The Big Rush

imagesThis past week we did a lot of rushing in my family. From piano to birthday celebrations, from haircut to dinner to middle school tour, from futsal to more birthday celebrations…it was a whirlwind. As we rushed from activity to activity, I also did some rushing in my work life. And it got me thinking about how compressed our schedules have become in the last few years. What used to be a six week process of strategy-research-outline-draft-refine-review-perfect-mail has, too often, become a mad dash from outline to draft to review to mail -- with no time to strategize, thoroughly research, refine or perfect anything.

I see it all the time in news reporting. It's almost impossible to read a news article today without finding at least one typo. Even larger news outlets have become so quick to publish that they do their fact-checking after the story's out.

I am not a technophobe, and I don't hate progress. I do not want to go back to the days of stinky blueline proofs and camera-ready copy. I love being able to type, copy and paste my way through drafting and editing.

But I do wonder if we've hit the limit of how fast we can go.

Now, I know computers can and will do things faster. They'll continue to advance, and my children or grandchildren will likely wonder how we managed to get by with such clunky interfaces as keyboards and mice.

But true creativity and excellent, thoughtful work still take time.

Before I write a word, I like to take time to absorb the information and notice what bits and pieces stand out for me. If I do my research and then step away, my brain helps me out by sifting through things and organizing it all, so that when I do sit down to write, the words flow more easily.

And the same principle works once the copy's written. My best direct mail letters need rest before they're ready for the world. I have to step away for at least a day -- ideally for three or four days -- so that I can see clearly what needs work.

Yes, I can -- and often do -- turn things around on a dime. I've written, directed design and sent to the printer direct mail packages in the course of one business day. (With a lot of help from clients, graphic designers and printers!) And many of those packages were successful.

Some of them were not.

The truth is, my best, most enduring packages have been those that I was allowed to spend weeks on.

As you rush to meet deadlines, consider if there might be a value to slowing down. I'm a firm believer that done is better than perfect, but that doesn't mean I don't try to be as perfect as I can be -- and sometimes that means taking an extra day or two.

Sometimes, the best way to beat the rush is to slow down and let it pass you by.

One of Those Days

poutLast week, I had one of those days. You know the ones. You do your best to get things done, reach for creative heights, and refrain from yelling at your family or snapping at the mom who just ran over your foot with her giant stroller. And nothing quite seems to work out. I sometimes have a hard time keeping days like that in perspective. Rationally, I know that some days are just like that. But I often turn my frustration inward, sure that if I could just buckle down, I could move forward on that big project/be a more patient parent/write the heck out of that fundraising letter.

But last week, I had a bit of a breakthrough. I was complaining to my husband about my lack of forward momentum, and he reminded me that we'd had a sick child, strange school hours/off days, and an addition to our already crowded weekly schedule. From his perspective, it was no wonder I was off my game.

And that is when I realized that "those days" almost always happen when I'm out of my routine. My work may be creative, but that creativity relies on my devotion to my daily rhythms. And when those rhythms get thrown off, so does my ability to do my most effective work.

Of course, disruptions to routines are inevitable. Not only that, I'm starting to think they're valuable.

"Those days" often can be precursors to a different kind of day: the days when everything I work on comes together almost magically.

My regular path might be narrow, but sometimes you see more by stepping off for a time.

By stepping off my usual path, I give myself the chance to look at the things I'm trying to accomplish from a new perspective. And I'm able to be fresh and more creative when I get back on track.

So next time I have one of "those days," I'm going to try to look at it as a gift, rather than a curse.

Although I still might snap at the lady who runs over my foot with her giant stroller.

Telling Stories

I tend to take a workwoman’s approach to writing: Get a theme, write to the theme, revise and polish, let go and move on to next topic. As someone who has spent the last 15+ years writing to deadlines, that work ethic has kept organic broccoli in my fridge and a roof over my head.IMG_0418 But as my husband would be eager to tell you, I am not by nature such a practical soul. At root, I am a dreamer. Which I think is at least part of why I choose to make my living with stories.

