Don't use these boring words in your fundraising appeals!

The 3 Most Boring Words in Fundraising Appeals

Today I’m sharing with you the 3 most overused, most boring and least useful words ever to be used in fundraising appeals.

Don’t use these boring words in your fundraising appeals!

There’s too much tired old schlock out there that needs to go.  This is word-scholock that was boring to begin with!

I continue to see hackneyed phrases that have been used and re-used way too many times. I call it “nonprofit pablum” because it has no seasoning, no punch.

Nonprofit writing doesn’t have to be so boring.

Please, please ditch the “lofty” tone and treat me like your best friend.

You don’t have to talk down to me.

And you don’t have to treat me with kid gloves.

Remember that you’re not writing a formal letter to someone you don’t know.

You’re writing to a friend. To a true believer in your cause.

Just use plain talk. Please.

NOW. . .  drumroll, please:

The award for the most boring word ever to be used in fundraising goes to:


Goodness. Do tell me where the emotion is in this word.

Is he “underserved?” Or is he just plain homeless?

Tell me what it really refers to.

Does it have any impact at all?

Many humanitarian and social service agencies use “underserved” as part of their daily nonprofit vocabulary. It’s a noble effort to add dignity to the people they serve, and that’s fine.

But it’s also “social service-speak.” It’s such a normal part of conversation in agencies that it invariably creeps into their marketing and fundraising materials.

And staff thinks it’s perfectly appropriate to talk to outsiders in these terms because it’s what they say every day.

But to those of us outside your agency, it means almost nothing.

Instead of “underserved” how about giving me a real word: like “desperate,” or “destitute,” or “needy,” hungry, lonely, scared, worried, anxious, frightened, starving.

Give me a word that grabs me.

A word that evokes an emotional response. A word that will open my wallet.

Never, ever use “underserved” in your marketing, website, brochures, mission statement, and most of all, your appeal letters.

It doesn’t belong there. Because it doesn’t really mean anything.

It is professional jargon that belongs inside your agency – not outside.

Using “underserved” to describe your work doesn’t help me understand what you do one bit.

NEXT. . .  Drumroll please:

The next worst two words in fundraising go together:

Get my attention with words that have power and punch!

“Programs and Services.”

Gosh, what would we say if we couldn’t use the word “programs?”

  • “Please support our xxx program.”


  • “Please support our xxx services.”

Here’s the problem with “programs and services.”

These words are watered down.

They are overused.

These words are not specific enough to have any impact.

They are a lazy person’s shortcut language. A lazy person who doesn’t want to go to the effort to REALLY describe what you are doing.

Here’s an example: say your organization operates a project to teach illiterate prison inmates how to read.

The lazy fundraiser would say: “support our prison literacy program.”

The smart fundraiser would say: “you can help illiterate prisoners learn to read.”

Now which phrase has more bang? Which has more energy? Which is more compelling? Which word can break my heart? Which would open my wallet?

And, note the donor-centered approach from the smart fundraiser (“you”) vs. the organization-centered approach (“our”) from the lazy fundraiser.

Where is the emotion in your fundraising appeal?

I was on the phone with direct mail guru Harvey McKinnon yesterday.

One thing he said really grabbed me:

Harvey said,

“In a fundraising letter you have to do two important things:

1. Evoke the donor’s emotion.

2. Then ask for a gift.

These are the two most important elements of a fundraising letter.”

So where do our least favorite words fall?

They deaden the emotion. So they are no use to you!

I can’t raise any money with these words. And I bet you can’t either.

I dare you to see if you can write your fall appeal letter and NOT use any of these words.

If you can do it, let me know!

Would you like for me to critique your fall appeal letter?

I am going to offer some time slots for the next few months for 15 minute review sessions to help you sharpen your appeal. Be on the lookout for an announcement about that in next week’s blog.

And if you need more help pulling together those year-end appeal letters, join my INSIDERS in August for three master classes with the experts. Tom Ahern, Harvey McKinney and I will guide you to write the most compelling, successful letter you’ve ever  created. Find out more here.


Use real words with emotional power, and you’ll raise lots more money.

What other words do we need to avoid in fundraising? Let’s have some fun and create a list of them!

Share your suggestions for Top Words to Avoid in the comments box below:

  • Sandy

    Great stuff Gail!  I completely agree that vague language bores donors to tears.  The more we can engage our readers, the more likely they’ll give.

    Sandy Rees

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Sandy! Yup, there’s way too much boring stuff out there and then we wonder why donors don’t respond!

  • Jenny

    I would love to see a comparison list for more effective options. Example: Instead of using underserve use…

  • Jenny

    I would love to see a comparison list for more effective options. Example: Instead of using underserve use…

  • Jenny

    I would love to see a comparison list for more effective options. Example: Instead of using underserve use…

  • Deanna

    I just updated our website language to reflect this way of speaking!

