Fundraising Copy and the Challenge of Heuristics
On July 23, 2009, a hard rain was falling in Long Branch, N.J. Police Officer Kristie Buble got a call that a suspicious person was wandering around in a nice neighborhood peeking in the windows of a house with a "For Sale" sign in the yard.
When she arrived on the scene, she found an old man, still in the front yard, "wearing black sweatpants tucked into black rain boots, and two raincoats with the hood pulled down over his head."
He definitely did not look like he belonged in the neighborhood, so she put him in the back of her squad car and began to question him. Based on his appearance and eccentric behavior, there was no way she could have known that she had just detained Bob Dylan.
She couldn't have known because people see what they expect to see. If they don't have other contextual references, they rely on heuristics and cognitive bias to fill in the blanks.
This is tremendously important for copywriters to understand, because what we write is designed to generate strong emotions. And it's why we have to be certain that what we write takes readers into the world we want them to be in. Consider:
Some words are two-edged swords. To one person, a "homeless man" is a struggling veteran trying to find his way back into society. To another, he is a frightening derelict. To one person, a single mom is young woman doing the best she can for her family. To another, she is a freeloader, skating along on your tax dollars.
Take a moment to look at your copy with a jaundiced eye. How can it be misinterpreted, even deliberately? When you pull out your hot-button words, be sure they are in contexts that provide precisely the impression you want them to. If you leave room for a reader to assign his own values and preconceptions to your message, you may regret the results.
Is your brand your story? Some charities are blessed with names that need no explanation: Food for the Poor, Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders. But if your name is not your mission, you've got some explaining to do. It's worth extra time and effort to make your elevator speech as clear and concise as possible. If you can reduce it to the size of a tagline, even better.
Think outside the box, but inside the room. It may come as a surprise, but as much as people say they love fresh, creative ideas, most of the time they really don't. In fundraising, that's actually a good thing, because direct marketing is a big investment. Like it or not, even the most innovative ideas need to exist within the framework of techniques that are known to work. Fortunately, this is no hindrance to good writers and artists. Just look in your mailbox and you'll see plenty of examples of that.
Beware of your own heuristics, too. Just as we need to manage the assumptions of our donors and prospects, we need to rein our assumptions about them as well. A properly segmented file tells you a lot about the person you're writing to, but you have to leave room in your mind — and your writing — for the exceptions too.
Obviously not every derelict-looking senior citizen is worth $180 million. And not every $25 donor is going to leave your organization a million-dollar bequest. But it does happen. And there's no downside to treating every donor like he or she has a fortune to leave you. After all, you never know ...
Willis believes in expressive writing, exceptional fundraising, and exuberant living.
Willis Turner is the senior copywriter at Huntsinger & Jeffer. He was an experienced writer and creative director in the traditional advertising world for more than 20 years before making the switch to fundraising nearly 15 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, as well as collateral materials and communications, that get attention, tell emotional stories, and persuade people to take action or make a donation.