I Asked ChatGPT to Write a Fundraising Letter. Here’s What Happened.
Are you afraid that ChatGPT is coming for your job? The question came up after I read an article by a copywriter who seemed to be terrified by the idea. Their position was that fundraising appeals are so formulaic that it shouldn’t be hard to program machines to replicate the formula.
After reading the piece, I talked to other writers, some of whom expressed the same fear. That made me take the question more seriously. Can artificial intelligence (AI), I wondered, do what you and I do every day, i.e., inspire people to give up their hard-earned money in return for nothing more tangible than a temporary good feeling?
To find out, I gave ChatGPT this command:
“Write a fundraising letter about a little girl named Nikki who lives in poverty in Somalia.”
It took about 30 seconds for the program to answer my challenge with five grammatically pristine paragraphs. It delivered fundraising copy that checked most of the boxes for a decent fundraising appeal. The first paragraph said this:
“I am writing to you today to ask for your support in helping a young girl named Nikki from Somalia. Nikki is just one of the many children in Somalia who are struggling to survive in poverty. She faces daily challenges that no child should have to endure.”
In one respect, these introductory sentences are spot on. They open with a good story and identify the crisis right up front. They set the stage for a sense of urgency by telling us that Nikki’s challenges are things she confronts every day. ChatGPT even knew the importance of adding a P.S.
But don’t you feel something is missing? Actually, two things are absent.
First, while the structure and grammar are letter perfect, the paragraph is complete unto itself. A careless or hurried reader could get the picture at that first glance and not feel compelled to read on.
Effective copy reels readers into the story and drives them from one sentence and one paragraph to the next. For example, if the last sentence had begun with, “As you’ll see, she faces daily challenges …,” the reader would have been strongly encouraged to keep reading. The promise of getting the gritty details of Nikki’s daily grind would have been hard to turn away from.
The second missing element is more serious. The facts are there, but they are handed to us with all the blistering emotion of a first-year college essay. It misses a vital opportunity to grab the reader by the heart and pull them, feelings-first, into the story.
There are many ways ChatGPT could have done this. For example, opening with a “you” statement instead of an “I” statement could have immediately immersed the reader “in medias res,” right in the middle of the story. Something like, “As someone who cares deeply about suffering children, I know you’ll want to hear about Nikki ...” or, more directly, “14-year-old Nikki never really had a chance to be a kid. She had to spend too much of her childhood searching for food ….”
But, I thought, maybe I'm not giving ChatGPT a fair chance. Maybe the story will pick up as it goes along.
No, sadly the dry, just-the-facts-ma’am writing style carries on into the second paragraph:
“Nikki lives in a small village in Somalia where there is limited access to food, clean water and medical care. Her family is struggling to make ends meet, and Nikki is often hungry and without proper clothing to protect her from the cold. Despite these challenges, Nikki is a bright and determined young girl who dreams of a better future.”
The description of Nikki’s village is somewhat informative, but you could fill a page with the missed opportunities (don’t worry, I won’t). It would only take a few words to paint a picture that would stick in the reader’s mind.
You could describe the straw shack she lives in that offers little protection from the harsh sun or pouring rain. You could talk about the pungent odors, or her brothers and sisters whose lips are blistered from dehydration, or the rats they have to compete with for food. The actual details you provide are less important than giving the reader a foundation for their imagination to go to work on.
Theoretically, ChatGPT could be programmed to include things like this, but by the time you entered enough facts for it to paint an effective picture, you could have gone ahead and written the letter yourself. Which, as a professional fundraising writer, you could almost certainly do in a more compelling way.
And that brings us to the next crucial missing piece. The arc. To make the reader feel compelled to take the action you want them to, you must give them a full and rewarding emotional experience. That means your appeal needs the elements of a full story — exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. (And yes, the ask is part of the arc, usually in the rising or falling action. And also yes, you can have all those elements in something as short as an email or Facebook post.)
For the sake of time, I’ll skip the next couple paragraphs and go right to the close:
“Please consider making a donation to our organization today. Your generosity will make a real difference in the life of Nikki and other children in Somalia.”
Again, about the highest praise you can give this copy is that it is perfectly adequate. It says everything it’s supposed to say, but with as much emotion as a vanilla ice cream cone.
And that takes us to the most critical factor of all. One that no machine has yet been able to replicate. The magic. Experienced writers know that, when they pour their heart into a project, there’s just a certain “je ne sais quoi” that comes through. As Robert Frost said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
As a writer, you’re all too familiar with the challenge of feeling passionately about something but needing to express those emotions in ordinary black letters on a plain white background. And doing so in a way that evokes powerful feelings in people you’ve never met.
No matter how much we analyze it — and there’s no shortage of great writing about writing — sooner or later you're faced with an element that’s hard to put into words. That’s the magic.
Most of us do it over and over again every day, until it feels natural, even automatic. But as you know, you can teach technique until the cows come home, but you can’t teach the magic. Every writer has to discover their own path to it.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll be able to program that into AI one of these days. But right now I, for one, believe our jobs aren’t going anywhere. Yet.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Willis Turner believes great writing has the power to change minds, save lives, and make people want to dance and sing. Willis is the creative director at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He worked as a lead writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 15 years before making the switch to fundraising 20 years ago. In his work with nonprofit organizations and associations, he has written thousands of appeals, renewals and acquisition communications for every medium. He creates direct-response campaigns, and collateral communications materials that get attention, tell powerful stories and persuade people to take action or make a donation.