Understand your audience
Effective fundraising communications start with a thorough understanding of your audience.
Start by consulting Tandem records, a donor’s relationship manager, stewardship staff and University Marketing & Communications colleagues to gather data about your audience’s communication preferences. Whether you’re communicating to one person or a whole group, ask:
- Who is my audience?
- What do they care about?
- What is their relationship to the UW?
Collecting this information will help you answer the key question: What type of information will most effectively motivate my audience to act?
Are they motivated by stories of impact? Business-style brevity with hard data? A sense of community care or a desire to expand opportunity for others? Examples of previous success to demonstrate the UW’s track record? Quotes from University or volunteer leaders endorsing the idea?
Just as no two audience members are alike, no two fundraising communications should be exactly alike either. However, most fundraising communications at the UW share a few themes:
- Impact – highlighting change and outcomes
- Partnership – feeling part of something that matters
- Legacy – making a difference that lasts
- Passion – deep care for and connection to a cause
Reflect on which of these themes and ideas are most likely to appeal to your specific audiences and weave in the most appropriate ones.
Call to action
A call to action or invitation to invest should appear early in your fundraising communication. In 1-2 paragraphs, summarize the problem you’re trying to solve and the vision you share with your audience, making sure to highlight how your audience’s vision connects with the goals of your college, school or unit.
Then, state the “ask” in clear, specific terms and connect that to a sentence or two that sums up the broader impact. Use inspiring and (appropriately) aspirational language to tie the gift’s impact to the shared vision.
Focus the early portions of your document — the part your audience will read first — on summarizing the impact at the highest level and save a detailed discussion of impact for later in the document.
The type of call to action (CTA) you use in each fundraising communication piece depends on the audience and goal of each piece.
- For high-level, vision and case materials, you can use a CTA that invites partnership with the UW.
- For an indirect solicitation, you can use a CTA that invites support and mentions the specific opportunity.
- For a direct solicitation such as a proposal to an individual donor, ask directly. You can customize this language to your unit and the context.
Impact and ethics
When it comes to talking about impact in fundraising communications, aim to show rather than tell. Be specific about the changes that have resulted or will result from a gift or an action, and demonstrate why these changes matter to the students, faculty or communities who will benefit from the outcomes.
Whenever possible, demonstrate the UW’s compassionate spirit, drive for innovation, bold vision and belief in what’s possible. The stories, quotes and examples you select and the way you frame the shared vision are all tools to convey these values.
When discussing the impact of philanthropy, focus on the problems being solved rather than on the specific administrative tactics needed to address the problem.
We encourage following the principles of ethical storytelling, including those in the UW’s Equitable Language Guide and developed by Cami Aurioles and the FrameWorks Institute. Always listen to how people and groups want to be named and represented, and trust that each group is the expert on their own experience.
Always confirm the consent of the people whose stories and images you’re representing. It’s also best practice to notify people and give them an opportunity to affirm or revoke consent when the context of their story changes.
A note about data, superlatives and pride points: Consider the story that your statistic or data point tells in its broader context.
- Can you verify your data’s source? Is it recent data?
- Does your data or fact reflect its original context?
- Are your points of pride really saying what you think?
- What standards are you using to claim something is the “best,” “only,” “premier,” or “highest-ranked”?
Stewardship is another opportunity to share the impact donors have created at the UW and express gratitude for their generosity. As with proposals, appeals and other asks, the emphasis should be on the partnership created by philanthropy.
- When creating stewardship or impact reports, keep the focus on the work accomplished together and/or the community served.
- When thanking donors for their support, use a tone that is warm and genuinely grateful but not deferential or fawning, regardless of donors’ giving level.
- Philanthropy empowers possibility and acts as a catalyst. Avoid language that frames donors as saviors.
It’s important to be thoughtful about what we ask students and faculty to contribute to stewardship and impact reports. The power dynamic between students and donors can create uncomfortable situations for students.
Asking students to write notes to donors, attend events or give speeches should be done respectfully and with the understanding that their participation is optional.
UW fundraising communications documents use the UW’s editorial and style guide, which follows the Associated Press Stylebook and Webster’s New World College Dictionary. For medical and health-related topics, refer to the UW Medicine Brand Guidelines and Resources.
All UW fundraising communications should uphold the UW’s mission, reputation and growth as their highest priorities.
