Sean Chisholm

How Much Does Language Matter In Fundraising?

Sean Chisholm

Director of Marketing

I recently wrote about some of the research that’s been done on “mirror neurons” and how the language you use in your fundraising appeals can help create a sensory experience for readers. With thoughtful selection of language you can tap into your readers’ sensory systems, helping draw them into your narrative and engage them emotionally. Well, considering the fact that I just wrote about this, it probably comes as little surprise that I tend to think that the words you choose are a very important determinant of the success of your fundraising efforts. I might be biased because I spend so much time writing for this blog, but I like to think that words matter.

Sure there are lots of other important factors that help determine the success, or failure, of fundraising appeals (the size and quality of your list, the timeliness and frequency of your sends, the visuals and creative you use, etc.), but I think the words you choose matter—a lot. Well, now there’s some new research that further supports the idea that word choice is extremely important in fundraising.

Researchers at Georgia Tech recently reviewed over 45,000 projects on Kickstarter to try and figure out which (if any) commonly used phrases were predictive of fundraising success. And while Kickstarter does not provide a perfect one-to-one analogy with nonprofit fundraising, there are still lessons to be learned from this new study.

Kickstarter vs Nonprofit Fundraising


Kickstarter is a popular crowdfunding site that has been used by people all over the world to raise money for creative projects. We’ve written about Kickstarter before, but if you’re not familiar with it, the basics are fairly straightforward. People that have a project they want to get funded (a new smart watch say, or a film) can create a page on Kickstarter, share that page with people over the Internet, and accept contributions to fund the project.

A couple of things to note about Kickstarter– only projects that reach the funding goal within the time limit receive the money that has been pledged, and individual contributors (called “backers”) are almost always promised something in return for their financial pledges. For example if the project involves a new line of furniture, backers coming in at different levels might be promised different pieces of furniture in return for their contributions. Actually, this example is a lot like a project some of us at the StayClassy office contributed to a while back, which you can check out here for an example (the artist is the same person who makes the trophies for the CLASSY Awards!).

Long story short, Kickstarter is unlike online fundraising for nonprofits in the sense that it usually involves an exchange of goods and it embraces an “all or nothing” model. Even acknowledging these differences though, some of the insights from this latest study are relevant to nonprofits.

About the New Study

The Georgia Tech researchers used a computer program to scrape the language on roughly 45,000 different Kickstarter pages. From this pool of project pages, the researchers extracted over 9,000,000 different phrases to analyze. In order to limit the sample to only commonly used phrases, however, the researches reduced the sample to phrases that were used at least 50 times and that were used at least once in each of Kickstarter’s 13 different project categories (like art, food, games, etc). This narrowed the field down to around 20,000 phrases.

So what did the study show at the end of the day? Well, after accounting for 59 other variables that were likely to be predictive of whether or not a project was fully funded, the researchers determined that certain phrases were highly correlated with both successful and negative funding outcomes. As they write in their paper:

[pullquote1 align=”center” textColor=”#000000″]“We find that among 59 control variables and 20,391 phrases, the top 100 predictors of funded and not funded are solely comprised of phrases.”[/pullquote1]

Bottom line, language matters.

Not only were phrases the most predictive elements considered, the researchers also found that many of the phrases that were highly correlated with funding success adhered to established principles of persuasion. The researchers were able to draw connections between many of the predictive phrases and persuasion concepts like reciprocity, scarcity, social proof, social identity, liking and authority.

Of course, not all of the phrases associated with successful funding aligned with preexisting principles of persuasion. As it turned out, the word “cats” was also a significant predictor of funding success. As if we needed more proof that the Internet does indeed love cats…

So What’s The Takeaway?

At the end of the day, there’s not a singular straightforward conclusion to draw from this latest Kickstarter study. I wouldn’t advise plastering your next appeal with the top Kickstarter phrases and a bunch of pictures of cats…although that would be an interesting experiment. What I think the study does reinforce for nonprofit fundraisers is that the words on the page should not be neglected and neither should traditional concepts of persuasion.

Perhaps this is painfully obvious in the context of sending out an email appeal, or even more straightforwardly, with direct mail, but there are plenty of places where text can get the short shrift. A few that come immediately to mind are landing page text for p2p fundraising campaigns, individual fundraising page default text, and default email appeal text. I often come across nonprofits using our platform that don’t edit these areas at all. By taking a bit more time to customize this text, and align it with established persuasion norms, these nonprofits would likely experience an even higher degree of success.

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Photo Credit: Guy Sie, Steven2005, (both images cropped)

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