As my friend and colleague at ARC Communications, Amy Blake, pointed out, we all tell ourselves stories every day. Sometimes those stories are heroic, as when we think about the deadlines we met, the performance evaluations we exceeded, the kind words we spoke when they were most needed.

And sometimes those stories are less positive, as when we criticize ourselves or others, or lament what might have been.

In fact, because we’ve been telling stories as a species for 100,000 years, our brains are hard-wired to organize information that way. We can’t help but see stories all around us, nearly every minute of the day. Our very histories – personal and global – are all organized around and passed along as stories.

Love stories, bedtime stories, campfire stories, origin stories, stories we tell around the dinner table, children’s stories, adult stories, erotic stories, traditional stories, fables, fairy tales and myths…the list goes on and on.

It’s fascinating!

I think we sometimes become distanced from our own stories when we try so hard to quantify and prove or disprove everything that crosses our paths. Don’t get me wrong – I love science and data… for the stories they can tell.

DSC_0061 But it's all too easy to forget that every conclusion we draw is a story we tell ourselves. I know that when I'm writing -- whether it's an appeal for funds or a blog post or a personal email -- I am often so immersed in the information I'm trying to convey that I forget to just let my story unfold.

For the last few fundraising letters I've written, I've added a step to my process: I'm taking the time to reconnect with the larger story I'm trying to tell. I edit to let the story itself convey the information, rather than simply presenting the information. It's a subtle but powerful difference, and ultimately, I think it has made for much stronger pieces that pursue the core truths about my organizations' missions.

And let me be clear. I'm not talking about just adding a story from your program staff and hoping it illustrates your point. No, I'm looking at a broader definition of "story," one that is more holistic and that tells your donors who you really are as an organization.

Of course, I won't know how the story of this experiment ends for a few weeks, until the data on these mailings tells its story. But for now, I'm doing my best to cultivate my clients' organization-wide stories and let those stories do the hard work for me.

What stories are you telling in your fundraising efforts? Are they narrow and specific? Or broad and holistic? Do they emerge organically from your process, or do they require cultivation?

I do not think that means what you think it means

Earlier this year, my friend and colleague Amy Blake posted a fantastic musing about storytelling and her concern that it has evolved (or devolved) from a valuable tool in the fundraiser's toolbox to a meaningless buzzword-du-jour. As I've  made my year-end rounds, I've noticed that it's not just storytelling that's getting the magic bullet treatment. IMG_0062_2As I've mentioned before, right now is a fantastic time to be a fundraiser. There's so much information out there. But be careful when you're implementing all that free advice because there are nuances to using story-telling, donor-centricity, compelling emotion and all the other keys to great fundraising. And those nuances could mean the difference between a blockbuster campaign and a dud.

Being donor-centric doesn't mean putting yourself in your donor's shoes.

Because you can't. You know too much, you've taken the red pill (The blue one? I can't remember.), you're in too deep. You're already sold on the issues you care about, and it's really hard to be objective enough to take a step back and understand how those issues appear to your donor.

Instead, try to remember the last time you tried to learn something new. How did it feel to not know anything about a subject? What key pieces of information did you need to help you understand the subject and what was required of you? What kind of encouragement did you need? What spurred you on to learn more?

Even the most devoted donors are not as well versed in your issues as you are. Being donor-centric means understanding what your donor needs -- emotionally and intellectually -- to spur them to give.

Storytelling is not a magic bullet.

I'll tell you a secret: storytelling will not singlehandedly save your fundraising.

Donors do not read stories and automatically open their wallets. In fact, stories without context not only don't help you fundraise, they actively hurt your fundraising efforts. And sometimes, even stories with context don't work in fundraising -- if they're not the stories your donor wants to hear.

One of my clients launched a big storytelling push last year. It bombed. In reviewing what went wrong, we realized we weren't telling the donors the stories they wanted to hear. We were telling them the stories we wanted to tell. The difference cost the organization a lot of money.

