Do’s and Don’ts in Fundraising Copy ℠

One of the BBB Standards for Charity Accountability (Standard 15) calls for solicitations and informational materials, distributed by any means, to be accurate, truthful and not misleading, both in whole and in part. Although the webpage on these standards provides access to detailed implementation guidance, we thought it would be helpful to share suggestions about how to avoid problems typically encountered by BBB Wise Giving Alliance staff conducting charity evaluations.


Each of these terms represents a different issue. Accuracy generally refers to the facts and figures included in the appeal, such as the number of people helped, charity financial information and the number of people that are afflicted with a specified disease. Truthful refers to whether the charity says something that it knows not to be true, such as exaggerating the impact of its programs or the severity of a problem it seeks to address. Misleading is a situation where every statement used in an appeal may be technically accurate, but together, they may provide the potential donor with a misleading impression and/or may be omitting key facts.


Charities should ensure that each appeal includes a clear description of the program(s) for which contributions ae sought. Sometimes just a sentence can provide an adequate explanation for potential contributors. Even renewal appears to previous donors should include program explanations. As donors usually contribute to a number of charities and not a single organization, one cannot assume they will recall what each organization seeks to accomplish. Also, a program description not only provides clarity but may help inspire a more generous response.

In terms of clarity, charities should make sure the program description is specific enough so that potential donors understand the organization’s activities. For example, a charity stating it is helping the homeless is not a clear description. What type of help is being offered (a shelter, meals, health care, job training, or?) and where is it taking place?


Successful fundraising appeals often use stories to help potential donors relate to the problem being addressed and to bring some emotional connection to the subject. For example, if a story is portrayed as being about a specific individual, it should be verified to determine if it accurately reflects the situation described and doesn’t represent a made-up description derived from a number of different individual circumstances. Also, if the stories or photos being used in appeals are out of date, over three years ago, their time period should be accurately identified. Otherwise, readers will assume they represent a current situation.


Watch out for appeal language that make 100% claims such as “100% of your donations will be spent on XYZ programs.” Unfortunately, BBB Wise Giving Alliance has seen such statements, particularly with disaster relief appeals. Unless a charity is intending to solicit for donor-restricted funds, which represents a legal restriction on how money can be used, all charities are going to incur fundraising and administrative expenses. If a wealthy donor or group of board members pledge to cover those “overhead” expenses,” they don’t disappear, even if other funds are used to pay for them. If, for some reason, a charity insists on wanting to make such a claim, it should also incorporate a clear and visible explanation near the 100% statement that explains how overhead costs will be covered. To do otherwise runs the risk of providing a misleading impression and raises concerns with BBB Charity Standard 15.


As many donors are interested in how a charity spends its funds, appeals will sometimes include financial information either in summary form, as part of a ratio chart, or maybe as a statement in the copy. Unfortunately, sometimes these financial figures are not checked and can include errors or just be outdated. Don’t assume last year’s fundraising copy is good to go as is. It would be helpful to ask the charity’s accounting staff to check all financial information in appeals before they are printed and distributed.


Charities sometimes use enclosures in appeals such as address labels, greeting cards or calendars. These gifts are common practice but organizations that use them should be careful not to imply, in the appeal copy, that the recipient is expected to pay for, donate or return the item. Donors did not order these enclosures and are under no obligation to compensate the organization for their receipt. The items can certainly be used to help bring current and future attention to the charity but not as a means to suggest there is an obligation to contribute.


In recent years there has been much attention drawn on the issue of impact of a charity’s programs. In other words, how effective has the organization been in addressing its mission. This reference does not usually refer to the charity’s finances but addresses the success of its program activities. Charities that make statements about this area would be wise to ensure that there is sufficient back up and substantiation for any claims made.


Sometimes charities incur problems in appeal statements due to fundraising taking place a silo and not interacting with others in the organization. It is helpful to develop a process to help overcome that potential isolation:

  • Identify key players that should be involved in reviewing fundraising copy or plans such as the general counsel, accountants, and others
  • Make the review process is automatic and not a sporadic one-time assessment
  • Consider establishing an organization checklist or band book that provides guidance and reminders of how to avoid problems that occurred previously
  • Develop a culture of disclosure by sharing information within the organization a strengthening the importance of transparency in all operations