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September 2007

Jeff's rules for direct-response fundraising copy

These are the things I tell fellow copywriters. They might work for you too.

Keep reading level low
Never go above sixth-grade reading level (Flesch-Kincaid). Aim for the 4th to 5th grade range. See if you can get lower yet. "Never use a long word where a short one will do." (George Orwell)

Make sentences readable

  • Vary in length (but seldom go over 30 words).
  • One-word sentences are good.
  • And starting with conjunctions is good.

Make paragraphs readable
  • Vary in length.
  • Almost never more than seven lines long.
  • One-word paragraphs are good.

Use a selling style
  • Conversational (not formal; not writerly).
  • Talk to and about the reader (singular!).
  • High ratio of "You" to "I" ("we" means the reader and the signer, not the organization).
  • Self-revealing.

Be specific
Never generalize. Find the details that make it "real." Strong emotion flows from specificity.

Think about imagery
Find a simile that clarifies, enlarges and dramatizes the situation. Be plain-spoken, not poetic. If it's forced, silly, or off-point, cut it (but at least try it).

Keep your eye out for the details
Look for small ways to add "sell" to any appeal. Can you alter the letterhead, the salutation, the sign-off to make them better? Can you revise the back of the reply device? Can you put handwritten comments in the margins? Squeeze in selling everywhere you can.

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Are your service reps helping or hurting you?

A post at the CustomersAreAlways blog takes a sharp-eyed look at the importance of customer service reps. The Frontline of Customer Service: Personal Brands notes:

In the customer's eyes, these servicers are the company itself.... They are the main contact point for which a transaction occurs. When a customer remembers dealing with company XYZ, they quickly transition to the customer service representative they dealt with ....

If the people your donors reach when they contact you are incompetent, bored, annoyed, or ticked off -- it's going to show. At best, the donor will have a flat, uninspiring encounter with the organization. At worst, they'll be totally turned off. How many times can you afford that happening? How many donors do you not mind losing?

Ask yourself these questions about your donor service people:

  • Are their working conditions and pay decent enough to keep a normal person around for a while?
  • Are they well trained?
  • Do they really get your organizations mission? Are they passionate and knowledgeable?
  • Are you being held hostage by competent but sour employees, letting them torpedo your brand because you're afraid you can't live without them?

These are important questions, because to many of your donors, these folks will be your organization. Not your brand guidelines, not your beliefs and idealism, not marketing. Not something to leave to chance.

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Fundraising the next morning

Fundraising as relationship gets a new look at the Ready, Aim, Inspire! Blog in What fundraising and one-night stands have in common. It takes the form of the "Top Ten Turn Offs" fundraisers commit, the first of which is:

No thank you letter sent - the ultimate sin!
If thank you letter is sent, it contains spelling mistakes (including our name!) and appears to be a form letter with no impact statement or relationship to our specific gift.

So many organizations mess up at this point of the relationship. The donor has reached out to you, taken a risk, exposed herself. If you care at all, you need to respond. Quickly and relevantly.

Late, sloppy, impersonal, or non-existent gift acknowledgements tell the donor that her gift wasn't important. That it wasn't good for you too.

So if you're going to do just one thing right, make it gift acknowledgements. The relationship's not going far if you don't start it right.

(See also Are your receipts a positive experience?)

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In praise of junk mail

With Junk Mail Awareness Week (October 1-7) fast approaching, I thought you'd enjoy a little rant from Denny Hatch's Business Common Sense, The Newest Junk Mail Hater. The article focuses on GreenDimes, a company that says it can "eliminate 95% of junk mail." But along the way, he mounts a spirited defense of direct mail:

Direct mail is the most precisely accountable of all advertising methods, measurable down to 10th and 100ths of a percent. Contrast this with what the general agencies do -- try to create awareness by spending millions of dollars of television airtime and space advertising (for which they get fat commissions) without a clue as to its effectiveness.

Amen to that.

Don't swallow the brand advertisers' Kool-Aid. For all their glamour, their value is limited, especially if you don't have an unlimited budget. Focus your time and money on direct response, and you'll know what's happening.

See also WARNING: Here Comes the Direct Mail Temperance Union at The Agitator.