Guess what? How your donor helps your cause IS a story. Two lines of copy addressing what's at stake IS a story. And often it's those stories-that-don't-look-like-stories that are the most effective in fundraising.

You need the right kind of emotion.

One of the biggest mistakes I see with organizations is confusing pathos for emotion. I feel sorry for a great many people and sad about a great many situations in this world. But I don't -- I can't -- fix them all. Emotion is no good to a fundraiser if it doesn't move a donor to act.

Anger is a prime motivator to action. Outrage makes us jump out of our chairs and get things done. Positive emotions like hope and gratitude are also super-motivators. Pathos, sympathy and sorrow might push people to act, but they're far more likely to  make donors feel overwhelmed or depressed.

One of my favorite things that Tom Ahern says about fundraisers is that it's our job to "deliver joy." There's no joy in a sad story if it doesn't make the donor feel like he or she can do something to alleviate the sadness.

Get that information -- and go deep

DSC_0045The volume of information we have and our almost-instantaneous ability to get it can sometimes encourage a broad but shallow understanding. But our fundraising can be so much more effective if we deepen our knowledge. Track what moves your donors, continue to refine that knowledge through tests, and listen to what your donors say about your organization, your cause, and the other things that interest them.

In the end, it is your donors -- not experts like me! -- who will tell you how best to fundraise.

Always Say Yes

YESOne of the most valuable lessons of my professional life was first delivered to me in my high school improv class: Always Say Yes. If you've ever taken an improv class -- or read the chapter in Tina Fey's memoir that talks about her application of "Always Say Yes" into her own work life -- then you know that this rule is designed to keep an improv scene going. Actors are not allowed to say "no" to their scene-mates, or the entire scene dies. As Fey says, "The fun is always on the other side of a yes."

I was reminded of this lesson from my long-ago improv class right out of college, when I worked for someone who routinely demanded the impossible. Very quickly, I realized that as long as I greeted his every new proposal with a "yes," then work moved forward relatively peacefully.

Of course, that didn't mean that his every proposal worked. In fact, many, many times, it fell flat. And eventually, I learned how to avoid his crazier demands by saying "yes"...and then telling him exactly what needed to happen in order to accomplish his request.

To this day, I say "yes" to almost every unreasonable demand that crosses my desk -- not out of a misguided sense of people-pleasing, or a secret masochistic streak. But because I know saying "yes" is the quickest way to get to the fun, to the part of a project where the words are flowing, the creativity is happening and things are getting done.

I am always taken aback when I work with someone who tells me "no." How can you ever get to the good stuff if you refuse to even try?

Sure, it might not work. I've pitched many an idea that did not work -- either because they were under-developed, or because I didn't understand something crucial about the project, or because they just ultimately weren't doable.

But those failed efforts almost always led me to successes. And, perhaps more importantly, they taught me to take a joy in my work that I could never have found if I'd let myself say "no."


What the Veronica Mars Kickstarter Can Teach YOU

There has been a lot written about the Veronica Mars Kickstarter project and its implications for how movies are funded. Launched last week, the project reached its $2 million goal on the first of its 30 days. With 18 days to go, it has almost doubled its initial goal. I’m excited on a personal level because I was a big fan of the show and am looking forward to watching another 90+ minutes of Mars-y goodness. But what really intrigued me is what the project can teach fundraisers.

If you’re not familiar with the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, check out their FAQ. In a nutshell, it’s a way for artists and other creative types to collectively fund their projects. Musician Amanda Palmer financed her successful album Theatre is Evil via a Kickstarter campaign, and two documentary short films funded by the platform went on to be nominated for Academy Awards.

Though there has been a lot of backlash against the Veronica Mars project – the money is going to fund a movie that the studio will profit from! There are so many worthier causes! These people are millionaires and should fund the movie themselves if they care so much! – there are some really powerful fundraising lessons embedded in this campaign.

