9 Fading Fundraising Fundamentals
Things are starting to slip. Bad habits are creeping in. Common knowledge is not being passed on. Things that supposedly go without saying are going unsaid. The next generation of fundraising copywriters is being cheated out of institutional memory.
More and more I receive letters and emails that ignore basic tenets of good fundraising copywriting. Usually they're little things. Too many gerunds, for example, or talking at, instead of to, your reader.
But sometimes they are serious oversights that can significantly affect results. No ask string — or no ask at all — on the first page of the letter.
For the benefit of those who missed them, because no one taught them, here are nine fundamentals that will make your readers' job easier and consequently improve your results.
- Write casual. Writing in an academic style, with a lot of 50-cent words, does not flatter your readers' intelligence. It makes their job harder. One way you can judge great copy is by its ability to tell a complex story using short, simple phrases.
- For the umpteenth time: Tell a story. This is basic and, fortunately, widely dispersed advice. Nonprofit storytelling has recently become a cause populaire. Just last week, in Seattle, there was an entire conference on the subject. There's even a free book called "The Nonprofit Storytelling Field Guide and Journal" that's worth a lot more than you'll pay for it.
- Paint a picture. Joseph Stalin supposedly said, "A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." For your reader, one little child, Emma, shivering under a threadbare blanket, evokes more empathy than 10,000 children living without sufficient heat in their homes.
- Feelings out-pull numbers. The temptation to fill readers' heads with important facts and figures is powerful. But numbers turn on the analytical side of the brain. The impulse to give lives on the emotional side of the brain. That's the side you need to write to.
- Know when to shut up. Sometimes the more you write, the more people will respond. Sometimes you only need to say, "For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn." It takes judgment to know which is which. Fortunately, that judgment can be developed if you work at it.
- Take readers on a journey. Every word should move your donors closer to supporting you. From top to bottom, the letter should guide readers in a straight line from the problem, to the ask, to the urgency, to the ask, to the telling them they can make things right, to the ask. Sometimes you need explication too, but don't overdo it.
- A good anecdote is stickier than a thousand facts. The baby shoes story above is frequently quoted and attributed to Ernest Hemingway. Unfortunately, it's not true. A 20-second Google search will tell you so. But it's so compelling — and so useful when you're trying to make a point about concision — no one wants to stop telling it. This is powerful thing to know, so write responsibly.
- "Like" doesn't mean what you think it does. When most people say they like something, they mean it's pleasing to their personal tastes. When an experienced fundraiser says she likes something, she means that, based on deep experience, wide testing, and knowledge of what others have done time and time again, she believes the idea will generate good response rates and decent average gifts, and build donor loyalty. It may tax the ego, but knowing the difference between the two likes can determine the success or failure of a package.
- "TMI" — too much information — will cost you money. There's so much of vital importance that your readers need to know. Unfortunately their attention spans are too short for them to hear it all. If your copy has more information than emotion, no matter how important that information is, they'll stop reading. For example, this list of nine fundamentals could go easily be 19. Or 90. But it is approaching the maximum length a busy blog reader will tolerate. So give your reader a break. You can always tell him more later.
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.