Avoid These Mistakes in Your Next Fundraising Ad

I recently heard from my friend Ligia Peña, CFRE, Senior Development Advisor at Canada World Youth in Montreal, Canada and Fundraising Coach at Diversa Consultants. She Tweeted me a snapshot of a fundraising advertisement that appeared in her alumni magazine. Her message read:

#PlannedGiving marketing #fail from my alma mater @concordia Leaves me cold & I know what PG is!! cc: @MLInnovations

Before I even peeked at the photo, I knew I was in for a treat. First, Ligia used not one, but two, exclamation marks. Second, she made a point of copying me so that I’d be sure to see the message. She wouldn’t do that without a good reason. Third, she struck an unusual, harsh tone in her Tweet. Fourth, I know she’s a sharp development professional with interesting insights.

When I opened the photo (presented at the right), I immediately understood Ligia’s reaction to the ad. It is a wonderful example of how not to write and design an ad.

For starters, the headline shouts “planned giving” with the word “giving” in boldface. There’s a good chance that readers won’t know what the term means. As I reference in my book, Donor-Centered Planned Gift Marketing, The Stelter Company commissioned a survey that found that only 37 percent of Americans over the age of 30 are familiar with the term; I doubt that the stat is much different in Canada. Even if readers don’t know what “planned giving” means, they certainly know about “giving.” Why would anyone read an ad that they know is going to ask them to give? Rather than drawing in the reader, the headline rebuffs them.

I was going to write a critique myself until I learned that Ligia intended to so. I couldn’t wait to read her analysis. So, I pestered her for it. While she plans to post her critique to her own blog site, she’s kindly given me permission to share it with you now:


Last week, I received my alma mater’s summer magazine filled with interesting articles on recent studies conducted by students and professors, news from other alumni and what the university is planning for Homecoming. Ah, happy memories of Homecoming!

Until I get to page 17, and what do I see? A full page advertisement on planned giving. That’s expected. After all, this is the alumni magazine, and the advancement department should raise awareness among alumni on ways we can contribute to the future of the university.

However, if you’re a fundraising professional, you can see how this advertisement falls short on many fronts. 

According to Frank Minton and Lorna Somers, Canada’s foremost experts on the matter and authors of Planned Giving for Canadians, using a current publication is an ideal way to promote planned giving. To be successful they recommend using a “donor testimonial that includes interesting details about the donor’s background, relationship to the institution and reasons for making the gift, describe the gift vehicle and the benefits to both the donor and the charity” (p. 380).

While this advertisement uses a donor testimonial, it has left me cold for various reasons:

1.  Jargon: Fundamentals of marketing and communication dictate that your copy must be extremely simple so that anyone and everyone will understand what you’re talking about. Tom Ahern goes as far as recommending that you write at grade 6 level! This means jargon-free copy is a must. Sadly, using the term “planned giving” is jargon used in our sector but that no one else quite understands what it means. Why do we still use it? I don’t know — perhaps that can be topic for a future post.

2. Testimonial: In my years as a fundraiser, every testimonial I’ve received from donors were filled with happiness, compassion and love. They would focus on what the organization has accomplished, and how they feel about contributing to the cause they hold dear to their heart. Sadly, this testimonial is anything but that. I even wondered if Andrew really said those things because it’s such a rational and cerebral testimonial that leads with the tax advantages of the gift as opposed to the personal reasons behind his gift. Could he be a Vulcan?! (Ok ok, don’t take me seriously, I’m only being silly!!)

3. Title: Unfortunately, I must disagree with the tag line “Planned Giving an integral part of your financial plan.” Why? Simply put, a planned gift is an emotional decision driven by the donor based on how they feel about the charity, what it plans to do in the future and what legacy the donor wishes to leave. It is not a financially-driven decision. To focus so much on the financial benefits takes away from the true meaning of philanthropy and the culture of philanthropy professionals should be cultivating — in my opinion.

4. Picture: Admittedly, Andrew is a handsome man but he isn’t looking into the lens — at you, the reader. It makes it hard to connect or relate with him. The university also chose to shoot him standing in front of the John Molson School of Business — the newest building resulting from years of fundraising. The picture is cold and doesn’t convey any feeling whatsoever. My memories of attending Concordia University are around the people I met, the teachers I had, or the overall experience of attending university. Not once have I reminisced about the buildings!!

5. Contact: As professionals, we want to make the information gathering process as simple as possible but, according to the advertisement, if a prospective donor wants to learn more, they must visit the university’s website, then try to find the name and phone number of the planned giving professional. Wrong! Make it easy for your donor to give to you by putting your name and contact information right there.

My intent for this post was not to roast my alma mater. I love it too much for that. Instead, let this be a learning experience for other planned giving professionals out there. I would like to offer my “must do” list for good planned gift marketing: 

1. Lose the jargon and use plain language.

2. Have a donor testimonial that conveys emotions and passion. (Remember: sell the sizzle, not the steak!)

3. Have a catchy and simple tag line.

4. Use images or graphics that convey the same emotion the donor’s testimonial is sharing.

5. Include the name and contact information of the person to contact to find out more information or to make their intentions known.