  1. They asked. Lots of fans have been clamoring for a Veronica Mars movie for years. The stars of the show and the show’s creator wanted to do it, but it was stuck in development hell, languishing for lack of financial support. So creator Rob Thomas figured out what he needed, explained it to his supporters, and asked them to fund it.
  2. They have a well-articulated plan for the money. They set a campaign goal for the minimum amount they needed and then made a plan for what they’d do if they received more. Donors to the campaign were informed up front exactly how their money would be spent and what their contribution would make happen. They also told people what would happen if the Kickstarter goal wasn’t met and explained why this campaign was the best way for everyone to get what they wanted.
  3. They acknowledged their supporters. Sure, they offered plenty of swag – that’s part of the Kickstarter model. But they also immediately thanked all supporters as soon as the campaign achieved its goal. And they kept thanking them, offering new incentives and updates as the campaign continued.

People have a choice of how to spend their money – and that counts for charities too. The Veronica Mars Kickstarter shows how loyal your supporters can be. Years after the show went off the air, fans jumped at the chance to get one more story from the series.

But it also shows that when you have a loyal base of supporters and you treat them with respect, candor and gratitude, you can fund even your most audacious projects.


What Knitting Taught Me About Writing

I started knitting when I was in my mid-20’s. My mother is an expert seamstress and had tried to teach me to sew, but it just never took. I couldn’t muster the patience or the exactitude necessary for sewing. (Really, I hated all the ironing. I still don’t iron, unless you count tossing things in the dryer for a few minutes.) By a strange coincidence, I also started writing for a living in my mid-twenties, about four months after I cast on my first stitch.

For years, I didn’t think the two were related at all, except that when I am in a knitting phase, I’m not writing quite as much, and when I’m in a writing phase, I’m not knitting as much. If I thought of them together at all, they were competitors for my time.

But one day, one of my kids was looking at my latest project, and she said, “Wow, that sure is a mess. Are you sure you want to keep making it?”

Hold the mustard! That is something I say to myself in the middle of every single thing I write -- fiction or fundraising or email to a friend.  And in that moment, I realized that all these years of knitting and writing have been far more inextricably linked than I ever knew.

The Beginning: Casting on

Every piece of knitting starts with that first cast-on stitch (Fancy expert knitters who know some fabulous technique for starting without casting on: Pipe down! I’m making a point here!), just as every piece you write starts with that first word.

Those first few rows of knitting – just like the first few sentences you write – are maddening. Full of promise of what’s to come, but messy and often confusing...and absolutely necessary to get to the good stuff. They’re never the prettiest stitches or the most beautiful prose. But they form the foundation for what is to come.

As you add row upon row, word upon word, you feel pretty good. You’re making progress! Your fingers are flying! This is AWESOME!

Until you look at your word (or row) count and realize how much further you have to go.

The Messy Middle

Which is when you get to the big slog, which looks like this:

Can you even imagine wearing that? Can you imagine wanting to?

The same thing happens when I’m writing. I get to the middle and feel absolutely certain that everything I’ve done up to that point was a complete waste of time. There are stray thoughts everywhere, paragraphs that start strong, then peter out into nothing. Structure? What structure! It’s an amorphous blob that will never amount to anything.

But I keep plugging away. Because I’ve come this far, and because I’ve done this enough times to trust that it will somehow, some way, work out.

Done, But Not Done

And then you finish. You type that last word, cast off that last stitch. It feels great, and hey! It doesn’t look half bad.

Of course, it’s not ready for prime time yet. There are all those loose plot threads to tie up and those seams – and themes – to sew up.

And this is where I really start to lose heart. I’ve spent so much time with this project – during which I’ve thought of a dozen other projects (or received a dozen new assignments) I’d rather be working on. And I’ve kind of gotten sick of even looking at this one. Why did I pick out this ugly yarn anyway? No way am I ever going to wear this monstrosity!

I know a lot of knitters – and writers – who get to this stage and simply stop. They have completed but not finished sweaters taking up space in their knitting bags. Writers have finished but not polished novels. Fundraisers have letters that could have raised big money, but instead fall flat.

