Picture a potential donor scrolling through Facebook. We’ll call her Linda.

Linda is a middle-aged woman who cares deeply about social issues and her local community. While she typically donates to several different charities throughout the holiday season, her budget is tight this year and her attention is limited due to everything going on in the world.

How can your nonprofit organization create a message compelling enough to capture Linda’s attention and convince her that she should spend some of her hard-earned money on your charity? How do you get her thumb to stop on your Facebook ad and click on it?

With over 1.5 million registered nonprofits in just the U.S., taking the time to develop your message and unique viewpoint is vital all year round. However, it’s especially important during the holiday season. Nearly one-third of annual giving happens in December alone.

With all of that in mind, here are 11 steps for creating a compelling message for your nonprofit that you can use not just over the holidays, but all year round.

Illustrated envelope filled with hearts on a purple background

Step 1: Tell a story

While having a clearly defined mission in your messaging is important, you also must tell a story. You have to prove to Linda that her donation can make a real difference. Tell a story of how your nonprofit has been able to accomplish its mission.

For example, while working with Metropolitan Ministries to craft their holiday messaging and campaign, we found that focusing on the stories of the real-life families Metro serves played a key role in engaging potential donors. (Read the entire case study on how we exceeded their holiday giving goals by 10% here).

When telling a story, distill it down to the basics — the character (this can be a person or family), their struggle, and how your audience’s donations will help them overcome that struggle.

What does that look like in practice?

  • An email that tells the story of how one single mother, struggling to make ends meet and borderline homeless, was able to find food and shelter with your organization.
  • A Facebook ad that shows a hungry child and says that you can give her family a holiday meal this year.
  • A website page that shows 100,000 meals were served to families on Thanksgiving.

While that last example is a large statistic, in reality you should use numbers sparingly. Instead, focus on personal, individual stories that appeal to the heart. Research shows that emotionally-driven messaging is far more effective than analytical thinking.

Step 2: Create a sense of urgency

It’s easy to see an email or an ad about donating to a charity and think, “I’ll get to that later.”

Instead, creating a sense of urgency in your messaging means that you portray the need for donation dollars in that instant. How do you make Linda worry about missing out?

Set a timeline

Setting a specific start and end date for your campaign helps to establish that sense of urgency while also allowing you to use countdowns and other time-sensitive messaging on your assets.

Be specific

Showcasing immediate, specific needs — for example, a need to purchase 100 meals for hungry families by Christmas — is more compelling than generally stating that families will go hungry during the holidays. The more specific you can get about the impact of someone’s donation, the better.

Use time-sensitive language

Incorporate language like “now,” “too late,” and “today” to trigger a level of urgency.

Incorporate a matching campaign

Another way to create urgency and encourage donors to act is by stating that their donations will be matched only for a limited time. Showing how double the donation will make a tangible difference — 500 hot meals instead of only 250, for example — further inspires donors to act.

Create scarcity

Creating exclusivity — whether that’s limited seats to a charity event or premium giving levels — can create demand, especially for high-level donors.

Step 3: Be specific and keep it simple

It’s easy to overburden readers with statistics and information about your nonprofit. Distilling your story and impact down to the essentials is key here. Linda is being hit with a million marketing messages a day (okay, not a million. But it’s over 5,000 at least).

Linda needs to know how her donation will exactly make a difference.

So, instead of:
Every donation counts toward feeding children this Christmas.

Your donation of $50 will feed two families this holiday season.

Consider the tip of the iceberg

Another way of thinking about this is the iceberg approach, according to Network For Good.

Even though the World Wildlife Fund does a lot more than save the pandas, that’s the tip of the iceberg — the small portion — of their work that most appeals to WWF donors.

What’s the tip of the iceberg for your nonprofit? You can figure it out by learning more about your donors and testing what resonates best with them.

Keep it simple

Distilling your story and message down to what is absolutely necessary for the donor to know is critical. Show the problem, explain the solution, and call the donor to act.

