3 Wrongs in Fundraising Writing

American journalist and biographer Gene Fowler once wrote, “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Copywriting for fundraising can cause pain, too. After all, we have to convince potential donors of the benefits of parting with their hard-earned and limited money to support our causes.

All too commonly, three “wrongs” permeate copywriting for direct-mail appeals and e-appeals. These can reduce response rates, income and — most importantly — the programs carried out by the nonprofit.

Writing to the wrong person
Regardless of whether your letter says “Dear Friend” or “Dear Dave and Donna,” you can easily find yourself writing to the wrong person.

Instead of writing to your donor, you may find yourself writing to placate a board member, major donor with strong opinions about your communications, a staff member or a grant funder. Every one of these people knows — or should know — far more about your organization than your typical direct-response donor, so he or she may appreciate more technical details, not want to hear a story or insist on a short letter with a “to the point” ask.

But your typical donor may not have even thought about you since she received your last e-mail or letter. She doesn’t know (and might not care about) the intricate details of your solution. What she wants to know is that you need her money, you will use it to make a significant difference and you appreciate her sacrifice.

It can be hard to balance the demands of staff who accuse you of “dumbing down” the program or to avoid pressure from major donors who forget that everyone isn’t just like them in terms of their interest in reading your mail. But as soon as you start writing to them instead of to your donor, you’re potentially sabotaging your response rate and income.

Writing about the wrong person
“It’s all about us” is the message of many direct-response appeals. One letter sitting on my desk came from a leading nonprofit and begins, “In my 18 months at {Name of Organization}, I became used to …” That’s nice, but I can’t relate so I’ll move on to another request that is about me, too. (In fact, in this letter, “you” — as in “you the donor” — doesn’t make an appearance until paragraph eight, near the bottom of the first page.)

Nonprofits easily can think that they are the focus of their letters. While it is true donors want to know what you’re doing about a problem and why it’s the best solution, they also want to know why you need them to partner with you.

If the only time you involve your donors is when you say, “We need your money,” donors get the impression that you have it all under control and aren’t really all that interested in them as anything more than cash machines.

Tell your donors up front how important they are to your program. Explain how they make the work you do possible and the results you talk about a reality. If you don’t tell them that they have a vital role in your work, don’t expect them to figure it out and make donations.

Writing from the wrong person
Regardless of who signs your letter or e-appeal, make sure that person’s humanity comes through in the copy. “Our president/CEO would never say that” is a too-common response from nonprofit staff. That may be true but he/she probably should say it.

“A letter is a conversation in print,” as the saying goes. Conversations are best when they involve two or more people who openly communicate. When the letter signer doesn’t want to inject any of his or her personality in the letter, it becomes as exciting as reading an encyclopedia entry. It’s good knowledge, but it doesn’t necessarily stir me or help me connect.

In copy from someone who had just returned from an African country that was experiencing severe famine, I once wrote, “My heart broke when I held that child who was so obviously dying from hunger.” The letter signer objected and told me, “My heart doesn’t break; I feel moved …” I’m sorry, but when you talk about holding a dying child, you need to show some real emotion. Your reader needs to feel your agony and want to do something to prevent one more needless death.

This isn’t an argument to have an emotional breakdown in the copy. But don’t leave the usual human feelings out of your copy. Your donor wants to relate to the letter writer, and the right words can help make that happen.

Of course, in fundraising as in life, we have to choose our battles. But read your copy and see if you have included any of these “wrongs.” Are you willing to fight to right even one of them and see if writing to the right person, about the right person and from the right person can improve your income?


Originally published in NonProfit Pro.

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s