the model of a modern major fundraising letter

Jeff Brooks at Donor Power Blog got my attention this afternoon with this post on writing like a human being, especially when writing fundraising appeals. I’ve been thinking about this lately, too.

His main example is that of a typically written fundraising letter –which Jeff complains, quite fairly, that it sounds like it was written by a robot.

Here’s his plea:

When you write to donors — whether you’re asking for money, thanking them for a gift, telling them what their giving accomplished, or even taking care of details — keep it natural, warm, and human. Make sure you’re awake from the organizational stupor that can strike.

I have a book on my shelf at work that I inherited from a previous occupant of my office, that is packed to the gills with “model” fundraising letters like this.

Letters like you get in the mail from organizations you’ve never heard of, sometimes with stamps or pens enclosed, letters that have gut-wrenching envelope copy (“Won’t you help?”), letters that go on for two or four pages, all of which sound like they were written by that special phalanx of typewriting monkeys that crank out heartstring-tugging development copy.

It’s atrocious.

I actually consulted this book the other day when I was looking for a novel way to open a fundraising letter, thinking, How bad could it be? …and I was so appalled at the suggestions (” ‘Please save my baby!’ were the last words she cried…” was one notable example) that I rammed it back onto the shelf next to the Idiot’s Guide to HTML 4.0 — that was also left behind by the previous occupant.

Honestly, is there ever any call to write like that anymore?

Doesn’t it all reek of outdated sales tactics, desperate salesmen, and endless late-night commercials featuring grimy third-world children with tears in their eyes?

Is that the business we’re in?

One of the reasons why it’s worth while to build relationships with current and potential donors, members, constituents, et al., by using social networking and two-way communication like blogs is so that we can dump these outdated, alienating, and only ever marginally effective methods once and for all.

Yes, of course we are still working for nonprofits, we still need to “make the ask” if we are going to get the money we need to get our jobs done, deliver our services, bestow our grants, or whatever it is we are charged to do with whatever resources we are able to gather.

But let’s take a step back from doing the same old thing when we ask for donations, just because that’s how we think those letters have to be written, or because some jerky book tells us that’s how we’ll get our lousy 2-4% return.

If all your other communications are honest, down-to-earth, and neighborly (as many are), why would you need to shift gears when it’s time to ask for money? Why would you shift from a friendly handshake to an unfriendly shakedown?

It’s jarring, that’s what it is. And seriously off-putting.

I think it’s because many nonprofit professionals are uncomfortable with asking for money, so we fall back on what the “experts” say we should do.

When really, it’s just like anything else. Ask yourself, How would I like to be asked? What would I find compelling?

And then tell your story — in your own voice, from your own throat. Not from some jerky book.

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4 responses to “the model of a modern major fundraising letter

  1. Great post, I’m off to read the Power Donor blog right now.

    I’ve sent out thousands of those old line “blood in the streets” mailers.

    Some of the worst offenders have been the Animal rights charities.

    Although work work in a sector strongly influenced by the idea of creating a better world, too many people in power are afraid to inject that ideology into the business model.

    In many case,s staring at the diminishing returns only reinforces the sheep-think mentality of returning to “what works” by ramping up the fear, hate, or revulsion factor.

    What they fail to realize is that donors today are smart enough to know when they’re being manipulated.

    Again, thanks for posting this.

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  4. Wonderful post, Beth. I expanded on this at my own blog, to challenge communicators to do the same thing in their other printed materials, like brochures. Committee copy writing is the surest way to suck the soul out of a good story. We should be checking for typos and grammar, and story-telling elements, and that’s about it.

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