Your fundraising will fail if you get this one thing wrong

There’s one thing that every successful fundraiser knows for sure … and every struggling fundraiser has yet to find out.

It’s this simple fact.

Aside from the people who actually give you money – your donors – the offer you present in your fundraising appeal is the single most crucial part of your entire fundraising effort. By far. No question.

It’s hard to grasp how important this is unless you’ve seen the results from testing various appeals.

Your offer spells the difference between getting a random spattering of donations from an appeal you send out or a flood of responses that will fuel your mission for months to come. The offer is the one thing that makes the biggest difference.

It’s not the story you use in your appeal. It’s not the font or the graphics. It’s not how long or how short the appeal is. It’s not whether the button in your email says “Give now” or “Donate now.”  It’s not your nonprofit’s brand. It’s not whether this is your organization’s 25th anniversary. It’s not your nonprofit’s programs. It’s not your internal teams, no matter how good they are. It’s not your Charity Navigator rating. It’s not whether the copy “sounds like” the executive director who signs the letter.

It’s none of those things. Sure, they’re important … to varying degrees. But none of them makes as much of a difference to your fundraising results as the offer.

Your nonprofit could have great donor service. You answer donors’ questions promptly, always get their name and address right, even send thank you letters. Your fundraising staff could have years of experience. You could always be talking in your internal meetings about donor love, donor-centricity, and donor focus. It doesn’t matter.

If you have a weak offer, you’ll have weak fundraising results. There’s no way around it.

The magic is in knowing what an offer is and what it isn’t, and how to come up with a compelling one. You can find out more about that in my article here.

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Coronavirus fundraising – there’s a better way

Judging from what’s showing up in mailboxes and email inboxes, it looks like a lot of nonprofits are struggling with the messaging around the coronavirus crisis. But honestly, they’re making it much harder than it has to be.

Take this example from a prominent aid and relief charity. The first paragraph begins with the new president and CEO introducing himself and then acknowledging that he’s stepping into his new role at a challenging time. “We’re all facing the coronavirus pandemic,” he writes. Uh…no kidding.

So, apparently, this is a new-CEO letter, plus a coronavirus fundraising appeal. Generally, it’s not a great idea to try and do two things with one letter. It’s best when the letter has one purpose and one point.

The next paragraph talks about how COVID-19 threatens everyone, especially the elderly and people with health conditions. There’s no need to waste time saying this. People have gotten this information thousands of times by now.

In the third paragraph, the letter writer explains that he’s often asked if it’s difficult to be a CEO at this challenging time, and then assures us that the organization adapts to challenging times because of their strong teams. This comes off as way too self-serving, but beside that, it’s not good fundraising, because it’s about the organization not the donor.

The next paragraph congratulates the front line health workers for their commitment and the organization’s supporters for their commitment. This is an okay sentiment, of course, but it shouldn’t be here, four paragraphs in, before we’ve even come to an ask.

Paragraph five explains that all hands are needed on deck in this crisis, and asks, “Can you help us?”  Not “Can you help shut down the coronavirus?” But “Can you help US?” This is organization centric, not donor centric.

It’s not until the sixth paragraph that we get to the real point of the letter: a donation to provide personal protective equipment for health workers. Before we get to that, though, the letter explains that the organization has already shipped tons of PPE for health workers.

Hang on a minute – so the organization has already shipped tons of PPE and now they’re asking for a donation to ship PPE? That’s a strange way to present an ask. Why would you tell a donor, right before the ask, that you’ve already done the very same thing you’re asking the donor to do? Sort of takes the edge off of the urgency, doesn’t it?

There’s a far better way to structure this appeal, and it starts with the opening. Begin with the real and urgent need for PPE. This is something, given the wall-to-wall news coverage, that every donor will immediately get. Then show the donor how her gift fulfills that need, ideally with a specific and compelling offer. Something like: “Your gift of $XX sends XX pairs of gloves. Your gift of $XX sends XX masks.” And so on.

