9 Things I Wish I Had Figured Out Sooner
Here are some things about fundraising I've discovered along the way that I really wish I'd known earlier.
1. It's ready, aim, fire — in that order
Some people call working without planning ahead a "bias for action." I used to think that. I thought "ready, fire, aim" was a cool way to work. Then I noticed something. Just about every time you fire before you aim, you miss your target. You have to keep trying, over and over, until by dumb luck you hit it — and by that time you're so tired and demoralized from repeated failure that your work is bad. As often as not, you just run out of ammunition and end up never getting the job done at all.
So here's what I've learned: For every project you do, make the first step planning. Really figure it out. Then put it in writing, and get everyone with a voice in the project to agree to the plan before work starts.
This isn't easy, because it requires concentration and some abstract thinking. But "I'll know it when I see it" is a lazy, sloppy way to work. It usually sucks all the life, energy and effectiveness out of a project. And it takes a lot longer.
2. Focus groups can make you stupid
I love observing focus groups. Sitting in that room behind the big one-way window, eating snacks, trying not to laugh too loud. It's great fun. And I love the things people say. It can be very enlightening.
There's just one big problem with focus groups. You find out what people say, not what they do in real life. You hear their opinions, spoken out loud in a social setting. That's not an accurate predictor of how they (or anyone) is going to respond in the marketplace. So if your focus groups loved your new brand or your exciting concept, that doesn't mean it's going sell in direct mail, e-mail or anywhere else. If you make major decisions solely on the input from focus groups, you are making serious mistakes that are likely to cost you big. It's the same with survey research. Use focus groups to generate ideas and get a sense for the ways people talk about your issues. If you want information you can really count on, test your ideas in real-life response situations.
3. Insider insights can mess you up
My first job in the nonprofit sector was as the in-house copywriter for an organization that fought poverty, hunger and disease in the developing world. I worked hard to make those things vivid for donors.
Then the organization sent me to India to see the work firsthand. I was bowled over. I understood the cause like never before. I learned that feeding the hungry is a complicated process if you want to do it right.
It became important to me to share that insight with our donors. I wanted to bring them along on my voyage of discovery. I figured if they could get it the way I now did, they'd be better donors.
So my copy got a lot more involved and complicated. I tried to make the complexity clear and spelled-out. My colleagues at the nonprofit said it was the best copy ever: so complete, not simplistic like it used to be.
But as we rolled out my improved copy, fundraising results tumbled. We couldn't see the correlation. After all, how could better copy get worse results?
In fact, I never really understood that my copy was causing the problem until I moved to the agency side, where I was held responsible for getting results, not perfecting donors. Then it dawned on me: Trying to replicate insider insights is not the fundraiser's job. It is directly at odds with motivating people to give. The more you try to educate donors, the less money you'll raise.
4. My preferences are a poor guide
I love complex metaphors that conceal multiple layers of meaning. They're so rich, challenging and beautiful — like some kind of 3-D impressionist Encyclopedia Britannica on a tropical island.
Turns out I'm nearly alone in that preference. Most folks hate complex metaphors. They don't like the sense that something's being hidden from them. They have no intention whatsoever of solving a puzzle as they read. They want clarity, simplicity and easy reading.
We all have personal preferences for the way we like communication to be. In nearly every case, our preferences will lead us to weak fundraising. If you want to reach people, you have to cater to their preferences, not your own.
5. Don't try to bang it out in one sitting
You have lots to do and not enough time. But when it comes to writing, break the task into pieces. Time spent not writing is valuable time in the writing process.
6. Simpler is better
If you can't say your fundraising offer in one sentence, you're in trouble.
7. They aren't paying that much attention
Your donors barely skim your well-crafted copy. That's not to say you shouldn't strive to make every word right and sweat the details. Just make sure you sweat the big picture even more. Whether to use a comma or a dash matters — a little. Whether you have a topic that's going to move people to action, whether you're talking to the right people, whether the call to action makes sense — those things matter a lot. Spend your time there.
8. If copy isn't good, design won't fix it
I hate to think about the number to times I've struggled to get copy right but just couldn't quite do it — then ended up saying, "It's not quite there, but we'll make it work with great images, brilliant type treatment and flawless layout." It doesn't work. Good design matters. But it can't make bad copy good. Copy that goes in incoherent will come out that way.
9. Enthusiasm is good, but experience is better
Years ago, I was looking at direct-mail response rates. They averaged around 5 percent. Not great, not terrible. Suddenly it struck me: A 5 percent response rate is a 95 percent failure rate! I was off like a thoroughbred, campaigning against these huge failure rates. I had a hunch if we could just write better we could drive response rates up to somewhere around 50 percent.
Turns out trying to supercharge response by improving the writing is like trying to speed up a race car by installing better seat cushions. I spent lots of time on my crusade for better response. Experience has taught me there are much better ways to improve fundraising. They aren't as zippy, but they actually have impact. (Turbocharged response comes from high-level donor targeting, not better copy.) There's much more leverage in experience than in enthusiasm. On the other hand, experience without enthusiasm can be a curse. It devolves into cynicism and becomes a force against innovation. FS