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.
So, that brings me to the crux of this article: Can you afford to hire a professional writer? Before you answer, ask this question: Would a professional writer’s copy raise enough additional income to cover the cost of the copywriting? In other words, are you “leaving money on the table” by not using a professional to write your copy? Yes, some writers are rather expensive, and deservedly so. Others are less expensive; it’s generally a function of experience, overhead costs and reputation. But it’s worth thinking about. After all, raising the most money possible—after expenses and in an ethical manner—is our goal as fundraisers.
If you can’t afford to hire a professional, or if “the powers that be” refuse to even consider it, I understand. I really do. After all, I would not have been able to develop my own skills if the nonprofit for which I first worked hadn’t asked me to write the copy so it had one less bill to pay.
But that puts the onus on you as the direct-mail writer to do the best job possible. Most of what you learned in your college English classes won’t apply. You won’t need the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, The Chicago Manual of Style or AP Stylebook. You won’t be worrying about split infinitives and semi-colons.
But you will be communicating a vital message—one that is essential to the survival of your nonprofit organization. So stick with me over the next few weeks and I’ll share the practical “ingredients” of direct-mail copy that I’ve learned over the years. As time goes on, you’ll develop your own style, but when you’re starting out, it helps to know the best practices that can guide you as you write fundraising letters (and e-appeals as well).
American author Jack Kerouac wasn’t talking about direct mail when he said this, but he could have been: “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” The way you write it will be what this old dog will focus on over the next two weeks.
Pamela Barden is an independent fundraising consultant focused on direct response. You can read more of her fundraising columns here.