It’s one of the basic best practices of disaster fundraising. In many disasters, the news coverage provides the background, which means that donors mainly need to know how they can help and what their help will do. If it takes five or six paragraphs of blab to get to this point, most donors will be long gone.

There’s a basic framework for structuring disaster-fundraising appeals, and it doesn’t include talk about the commitment of your staff, your organization’s history, your organization’s flexibility, generalities about how much of a threat coronavirus is, and similar things. They’re just not relevant. They take the donor’s eye off the ball.

What disaster fundraising does require is a compelling expression of the need, a clear case for the urgency of the donor’s gift, and a strong offer that details what the donor’s gift will do. All focused around one core idea. Because when the appeal has one purpose and one point, there’s a far greater chance that it’s going to break through, connect with donors, and raise more money.

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How NOT to begin a fundraising appeal – and one way that almost always works

A fundraising appeal from a social services nonprofit opens with this:

“What would we do without you? How would we help local families like Michelle’s?”

That’s the opening paragraph, the first thing that donors will see, and for some, the only thing they’ll see. Because if the opening isn’t right, then most donors won’t go any further. And that generally means no donation.

What would WE do without you? How would WE help local families… That’s how this comes off to most donors. We, We, We. We’re the ones doing all the work, and all you do is give a few bucks every once in a while.

This opening manages to create the appearance of donor centricity without really being donor centric at all. It seems at first like it’s empowering the donor but then it stops short. It takes aim at the target audience – the donor – then goes just wide of the target.

Maybe the thinking behind this approach as an opening gambit is that it’s we, the organization, in partnership with you, the donor, working hand in hand to do good in the world. If that’s the case, a better approach might be something like this: “You and I are putting our hearts into this – together – to help local families like Michelle’s.” This way it’s more clear that donor and the person signing the letter are on equal footing in this arrangement.

But still, there’s another approach to opening a fundraising appeal that brings fewer problems with it and almost always sets the appeal on the right track. And it has the added advantage of being simple and direct.

It’s this: “I’m writing to you because …”  Most people in general and most donors in particular would appreciate receiving clear communication like this.

No BS, no warming up to the subject, no initial throat clearing, no hollow flattery about how “we” couldn’t do anything without the particular donor reading the letter. Instead, just getting straight to the point about the need. As far as openings go, it’s about as tried and true as they come.

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Coronavirus fundraising and what not to do

Fundraising for the coronavirus emergency is, well, unusual so far.

A soup kitchen sends an email with the subject line “A message from the president.” If you’re a donor scanning your email inbox, that could be just about anything.

Then when you open it, there’s still no indication. The headline says “A message from the president.” So you read the first line: “I want to keep you informed about our response to the growing coronavirus threat and the impact it’s having across the country.”

The following paragraphs talk about how the organization’s main priority is health and safety, working with local officials, taking the coronavirus threat seriously, taking necessary precautions, following CDC guidelines, and so on. The email goes on like this for five long paragraphs.

Only at the very end does it mention that costs for extra cleaning supplies and other measures have caused a budget shortfall. And only at the very end is there an ask for support.

In a similar vein, an email from an international aid and relief charity opens with an announcement that the WHO has officially declared the coronavirus to be a global pandemic. It goes on to talk about how the organization is taking steps to protect its staff and clients, how it has launched preparedness efforts, and how they’re dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable. There’s a link to a webpage that lays out the organization’s plan. There’s no ask in this email. It’s all informational.

Question is, Why is this emergency being treated differently from any other emergency that people and nonprofits would deal with … any other tornado, hurricane, flood, fire? Why the form-letter, corporate-sounding pronouncements from on high?

There’s no need for a charity to issue a formal public statement about the coronavirus. Donors know all about it. The news coverage has been wall-to-wall for weeks now.

The best practices for disaster fundraising are pretty well established. They could and should be put to use in this disaster too.