While your nonprofit may deal with a wide-reaching issue that is difficult to pare down, such as child abuse prevention or saving the environment, remember to focus on the brief, specific impact the donor will have instead of going into the complexities of the problem faced by your nonprofit.

Make it easy to read

While keeping the words simple, concise, and specific is necessary, the layout, font, and photos that you use are also important in making your appeal messaging easy to consume.

When creating a fundraising appeal email, the email should have a clear flow from the introduction, the body, and the call to action at the bottom. Don’t overly design — instead, simplify the design and make sure it’s mobile responsive.

Step 4: Personalize the appeal

Personalizing your message when possible has never been easier with marketing automation tools and smart content. However, in addition to including the reader’s name whenever possible, simply using “you” more than “we” or “I” can bring a much-needed personal touch to your messaging.

For example, change this message:
We need donations more than ever to prevent child abuse in our community.

To this message:
Linda, children need your help. Your donation can help prevent child abuse in our community.

Writing in the second person places the emphasis on the reader and makes them a part of the story.

Step 5: Create a sense of identity

Make listeners feel like your mission is a part of their identity. For example, when public radio stations use the phrase “Listeners like you” in their donation appeals, they make you feel like a part of the donor community.

Establishing this identity is imperative in persuading someone to become a recurring donor. Creating a name and a brand for this group of monthly donors helps them feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.

For example, the organization charity: water has a community of monthly donors called The Spring, which helps bring “clean water to people in need.” The charity kicked off this program with an inspirational video and social media marketing campaign to bring awareness to their community.

Step 6: Choose a theme

Using a theme, especially for a holiday giving campaign, unifies your messages across platforms and gives you something to fall back on as you rapidly write emails or Facebook ads.

Again, consider what appeals most to your audience, and create a core messaging document that outlines how you can apply this message across different platforms. Your campaign narrative might be one general catchphrase or hashtag that encapsulates its emotion and overall idea. It could also include a detailed explanation of how your messaging appeals should be delivered and on what platforms.

Step 7: Use social proof

Throughout your messaging, using social proof makes you more trustworthy. You can demonstrate your credibility with:

  • Testimonials: Featuring testimonials from donors, sponsors, and people who have benefited from your nonprofit humanizes your appeal.
  • Seals of approval: Are you accredited by a third-party organization for your transparency? Displaying accreditations and seals of approval can heighten trust with donors.
  • Transparency graphics: Include simple charts of where your money comes from and where it goes. This shows donors how their donation will be used.

Champions for Children donation breakdown pie chart

Champions for Children, a Tampa Bay nonprofit organization, establishes credibility with their donors by releasing an annual impact report that includes how donations are distributed.

Step 8: Consider the channel

No longer can you send direct mail to a list and expect to meet your giving goals.

Now, your appeal messaging must be part of a multi-channel strategy, with each message tailored per platform.

Remember Linda seeing your ad on Facebook? Your message on this platform should include a short, specific appeal statement, a striking photograph, graphic or video, and a call-to-action that leads to a campaign-specific landing page.

Through each channel, you must maintain a cohesive message while considering the actions and thoughts of a typical donor on that platform. A nonprofit marketing email can feature a more in-depth, personal story than a Facebook post, and a letter can be even longer.

Step 9: Have a clear call to action

You want people to donate to your organization. Do not lose sight of that across all of your appeals. Add a donate button and hyperlink the text “donate” on ads, emails, and forms. Make it easy to not only donate to your organization, but also to become a recurring donor.

Step 10: Thank your donors

Your appeal messaging is not done after Linda has donated.

Remember to thank all your donors and explain the impact of their donations. Send your thanks in a timely fashion, and make them feel sincerely appreciated.

You can do this in a lot of different ways — sending them a thank you email or video, giving them a phone call, hosting a donor appreciation party, sending them a thank you gift, and so on. Make sure to keep it personal and follow up with your donors regularly to re-engage them as a part of your donor community.

Step 11: Find a strategic partner

As you can see, crafting a compelling appeal message is not as simple as writing an email or letter to your donors. Instead, it takes a storytelling approach that’s channel-specific, actionable, and measurable.