Let’s Break Some Rules!

Rules

If I’m in an empty parking lot with nobody around as far as the eye can see, I will still follow the arrows and not cut through other parking spots to get where I need to go.

I’m a rule follower.

But today I’m going to ask you to break some rules.

Grammar rules.

Because when you break some of the grammar rules you’ve been following most of your life, something interesting happens. Your writing comes alive, and you start to sound like a real person.

The purpose of direct response fundraising writing is to build a relationship with your donor. What’s the best way to do that? By sounding like a human!

Are you feeling uncomfortable?

I get it.

At first, breaking grammar rules bugged me. Now… I delight in it! Because I’ve seen how much more donors connect with a letter or email that sounds like it’s coming from a real person.

So let me suggest a shift in thinking.

Instead of thinking, “I’m breaking the basic rules of grammar,” shift to “I’m writing with a more personal style that better connects with donors.”

This is the art of direct response fundraising writing.

You see, the most effective writing in direct response fundraising includes imitating how people talk in real life conversations. This means you do things like…

  • Start sentences with And or But.
  • Vary your paragraph length. Use a short one-liner, then a three-liner, then maybe a two-liner. No long hamburger paragraphs from grade school!
  • Sprinkle in em dashes — and ellipses … (I call these … drama dots) for dramatic effect or a break in the rhythm.
  • End a sentence with a preposition sometimes (GASP!).
  • Use a sentence fragment to make a point (DOUBLE GASP!!!).

Remember, you are not writing a grant application. Grant applications have their (very important) place. But… have you ever willingly read a grant application?

If you are getting pushback internally, please read this post.

You must do better than grant application writing to keep your donors reading.

The more your direct response writing reflects a living, breathing, emotional, messy, interesting human being… the more likely your donors will keep reading and keep engaging with your mission.

And that’s what this is all about, right?

Break free from grammar rules and let me know how it goes! Comment here or find me on Twitter @sarahlundberg.

Three Editing Principles

Editing

In my first job as a fundraising writer, my mentor regularly and rigorously edited my work. 

It was painful. 

But I’m forever grateful because he always explained the “why” behind the edits.  And over time I became a more effective writer.

In an effort to “pass it on,” here are three edits I made in the last week.  Hopefully seeing the “before” and the “after” – and knowing why the edit was made – will help you in the same way it helped me…

Start with the Most Important Info

Original copy:
“Today, you have an incredible opportunity. Thanks to the generosity of [company name], your gift will be TRIPLED up to $40,000.”

Edited Copy:
“Your gift will be TRIPLED up to $40,000! What an incredible opportunity to increase your impact, thanks to the generosity of [company name].”

Reasoning:
Put the most important information first.

The example paragraph contains three ideas: the donor has an opportunity, the matching funds are provided by a company, and the donor’s gift will triple.  Of those three, the most important idea *to the donor* is that their gift will triple.  Arrange the ideas in the paragraph so that the most important idea is first. 

You never want to put important information at the end of a paragraph. A significant percentage of people will scan your letter or email (instead of reading it).  And “scanners” often don’t read more than the first few words of a paragraph. 

“Don’t bury the lede” is in the Donor Communications Constitution for a reason.

Avoid Ambiguity

Original copy:
“Her mom’s ability to work has been impacted by the pandemic.”

Edited Copy:
“Her mom hasn’t been able to work as much because of the pandemic.”

Reasoning:
Avoid words and phrases that can mean multiple things.

The phrase “ability to work has been impacted” is value neutral; the ‘impact’ could be either good or bad.  But the job of this sentence (and the paragraph it resides in) is to provide evidence that a gift is needed today.  The edited copy makes it clearer, faster, that the situation is a negative one. 

Any time you require a reader to figure out exactly what you mean, you’ve increased the chances they will abandon your email or letter. 

Make It About the Reader

Original copy:
“We still need your help to reach our match goal.”

Edited Copy:
“Your help is still needed, and your gift will be doubled.”

Reasoning:
Donors are more interested in themselves than they are in organizations.

The sentence, “We still need your help to reach our match goal” is mostly about the organization.  It’s the organization that needs help.  It’s the organization’s goal. 

But that sentence can be re-written to be about the reader.  “Your help is needed, and your gift will be doubled.”   And we’ve turned the slightly ambiguous phrase “match goal” into a donor benefit; their gift will be doubled.