  • Andy Robinson

    Happy birthday, Gail.
    If this is what “venting” sounds like, bring it on. No need to wait another year.

  • Genevieve

    First, Happy Birthday Gail! Today, you get special license to get up on a soapbox and tell it like it is. Yes, you are right on track as usual. Loved your “lazy” vs. “smart” fundraiser example. Illustrates the point beautifully.  

  • First, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Gail!
    second, YES, YOU are DEAD on with this blog!
    love, k

  • Christina Marino

    Great Tips & Happy Birthday!

  • Sharon Murrah

    Happy Birthday Gail.  Perfectly said!  I look forward to your critique of my Annual Giving Campaign appeal letter.  You gave me some ideas a few months ago that I tried to implement.  I’m sure there will be more tweaking:)  Thanks for all your great advice.

  • Sara

    Like, like, LIKE! Unless I do a mass mailing at one time, which is rare, none of my written correspondence is exactly the same. Keeps things fresh and makes ME more interested in what I’m writing and trying to convey on paper. My #1 favorite: “You don’t have to talk down to me.” Thank you! Get real with your donors because what you’re trying to save/help/cure, etc. is REAL.

  • Brian


  • Vicky Tosh-Morelli

    One could get into the reasons why non-profits/govt use the term “underserved” but you’re right (as you so often are) that it doesn’t evoke any emotion. The challenge is finding the way to describe the population you serve without making them sound pathetic and helpless. Sure if you’re talking about puppies and kittens, it’s easy, but when you are talking about otherwise capable adults who are battling breast cancer it’s more difficult take away their strength, make them sound weak and helpless in order to make a case for support.

  • Samlaprade

    First … Happy birthday Gail!  And secondly … YES, YES, YES!  Great article … keep ’em coming! 

  • Great!  It’s just the beginning of the list, but it gets us thinking, right?  My two anti-faves are “impactful” and “Make a difference!” 

  • Dana

    I like your take on how wornout words can be given a makeover. Having lived through the mutations, I think maybe an early term for those we served in SS was “culturally deprived”. No culture. Fairly uppedity seems to me. Then we used under privileged. Maybe we wanted to admit some of us are privileged …even over privileged, we could admit. Anyway, I like you raised the point. I think the real concern you brought up for me is how do we communicate the need and still indicate the human dignity of those needing the services.

    I still, after three years on my DV board, find my husband asks “what exactly does your agency do?”
    Same question of a new board member this week. I know – we need an orientation for all new folks; probably seasoned ones also. I’ still trying to figure how to get some planning into fund raising – not that everything is not tied to everything ( ; -)

  • Andrea

    Great post, Gail!  Add “maximize” and “capacity building” among many others to your list!  Thx for this post.

  • Dana

    Me again. Trying to master this tiny keyboard ( ; – )
    I will appreciate you reviewing a draft letter when the time comes.

  • C. Clyde

    May I join the throng saying HAPPY BIRTHDAY?  Great thoughts, as usual.  My organization serves folks with financial emergencies–mostly low-income.  We use those words a lot.  We’ll try to become a lot more creative, thanks to you!!

  • Lgreif

    Happy Birthday Gail!  Thanks for this great critique of something so many fundraisers still do.  I call it the “blah, blah, blahs”.

  • winston

    Right on!  More:

    financial resources

    doing anything one anything at a time — changing the world one family at a time…saving the planet one tree at a time…..saving the future one child at a time…..rebuilding communities one house at time…..blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

  • Lslick

    Happy Birthday!! I’ve been guilty of using all of those words — but that was before my training with you!  My addition to the avoidance list is the phrase “now more than ever.”

  • Meena

    how true!

  • Chris Johnson

    Awesome blog!

  • Anonymous

    Great list Winston! thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Sara, you are smart to keep things fresh when you are writing to your donors!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Sara, you are smart to keep things fresh when you are writing to your donors!

  • Anonymous

    Jenny – it would be fun to do a “before” and “after” on a boring letter. If anyone wants to submit a letter for a makeover, send it to me!

  • Anonymous

    Jenny – it would be fun to do a “before” and “after” on a boring letter. If anyone wants to submit a letter for a makeover, send it to me!

  • Anonymous

    thanks Chris!

  • Anonymous

    thanks Chris!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the addition of “now more than ever.” You’re right – it’s so stale!

  • Anonymous

    Yup, amazing how easy it is to get lazy!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much and good luck on your “word overhaul!”

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Dana! Be on the lookout for the sign up offer next week if you want me to review your letter. 

  • Anonymous

    Oh yes, two more deadly words!

  • Anonymous

    Wow, if your agency can’t explain what it does easily – I think there is some serious messaging work to be done!

  • Anonymous

    Awright! Two terrific additions to the list of “no-no’s!”

  • Anonymous

    thank you!!

