donors.  He found that we write more to inform rather than involve and concluded that the former is ineffective. 

Twenty-three linguistic features rose to the surface of effective written solicitations.  Dickerson suggests that by using these features we would raise more money because we are connecting through interpersonal involvement.

Review the chart below to see how parts of Dickerson’s sample letter “Help Send Carley to Camp” are constructed.  The letter can be read in its entirety here.

Linguistic Feature Characteristics the Create Interpersonal Involvement Example
Private verb Expresses mental thoughts and feelings I felt my heart break;

I know you’ve helped

THAT-deletion Sounds conversational You could tell [that] her 10-year old…
Contractions Adds fluency to discourse I’ve never slept in a tent before
Present tense verbs Depicts immediate topics and actions Tears almost come…
1st person pronouns Marks ego involvement I could tell;

I know you’ve helped before

2nd person pronouns Shows interaction Would you be willing to help?
Amplifiers Magnification of verbal force For Carley’s mom $20 is very precious
Adverbs Reveals stance, qualities, feelings … truly unable…
Possibility models States possible reality Could you help us once more?
Final prepositions Reflects surface reduction … simply don’t know where it would come from

You can read Dickerson’s article here to see the entire list of linguistic features and see the full “Carley” letter as well as an example of a similar letter that is highly informational and therefore ineffective.


Katherine Swank, JD, senior consultant at Target Analytics, a Blackbaud Company, helps nonprofits apply statistical analytics and donor research to their fundraising efforts with an emphasis on planned gifts. She has raised nearly $250 million for mission funding during her nonprofit development career. Katherine is a retired affiliate faculty member of Regis University’s master of Global Nonprofit Management degree program, where she taught courses on wealth and philanthropy.  Along with writing for publications like Advancing Philanthropy and Philanthropy Journal, she is also a frequent presenter for industry conferences such as NACGP, AFP, APRA, and bbcon. Having grown up in a tourist destination in Colorado, Katherine has become an avid world traveler and is exploring her way through the 1,000 places to see before you die, albeit slowly.  Connect with her on Twitter @KatherineSwank.

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