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The best fundraisers probably aren't fundraisers

Seems some nonprofits are tapping their program staff to raise funds. Seems also that it's working. That's what a recent article in The Boston Globe, At nonprofits, asking for money becomes part of the job, says:

As the public faces of their organizations, staffers are particularly well-positioned to identify prospective givers, build long-term relationships with them, and give them a hands-on view of the nonprofit's mission.... After all, staff members often do the work that stirs donors' passions, such as conducting cancer research, keeping the Charles River clean, or playing the violin.

Three cheers for this trend! I hope it's real.

Front-line staff may not be experts at fundraising, but most of them I know more than make up for that in passion and knowledge about the cause.

Donors want to give to real things. They want connections. They want to change the world. They want experiences.

Not just marketing.

In my book, a real violinist (better yet, a real bassist) beats the best marketing money can buy every time. Even if he's a little tongue-tied and awkward and doesn't quite know how to close the deal. Because he's real, and marketing is, well, marketing.

So far, we're probably talking about face-to-face major donor fundraising. But really, what can we do to connect all the donors (or at least a lot more of them) with real-life mojo?

Here are some ideas:

  • Make staff available online for questions. Have an "ask the expert" feature on your website. Promote online chat with your experts. Even publish the email addresses of some of them to donors.
  • You can also do this over the phone through conference calls.
  • Encourage them to have a blog. It's a lot of work, but if they're into doing it, it can be a great way to give donors a true insider's look at the organization. (Want to see something cool? Visit the CSO Bass Blog, run by a bassist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It's like hanging out and drinking beer with the guy -- who just happens to be a musician in one of the world's great orchestras.)
  • Feature staff people in your newsletter.

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The myth of myth-busting

How many times have you heard (or said) We need to change our donors' minds about [some pressing issue]!

This thought sometimes leads to fundraising that focuses on busting myths. You've seen the type; it goes something like this:

MYTH: Africa doesn't exist.

FACT: Africa is very much a real place, home to nearly a billion people, [etc].

I've just made a terrible mistake. Because some readers of this blog (not you, of course) will remember my refutation of the falsehood that Africa doesn't exist as a statement of fact.

That's what some recent research found. Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach, an article in the The Washington Post, says that when you tell people something is a myth, some remember it is a truth:

The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

In other words, when you attack false beliefs, you help spread them. It's not true with everyone, but it is with enough people that this is worth paying attention to.

Widespread myths are simply pieces of information that are sticky -- albeit false. Like Iraq was responsible for 9/11. (Oops. I did it again.) They're stickier than any negations or denials around them.

This tells us two things for fundraising:

First, the myth-busting approach to fundraising is probably a lost cause. Don't whack 'em around for believing untrue things. Give 'em something better (and more true) to believe.

Second, and more important, we need to keep a realistic view of the power of information. It's a clumsy tool. Having facts doesn't mean someone will take action (Katya will back me up on this -- on video, no less!). Really, having facts doesn't mean someone will have the facts.

We spend a lot of energy on fine-tuning our messages, making sure they match the subtle shading of our unique philosophical platform and that they say everything everyone wants said.

Instead, we should make sure our messages say one thing at a time, with simplicity, clarity, and deeply affecting emotion.

If you want to raise funds, just raise funds. Leave educating to the teachers. Leave improving donors to themselves.

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Reality (not fantasy): where the money is

In his email subscription newsletter (which, seriously, you should be subscribing to), Roy Williams takes aim at the fantasy that afflicts some people in marketing: Making the Big Money.

Williams recounts a situation that happens to anyone in a marketing consulting role. Your client wants massively improved results, but isn't willing to offer something meaningfully better than the thing that's not working now. Their questions go like this:

"Can't we just say more strongly what we've been saying all along?"

"I don't think we need a new message. We just need to use a different media. Which one do you recommend?"

The same-old same old fundraising offer is pretty much going to get you the same old results.

If you want more from donors, you have to offer them more. You need to become radically more interesting, and give them a radically better choice for their money and mind-share than they can find any elsewhere.

That's not a matter of better-written copy, snazzier design, or even avant-garde media channels.

It's about the reality of what you offer donors.

You can tweak your results upward with better creative and a more scientific media plan -- and you have a duty to do that. But that's not where the real money is. The real money is in what you make it possible for donors to do.