  • Anonymous

    Vicky you are so right. But we can say these are brave, capable adults who have found themselves in a frightening situation where they do actually need some help. That makes my own heart open for sure, because I can picture myself right there.

  • Anonymous

    Oh wow, great additions to the list!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Sharon! 

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Kimberly and Christina!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Andy, I just might get on a roll! : )

  • Anonymous

    Thx Genevieve – glad you liked the lazy vs smart example. It really is helpful to actually show how to do it differently. 

  • Jeff

    Happy Birthday!

    So, ends up that i am very guilty of overusing “programs”; I will fix that for this year’s campaign.

  • Liz Wheeler

    Please add to this boring/impersonal list:  “I am writing to tell you blah blah blah.”
    The use of personal pronouns in this instance is so boring and redundant.  You’ve got the letter in hand, obviously written by someone and now they’re telling you something you already know! — “The purpose of this letter” is equally bad.  
    Hope your birthday was lots of fun, Gail.  Many thanks for your many helps!

    Liz Wheeler

  • alysa

    Can you consolidate all these in a consolidated listing… I think all these contributions were very appropriate.  I am a new volunteer to the “fund raising” and would find that very useful.

  • Jpastula

    I always read your comments…thanks, good stuff!

  • Gratcliff

    Hi Gail,
    HAPPY BIRTHDAY and many you have many, many more!!! I am currently in the Charlotte airport waiting to catch a plan. Would love to join you for a “Porch Party” but must fly to Lakeland. Hope your day is MARVELOUS DARLIN’
    Gay Ratcliff

  • Anonymous

    You’re welcome! 

  • Anonymous

    Hi Gay! Hope the weather’s ok in Charlotte and that you manage to take off. My porch party was terrific – rounded up about 40 folks on the spur of the moment for an impromptu party. After all it was my bday!

  • Anonymous

    Hi, thanks for the suggestion and I am definitely planning to consolidate these into another blog post. It will be really interesting!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Liz, thanks and yup, that is a lame way to begin a letter. 

  • Anonymous

    Jeff, let me know what you come up with.

  • Debbie E.

    Thanks, Gail. Always instructive! And something I learned in my first development job forever ago and still holds true today:  the best way to turn off the donor is to (over) use “I” in the acknowledgment.  “I” reflects the signer, “You” reflects the donor!  It’s about them!

  • JC

    Did anyone say “On behalf of..” yet? Ugh! 

  • Vicky Tosh-Morelli

     An excellent response. The reason why I worship the blog on which you blog-ify!

  • Chelsea

    I hate, hate, HATE “On behalf of.”  I’ve prohibited its use in our organization.  Ughhh…  

  • Chelsea

    Annnnd THAT’s why you’re the expert!  Excellent response.  Could’ve never come up with that myself!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Chelsea, you are sweet!

  • I think half of the words my clients use are either jargon or boring.

  • gailperry

    oh my, that made me laugh in sympathy!

  • Love your succinct examples! I’m so tired of the “mission statement” language that permeates nonprofit communication. It’s all too easy to forget that nonprofits are, at their core, about humans.

  • gailperry

    Thanks – we all need to ditch this awful jargon, don’t we?

  • Emily Johnson

    I get so tired of using the word support – what are some more interesting alternatives?

  • Terri Lynn Sullivan

    i was really captured by Gail’s insightful reflection on the frankly overused word “underserved”. I could not agree more….and in fact, it gets to a point in our society the so called “underserved” are given more funds than others based on such nonprofit pablum. Hence in turn making those of us considered so “affluent” because, well, we live up in these beautiful hills and have kids going to school with very involved parents that fundraise like crazy–became more the “underserved”! I do feel however, that building “sustainable” systems is a good world to use in fundraising. Please fill me in Winston on your thoughts as to why that too, may be looked upon as ho-hum beating the nonprofit drum? I have open ears and mind!

  • karo

    Nope. You are not underserved. The affluent (or “affluent,” cause I’m sure there is a distinction there unimportant to me) are not underserved, nor are people who live in unhilly areas or “uninvolved” working parents given more funds than others. Thanks.

  • vicky

    Interesting,I want to learn more about fundraising but i find three words irritating in my country(Uganda),’strengthening’,’Institutionalizing’ and ‘decentralization’. I just cannot understand what they mean!

  • Vicky – those are terrific “boring” words – how awful. How can you really raise money when you use words like institutionalizing – whew!

  • Meredith Monaghan Bruder

    Gail is it too late to get help with an event fundraising letter? I love what I have been reading on your blog. I run a non profit for animals, and I am the worst at asking for money! If there is a fee, I am willing to pay it!
    Please let me know!
    Thank You!

  • Hi Meredith! Thanks for asking – I do have a service where I’ll work with nonprofits to edit their appeal letters.

    you can read about it here:

    Happy to help you!