But this is what knitting – such a visual and tactile medium – has taught me about the more intellectual medium of writing: DON’T GIVE UP.

That extra little effort to finish and polish and press is so worth it.


Where Space Exploration and Fundraising Collide

Like many people the world over, I was thrilled to see that the Curiosity Rover landed successfully on Mars this week. I showed my kids the first pictures and answered their questions about space exploration. (I think my 5-year-old's mind was officially blown by the news that a ROBOT took that picture!) But even as my kids were getting more and more excited about space exploration, I saw the tweets racing by lamenting the money spent on sending a rover to Mars when there are so many problems here on Earth we need to solve.

I'm not going to write a comprehensive defense of space exploration. If you wonder what the value is, check out this interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, or read his newest book. But I will say that many of the things you and I use every day -- everything from our cell phones and computers, to athletic wear and tennis shoes -- were originally developed for NASA.

Imagine what might be achievable if NASA had reliable funding and the freedom to aim for truly audacious goals. What alternative fuels or advances in solar power technology might be made? What cool new fabric might make sweaty summer runs like the one I took this morning even more comfortable?

A lot of fundraising departments I work with are just as starved for funding as NASA. In an effort to be efficient and streamlined -- to put as many of those dollars they raise toward programs as possible -- too many nonprofits are denying themselves a chance to innovate, evolve and, ultimately, do even more to further their missions.

Instead of aiming for the big and complex mission to Mars, they're content to run the same near-Earth orbit mission over and over again.

It's easy to play it safe. After all, nobody wants to be the one who bets big and loses. But your donors can tell the difference between an organization that's hanging on to the status quo and one that's charting a bold and energetic course for the future. Guess which one most of them prefer?

Investing in your fundraising efforts -- whether it's in increased time, money, energy or vision -- can pay huge dividends.

Test boldly in your direct mail, and you can find out what appeals to your donors and target your fundraising more effectively. No more incremental nudges. Let's find out what happens when you take an entirely different creative approach, or aim for a new universe, or aggressively go after lapsed donors.

Take the time to coordinate communications and fundraising department efforts, and you can pool talents and develop strong messaging that helps inform and enlighten people about your efforts. (Bonus: unless you have to bribe them with donuts to sit in a room together, this won't cost you a cent!)

Spend a little more on personalization -- in the mail, on the Web and in your face-to-face efforts -- and you can foster better relationships with your donors...and reap the benefit of increased giving.

And another bonus of investing in your fundraising is that in doing so, you might just find other ways to cut costs that don't stymie innovation.

I'm excited to see the pictures and read about the discoveries that Curiosity sends back to Earth. It's a remarkable achievement.

But I also get really excited when I work with an organization that is committed to exploring all the ways they can improve their fundraising. Be bold. Be daring. Dream big. Show your donors how much passion you have for your mission, and watch as they reward you with their loyal support.

Is That Really True? Storytelling Ethics Part 2

Well vacation and a mountain of work came between two pieces I had hoped to post a little closer together, but I do want to follow up on my earlier post on storytelling ethics, with a set of basic rules to follow for nonprofits. Those rules are a great start, but I don't think that's the end of the discussion at all. Because when I was asked the question, it brought up a lot of other, related ideas about storytelling, ethics and the nature of truth and fiction that I think are valuable to explore.

What is truth?

If you work for a nonprofit of any size, you probably see hundreds of stories coming through your organization each year. And I'm willing to bet that many, many of these stories have a commonality to them that can, sometimes, make them seem indistinguishable from each other.

It's probably easy for you to generalize about the people you serve: "Our clients are predominantly [insert three adjectives that describe the typical constituent here]."

So is that generalization true?

What if you put the generalization into story form by creating an amalgam? Could you give it a name, a set of circumstances and a story arc and still call it "true"?