The email from the soup kitchen could open with a subject line and a headline that talk about helping to protect people from coronavirus.

It could go on to talk about how the homeless people, volunteers, and staff are facing serious risks, and how need for cleaning supplies, disinfectant, cleaning crews, and more is incredibly urgent.

Then it could have a specific and direct ask to fund the supplies and other actions needed.

That would be along the lines of a typical disaster fundraising appeal. Lots of charities will need additional funding in this coronavirus emergency just as aid and relief organizations need additional funding after a hurricane, and there are specific best practices for disaster fundraising that show how to secure that funding. We should use them.

 

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Ask yourself, “Would I donate to this?”

A direct mail appeal from an international aid and relief charity opens with:

“Five of Sayo’s children died because of dirty water. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?”

Okay, we have a statement of need that maybe the donor can do something about. But then, right after that, there’s this:

“After I shared her story last month, thousands of people responded generously in support of families like hers. Thank you!”

Hang on a sec – so, thousands of people responded? That’s great, so why do you need me to give? And what’s with the thank you? I didn’t give to that previous appeal, so what are you thanking me for?

Then, right after that, we get to the ask:

“Your generous gift of $25 can help save more lives.”

Which is fine (if a bit vague), BUT …

The part earlier about how people have already given undercuts the argument for donating to this appeal. The donor sees “thousands of people responded – thank you!” and naturally thinks, “Well, I guess we’re done here – no need to go any further.”

Of course there’s more to the letter than these few opening paragraphs, but the lead has to be right, because if it’s not, you’ll lose the reader that fast.

But, hey – who knows – maybe this appeal did great. Maybe this particular set of donors is unique in the way they respond. Maybe they’ve grown used to overlooking this kind of messaging from the charity. Maybe there’s some diabolically clever reverse psychology going on here – we’re getting you to give by telling you we don’t need your stinkin’ gift. Or maybe this appeal is part of a global master plan that’s playing out on a 3-D chessboard. Who knows?

What we do know is that this tactic of opening an appeal by thanking donors and telling them that everything’s great seems to persist. Even though it clearly fails to engage the reader – which you can prove to yourself:

“Dear Ms. Smith (pretend that’s you), our donors are giving like crazy, and things are just zooming along. Thank you!”

There – do you feel like your donation is needed? No? That’s why this kind of approach doesn’t make sense, and why it isn’t best practice for direct response.

The irony is that opening an appeal by talking about success and thanking the donor seems like a safe bet, but it’s really not. It doesn’t pull donors in the way it might seem like it should. In fact, it leaves donors out by telling them they’re not needed.

Usually, the most reliable way to engage donors is by presenting them with a believable problem that they can do something to solve. That’s what pulls donors in, and that’s the approach with a far better chance of moving them to give.

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One reason why fundraising appeals go bad

“The letter doesn’t sound like me.” That’s something a president/CEO or executive director of a nonprofit might say when she’s reviewing a fundraising appeal.

It’s actually a frequent comment, and it’s understandable, really.

After all, the president probably believes passionately in the cause that their nonprofit is engaged in and probably works like crazy at it. So it’s completely understandable that she would think of herself as the face of the nonprofit, as if she and the nonprofit are somehow one and the same.

And that’s exactly where the disconnect comes in. Most donors will probably never meet the president, will probably never even see a picture of the president, and probably wouldn’t know the president’s name except that it’s on the bottom of the letter. Most donors, to be honest, probably don’t know or care who the president is.

So it’s probably not the president who should be thinking of himself or herself as the face of the nonprofit. If anybody should be doing that, it should be the donor.

The reality is that the fundraising letter isn’t there to reflect and validate the president – as vital as that person unquestionably is to the nonprofit. It’s there to reflect and validate the donor. So when the president says the letter doesn’t sound like her, that’s okay – and probably even beneficial – as long as it sounds like something that interests the donor.