UW fundraising communications embrace equitable and inclusive language.
In fundraising, language helps build a more inclusive, welcoming community of supporters. Inclusive language helps us connect with each other, honor individual perspectives and remove barriers to belonging. Because language evolves along with culture, it is important to regularly refresh our understanding of how to choose words that best reflect our values and commitment to equity.
Voice, tone and style
The UW’s fundraising communications voice is personable, engaging and clear.
Beautiful language isn’t always the most effective form of persuasion. Donors with executive or entrepreneurial experience may prefer a concise, strategy-focused tone. Other donors may already be very familiar with the details of the opportunity and may only want a brief statement of the opportunity and impact their gift will have. Some audiences care deeply about legacy; other audiences prefer to focus on how their philanthropy is advancing justice for others.
You know your donors best, and you can use what you know of your donors and the brand portal resources to select the tone and language that will help your communications speak directly to donors’ interests.
Here are some additional considerations specifically for fundraising communications:
- Relationships and impact are the heart of our work. Opt for giving- or partnership-focused language rather than transactional language.
- Whenever possible, spell out acronyms and minimize jargon —but consider your audience’s knowledge when doing so. How familiar are your readers with language specific an academic topic or the fundraising sector? One reader’s jargon is another reader’s technical language specific to a field.
- In other cases, people making their first gift to the university might not be familiar with the language of fundraising, such as “current-use” or “endowments,” and it could be helpful to explain that language.
- Use asset-based language when describing the ways in which the UW supports students — particularly when talking about systemically, historically or institutionally marginalized students.
- Steer clear of language that suggests that systemically marginalized students don’t have the same inherent passion and drive as any others, or that the UW is supporting only the “the brightest,” “worthy” or “promising students” (since these designations are euphemistic and have historically recognized only the qualities those in power deemed valuable).
- Take care with how you employ words like “uplift,” “motivate,” “empower” and “discover [their] potential,” to describe students or their work, as these can falsely represent students as helpless or inherently lacking and pull focus away from the systemic barriers the UW aims to remove.
- Avoid using constructions that “expose” students to anything: career skills, new opportunities, knowledge. This is a deficit-based framing that positions students as needing to be given knowledge by an institution rather than as learners and sources of knowledge in their own right.
- Avoid using words that carry connotations of settler colonialism and forced displacement, such as “pioneering” or “trailblazing,” in any context. Opt for words like “groundbreaking,” “visionary” and “leading-edge” instead, or rewrite to explain how something is groundbreaking or leading the way.
- Select language that does not connote or imply violence.
- Pay attention to how you use war and fighting metaphors like “battling cancer” so that your language doesn’t suggest that success comes through violence.
- Avoid using “caliber” to describe the quality of the institution, of research or of the education the UW provides. This is especially important on a college campus, where gun violence is a serious and real concern for many students.
- Use “leading-edge” rather than “cutting-edge” wherever possible and avoid “bleeding edge” altogether.
Choosing images with an equity lens
Appropriate and high-quality photography adds substantial value to fundraising communications and enhances the UW’s brand. As you select images for your documents, here are some important points to consider:
- Select photos using an equity lens. Think about not only who you’re representing, but the stories that are explicitly or implicitly being told in photos.
- Images should represent and showcase the diversity of our UW community members. When selecting photos, look to represent a rich variety of intersectional identities.
- Are the photos depicting the positive impacts of supporting research or student success, or positive patient outcomes? Our fundraising communications style focuses on the possibilities that philanthropy creates—photos should reflect this in subjects and quality.
- Laboratory photos for biological and health sciences: all people need to be wearing full safety gear which includes lab coats, protective eyewear, gloves, full-length pants and closed-toed shoes. Long hair should be tied back.
- When writing to a patient or depicting a patient impact story, consider HIPAA regulations and avoid connecting an image to a patient’s personal health information, such as name, condition and more.
- Remember that even general photos may reinforce stereotypes if poorly chosen. Carefully choose your photos to represent the UW’s diverse student, staff and faculty, and UW Medicine’s diverse patient pool.
- Avoid making one identity the “face” of an experience, profession or condition.
- If an experience or condition has higher incidence among certain groups, strive to represent a broad range of experiences in your photos.
The CASE Library maintains this collection of online samples for all CASE members. The collection represents institutions seeking to raise funds from alumni and donors.
Samples include (note – CASE login required):