The 3 Most Boring Words in Fundraising Appeals

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By: Gail Perry, non-profit consultant, best-selling author, and speaker. 

Today I’m sharing with you the 3 most overused, most boring and least useful words ever to be used in fundraising appeals.

There’s too much tired old schlock out there that needs to go. This is word-scholock that was boring to begin with!

I continue to see hackneyed phrases that have been used and re-used way too many times. I call it “nonprofit pablum” because it has no seasoning, no punch.

Nonprofit writing doesn’t have to be so boring.

Please, please ditch the “lofty” tone and treat me like your best friend.

You don’t have to talk down to me. And you don’t have to treat me with kid gloves. Remember that you’re not writing a formal letter to someone you don’t know. You’re writing to a friend. To a true believer in your cause. Just use plain talk. Please.

NOW. . . Drumroll, please:

The award for the most boring word ever to be used in fundraising goes to:

#1 “Underserved”


Goodness. Do tell me where the emotion is in this word. Tell me what it really refers to. Does it have any impact at all?

Many humanitarian and social service agencies use “underserved” as part of their daily nonprofit vocabulary. It’s a noble effort to add dignity to the people they serve, and that’s fine.

But it’s also “social service-speak.” It’s such a normal part of conversation in agencies that it invariably creeps into their marketing and fundraising materials.

And staff thinks it’s perfectly appropriate to talk to outsiders in these terms because it’s what they say every day.

But to those of us outside your agency, it means almost nothing.

Instead of “underserved” how about giving me a real word: like “desperate,” or “destitute,” or “needy,” hungry, lonely, scared, worried, anxious, frightened, starving.

Give me a word that grabs me.

A word that evokes an emotional response. A word that will open my wallet.

Never, ever use “underserved” in your marketing, website, brochures, mission statement, and most of all, your appeal letters.

It doesn’t belong there. Because it doesn’t really mean anything. It is professional jargon that belongs inside your agency – not outside. Using “underserved” to describe your work doesn’t help me understand what you do one bit.

NEXT. . . Drumroll please:

The next worst two words in fundraising go together:

#2 and #3 “Programs and Services”


Gosh, what would we say if we couldn’t use the word “programs?”

“Please support our xxx program.”


“Please support our xxx services.”

Here’s the problem with “programs and services.” These words are watered down. They are overused. These words are not specific enough to have any impact.

They are a lazy person’s shortcut language. A lazy person who doesn’t want to go to the effort to REALLY describe what you are doing.

Here’s an example: say your organization operates a project to teach illiterate prison inmates how to read.

The lazy fundraiser would say: “support our prison literacy program.”

The smart fundraiser would say: “you can help illiterate prisoners learn to read.”

Now which phrase has more bang? Which has more energy? Which is more compelling? Which word can break my heart? Which would open my wallet?

And, note the donor-centered approach from the smart fundraiser (“you”) vs. the organization-centered approach (“our”) from the lazy fundraiser.

I was on the phone with direct mail guru Harvey McKinnon yesterday. One thing he said really grabbed me: Harvey said, “In a fundraising letter you have to do two important things:

1. Evoke the donor’s emotion;

2. Then ask for a gift.

These are the two most important elements of a fundraising letter.”

So where do our least favorite words fall? They deaden the emotion. So they are no use to you! I can’t raise any money with these words. And I bet you can’t either.

I dare you to see if you can write your fall appeal letter and NOT use any of these words. If you can do it, let me know!

Bottom Line: Use real words with emotional power, and you’ll raise lots more money.

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