One of the most important ways of maintaining donor trust is to vet your charity’s fundraising communications, so you can be sure they are accurate and never misleading. Unfortunately, this basic action step can be overlooked in an increasingly-competitive fundraising marketplace. Appeals that focus heavily on provoking a powerful donor response can sometimes unintentionally mislead people, if not carefully crafted. Checking facts and figures, avoiding exaggerations, and considering the overall impression delivered by an appeal’s design will help you to build a persuasive fundraising case in a way that will protect donor trust – and help safeguard your charity’s reputation.

This issue was spotlighted this summer in a July 19th press conference held at the Washington DC offices of the Federal Trade Commission which also included participation by state Attorneys General, state government regulators of charities, and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. Titled “Donate With Honor,” this initiative featured the announcement of multi-state actions taken against a number of veterans’ organizations accused, among other things, of distributing misleading appeals. This recent regulatory event reminds us that while charity speech is protected by the First Amendment, the First Amendment does not protect solicitations that provide a false or misleading impression on how contributions will be used. A number of the regulatory actions reported on July 19 also demonstrated that charity board members and leaders may be held legally responsible for misleading fundraising solicitations. 

Your nonprofit’s appeal is the fundamental way of informing a donor about what he or she most wants to know: how you will use the donation.  For this reason, it is well worth your time and effort to make sure that all your fundraising requests include a basic description of your organization’s mission and program services, as well as clear information about how the donation resulting from a specific appeal will be used. Omission of these material facts can sometimes lead appeal recipients to draw inaccurate conclusions about the charity’s activities and the expected use of their contributions.  

Emotional stories in appeals can help to capture donor interest and demonstrate the impact of your charity’s programs. Impact stories that feature a specific individual are a very common and successful way of motivating contributors to make a gift. Of course, these stories need to reflect what happened accurately and avoid giving undue emphasis to the experience of a single client.  If a story is being used to demonstrate impact, it should also relate to recent events instead of achievements that are now well in the past. 


Here's a simple rule that can help any charity avoid fundraising misfires that could lead to trouble: if you say something in an appeal, be ready to prove it with documentation.  If you can’t prove it – just don’t say it.  This rule can be usefully applied to stories, facts, figures, impact claims, and appeal designs.  Keep this maxim in mind, build it into your fundraising practices - and you will already be on the path to better solicitations. This is a great start.  But there is more you could know.

On September 27th, the Foundation Center will present a webinar entitled Fundraising Appeals – How Not to Mislead Your Donors. This webinar will discuss verifying and disclosing relevant facts about appeal elements such as impact stories and finances – and show how doing this can strengthen your “internal controls” for appeals. Register today!

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