Harder to do. But the key to break-out success.

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The hidden impact of fundraising on donors

There's a great post over at Gift Hub titled Donor Centered Fund-Raising. It's on the notion that fundraising isn't just about grabbing the dough you need to do good deeds. Fundraising itself is a good deed, because it transforms donors. As Phil put it ...

... transformational giving is the way to create gifts that can fulfill a family, uplift a nonprofit's work, and transform a society.... try treating a few high potential donors as human beings and see what happens. You may be astounded that you are sitting at the right hand of the donor as they convene their planning team to make a life-changing and world-changing gift.

Exactly. And while you're at it, try treating regular donors as human beings. It's not just well-heeled who can become better people through philanthropy.

This is the key to success and satisfaction in fundraising.

I was attracted to the fundraising profession because I wanted to make the world a better place, and I don't have any practical skills. I figured supporting people doing the real work was the next best thing.

But as I've continued doing the work, it's getting clearer to me all the time that fundraising is already making the world a better place -- before the funds even reach the "front lines."

Giving makes people better. It frees greedy people from the chains they've bound themselves with. It connects isolated, close-minded people with the larger world. It helps people attain their spiritual goals ...

And then their money goes out and does even more good!

So congratulations, fundraiser. You're an accomplished do-gooder.

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Fundraising is bad! (Carnival of Nonprofit Consultants)

Npcarnival_1This week, the Carnival conducted a highly scientific poll of nonprofit professionals on the question Is fundraising good or bad? Results were shocking and amazing:

  • 60% of our sample said bad.
  • 20% said good.
  • 20% were classified by our team of researchers as "other."

Below is our complete research:

Next week the Carnival moves back to its home at Nonprofit Communications. Let's hope Kivi can come up with something more encouraging than I did!

Great new packaging? Let it speak for itself

You're in the grocery store, and go to pick up some familiar packaged food. It looks different. They've redesigned the package. Invariably, there's a starburst that says something like New package, same great flavor!

I don't know about you, but that "same great flavor" claim always gives me pause. I always wonder if they've cheapened the product in some way that they hope we won't notice. That's not what they want me to think, but they brought it up by interrupting my purchase with thoughts about their packaging.

Nonprofits do it too. Look at our new logo, our re-designed website, our new vice president!

Listen to Katya in Your "new" is not news:

You should not communicate what is new in your universe. You should communicate what matters to your constituents.... If you have a new logo or brand look-and-feel, that's nice, but it doesn't mean a thing to the outside world.

It's not easy to step out of your own frame of reference. Those spiffy new things really are exciting in your world. Not so much elsewhere.

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The coming age of traveling donors

If you've ever taken donors on site visits, you know the power of showing them the real thing, first-hand. So here's some good news, from a recent article in Fast Company: Air Travel Goes Tribal. It's about different groups that will be doing a lot of travel in the future, including one group called "active seniors." They're folks with the time, money, energy, and curiosity to travel. The other part of the equation: travel is likely to get better, believe it or not:

As difficult as it may be to believe in these days of endless delays, travel 10 to 15 years from now will improve. Airlines and the other travel providers will get better at personalizing your journey and satisfying your individual preferences. By ensuring flexibility and reliability the airlines will improve profitability and loyalty among customers who are willing to pay for just those services they want

Keep this in mind. If your work happens internationally, you may have something unique and very, very cool to offer these travel-savvy people.

As seniors, they'll be candidates to be great supporters.

They've seen all the tourist spots. Now they want to see some real life and meet some real people. And you can help them got way off the beaten track. Site visits have long been a staple for major donor relationship-building. The time may be coming when it's for a lot more donors.

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Reaffirm a donor's decision to give -- and hurry!

What happens after a donor gives? Are you doing everything possible to make sure the donors gives again?

They think about this a lot in the commercial world. You can see how at the Return Customer Blog: Why You Need to Reaffirm Customer Decisions:

There is always a bit of uncertainty when a customer decides to make a purchase. By immediately giving positive feedback to the customer that they made the right decision, you can remove that doubt.... Armed with this confidence, your customers are more likely to be happy with their purchase. They’ll be less likely to have buyer's remorse and return your product the next day.

