Remember Grade Seven?

March 11, 2013

Leah Eustace, circa grade 7

I have a confession to make. Are you ready? Pull your chair up a little closer. Okay, now lean in (I don’t want to say this too loudly)…

I’m a fundraising nerd.

Yes, it’s true. I’m a fundraising nerd. And you know what? I’m proud of it. Nothing turns my crank like a good statistic, and the best kinds of statistics are the ones that help me get better results out of my fundraising programs.

I’m constantly hunting for those little tidbits of knowledge. And, when I find one that resonates, I want to do a few fist pumps and shout it to the world. For this month’s article, I thought I’d share one of my favourites:

If you write your fundraising appeals at anything higher than a grade 7 reading level, response rates will go down.

That’s a proven fact, and it’s nothing new. So why is it that 95% of the fundraising appeals that land in my mailbox (and I get an average of ten a day) are written like an academic thesis? I’ve thought long and hard about it and here are my theories:

  • The poor copywriter had to pass their draft by dozens of people and, by the time it came back, it was all full of big words and complicated concepts. The copywriter is so fed up and behind schedule that they just sent it out as is.
  • The charity’s donors are much better educated and more sophisticated than ‘regular’ donors.
  • It’s really hard to write at a grade seven level.
  • They don’t know any better.

Sound familiar? Well, let me tell you what I really think (don’t I always?):

  • Too many fingerprints on fundraising appeals kill response. Every. Single. Time. Put your donors first, not your internal leadership, communications department, Board Chair (you get the picture).
  • I don’t care if you’re the Mensa Foundation! Education and sophistication have nothing to do with this. By writing at a grade seven level you aren’t talking down to your donors, you’re easing comprehension. You’re allowing them to focus on feeling your words, not reading them. And, the fact of the matter is, people give emotionally, not logically.
  • It’s true. It’s hard to write at a grade seven level. It takes practice and patience. But it’s worth it.
  • You didn’t know any better? Now you know better.

Have I managed to convince you? Excellent! Now here are my tips for increasing the readability of your fundraising appeals.

First, write like you speak. Use short sentences and short words. Avoid jargon and technical terms.

Second, focus on one message. Don’t try to mention every single program and every single regional office in your appeal. That might be what internal politics dictate, but you aren’t doing your fundraising program any favours.

Third, turn on the readability stats in Microsoft Word. Here’s how to do it: http://bit.ly/readabilitystats  (you can also check readability stats online by cutting and pasting text into the form at www.readability-score.com).

Are you coming in higher than grade seven? Go back and replace long words, simplify concepts, tell a story … keep doing this until you’re in the grade seven range.

Let me give you an example. Here’s a paragraph I pulled from a fundraising appeal I recently received:

We all need ABC hospital to continue to diagnose problems in their earliest stages and to fund innovative research that helps people in our community, and people all across Canada, recover. Anyone who has been informed of a medical concern knows how comforting it is to receive quick confirmation and follow up if treatment is necessary – rather than anxiously waiting for results to come back.

That paragraph reads at a 13.2 grade level. Let’s try rewriting it:

Susan hadn’t been been feeling very well, and had lost weight. Her husband, Bob, convinced her to see her family doctor, who sent Susan to ABC hospital for a few tests. Susan remembers that the wait for those test results was pure agony. She had trouble sleeping and jumped every time the phone rang. In the end, it turned out to be cancer but, luckily, Susan was treated quickly and is well on the road to recovery.

The grade level on that paragraph is 6.8. True, it doesn’t say exactly the same thing, but it does get the same message across. Plus, it doesn’t make my brain hurt trying to figure out what it means.

Read those paragraphs again and think about how your brain and heart engaged (or not) with each one. I’d be willing to bet that Susan’s story tugged at your heart strings and made you want to learn more.

At the end of the day, this month’s tip is simple to say, but harder to execute: write at a grade 7 level. And, for those of you who are wondering, this article comes in at grade 5.9. In fact, it would probably be even lower if my grade 13 paragraph hadn’t skewed the results.


This post was written by Leah Eustace, ACFRE, former Principal and Chief Idea Goddess at Good Works. It originally appeared at Hilborn: the leading provider of information to Canada’s nonprofit sector.

6 thoughts on “Remember Grade Seven?

  1. So often we think we are writing to people in our field who are already compassionate about our work. We assume they know more than they do or that ‘they’ are naturally committed to our success. KISS still works as a good base to practice…Thank you so much for insight. It really helps to go before our Board and use your messages as a reference. We are all preschoolers when it comes to Communications and Marketing. I just wish more people would accept that fact so I wouldn’t have to crawl so many walls…

    1. Great comment, and I completely agree. We are often too close to our own work to be able to write about it effectively.

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