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The Four Pillars of Donor Communications


I think by now y’all know I love a good four pillars—I've got the Four Pillars of Donor Relations, The Four Pillars of the Donor Experience, and our new Four Pillars of Donor Retention. Well, I've also got the Four Pillars of Donor Communications, and those pillars focus on taking our communications and defining what each communication's purpose is.


So, what is the purpose? What are our goals with the communication? Can one message have multiple purposes, or does it need to be singular? And what do we hope to get out of it? When you think about all the communications that we send to donors, they all boil down into four primary purposes. When we think of the “Pillars,” we should automatically equate these thoughts with “Purpose.” Pillar = Purpose.


The four pillars—or purposes—of donor communications are: Information, Persuasion, Impact, and Gratitude.


Pillar One: Information


Pillar number one is information. What kind of information are we trying to convey to our donors, to prospective donors, or to people engaged with our organization? And really, I would tell you that we want to try to keep most of our information to our website these days, and that information can sometimes clutter and disguise the importance of persuasion and impact.

Pillar Two: Persuasion

The Persuasion Pillar addresses the outcome— what we want the donor to do as a result. So, those communications are our solicitations, our invitations to events, and other call to action pieces. The pieces where we're persuading them to do something— volunteer, join, follow, give, you know those action words.


Pillar Three: Impact

For me, Impact is straightforward. Impact is, "Here is what your gift has done, here's the impact you've had on our organization, here's how important your generosity is, without you we could not do X. Your impact matters to us and here's the impact you've had on our organization."


Pillar Four: Gratitude


Gratitude is the desired outcome. We want our donors to feel gratitude from our communication pieces. We want our donors to feel good for giving, to understand that we appreciate them and that they feel properly thanked for their relationship and their generosity—their time, talent, and treasure.


What is interesting about the four pillars, is that a lot of the times our organizations try to combine all four things into one piece. Frequently, a newsletter is crafted to give them information, persuade them to give, shows impact, and thanks them. And then what ends up happening, is that communication piece doesn't actually fulfill any of those purposes. Because when you try to do too many things in one communication, you end up doing nothing at all. One of the things I want you to think about is that one of these can be your primary purpose and one could be your secondary purpose, but you can't combine more than two.


And honestly, some of these pillars shouldn't be combined at all. Many of you are know where I'm headed already— gratitude and persuasion don't go together. That is the old cardinal rule of no thasking.

Thasking is a word I made up a couple of years ago out of the thin blue sky! It’s when you combine a thank and ask in the same breath— it's the rudest thing in the world, and it's something we really want to avoid in our communications. Don’t ever put an ask in a thank you piece.


Truthfully, sometimes impact and information don't go together very well either. Examples of this are often found in gift acknowledgments where the information being communicated often conflicts between what a donor might need versus the information about our organization. But it doesn't really convey the impact of their gift. It tends to be organization-centered and not donor-centered. So sometimes those two don't play well together. Information and gratitude play well, persuasion and impact play well, but when you try to cross diagonally, those just aren’t meant to go together.


Gratitude and persuasion are especially opposing forces when it comes to uniting them in the same publication. That doesn't mean that you don't say you're grateful for their previous support when you ask them for their current support. It just means that you want to avoid asking in the same breath that you're thanking. For example, avoid putting an envelope in an impact report or a receipt, and avoid putting a “Donate Now” button in a thank you email. Being cognizant that there are four main reasons why we're communicating with our donor base and that sometimes those reasons don't need to be combined together in the same publication helps us understand why these four pillars are important. It also helps us understand that writing for each pillar is different and requires different skill sets.


Someone who writes for information may not be the person who writes for persuasion— e.g., the person that writes Wikipedia, our modern encyclopedia, may not be the person you want writing to persuade someone to do something as they may go completely factual and miss the emotional part. It's also why when one writes for impact, then you may need a different person to write for gratitude, impact and gratitude are more similar than persuasion and information, but you still want to think about this and be intentional. I often illustrate this by asking people to write a tweet, and they are always amazed at how hard it is to write for social, and how important it is to get that right. One of the things I like to do is hire magazine writers for my impact and for my persuasion because they're great storytellers. My newspaper journalists are used to more informational writing and are usually better suited elsewhere.

Just remember, when you’re thinking about the different kinds of communications you send to donors, you want to critically think about each piece in relation to the four pillars, and how it all impacts your organization. The Four Pillars of Donor Communications offer guidance to craft more effective messages to send to our donors, and, perhaps most importantly, remind us to make sure we put the best writers in place to do just that.


Want to learn more about this framework and how to apply to your work? My team and I will spend a full day teaching the Four Pillars of Donor Communications in person April 22-24 in Atlanta. Learn more here.

By Lynne Wester


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