If this issue is important for buyers, it's even more important for donors.

Giving creates a feel-good "warm glow." It also creates uncertainty.

The uncertainty that preys most on donors is whether or not their gift really makes a difference. Are they going to use my gift the way they said they would? Are they effective? Will my gift be frittered away on overhead and fundraising? Was I tricked into a charity scam?

Every hour that ticks by after they make their gift, the warm glow fades -- and doubt can gain the upper hand. And as you know, when we lack information, we tend to make up stories to fill the gap. These stories are based on how we feel. So the longer it takes you to get back to a donor about their gift, the more likely they are to have negative feelings about you.

Here are some things you can do to reaffirm donors:

  • Speed your receipts into the mail. The faster, the better. If you're taking more than 48 hours, you're taking too long.
  • Make sure your receipt is relevant to the gift the donor gave. Talk about the same specific things that motivated the gift.
  • Consider making a special thank-you phone call. If not to all donors, at least to those above a certain level.
  • For gifts above $100 or so send the donor a personal, maybe even hand-written, thank-you note in addition to the receipt.
  • Publish a donor-centered newsletter that's all about the impact of donors' giving. It's not how cool you are, but how cool they are.

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Help stamp out junk mail


Here's my column in this month's FundRaising Success magazine, Help Stamp Out Junk Mail. Find out what do you need to do to celebrate a rewarding Junk Mail Awareness Week (October 1-7).

Donors seize control whether we like it or not

A recent article in the Washington Post, Exacting Donors Reshape College Giving, looked at how some donors are using restricted giving to try to control colleges.

Tactical Philanthropy also takes a look at the issues raised by donors who insist on designating their charitable gifts to specific uses: Do Donors Know Better than Nonprofits?

Why don't donors trust nonprofits to know the best way to allocate their capital? If they don't trust them to make capital allocation decisions, why are they giving to these nonprofits at all?

If donors don't trust you, whose fault is that?

But more important, is it really a matter of trust?

Most donors who want to designate their giving want to do so because they'd rather help accomplish your mission than run your office or raise more funds. Of course, you need to run your office and raise funds to accomplish your mission. And most donors, I think, can understand that.

But a "father-knows-best" attitude, where you say, "We know how to handle it all, and we dare not give donors any choices -- that can sink your fundraising, especially as more and more organizations discover the power of giving donors choice.

One the other hand, you don't want donors distorting your mission. That's something large donors with a certain level of savvy can do; you can end up being jerked around by a billionaire.

The middle way: Give donors the choice to designate their giving. At the same time, give them reasons not to designate.

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How one pilot makes flying less awful

From the Everything Is Possible Department, an article on in the Wall Street Journal: To a United Pilot, The Friendly Skies Are a Point of Pride.

Seems United has a pilot, Capt. Denny Flanagan, who goes way out of his way to make flying an okay experience. When flights are delayed, he buys food for the waiting passengers. If there's an unaccompanied child on a flight, he calls the kid's parents to let them know what's happening. He hangs out with passengers, gets insider information for them, helps people with luggage or connection problems, and is generally over-the-top friendly.

What the heck?

I fly United a lot. And from my vantage point, it looks like they don't give a rip about their employees or their customers. Flying United lately has been annoying at best and a rip-roaring fiasco at worst. Getting inaccurate information is normal. Apathetic employees who can't or won't help is the norm. Being just two hours late feels like success with these guys.

Yet there's one (maybe more?) United employee who's bucking the trend. I haven't had the pleasure of flying one of Capt. Flanagan's flight's, but I'm pretty sure the United experience is a very different one where he's on duty.

In the nonprofit world, our relationship with our customers (donors) is much less intense than that between airlines and theirs. No matter how bad we screw up, we're hardly going to torture donors all that much. A misspelled name, a duplicate record, a receipt never received, a request unfulfilled -- these things aren't likely to be much more than a small blip of irritation in a donor's life.

But what if one or two "Capt. Flanagans" at a nonprofit made it their personal mission to make giving an extraordinary experience? What if the whole organization pulled together to make it that way?

Could be good. Could be great.

Thanks to Church of the Customer Blog for the tip.

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Who shapes your message?

