The Catholic Fundraiser

Writing for Seniors: Help Them Understand What You Are Trying to Say

Posted by John Jensen, CFP on 2/6/19 8:37 AM
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happy senior couple_final-1Most donors to our organizations come through the mail. Direct mail donors are older. Simply put, direct mail is inherently a medium that attracts older donors. In my experience, the typical Catholic direct mail donor is in their mid-70s, with few under 60.

Older donors have issues that younger donors may not. As fundraisers, we need to write in a way that will be easily understood. It needs to be easy to digest and read. Read on to learn how you can quickly (and easily) do this.

Understanding Senior Readers

Donors over age 70 are much less likely to have gone to college. They often have received lower levels of education. This doesn’t mean they are less intelligent. It simply means that when they were younger, they didn’t have the option to earn as much formal education as the average Boomer received.

Beyond education, we’ve all experienced the massive increase in the sheer volume of information we are exposed to. If you are like me, you find it impossible to keep up with everything you would like to read and learn about.

What do we all do when this occurs?

We tend to gravitate toward the more digestible, easy to read materials. We jump first to things that we can skim or read quickly and easily. (This is why we all hate using instruction manuals.  They’re often far too dense to comprehend without a lot of effort.)

One Quick and Easy Tool

Most of us are not aware of the simple, painless step that will let us easily measure just how readable our letters are. How can we do this? Just turn on the “Readability Statistics” function in Microsoft Word.

To turn on readability statistics in MS Word, go to File, Options, Proofing and click “Show Readability Statistics.” Each time you run spell check, the software will evaluate how easy — or difficult — it is for the reader to read and comprehend your message.

This tool was developed by the Navy after WWII. With more complex weapons and weapons manuals, they needed to be sure the information could be understood by ordinary seamen. In doing so, they created a useful tool for fundraising professionals.

The tool will give you a score (1-100) based on the Flesch Reading Ease system. Shoot for a score of 60 or above. A higher score is better because that means it is easier to read. While below 60 requires more effort.

It will also tell you what grade level is required to understand the piece. Try to write for a 5th- 9th-grade audience. For direct mail fundraising letters, I like to keep it to a 7th-grade level.

It will also score your letter on the percentage of active and passive sentences. Hint: active is almost always better. Shoot for a low passive score and the document will be much more inviting.

Learning To Simplify For Senior Readers

Keep in mind that it is not a question of what our donors can read, it is what they will be most apt to read. If it is difficult, it will be set aside for “later.” For me, and for many readers, later just never seems to come.

Using this system is quick and simple, all you need to do is turn it on in Microsoft Word. First, it will identify spelling and grammar issues. It will also offer you important statistics such as the number of words, characters, sentences, and paragraphs in the document. Lastly, it gives you the average number of characters per word, words per sentence, and sentences per paragraph.

If you want your document more readable — shorten and simplify. Take one complex sentence and break it into 2-3 shorter ones. Break up long paragraphs. Reduce jargon and complex words.  It doesn’t take very much and can easily be done without having to dumb things down.

Try this for a week or two. You will quickly learn that you can make simple adjustments to make things much easier to read.

More Tools For Senior Marketing

Now that I’ve pointed this out, you are probably wondering what score I received on this article.  Do I practice what I preach?

Ok, here is the score for my 838-word blog. The reading ease score is 68.4, so comfortably above 60. It requires the reader to have 6.8 years of education to understand and it contains 0 percent passive sentences.

It has an average of 12.7 words per sentence. It also has 2.9 sentences per paragraph. You can decide if this is too easy or too hard for your audience.

When you are writing for seniors, it is wise to write in a way that can be easily read. With one tool and a few simple adjustments, you can ensure that your readers will understand your materials.

Want to learn more about marketing and communicating effectively with seniors? Join me for the NCDC webinar Senior Friendly Marketing for Planned Gifts on February 13.

Join the Webinar

John Jensen, CFP

Written by John Jensen, CFP

John Jensen is SVP & Senior Consultant for Sharpe Group, based in Washington D.C. With over 35 years of fundraising experience, John works with charitable organizations in Washington and across the country to design and implement effective charitable gift planning programs. He has a particular specialty working with national and direct mail based charities. A frequent speaker at local and national gatherings of gift planning professionals, he has served as a columnist and member of the editorial advisory boards of a number of planned giving publications. He was formerly the Development VP at The Nature Conservancy and the National Wildlife Federation. In those roles, he was responsible for major expansions of both planned giving and direct marketing. A Certified Financial Planner, John was also the Development Director of the Maine Audubon Society and the Executive Director of the Maine Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. He was the founding chairman of Earth Share and a 2 term member of the Maine House of Representatives.