Dumb it down. You’ll raise more money.

21 Jun

“What do you do?”

How you answer this question could make the difference between a donation and nothing.

“What do you do” is the first question most people ask us. If you hold their interest, they will dig deeper. If you’ve lost them within five seconds, there’s no hope of getting your story heard, even if it’s the most powerful story on earth.

Claire Axelrad makes this point well in her blog, Warning: Your Donor is Getting Bored

A well-known organization that I once worked with wrote, “The overall objective of our projects is to provide catalyst support in backward districts and create an enabling environment to decentralize at the state level and strengthen endowment of the local government with sufficient autonomy and resources to respond to local needs.” ***

Why do we talk like this? Three things stand in the way of clarity.

One, the fear of dumbing it down.
We want to describe our mission in a sentence that conveys all aspects and nuances of our work. However, all people need to know – in the first minute or sentence – is what you do that makes a difference to a person, a family, the planet or a community.

Get this first sentence or minute right. Only then will people take notice of what you say or write next.

Two, jargon – the secret language that only people in non-profits understand.
When we say “we build capacity,” to us it sounds like a perfectly reasonable sentence. To a layperson, it sounds like gobbledygook.

Three, the fear of not doing justice to our work. We want to make sure that donors get how crucial our work is, so we use big fat words.

Take a look at the sentences here.

  1. The children enjoy recreational activity every evening.
  2. The children play games every evening.

Which sentence paints a picture in your head?

As an intern, I worked with a ruthless editor who took great joy in crossing out large words for small (accommodate – hold/ seat; utilize – use), and fluff for straightforward phrases (with regard to – about; ahead of schedule – early).

If you simplify, it may not sound grand. But people will understand you. And they will give you money.

PS *** If you can guess correctly what the organization does, you might win a prize.


Comic by Jules Feiffer


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