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Using solicitations to build trust

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Richard D. Waters

Recent research from public relations scholars has found that whether an individual will donate to a nonprofit can be predicted based on the level of trust the donor feels toward the organization. 

That means nonprofits should use every communication with current and potential donors to demonstrate their trustworthiness – and that includes fundraising-appeal letters. 

Although the primary point of the solicitation letter is to outline the organization’s current fundraising needs, they can also be used to build a group’s credibility and demonstrate their successes. 

That can be done through a judicious use of references that establish the legitimacy of their causes and through signals that they are capable of resolving the problems. 

A recent content analysis published in “Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly”reveals the top strategies nonprofits are using in their direct mail appeals. 

To demonstrate the organization is addressing a legitimate cause, nonprofits most often highlighted their connections to the federal government, rather than talking about their institutional successes. 

For example, nonprofits were more likely to highlight that they were recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a certified nonprofit organization and that this distinction gave them the ability to offer individuals tax deductions in exchange for charitable gifts.

While this information can be used to demonstrate the organization’s tax status, groups also frequently chose to highlight their connection to government funding agencies and private foundations. 

By stressing that these institutions reviewed the nonprofits’ programs and services and authorized funding, charitable groups sought to convince individual donors to contribute as well.

Nonprofits also highlight other connections to demonstrate they are trustworthy. 

They often point out their leaders’ and board of directors’ talents in providing guidance for the organizations’ programs and services.  Additionally, nonprofits frequently recognize their celebrity supporters, whether those celebrities are local, state, national or international figures, in their efforts to show they are worthy of support.

Surprisingly, nonprofits highlighted these various connections more than their programmatic accomplishments and their history. 

But that doesn’t mean such a strategy cannot be successful in developing trust with donors. 

The researchers, who analyzed the fundraising appeal letters, encouraged organizations to use quantitative measures to demonstrate their past achievements and the percentage of funds spent on administration and fundraising. 

Testimonials from people who have been helped by the organization also give organizations the ability to demonstrate their effectiveness. 

And excerpts from positive news coverage can also be used to talk positively about nonprofits’ work.

Finally, the research team concluded that one of the best ways a nonprofit can build trust is by emphasizing that it does not solely want a cash donation from the individuals receiving the appeal letters. 

By offering other options for getting involved, such as volunteering or speaking openly about the nonprofit, they demonstrate they are committed to getting the community focused on addressing the mission and goal of the organization. 

Nonprofits that recognize these different ways of building trust with their donors are more likely to have successful annual-giving appeals.


Richard D. Waters is an assistant professor in the department of communication, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, at N.C. State University.  

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