A boy and his mummy are holding hands on the walk to school on a bright, sunny morning.
Mummy breathes a small sigh of relief that today is not the morning he is suddenly to old to reach for her hand. Every day, this is a precious gift, she thinks. She brushes these thoughts away and focuses on more important things…like getting the timing of their arm swings just right to give him an unexpected twirl as they walk. She loves his little giggle.
At the schoolyard, he turns to her and says ‘love you!’ and she replies, ‘love you true!’. Just like every morning. He bounces off. Her heart shines.
At the end of the day, Mummy is waiting for her boy. And she can tell the moment she sees him that something is terribly wrong. His backpack is sliding off his shoulders because they are are slumped forward. His eyes are on the dirt. She asks him if he is OK and he mumbles.
They start to walk, and he doesn’t reach for her hand. Did he just stiffen? she thinks. Panic flutters in the back of her throat. She brushes her arm past his shoulder, hard enough that she knows he feels it, but not too hard. He is fragile. And now so is she.
They walk in the door and he collapses in tears, telling her that as soon as they departed in the morning, an older boy came up to him and mocked, ‘I love you true!’ and laughed.
Mummy says softly, “Oh darling, we can say our I love yous before we leave the house tomorrow.”
“NO! That’s not fair!”, the boy replies angrily. “I like that the last thing I hear before I go to school is when you say ‘love you true’. It’s always been like that!”
Mummy’s heart clenches. It means the world to her too. She can’t remember the day it started, but she cherishes their little tradition, and she desperately wants to hold on to it forever. It is their language.
Mummy gets down on her knees and holds her boy tight. She says, “Here’s the deal. Tomorrow morning, in the schoolyard, you say to me ‘see ya!’ and I’ll say ‘wouldn’t wanna be ya!’. And only you and I will know that what your heart is saying is ‘love you’ and mine says ‘love you true’.
She holds him for a long, long time.
Today, that boy is a 30 year old neurosurgeon. And his mummy, my aunt, told me about their “secret code” when my boy turned about 8. On the day of my cousin’s wedding, I watched from a distance as his mummy straightened his tie, standing on her tip toes to fix his hair. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I imagined that he was saying to her ‘ see ya’. And that she squeezed his hand and replied, ‘wouldn’t wanna be ya’. He turned from her and bounced down the aisle in his tuxedo, looking to the rest of us like a dapper gentlemen, but looking to his mummy like her messy-haired little treasure from the schoolyard. She brought her hand to her mouth, tears in her eyes. And I know her heart was screaming out ‘LOVE YOU TRUE’.
And on that morning—and I know it’s coming—when my kids bristle, shuffle or blush when I say ‘love you true’, I will immediately adopt this secret code with my kids.
I’m sharing this simple story with you to remind you how important—and really how easy—it is to use language that makes your donor feel like a part of something. You may not have a secret code with your donors, but you can create the feeling of insider language. You can write stories, share feelings and depart from cold, formal language and (shudder) jargon.
We see it all the time. Charities who literally use the words “its mission” instead of “our mission”. Using “I” or “we” instead of “you”. Talking about “our supporters” instead of “our community”, “our movement” or “our family”. Reports and newsletters filled with org-speak, board-approved messaging and photos of old men in suits accepting giant cheques, instead of gratitude and love for the people, your donors, your heroes, who make it all possible.
Your donors don’t support your organization. They don’t even really support your mission. They support something they care deeply about. You just help them do it.
If you’re doing things right, you share stories about how they change the world. You report back on your programs that demonstrate their impact. Your donor is the hero, not you. So don’t write for yourself…write for them. They’re not numbers in a database or boxes to tick on a task list. They’re people. Wonderful, caring people. Write for them. Even better, write to them.
And mean it.