Editing your direct response fundraising to make it more about your reader and their interests is a counter-intuitive but proven approach to raising more money.

This post was originally published on April 1, 2021.

For People Who Approve Fundraising

Direct response fundraising.

This post is for people who approve fundraising for their organization.

The biggest thing I want you to know is that direct response fundraising is different than other types of fundraising.

I see and work with lots of organizations that have great programs, that make a meaningful difference in the world, and have generous donors.

But they raise far less money than they should because the people approving the fundraising don’t know that direct response fundraising – appeals, e-appeals, newsletters, etc. – is different from other types of fundraising.

There’s no blame here: it’s not your fault. Nobody teaches this at nonprofits. But it’s true.

There are two main differences you should know about…

The Need For Speed

In direct response fundraising you have very little time – just a few seconds – to catch and keep a reader’s attention.

This means appeals, e-appeals and newsletters need to get to the point very quickly, and be very direct.

In a person-to-person conversation, being so direct so quickly would be off-putting. But in the context of a letter or email that most donors will only spend less than 10 seconds with, being so direct so quickly is helpful.

So your appeals, e-appeals and newsletters should sound a little different than your organization usually sounds in a conversation, or at an event, or in a grant application.

If your appeals, e-appeals and newsletters do not sound different, then there’s a significant portion of your donors that your message isn’t reaching. And you’re raising less money than you could be.

Emotions, Not Logic

In direct response fundraising, it does not work well to ‘reason’ a person into giving.

How effective your programs are, how many people you helped last year, and how your organization approaches the problem you work on . . . none of these are in the “Top 5” reasons that would cause a donor to give a gift today.

What works better is to appeal to their emotions about your beneficiaries or cause.

This means appeals, e-appeals and newsletters should be written to tap into donors’ emotions. That means the appeals, e-appeals and newsletters will sound different than a grant application, or a conversation with a partner organization, or even a conversation among staff.

Embrace The Differences

You might not like these two differences. You might not prefer the type of writing and design that results from them.

But the differences are real.

Embrace the differences as a way of helping your beneficiaries or cause.

Because if you don’t pay attention to these two differences – in other words, if your organization doesn’t create and evaluate direct response fundraising like it’s different from other types of fundraising – you will raise less money than you could be.

And you will do less of your mission work than you could be.

Embrace these differences, and the consequences they have for your appeals, e-appeals and newsletters. Doing so is a gift you can give your beneficiaries and cause.

How to make your emails more relevant to your donors

relevance

I wrote the following earlier this year, but it was hidden at the bottom of a long post…

More relevant emails → higher open rates

Higher open rates → more people reading your fundraising

More people reading your fundraising → more people giving

More people giving → more mission work done!

So what does “more relevant” mean?

In general, here’s what we’ve found:

  • More relevant = emails about a beneficiary, or about the donor (either what their past giving has done or their future giving will do)
  • Less relevant = emails about your organization (your programs / process / staff / partners / organizational calendar)

Of course there are edge cases. And of course you can (and should) send out emails about upcoming events and big announcements.

But it all comes back to this truth. There are three “characters” in every piece of fundraising you ever send out:

  • The organization
  • The beneficiaries or cause
  • The donor

Your donors, in the context of direct response fundraising, tend to be much more interested in beneficiaries / the cause and in themselves than they are in your organization.

So if your email open rates aren’t what you think they should be, focus more of your emails (the subject lines, the content, the calls to action) on your donors and beneficiaries.

Three Easy Ways to Boost Performance on Your Next Appeal

performance

What I’m about to tell you is not something new.  Yet the importance of these simple fundraising tactics is often overlooked when we’re planning our direct mail appeals.

I’m talking about emails, phone calls, and social posts.

Each of these fundraising tactics can radically boost the performance your direct mail appeal, so here’s a reminder, and few reasons, to why you should add them to your next appeal.

Emails

There are two types of fundraising emails you should send with your next appeal. 

The first is the email chaser. This email is ideally sent on or after the donor has received the direct mail letter. The email chaser should briefly outline the problem, solution, and hopeful future the donor’s gift will provide.  Often times you can use the copy that was used for the direct mail letter.

The Better Fundraising Company also recommends to send two, three, or more additional emails to your donors throughout the campaign.  You can exclude folks that have already made a gift, but the idea here is to be present, push the urgency or deadline, and provide donors with a visual reminder that their gift is needed.

