Words that Move Donors to Give

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 FeatureCharacteristics the Create Interpersonal InvolvementExample
Private verbExpresses mental thoughts and feelingsI felt my heart break;


I know you’ve helped

THAT-deletionSounds conversationalYou could tell [that] her 10-year old…
ContractionsAdds fluency to discourseI’ve never slept in a tent before
Present tense verbsDepicts immediate topics and actionsTears almost come…
1st person pronounsMarks ego involvementI could tell;


I know you’ve helped before

2nd person pronounsShows interactionWould you be willing to help?
AmplifiersMagnification of verbal forceFor Carley’s mom $20 is very precious
AdverbsReveals stance, qualities, feelings… truly unable…
Possibility modelsStates possible realityCould you help us once more?
Final prepositionsReflects 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.