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Raising $1 Million May Be Easier Than You Think

How to Raise $1 Million

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Charming? No. Useful? Yes.
Data shows the surprising appeal of straightforward gift planning messages

By Bev Hutney

As fundraisers, our job is to find a balance between delivering the right message, providing information and offering motivation to inspire a person to make a charitable gift.

Those of us in planned giving sometimes try to veil the drier aspects of our topic – estate taxes, trusts and primarily death – in charming packages in an attempt to make them more palatable to the reader.            

While compiling data recently for a year-end report, I found evidence that suggests donors might have a greater ability to swallow the tough stuff, minus a chaser, than we realize.

Measuring Usefulness

Here where I work we use special analytics software to measure not only whether donors click on a particular article online or within an e-newsletter, but also how engaged they are with the content they’re consuming. In short, we gain an objective measure of how useful the reader found the information to be.
Based on 2009 data gathered from millions of online visitors to more than 1,200 charity Web sites, here is a brief peek at some of our highest – and lowest – performing planned giving articles, along with the percentage of readers who found the content engaging.

Highly Engaging

  • “Prepare Your Estate for 2010 Tax Law Changes” (88%)
  • “The Threefold Benefits of a Trust” (87%)
  • “Estate Taxes: Keeping Up With the Changes” (50%)


  • “How to Give Gifts Everyone Can Love” (23%)
  • “Tips for Discussing Estate Planning With Your Spouse” (20%)
  • “The Perfect Present for Mom and Dad” (18%)

We were a bit surprised by readers’ appetites for unapologetic, straightforward content, and also relieved that perhaps our writers needn’t worry so much about trying to cheer up dry topics.

Aside from mission-related stories, which outrank all others 10 to 1, readers pay most attention to articles on taxes and trusts. Attempts to oversell or inject charitable giving articles with excess sentiment falls flat.

So the next time you’re writing a strictly technical or educational piece without a lot of tender turns of phrase, feel good when the content is informative, useful, and easy to understand. It doesn’t necessarily have to warm your donors’ hearts.

More Messaging Winners and Losers

Here are additional winning and losing words, phrases and topics, as determined through analysis of our analytics data:


  • Your mission and your impact. By a large margin, stories about your mission, your donors and the people who benefit because of donations outscore all others.

  • Donor Stories. In headlines and link names, “Donor Stories” pulls more response than “Meet Our Donors.”


  • Spouse. Articles with the word “spouse” in the title exhibit a below-average usefulness ranking.

  • Give, gift and donate. Headlines containing these words tend to depress response.

  • Heritage society articles. We suspect that the below-average engagement ratings indicate that although promoting an active recognition society is important from a stewardship perspective, it may not be an effective way to cultivate new donors.

Bev Hutney is Director of Innovation and Research at The Stelter Company.


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