Phone Calls

Communicating with your donors on the phone is personal, incredibly cost-effective, and a great way to build goodwill and relationships. 

So, for your next campaign, and if your resources allow, why not make a commitment to call every new donor who gave to your campaign? Or get in touch with your mid-level and major donors?  Just be sure to mention the same messaging or offer you included in the direct mail appeal.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s from you, a board member, or a volunteer, a simple phone call will make the donor feel special, and increase the likelihood of future gifts.

Social Posts

Another way to help your direct mail appeals raise more money is to reinforce the appeals message on social media.

Regardless of how many followers you have, your social media platforms can provide donors with real-time reasons why their gift is needed.

A few short lines reminding donors of a match, the problem and solution, the campaign image, or an urgent deadline are simple messages that can be used to remind donors that they can make a difference.

And similar to resourcing your phone calls, consider getting your board or other staff involved to spread the campaign message in their own circles of influence.

More than likely you are already doing some, or all of these activities to supplement your direct mail appeals.  But if you’re not, consider adding some emails, phone calls, and social posts to your next appeal letter.

Lazy Summer Days – Are You Making the Mistake of Resting Your Donors?

Beach rest vacation.

In these last few summer days, I’m bringing you an important message.

Picture me, sitting in a beach chair. I’m relaxed. I’m on vacation. I am lulled into thinking the whole world is on vacation, including donors. Fundraising? Nah. Not a good time.

Danger! Danger!

This time of year, it can be so tempting to be lulled into the kind of thinking that causes you to raise less money. It’s the lazy last days of summer.

Donors need a rest from fundraising, right?

Nope.

A couple years ago I was listening to Better Fundraising co-founder Steven Screen as he spoke at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference.

Steven shared this little gem, which has haunted me ever since:

“When you rest your donors, they can forget how to give to your organization.”

(gulp…)

Thanks, Steven.

Here’s the reality of these lazy summer days.

SOME of your donors are checked out at the end of summer. But many donors are not checked out!

You have donors in your file right now who are ready to give, if only they knew the problem and how they could make it better. If only you would ask them to give!

And here’s the thing: other organizations are in your donor’s mailbox right now, reminding them how they can help, while you – giving these donors a rest – are slowly fading from their memory. There’s a thought to ruin a lazy beach day.

When you make the decision to rest your donors, you’re taking their choices away from them. You are deciding they won’t give… without even asking them!

Here’s something you can do today.

If your organization has a need… send your donors a fundraising email! And in next year’s calendar, pencil in an August appeal. Do not schedule a rest for your donors.

Who To Mail Your Newsletter To

mail you letter

Your donors. Mail your newsletter to your donors.

More specifically, here’s who to send your newsletter to:

  • If you send three or fewer newsletters per year, send your newsletters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 24 months
  • If you send 4 or more newsletters per year, send your newsletters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 18 months

Who Not to Mail Your Newsletter To

Here’s who not to send your newsletter to:

  • Non-donors
  • Volunteers
  • Local organizations and businesses who are not donors

Why? Because every time we’ve analyzed the results of sending newsletters to that group we find the same thing: you lose money because it costs more to send the newsletter to that group than the revenue you’ll receive from mailing those groups.

Send Your Newsletter to Your Major Donors

Here’s a tactic we often use to increase the number of major donors who read (and donate to) your newsletter:

  • Instead of sending them a folded newsletter in a #10 envelope, send the newsletter unfolded in a 9”x12” envelope
  • Hand-write their address on the envelope
  • Add a cover letter that thanks the donor for their donation, and tells them that they’ll see how their donation made a difference when they read the newsletter.
  • Hand-sign the cover letter.  You can even write a personal note on it if you’d like.
  • Include a customized reply card and reply envelope

If you’d like to take this a step further, email the major donor on the day you send the newsletter to let them know to look for it. If that email is sent by your Executive Director, your ED will receive replies from some majors thanking her for letting them know! It’s a great opportunity to deepen the relationship with those donors.

What Postage to Use

For your Mass donors, send your newsletter using nonprofit postage. 

The only regular exception to that rule is if there’s a deadline to respond to your newsletter and you’re sending it out later than you planned. For instance, say your newsletter has an offer (on the back page, of course) to write a note of encouragement to hospital patients who are stuck in the hospital for the holidays.  But you’re mailing just 3 weeks before the holidays begin. Then, by all means, use first class postage.