This is a hard thing for a lot of presidents to come to terms with – again, for completely understandable reasons. But sometimes it gets a little nutty. Like the president who forbids the use of contractions in letter copy… or beginning sentences with “and” … or using sentence fragments … simply because these and other quirks are pet peeves or personal preferences.

In other cases, it’s more extreme.

One president who was heading up a Christian rescue mission was reviewing a Christmas appeal, and he reacted to all the references to the birth, the nativity, and so on. “I don’t really talk about that very much,” he said. Keep in mind, he was a devout Christian. It’s just that, for him personally, he preferred not to wear his faith on his sleeve, and that included his very real feelings of joy over the birth of Christ. He felt this was intensely personal, not something to be included in a fundraising letter. So the feedback was to reduce and tone down the references to the birth. Remember, this was a Christmas appeal. Coming from a Christian charity.

The president may be reluctant to have lots of nativity talk in his letter, but you can bet the donors want to see plenty of Christmas language and Christmas imagery in a Christmas appeal. After all, this is a charity that they have not only an emotional connection with but also a spiritual one. They’re no doubt expecting religious language. They’re probably even looking forward to it.

And that’s the point. It’s not the president’s letter, even though his or her name and signature are on it. That’s tough for many presidents to realize. The effective ones do realize it, though. They know that it’s the donor’s letter. And so, it should be all about her, all about her values, all about her heart for the cause, and all about giving, because that’s what draws donors closer to the nonprofit – and that’s what raises more money.

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The single best — and easiest — way to improve your fundraising

If you’re heading up a nonprofit (or part of the team that does), one of the best things you can do for your fundraising is to come to terms with a hard truth: You are not your donors.

But don’t feel bad. Most corporate executives have to come to terms with the fact that they’re not their customers and have to keep that in mind when they’re deciding on their advertising. Anyway, back to donors.

For one thing, your donors are probably much older than you are. Which creates a completely different frame of reference about what’s good and what isn’t when it comes to copy and design.

Not only that, what you want to see in your fundraising appeals probably isn’t what’s going to motivate your donors. Your perspective is from within the organization. You’re “in the bubble.” Your donors aren’t.

Take the photos in your appeals. Those photos of happy, smiling people in your appeals that you believe show your nonprofit doing a good job – those really don’t work as hard as you might think to raise money. Maybe you think that showing photos of a sad child or a hungry adult will cast your nonprofit in a negative light, as if you’re not pursuing your mission. But your donor’s perspective is different. Your donors want to make a difference with their gift. When they see those “negative” photos, they see need. They see a problem to be solved. They see something they can do to change the world, even if only a little bit. So if you want to motivate donors to give, they should be seeing photos in your appeals showing need, not photos of success.

Same thing for the stories you use in appeals. The stories with a positive ending that you believe show your organization doing good work – those shouldn’t be in your appeals. (They should be in your newsletters, but that’s another discussion.) Donors have to read stories of need if they’re going to give.

The same applies to copywriting. You might think that fundraising copy is too corny, too emotional, too repetitive, too plain and simple. But that’s not how most donors see it. The fact is that donors respond best to copywriting that’s emotional and direct – not copywriting that’s formal, dry, or academic. Plain talk is best.

Or let’s say you can’t stand sentences that begin with “and” or “but.” Or sentence fragments. Or contractions like “won’t” or “can’t.” That’s fine, but imposing personal preferences like these onto appeals means you’re not going to create the kind of friendly, approachable tone in copy that’s likely to draw donors in and convince them to give.

When it comes time to create or review fundraising appeals, it’s important to view your own preferences with some healthy skepticism. You can’t just go by what you like or don’t like or what you think that you would or wouldn’t respond to in an appeal. Because your fundraising isn’t about you.

Which means that the decisions about what does or doesn’t go into an appeal should be based on your donors. It’s all about them, all about their values, all about their heart for the cause, and all about giving, because that’s what draws donors closer to the nonprofit – and that’s what raises more money.

 

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