Print This Blog: 10 Fundraising Copywriting Guidelines
Print it and stick it on your bulletin board or tape it to the wall above your computer. The 10 tips below are basic copywriting guidelines that will help you every time you write a fundraising letter, email or blog post.
You probably already know most of them, but that's all the more reason to keep them in your sight. In the heat of pounding out passionate phrases, it's easy to let the art get in the way of the craft. And in fundraising, copy needs to be crafted with great care. So ...
- Lead with your most emotional idea. Readers aren't going to fool around trying to figure out how they should feel about your message. They'll look at the first couple of sentences, then the P.S., then decide whether they want to move on to the rest of the message. So don't introduce, don't tease (except on the outer envelope) and don't build up. Grab the reader immediately with your story or strongest statement.
- Put key words at the beginning and end of the sentence for the same reason as above. Readers scan for the hot-button messages, and the last place they look is in the middle of sentences and paragraphs. Therefore ...
- ... put "required" phrasing in the middle of the sentence. Often, someone in the approval process will have a few phrases, stats or whatever that they insist must be included. If these use passive language or tortured phrasing, you can stick them in the middle of the least read parts of the letter. That way, the approver is happy, the tone remains consistent and the reader is not distracted unless she chooses to read deep into the letter. Everybody wins.
- Vary sentence lengths between short and shorter. Use the shortest sentences and fragments to highlight the most important points.
- Never say "very." Let the words you choose be strong enough to stand up for themselves.
- Read out loud. Reading aloud gives you a better idea of how your reader will understand what you wrote. You'll be surprised how much the emphasis of a word or phrase can change when it's outside your head instead of inside.
- Work with your designer. If they don't collaborate, writers and artists will take different paths to the same mountaintop. Sit down with the graphics people to make sure your words and their layouts work together to be greater than the sum of their parts.
- Use a proofreader. It's hard to proof your own work because your brain sees what you meant to write instead of what you wrote. And it's hard to edit your own copy because you can't always tell the phrase you're proud of from the phrase that will move the reader.
- Go negative when you can. It's OK to be uplifting and inspiring. And it's important to tell some success stories so you reader will know you can accomplish your mission. But if you want readers to get up off their wallets, fear, rage and greed are hard to beat. Here's why: Negative words stimulate the amygdala, the brain's fear center that triggers the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that suppress logical and reasonable thinking. This is the fight or flight response that makes your reader want to take action instead of analyzing the pros and cons of your value proposition.
- Ask for the order. One thing fundraising and selling have in common is that you have to tell the reader exactly what to do. If you say, "we need your support," a lot of donors are going to post your message on Facebook and feel like they've done their part for the cause. You have to say, "Please send $25, $35, $50 or even more today." Never let the reader assume or guess what action you want her to take.
The reason to print and post these tips is that when you do, you won't have to remember them while you're writing. You'll have outsourced these basics to your bulletin board, so you can focus on putting the most emotion into your writing. Then you can filter your copy through these guidelines later — along with any others you think are valuable — to make sure you're getting the maximum impact out of every word.
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.