For your Major donors, use first class postage. Use a live stamp if you can. And set the stamp at a slight angle so it’s obvious that a human put the stamp on the envelope, not a machine (thanks for that tip, John Lepp!)

This is a Great Beginning…

The recommendations above are a solid foundation for who to send your newsletter to, and how to send it out.

Over time, your system will get more complicated. You’ll discover things like, “it’s worth it for us to send our newsletter to donors who gave between 24 and 36 months ago, who have given $1,000 or more, because we reactivate enough lapsed major donors to make up for the expense.”

Or you’ll discover things like, “When we have a newsletter with Offer X, it’s worth it to mail all donors who have given to Offer X in the last 36 months.” 

Great.  Love it.  And if you’re not there yet, start here!

This post was originally published on July 30, 2020. Get a free downloadable “e-book” of this whole series here.

Better Fundraising in Today’s Economy

recession

The economy in the United States is under stress.  Inflation is driving prices up, and the stock market is down. 

Thankfully, smart fundraisers have been through situations like this before.  Here’s what to do…

Stay The Course

Do not cancel any fundraising. 

You need to be sold out to your mission and your beneficiaries.  Your job is to advocate for them and to let donors make decisions for whether to give or not.

Make Your Case Stronger Than Ever

The media will be focusing your donor’s attention on a very narrow swath of issues.  Your organization will need to “break through” that noise to get your donors’ attention.

Additionally, some of your donors may choose to give to a couple fewer charities than normal.  You want to make your case so strongly that your organization is not one of the organizations a donor cuts from their giving.

Many Donors Will Not Be Affected

The last couple of years have been incredible for some donors – and many of them will become more generous during a recession… if you give them the chance to be.

The Fundraising Outlook Is Brighter Than Most People Think

Two reasons:

  1. Economic situations like this one disproportionately affect younger people, but donors tend to be older.  Fewer of an organization’s donors will be affected by this than most people assume. 
  2. Awareness of Need is high.  When people’s awareness of a Need is high, they are more likely to give. 

The economic situation may change your donors’ circumstances, but it will not change their priorities.  And they still care about your beneficiaries and cause. 

Do not take the decision to give out of your donors’ hands.  Give them the chance to be the generous people they wish to be.

Authenticity Isn’t Always Useful

authentic

In the nonprofit world we tend to embrace authenticity.

It’s assumed that if we’re authentic, and the fundraising we create is authentic, that we’ll attract more people to our cause. More money will be raised, and we’ll do more good.

But there are clear limits to this line of thinking. 

Say you’re at an organization that has eighteen different programs. But your fundraising is most successful when it focuses on one particular program. Furthermore, that program has a holistic, whole-person approach to caring for people of all ages.  But the fundraising clearly works best when it asks donors to “feed one child.”

In that scenario, any fundraising you create that focuses on “feeding a child” will feel wildly inauthentic to program staff and anyone who understands the depth and breadth of your work.

However, the fundraising you create that focuses on “feeding a child” serves your mission by helping donors understand a powerful part of your organization’s complex approach.

Think of a college professor. Can you imagine how an accomplished astrophysicist – tenured and with a long track record of publishing cutting-edge research – feels when teaching “Astronomy 101” to a bunch of college freshmen (some of whom are hung over)?

Do we think she feels “authentic” giving those lectures when she could be discussing the latest findings with her peers? 

Probably not. She does it because it’s part of the job, and because it’s likely there are some future astrophysicists in her class.  How will they get excited about the subject if she doesn’t show up in an engaging way? Furthermore, she can’t show up in class and talk to the freshmen like she talks to her peers.  She makes the generous choice to speak to them in language they’ll understand.

Fundraising is the same. There are some donor communications we need to make – even if we don’t prefer them – because it’s part of the job. 

And how will the future volunteers / donors / advocates get excited about our work if we don’t show up – speaking to them at their level – in an engaging way?

There’s nothing wrong with communicating authentically. The trap is when “communicating authentically” comes to mean “we talk about our work in one particular way that feels authentic to us.” 

Nonprofits should make the generous choice to talk to different audiences in different ways: we should communicate about our work differently to institutional funders who are experts in our fields differently than we communicate to mass donors.

Our primary focus should not be on being authentic to ourselves, it should be on being relevant to the particular audience being communicated to.