The War Between Fundraising Copywriter and Editor
I recently attended a benefit for a nonprofit organization featuring two comedians—a nerd and a weatherman. (This is not the beginning of a joke. I assure you this is real.) Both contributed to a very enjoyable night for a great cause. Plus, the nerd, Don McMillan, addressed a common problem in fundraising: meaningless statistics.
I won’t give away his routine, but he explains that he takes the time to graph and chart his jokes, because he likes his act to be "technically correct.” Does that strike a familiar note with you? How often does someone take your well-crafted direct mail appeal or e-appeal and edit it to make it technically correct—and totally donor unfriendly?
Our job as fundraisers is to tell a story in a way that makes the reader want to be part of that story by making a gift. It is not to provide false information (even if that increases income, it’s still a lie). It is not to turn the reader into an expert (he or she probably has no interest in becoming one). It is not even to give equal space to each point in the story.
So, for example, we write “one in four people” instead of “24.3 percent.” We tell a story of a single person and ask the reader to help more kids like Tommy, instead of overwhelming the reader with a massive need that, somehow, his or her $50 is supposed to solve. We talk about the amazing work we do and its end result—people no longer hungry, land preserved for the next generation, etc. But we don’t get into all the details.
Our challenge: writing to the donor in the donor’s language. Simple enough, until you are faced with someone who doesn’t accept the challenge. So we have to battle against the editor or copy approver who forgets that fundraising takes head and heart.
When you find yourself in this battle, here are a few strategies I use as needed:
1. Explain right away when you submit the copy why you did or did not do something. Stick with the big issue (or two) and just toss it out there. Don’t apologize. Instead, explain that you deliberately chose this strategy to communicate with the donor and have a positive impact on income raised.
2. Document your sources on the cover page. You want to prevent even the smallest seed of doubt from creeping in. Once someone has decided you are making things up, it’s hard to move them away from that misconception.
3. It’s all about location. If you know someone is going to expect to see X, Y and Z, decide if you can put them into your letter where they will do the least amount of harm. For example, don’t open the letter with a complicated statistic or put it in the P.S. Instead, bury it in what Jeff Brooks calls the "dead zone."
4. When you get agreement on something that was controversial, remember it and continue to do it. That way, when it gets questioned again, you can politely say, “You know, we talked about that before sending out the August e-appeal, and we agreed it would be more effective—and sure enough, that e-appeal was one of the best ones we’ve done all year.”
5. Give a little. You can write the best fundraising copy ever, but if it never gets used, it isn’t effective. It’s a delicate balancing act—sticking to best practices in fundraising without alienating those who have to approve it before it gets sent out into the world to do its job.
Good editing is golden. Bad editing is painful. But it’s a fact of life as a fundraiser. We have to work together if we want to accomplish anything. This old dog knows how painful it is to “give in,” but also has great memories of when a previously unconvinced person realized that fundraising isn’t something just anyone can do, but rather is an art and a science.
So, as you write copy for your year-end efforts, remember when you tell a story that sometimes numbers are OK, as long as they don’t crush the reader’s heart under the weight of information. Let’s help our readers fall in love with what we do, over and over and over again.