Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

Many of you may remember the popular television game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? On the show, adult contestants were pitted against 5th graders as they tried to answer questions drawn from elementary school textbooks. It was beyond entertaining to watch as the adults struggled to hold their own against their pint-sized competitors.

It’s good to be slightly smarter than a 5th grader

For those of you who have been doing fundraising for any length of time, you know…

Non-profit writing is a different bird.

Donors are busy people. At best, you have a couple of minutes of their time as they scan through emails in their inbox or flip through their mail at the end of the day. The last thing they want to do is labor over a verbose communication from your organization.

When communicating with your donors, one of the best things you can do is make sure you’re writing at the right grade level.

The lower the grade level, the faster the read.

Ideally, your donor communications should be between a 6th– and 8th-grade reading level — slightly higher than that of a 5th grader.

Writing at a lower grade level is not “dumbed down” copy

When I first started writing for non-profits over a decade ago, I basically had to relearn how to write (in a style that would make my college professors cringe).

I had to let go of my vast understanding of the English language. My desire to impress the reader with my vernacular prowess. My ability to take the simple and make it abstruse.

I was told I had to “dumb down” my copy.

But writing at a lower reading level is not dumbed-down writing.

It’s about using simple words instead of complex ones. Crafting shorter sentences and paragraphs versus longer ones. Realizing that one sentence paragraphs are okay. Heck, even one word sentences are okay.

And it’s completely acceptable to start a sentence (or a paragraph) with “And.”

One of the biggest mistakes non-profits make when communicating with donors

Hopefully, your organization is staffed with highly qualified professionals — strategists, program directors, creatives — who bring expertise in their areas.

But donor appeals and newsletters are not the place to show off how smart you are.

One of the biggest mistakes non-profits make when communicating with donors is writing at too high of a grade level.

You should write how you talk.

Advice from a master

Mark Twain perhaps said it best, “Use plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences. That is the way to write English — it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; and don’t let the fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in.” (Most of Twain’s classics, such as Huckleberrry Finn, are written at a 5th-grade reading level.)

Compare the following two sample fundraising excerpts:

Sample #1

Your donation will assist people living in impoverished communities who have inadequate nutrition, limited access to medical resources, diminished or nonexistent educational opportunities and insufficient employment prospects.


Sample #2

Your gift will help people living in poverty. You’ll help provide food, medicine, schools and jobs.

They both say basically the same thing, right? Except the reading ease is drastically different. Perhaps you felt the difference as you read the two examples. (The first is at a 12th-grade reading level while the second is significantly lower at 5th grade.)

Which would you rather read?

Putting grade level into perspective

“Grade level has nothing to do with the education of the reader,” says Tom Ahern, non-profit copywriter, speaker and one of the world’s top authorities on how to increase revenue through donor communications. “It only has to do with the speed at which people can process your prose. Page-turning fiction novels score at the 5th-grade level. Professionally written direct mail scores at the 6th-grade level. And the only things that should score at the 12th-grade level are insurance policies and academic research.”

Consider the following popular publications…

Affordable Care Act13th grade
The Wall Street Journal12th grade
USA Today10th grade
The National Enquirer, the Globe, and the Star9th grade
John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Stephen King7th grade
J.R.R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling6th grade
Most Romance Novelists5th grade

Or perhaps different versions of the Bible…

King James Version (KJV)12th grade
New International Version (NIV)8th grade
The Message (MSG)5th grade

Hopefully, you’re starting to understand what a difference reading level can make.

Tools for your toolbox

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level — Microsoft Word has a great tool to help you know your reading ease score (you want to shoot for a 60 and above) and your grade level (a 6th– to 8th-grade level is ideal). To turn it on, go to Tools, then Options and select the Spelling and Grammar tab. Make sure that the box called “Show readability statistics” is checked. Then close out of there and go to back to Tools, then select Spelling and Grammar. A box will pop up revealing what the reading level of your document is using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale.

Hemingway Editor — This is a fun tool I discovered a couple of years ago. Ernest Hemingway’s style is simple, direct and unadorned, probably as a result of his early newspaper training. Copy and paste into the Hemingway Editor and it will display the reading ease and grade level of your work. And it allows you to edit in real time, so you can watch that grade level drop! — This oldie but goodie is not to be overlooked. When challenged with writing at a lower grade level, use this online tool to switch out a complicated word for its simplest alternative.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions on making your donor communications more readable and effective, email me at

P.S. Did you enjoy this article Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Find it easy to read? In case you’re curious, it scored at a 6th-grade reading level (even with big words like Flesch-Kincaid and Hemingwayapp).