How counting pronouns does (and doesn’t) make your fundraising stronger

When someone asks me to look at their fundraising letter and tell them my opinion on its effectiveness, one of the first things I do is count pronouns:

  • First I count all first-person pronouns (I and we in all their forms).
  • Then I count all second-person pronouns (you it all its forms).
  • If the first-person pronouns outnumber the second-person ones, I’m pretty sure we have an ineffective appeal.

This pronoun count doesn’t take into account a lot of other things: Is there a strong call to action? Is the story relevant and well written? Is it really aimed at what the donor can do? Is it being sent to the right people at the right time? Those things matter a lot more than what pronouns are used.

I have a feeling that if you wrote an appeal and got the pronouns out of whack, but you did everything else right — the appeal would do well. And I know for a fact that if you do a great job on the pronouns, but miss a lot of other things, and your appeal will not do well.

There’s no real magic in the pronouns.

The pronoun count only reveals one thing, and it does so in an indirect way. A lot of I and not much you usually indicates a fundraiser who doesn’t know fundraising is about donors, not the organization. They think you raise funds by telling donors how amazing your organization is.

Fundraising that starts with this fundamental error almost always has several problems:

  • A weak call to action (like “support us”) — or none, other than vague hints.
  • No story, or a story that has nothing to do with the donor.
  • Lots of jargon that makes it hard for the non-specialist to understand.
  • Does not connect with the donors’ values.
  • Doesn’t put action in the donors’ hands (“give us money so we can take action”).
  • Hard to read (high readability score, tiny type, difficult fonts).

So when you’re looking at an appeal, go ahead and count the pronouns. And make sure there’s more you than I.

But, more important, make sure you’re also getting the other stuff right!


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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