“All fundraising copy should sound like someone talking.”

Tom Ahern, renowned fundraising blogger and consultant, asks you to look at that case you’re about to submit. Does any of it sound like something a human being would actually say?

At this year’s AFP International Conference 2013, Tom Ahern has an important message for fundraisers writing their cases–or anyone who uses the power of words to spur others into action.

3 Elements of Your Case (No More, No Less)

Here are Ahern’s three keys to building an amazing case for your organization:

1. Make it big. 2. Make it simple. 3. Make your donor the hero.

Unfortunately, too many nonprofit fundraisers don’t abide by these maxims.

Instead, we make it small–focusing on the microscopic actions that we’re trying to do, instead of the grand emotional core.

We struggle to make the case simple and avoid jargon–and then have to fight to keep our bosses from editing it into a monstrosity.

Finally, we say “we” too often, instead of “you.” It’s about our donors–we aren’t the heroes. We can’t change things unless they take action first.

The Questions Your Case Needs to Answer

At the end of the day, your fundraising case is just an answer to a bunch of predictable questions. And many of those questions are simpler than you think.

Some common questions you should answer:

  • Why?
  • Why should I give you my hard-earned paycheck?
  • What’s in it for me?
  • If you wouldn’t be here tomorrow, why would the world miss you?

And here’s the secret: your case doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t need to be a bulletproof, 40-pager on every minute aspect of your plan and proposal. The best cases (the parts that inspire donations and actually get read) are almost always the headlines and the big, bolded ideas.

Crossing the Empathy Gap

Ahern believes that every great case has built in emotional triggers. And it’s these triggers that do the most work of spurring donors to action–not our jargon and our project plans.

Ahern references this quote by Richard Radcliffe, a thought leader in UK donor research: “Donors are staggeringly ignorant of the causes they support.” And the truth is, that ignorance is largely a good (or even essential) thing!

The donor doesn’t need to know the minute details of your project–they just need to know enough to understand the cause is important to the values that they already hold.

At one point during his presentation, Ahern addressed concerns from fundraisers about how to write to make their gritty, unsexy cause appealing to donors. Too often, Ahern says, the fundraiser is probably saying too much.

For example, Ahern explained, for a program serving recovering alcoholics, one of Ahern’s close friends is an alcoholic, so he doesn’t need many details to understand why it’s an important cause to support:

“I don’t need a lot of information to cross the empathy gap. Stop talking about yourself and start talking about me.”

Our fundraising copy and cases don’t need to be perfect. They just need to cross the empathy gap and connect to the values donors already hold close.

And the best way to cross that gap? Make it big. Make it simple. Make the donor the hero.