Camels Aren’t Good Fundraisers

Although the original source has been lost over time, the maxim lives on: “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” Most likely, you have your own camel story — the fundraising activity that sounded good at the start but metamorphosed over time to barely resemble the original plan — let alone accomplish the original goal.

When it comes to direct-mail and email copy intended to raise money for a nonprofit, adding a camel to the fundraising team is dangerous. In other words, the more people who edit the copy, the less likely it is that the end product will accomplish the original intent. There are three “camels” fundraisers should avoid when possible — and when that’s impossible, at a minimum go on record as being opposed to.

Camel No. 1: The construction crew
The job of fundraising copy is to take the donor from wherever he or she is right now and help that person move to the ultimate destination: giving a gift. This is best accomplished when there are few (or better, no) distractions along the route.

When this camel is allowed to be part of the fundraising team, the route becomes less clear. Your donor will be given multiple off-ramps as he or she progresses through the copy: “If you haven’t already seen our latest video, be sure to go to http://www.Wow!Let’” or “If you haven’t already read the article in our latest newsletter, you may want to check that to really understand the impact this project is having in our community.”

Avoid constructing anything that takes the donor’s attention off the need and how he or she can be part of the solution. Otherwise, you may end up at the destination all alone, wondering where on the journey you lost your traveling companion.

Camel No. 2: The protector
Some fundraising copy gets wrapped up in enough protective covering that it collapses under the weight of the armor. Maybe you’ve seen a variation of this note written in the copy margin from your protection-oriented camels: “Well, we really aren’t able to help everyone who comes to our program, so it’s better to say, ‘When you give, you will help us provide various solutions to the segment of people who participate in our programs and have achieved a certain level of commitment to rectifying the situation that has held them back from optimizing their future possibilities.’”

It’s not usually that obvious, but “wiggle words” can be overused. They are sometimes necessary. For example, if the program is being developed as you write, you may say that you will be “doing things like …” as opposed to being highly specific. Or, “While homelessness continues to be a program in our city, for people like Jose and Sandy, our program has been a lifesaver …”

Yes, you need to be honest when writing fundraising copy. That’s non-negotiable. But continue to fight the battle against the protectionist camels. The last impression you want to leave your donors with is that there is a problem and you’d like to solve it — but you really aren’t able to do so. Remember the story of the little boy tossing starfish back into the ocean; no, he couldn’t save them all, but his action made a difference for those he could.

Camel No. 3: The equal opportunity champion
This camel wants to be sure no project of your nonprofit is left behind. That camel’s input sounds a bit like this: “Yes, the letter is about our work to rescue porpoises, but we also are working with seagulls and pelicans. They deserve mention in the copy too.” Or, “Our donors know all about our porpoise project; let’s add a paragraph that talks about the work we do to manage kelp forests. That’s showing some amazing scientific benefits, but it hasn’t been getting as much coverage in your copy.”

Remember: That’s why you have a newsletter. Newsletters cover numerous topics, help donors understand the scope of your work and learn more about specific projects that excite them. But your fundraising appeal needs to help the donor focus on what you want him or her to do right now. (And that’s give a gift.)

Packing your copy with every pet project doesn’t honor those projects and the people who make them so successful. Instead, it harms your ability to raise funds — funds that help your organization continue to pay for all the projects you do.

Despite the recent rise of the camel’s stature in advertising, remember that camels make bad fundraisers. As much as possible, limit the number of people who provide actionable input to your fundraising copy. Others may contribute and you will give consideration to their input (and you should — no fundraiser is infallible), but make sure the final decision for copy content is limited to as few people as possible, and that those people understand fundraising basics.

This old dog knows that sometimes an organization’s worst enemy in fundraising is its own people who insist that camels make good fundraisers. It’s a challenge, but balancing Team Camel is critical for fundraising success.

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.

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