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How to Improve Your Mediocre Fundraising Copy

December 16, 2014

Headshot_derrick_feldmannFor most of us, the month of December generally means two things: fundraising letters and holiday parties.

Okay, maybe that's just me.

Still, end-of-year gifts and donations account for a substantial amount of the money raised by nonprofit organizations, which, in an effort to capture every bit of potential support before January 1, typically kick off the end-of-year fundraising season with a series of direct-mail appeals and then move on to email solicitations.  

I'm sure you can relate, but at this point in the year, both my mailbox and my email inbox are stuffed with solicitations from nonprofits. But here is where I'm different from most of you: I actually read every letter I get so as to better understand why I should pay attention and why I should (or shouldn't) give to an organization. In other words, the fundraising nerd in me comes alive!

That said, a funny thing happened to me recently: As I was reading through a stack of direct-mail pitches, I began to feel grumpy, agitated, a little Scrooge-like.

I couldn't put my finger on what was bothering me and then it hit me: I've grown impatient with much of the fundraising copy I read. Some of that impatience has to do with all the numbers and statistics I'm asked to process. A few of the letters include language I haven't heard since my high school economics class. I've also noted a growing trend of organizations tossing my name around as if it were a magic incantation. (One solicitation I received included at least ten "Derricks" in the body of the text.) And then there was the solicitation signed by the CEO of the organization which insinuated that only a gift to his organization would make a difference this year and that no organization, anywhere, has the kind of "impact" his does. 

As I was reflecting on the effectiveness of these different approaches, I had an epiphany: there is an alarming amount of bad fundraising copy being written these days. And what's worse, I suspect the people responsible for that copy, and the people in leadership positions who sign off on it, think it's pretty good. 

Why do so many fundraising and development pros write bad copy? And why are so many executives content to let it out into the world? I don't really have answers to either of those questions, but I do have some thoughts about why so many of the fundraising solicitations we receive are just plain bad.

You assume I read your last solicitation. I hate to say it, but there's a good chance I never finished (or even glanced at) your previous solicitation. Fundraising copy writers often make the mistake of assuming that their target audience has read every word they've ever written. As you sit down to finalize your next fundraising appeal, remind yourself that most of the people on your mailing list probably haven't read your previous solicitations, and be sure to remove from your copy any phrase like:

"As we reported in our last newsletter…"

“As you know from our website…”

“As you may have heard…

You think everyone loves your cause. This is a pretty common mistake. Your organization is your baby, and you want to believe everyone loves your baby as much as you do. I recently met with a nonprofit board member who asked me why, if they are so popular on Facebook, more of their "fans" were not making donations. Sound familiar? The reality is that most of the individuals who decide to "like" your Facebook page are in the "I am curious" stage -- and are likely to remain there. They may have an interest in, even an affinity for, your cause, but it doesn't mean they are hopelessly in love with your organization or its work. It's your job to explain why your organization is worthy of their respect and, yes, even their love. They need to view it as a conduit for their values and their desire to make the world a better place. So try to avoid language such as:

"We know how important our organization is to you…"

"You support our mission because…"

"You know our work matters…"

You forget that I respond to emotion. Etymologically speaking, philanthropy means "love of humanity." The human aspect is so important here. We are emotional beings, and when we see an individual in need, we are likely to want to lend a helping hand. When you fill your solicitation letters with lots of numbers and statistics, you are forgetting that because I am a human being, I am predisposed to help other human beings. You are appealing to the analytical side of my brain and ignoring the side where my compassion and empathy are located. That's the side you want to appeal to. So try to avoid dry statements of fact like:

"Did you know that 33 percent of children between the ages of 8 and 11 and 24.5 percent of young people between the ages of 13 and 18 have reported…"

"We serve more than 2,700 people in fifteen communities across three counties..."

"Your gift means that 326 people will receive much-needed services between September and the end of the year.…"

You confused me for a foundation. Thank you for thinking I make philanthropic investment decisions on a daily basis. And you flatter me when you think I employ an elaborate process when deciding where to allocate my charitable dollars. The reality, however, is a little different…and the language in your fundraising appeals should reflect that fact. You're not applying for a grant, you're asking me for a donation (of time or money). I tend to get excited when you tell me about an individual who was helped by your efforts -- and what I can do to make that happen for someone else. Systemic change is good, but helping real people is better. So try to avoid language like:

"Your gift will help us become more sustainable by…"

"When you donate, your gift will have an impact on the field for years to come…"

"Giving to our organization means you will be joining forces with countless others to…"

You forgot I haven't heard from you since the last time you asked me for money. With apologies to my nonprofit colleagues who work so hard on retention issues, should you really assume I've heard from you since the last time I made a gift to your organization? Did you thank me? I hope so. (And I won't mind if you thank me again.) But chances are, I didn’t respond to your previous appeal with a gift, so you should avoid language like:

"In our last update, we shared stories of how your gift changed…"

"You've given before, but your gift today will mean more than you know..."

"Let's be honest: We can't do without loyal supporters like you…"

And most important of all…

You think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to giving. This is probably my biggest gripe with fundraising appeals. Too many organizations, for some mysterious reason, seem to believe that everyone gives in the same way and for the same reasons, that donors all work through the same processes and make the same decisions you hope they'll make. Nothing could be further from the truth. Giving is an intensely personal thing. It means something different to each and every one of us. Similarly, how I define the impact of a gift is bound to be different than how you define the impact of that gift. I'm not saying I am right and you are wrong; I'm simply pointing out that people are different, so don't write fundraising appeals that assume they are all alike. In other words, avoid phrases like:

"Like me, you know that…"

"Our donors support us because they know…"

"We know what matters to you…"

I know, a rose is a rose is a rose. But at the end of the day, all of us are trying to achieve the same thing: copy that really speaks to the person on the receiving end of our solicitations. If you absolutely have to use abstract language, impenetrable jargon, and loads of statistics in your solicitations, may I recommend you send them to yourself. But if you truly want the average person to not only make a donation, but to deepen their understanding of your work, tell them about that work in the most direct and personable way you can. And remember, it's not about your organization; it's about rallying people to a cause they already care about.

Derrick Feldmann is president of Achieve, a creative research and campaigns agency based in Indianapolis. In his previous post, he urged readers not to be distracted by fundraising one-offs like the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge.

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Posted by Paula  |   January 04, 2015 at 11:00 PM

As a recipient of hundreds if not thousands of nonprofit solicitation letters a year (I've so far logged 264 unique organizations, and still have more to go), I agree with all of the above (although I don't mind the statistics). I would also like to suggest this: Tell me what you do best. What do you do that the other five or six or nine or seventeen similar organizations do not do? Or how do you work *with* other organizations so as not to duplicate efforts (maybe you provide relief side-by-side with another organization, but you're focused on food aid while the other is focused on shelter). I normally donate to one or two organizations of a similar type, but if a case is made about meeting a specific need no one else is addressing, I'd consider adding that organization to my list. And please consider fewer and shorter letters (less paper), and fewer address labels. If I know I'm going to get another letter from you next week, I'll just throw the one I received today away. I always pay more attention to letters from organizations I hear from only once or twice a year.

Posted by Pat Bjorhovde  |   January 08, 2015 at 02:49 PM

Now that we know what NOT to do - show us an example of a really good fundraising letter that doesn't do any of these things. Please.

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