From MyCustomer.com, Customers control your message (and why that’s a good thing), the interesting case of the Roomba, an robot vacuum cleaner that creeps around your floor, doing the work for you.

Seems people were doing some funny things with their Roombas: dressing them up, attaching cameras, modifying them in odd and interesting ways.

When the manufacturer, iRobot, got wind of it, they published instructions for programming the Roomba. They've since released a fully programmable version, and they even run a contest for the most inventive use of it.

Pretty cool, huh?

I doubt it was as easy a decision as it looks. Picture the meetings: Somebody, no doubt, said By golly, our product is a top-notch vacuum cleaner, not a toy! After all, they spent considerable effort making it a good vacuum cleaner, and these rude customers were violating their brand promise.

But clearer and more flexible heads prevailed. They realized that some of their customers didn't see their product the way they did. Rather than fight that, or ignore it, they chose to work with it.

How many nonprofits have that flexibility? Are you willing to look at your "product" the way your donors see it?

Maybe your mission says you're "building civil society." There's a good chance many of your donors think you're feeding hungry children. The reality is that you're probably doing both.

Do you insist on your purity of purpose? Or do you work with what real people out there -- the ones willing to fork over cash -- think?

Thanks to Nonprofit Online News for the tip.

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If nobody reads your online newsletter

Here are some thoughts from a recent article in DM News on creating a better commercial online newsletter: Spruce up your online newsletter. These principles would also apply well to a nonprofit online newsletter:

  • Introduce an expert — perhaps you?
  • Browse and link to related stuff
  • Give away free stuff
  • Sticky content (fascinating material that's short and scannable)
  • Turn on the feedback loop (ask readers questions and display their answers)

Good advice. Just transferring the principles or content of a print newsletter to an online one won't get you something readable or response-worthy.

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7 surprising facts about direct-response fundraising

  1. Blank carrier envelopes usually out-perform envelopes with teasers.
  2. Longer letters perform better. Usually. There are exceptions.
  3. The most-read part of a fundraising letter is the P.S.
  4. Typos improve response. I can't prove this, but it seems to be true.
  5. Mail recipients spend more time looking at the back of the envelope than the front.
  6. Religious people give more to non-religious causes than non-religious people. Religious people give more to everything.
  7. The most powerful predictor that a donor will give is the recency of her previous gift.

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When not to get involved in Second Life

More and more nonprofits are showing up in Second Life. Are you? UK fundraising guy (and my former colleague) Bryan Miller in his Giving in a digital world blog takes a realistic look at Second Life in A busy week for nonprofit brands in Second Life:

... [Second Life] really doesn't live up to the type of PR-spin which has people expecting a truly lifelike virtual world -- but that's no reason to write it off as completely pointless.... What we have here is still a fascinating experiment in online social networking, enabling people from all around the world to communicate and interact with each other in a new and potentially highly creative way.

Personally, I find Second Life hard to navigate, confusing, and, well, boring. But that's only half the story. A few nonprofits are doing some amazing things there, most notable the American Cancer Society's Second Life Relay For Life. More importantly, those who are getting involved in this strange new medium are going to be a hundred times smarter about it as it improves. They'll be happily raising money and connecting with donors while everyone else scrambles to figure out what's going on.

There are a lot of good reasons not to get involved in Second Life. There are many excellent reasons you shouldn't bother having a blog. Or a presence in MySpace.

Not too many years ago, there were good reasons not to have a website, or not to accept online donations. Not anymore. These things have a way of zipping suddenly from the geek fringe to the mainstream. I'd get moving if I were you.

See also Second life: first things first for nonprofits.

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What is this blog all about?

If you're serious about raising money from donors, you need to get serious about donors. More than ever before, donors are insisting that you share power with them, not treating them like passive ATMs. This blog is about the ways you can do that -- and the rewards that await you and your donors when you do.

About the Blogger

DonorPower Blog is penned by Merkle's Power Blogging Team, led by Greg Fox, our senior vice president of strategy. Working with Greg is a police line-up of guest "artists", fundraising pros all, who like to pose as blogatorialists when the sun goes down. You can reach this blog, and any of our regular contributors, at
donorpowerblog [at] merkleinc [dot] com. See this blog's policies.

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