That’s what Ligia Peña and Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

15 Responses to “Avoid These Mistakes in Your Next Fundraising Ad”

  1. I don’t like the “You’re never too young to give” line, either.

    • Christina, thanks for your comment. I was also troubled by that line. Like the primary headline, I think it would put-off readers. Also, the line is organization-centric rather than donor-centered. A better way to make the point would be to say something like: “You’re never too young to have an impact.”

  2. Thanks for your excellent blog, Michael, and thanks to Ligia for allowing your followers to benefit from her experience. I also like your response to Christina’s comment. Your suggested word change is brilliant. It conveys the image of something tangible (an impact) and that is more compelling than the open ended “to give.” I think the ad may be an example of what happens when the ad agency (creative folks) don’t “listen” to the client or “understand” what will motivate the desired action. Sometimes it’s just a template from their stable of previous work. And, the same can be said of the client who hasn’t “listened” to the donors and potential donors or if they have listened, they haven’t communicated their understanding to the creative folks. “gigo” 🙂 Thanks again.

    • Gary, thank you for your kind comments. I just noticed I forgot to mention another design flaw with the ad. The designers used a sans-serif typeface. That’s a typeface without the dangling bits you see with fonts such as Times New Roman. With print media, readers have an easier time reading serif fonts than they do sans-serif fonts. However, designers often think sans-serif fonts are cleaner and prettier and, therefore, they use them despite the fact they are more difficult to read! In many ways, this ad is simply not donor-centered.

      • The materials for my organization are targeted to many English-as-Second-Language readers. I didn’t know this before I started working here, but using serif fonts can be confusing for people for whom English isn’t their first language–especially if that language is not based on a roman alphabet. Our style guide precludes us from using serif fonts on anything–email included.

        I wonder, since it’s a Canadian university (in Quebec, no less), if that issue applies to their choice of font.

      • Christina, thank you for the cross-cultural insight. When writing and designing marketing materials, we need to be sensitive to the target audiences and their needs. That’s part of being donor-centered. I appreciate the additional information about font style.

  3. Good article. Michael, what would you suggest instead of “planned giving”? We are about to overhaul our website and the current navigation tag is Planned Giving.

    • Jan, thank you for your excellent question. I wish I had an equally excellent answer for you. Last year, I wrote a blog post that somewhat addresses your question: “Is it Time to Dump ‘Planned Giving’?” (https://michaelrosensays.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/is-it-time-to-dump-%e2%80%9cplanned-giving%e2%80%9d/). While “planned giving” is a term not often understood, it seems to be the best catch-all term we have. Given the relative strength of “planned giving” for SEO purposes, I think you’re probably safe using it as a tab on your website. More often than not, you’ll be driving traffic to your website. So, the folks you drive there will know that they’re looking for “planned giving.” Very few folks will be randomly looking on your site for planned giving information.

      Now, having said all that, I need to stress that “planned giving” is jargon. It may be our best jargon, but it’s still jargon. Therefore, we should strive to minimize it’s use when speaking to the public. With the public, we should talk specifics which will be more meaningful for prospective donors and eliminate the need to talk about “planned giving.” For example, if you’re marketing Charitable Gift Annuities, you’ll talk about “giving that provides an income for life” rather than “planned giving.”

      So, for your new website, I do think you’re safe with “planned giving” as a navigation tag. Within your planned giving pages, I encourage you to use simple langauge. For example, instead of a sub-tab for “bequests,” have one for “gifts in will.”

  4. It appears that in their vigorous effort to be “…doing something for [the] alma mater…” they forgot about “taking care of future…” prospects/donors by providing options – other than a URL – for the DONOR’s PREFERRED method of contact. Does anyone else find it ironic how often a URL is the only contact provided in PRINT media?

    Btw: I loaded the URL and “Andrew’s experience” was not there. Not much “peace of mind” in this effort.

    • Keith, thank you for your insight and cleverness. I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not try loading the URL. I should have. I thank you for doing so and reporting on what you found. I’m stunned that Concordia did not have the sense to coordinate their website with the ad. The ad sends folks to the website to learn about Andrew. Instead, they see a story about Tania! This is a sloppy mistake. Perhaps a redeeming part of the web page is that it provides a contact name and contact information for the Director of Planned Giving. But, why wasn’t that provided in the ad?

  5. First, I want to thank Michael for letting “rant” on his blog! I love these types of collaborations. And thank you to everyone who has commented. Your feedback has been very helpful and spot on. I focused on the major “infractions’ but I agree that the “You’re never too young to give” line, the fonts used, the disconnect between the article and the website are also grave offences. Tsk tsk tsk!!

    We are really due to have a serious discussion on what term can replace “planned giving” for a more donor-centric approach. Admittedly, I’m at a loss and welcome any suggestion anyone has to share. We can’t possibly do worse, can we?!

    I only wonder if I should send the link to this blog to the Planned Giving Director, I actually know her. I don’t want to offend anyone but it may be a great learning opportunity for the University.

    • Ligia, thank you once again for sharing your wisdom here.

      When considering whether or not to share a link to the post with the Director of Planned Giving at Concordia University, you might want to consider the following: Is she a smart development professional? If so, she will welcome the feedback and learn from it. Or, is she self-centered and more concerned about her own ego than the University’s future? If so, she’ll likely be miffed. You know her. So, make your decision based on whether you think she’ll use the information or be hurt by it.

  6. This blog was… how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally, I’ve found something which helped me.

    Appreciate it!


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