Direct-Mail Writing That Raises Funds, Part 1
“Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” That’s one of several clichés my mother used to tell me when I was growing up. And despite the fact that I called her the “Slogan Queen” behind her back, it’s something I’ve remembered—and tried to apply to my life.
While I am by no means the best direct-mail writer in the world, I have learned a lot since I was “asked” to write a letter back in 1980. I worked for a nonprofit that struggled to make payroll, and our writer had resigned. I met all the requirements for adding “direct-mail writer” to my workload: I could walk and breathe simultaneously, and I was too dumb to say “No.”
Because of that experience, I really do understand that not all nonprofit organizations have the budgets to hire agencies to run their direct response programs, or even freelance writers just to write the copy. I get it. And that’s why my next two articles in this publication will explain the critical things (in my opinion) to know when tasked with writing a direct-mail appeal.
But first, in exchange for this free advice, I hope you will indulge me as I make a case for not writing copy yourself (at least not all the time). As those of you who did the math know, I’ve been working to develop this fundraising copywriting ability for 35 years now. I’ve invested (personally) in books and seminars. I’ve picked the brains of some exceptional writers. I’ve read hundreds of direct-mail letters from nonprofits that raise millions every time they drop off a mailing at the post office.
And yet, I hear it implied over and over that writing direct mail is something just about anyone can do. “We have someone on staff that majored in English in college” seems to be one of the favored criteria. Being someone who minored in English in college (yeah, not quite as good a qualification), I know that means this person can probably explain the symbolism in a novel or the deeper meaning in a poem—but that doesn’t mean he or she can write a direct-mail appeal.
Writing a direct-mail appeal requires a specific set of talents. And no, not everyone has those talents. Most of us would not think of rodding out our sewer line or rebuilding our car’s engine on our own, but we figure there’s no need for a professional to write a direct-mail letter. I mean, how hard can it be?
I was very fortunate; my second job (after the one where I wrote the direct-mail for several years) used a freelance writer—Tim Kersten, now CEO of RobbinsKersten Direct. I learned a great deal by reading his copy, asking questions and (I admit it) challenging him from time to time. Tim was a mentor to me without ever being asked to accept the assignment; I learned a great deal about writing direct mail by trying to emulate his work.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.