Four Common Communications Failures I See Too Frequently

Four Common Communications Failures I See Too Frequently


12 April 2022


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing about communicating with donors.

We’re Outreaching; Are We Succeeding?
Communicating with “People Who Give Money”


It’s been on my mind because I’ve been doing a whole series of Development Audits – comprehensive deep-dives into everything an organization does to raise money. Communicating with donors is a big part of that, and I end up reading through newsletters, eNews, appeal letters, and thank you letters.

So this week, I’ll harp on four of the challenges I see all too often:


Not Understanding How Green the Audience Really is

One of the tests I run on databases I study is a new donor test. What percentage of the current donor base is either a first donor or a first renewal?

If I asked you that question, would you know the answer for your organization? It’s an easy question to answer.

Would it surprise you to learn that many of my clients prior to 2020 were in the 40% new donor range? Two out of five brand-new? Plus, if your organization experienced the flush of new donor interest from COVID that many did, it’s probably an even larger percentage now.

  • These donors don’t know what an easement is.
  • These donors don’t understand why you can’t always go out and see the land that has been protected.
  • They don’t understand buy-protect-sell strategies.
  • They don’t understand “easement defense” or Terrafirma insurance.
  • Hell – most of them don’t even know how big an acre is.


If your primary communications media is aimed way over the head of your audience, what good is it?

I have advocated for years the idea of creating a special newsletter just for newbies. The “New Member Newsletter” might only be created and printed once a year, and it would be full of information that new donors need to know to understand the basic information in the regular newsletter. It might introduce the Board and staff with pictures and one-paragraph bios. It might take people through the basic concepts of land conservation. It would itemize ways to get involved and places to go for more information. It would be welcoming. And if it was only printed once a year, it could be mailed to new donors within days or weeks of their first gift – all year long.


Failing to Recognize Our Own Jargon

But I think we need to go further, too. We can’t write exclusively for conservation professionals. Write to your mother or a favored Aunt – someone who cares but isn’t professionally steeped in all this.

Jargon is the easiest place to see this – and the easiest place to improve. In our regular communications, we need to either eliminate the jargon, or provide sidebar explanations of terms. Consider the following paragraph I found in a recent eNews:


They started at stop 3 and went to the weir. At 11:20 am, water was roaring over the weir (top photo). The gauge was 640.2 at the weir and 15.99 at Main. Water was over the trail well before stop 11. From before stop 11 to the DNR cross, the levee was almost all under water, slowly flowing a few inches deep.


Beyond the basic idea that it was flooding, most donors will have no idea what any of that means.

Simplify the concepts. Define the terms. Spell out all the acronyms. Let people go to the website for more information. Communicate!

Pro-tip: Have someone close to you but not necessarily in the “family” read your newsletter before its published and ask them for feedback. Do they “get it?” Or have they joined the levee under water?


Failing the We/Us/Our Test

One of the basic ideas in fundraising is that donors are part of the story. To get this important conservation work done, we need lots of people involved: administrative folks, topical experts, professionals, volunteers, and members/donors. We don’t – or at least shouldn’t – talk about any of these people using “us and them” language.

“They” aren’t funding “our” work. It’s work we are doing together. And we don’t own them – they aren’t “our” donors.

Pro-tip: As an exercise sometime, reread something you wrote for donors a year or so ago. Go through it with a highlighter and mark each time the pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our” were used. Simply becoming aware of the problem will help mitigate it.

The message is NOT that we should avoid all pronouns. And it’s NOT that we should start overusing the “you” pronoun. It’s just that when these pronouns are used, we should take care that they always and explicitly include the reader. When they don’t, the organization is best seen as an “it,” and in most cases, the pronoun can simply be dropped. Consider the following paragraph, found in a recent land trust newsletter:


Our renewal letters should be in your mailbox in October for your 2022 membership. You can save us a letter by renewing now, using the coupon below. If you are not sure of your giving level in 2021, your designation is on the back of this newsletter. Thank you to all of our members for your support in this year of ups and down. Land is being preserved, great programs are happening, and we are so grateful that you are part of this mission. You have kept us going, and we are very grateful!


That paragraph could have been written for any number of land trusts I have met. Here’s a possible rewrite:


Your renewal letter should be in your mailbox in October for membership in 2022. You can use the coupon below to save both the letter and the postage. Your current membership level is on the back of this newsletter. Thank you for your support in this year of ups and down. Land is being preserved, great programs are happening, and you are playing a critical role in keeping it going. Thank you so much!


“Educating” the Public

This one probably rises to the level of a pet peeve for me. I am white, middle-aged, economically stable, and not intimidated by learning new things wherever and whenever I can. I am not offended when you tell me that you have something I can learn from. I enjoy it.

And as long as we are talking to white, middle-aged, economically stable people not intimidated by traditional educational models, we will be fine.

But step outside that narrow audience, and it comes across as white, middle-aged, privileged, and arrogant. Talking down.

When reaching out into non-white communities, we often talk about needing to listen first. Not that it’s bad advice necessarily, but the underlying assumption is that if we listen hard enough, we will find places where we can teach them to use our solutions to fit their problems.

They just need to be educated.


Consider this gem I found at Stowe Land Trust in Vermont:


If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

– Words used by Lilla Watson, Aboriginal elder, activist and educator from Queensland, Australia.


What if we conscientiously changed our language? What if we talked more about “engagement” or even “mutual learning opportunities” instead of education?

What if we learned to see that our liberation is bound to everyone else’s?


Cheers, and Have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by World Wildlife courtesy of


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  • David Lillard
    Posted at 10:05h, 12 April

    Good stuff, although I would sure like to find a different word than engagement! Internally, it is accurate. Externally, not so much. It’s like “advancement.” Donors are like, what? Advancing what? “I am advancing our engagement — together, I mean… I mean, I’m not advancing. WE are! You understand, Ms. Donor, don’t you?”

  • reneecarey
    Posted at 06:50h, 12 April

    I really like the framing of “engagement” and “mutual learning” over education. It really is mutual learning. We have to learn while we’re sharing information about our mission and our concerns.