I've worked for organizations that had no problem with this definition of the truth, believing that slavish adherence to the details of the stories in their organizations undermined the true spirit of their work. I've also worked for organizations that would never, ever consider using an amalgam, certain that it was lying to their donors.

Truth in Fiction

It may be because I am a fiction writer as well as a copywriter that I fall more into the first camp than the second.

Think about memoir for a second. Memoir is generally considered to be a form of nonfiction. But memoirists also take liberties with dates, places, names and timelines in order to create a more cohesive story, while staying true to the overarching themes of their work. Looking at it another way, memoirists lie to preserve the truth.

And some of the "truest" writing I've read is fiction. Sure, the facts may not be there, but truths of what it means to be human are often found in fiction, and can serve to inspire as well as -- or sometimes better than -- nonfiction.


But we're talking about nonprofit storytelling here, not memoir, not fiction. Making up stories whole cloth and pretending they actually happened in your organization will not serve your purpose well.

Lying is a crummy thing to do to your donors. It betrays their trust and is an extremely poor way to repay their generosity.

Still, it is extremely easy to turn a compelling story into a boring collection of facts. And while your donors never deserve to be lied to, you certainly don't want to put them to sleep.

So as I mentioned earlier, use the constraints of the truth to up your creative game. Remember to hit as many of the five senses as you can. If you're interviewing someone, really listen to what they're saying about how they felt so you can convey that to your donors.

Your organization's storytelling ethics deserve careful thought and consideration. Make sure you can justify your stance -- to your board, to your employees, and above all, to your donors.

And, as always, be creative about how you tow that line. Nonprofit storytelling should be about taking your donors on a journey with you, not just about telling a story and asking for money.

Is That Really True? Storytelling Ethics Part 1

I've been quiet recently -- a combination of end-of-the-school-year craziness and looming deadlines. Now, summer seems on the verge of appearing here in the Pacific Northwest, and in between sunny runs by the reservoir and neighborhood cookouts, I'm going to try to put in a few more appearances here at the blog. During the non-stop action of the last month, I've been spending a lot of time mulling over a few really interesting questions someone recently asked me about storytelling ethics.

How true does a story we use in fundraising have to be? Can we change names? Can we fudge details or timelines? Do people ever make up stories entirely?

I gave a fairly evasive answer: how literally truthful you are in your organizational storytelling is up to each organization to decide.

But I was curious how others might answer that same question. As I began researching the issue, I started contemplating ideas of truth and fiction and where we draw the line between the two.

Let me say up front that I still don't have a better answer to the original question. I do think it's a discussion each organization needs to have internally and then convey to any consultants or writers they bring on board.

But I did find some helpful basic guidelines to follow as you have these internal conversations.

A Basic Ethical Stance

In my initial burst of research, I came across this article by Joanne Fritz on the ethics of changing details in stories. She interviews two noted experts -- Lisa Sargent of Sargent Communications and Pamela Grow of Simple Development Systems. Both take a firm stance on changing details, agreeing that it is sometimes necessary to protect the identities, particularly of young people, of those whose stories you want to share.

They urge nonprofits to take three key steps: get written permission, alter or hide key personal details, and be transparent with your donors.

This is great advice, particularly for nonprofits working directly with clients, such as a nonprofit helping clothe foster children, or a drug addiction support organization, for two examples. Activist groups and other large-scale groups may be gathering stories that are of a less personal nature, so they may not have to worry about protecting identities as much.

But from what I see in the mail that comes across my desk, the toughest thing about these standards is the transparency portion. Sure, you can simply add a disclaimer into your letter. But please be clever and creative about how you do that.

Because as soon as you say, "some of this story isn't 100% true" your donor is going to stop reading your pitch and start examining your story to see what details sound made up.

And once you lose 'em, you lose the chance of a gift.

If you need to use a disclaimer, weave it into your story. Instead of a an asterisk next to a message saying "Details have been changed to protect identities" try appealing to your donor's sense of empathy:

"Joanie was really nervous about people learning her secrets. But she knows how important it is to get her story out there, so she's agreed to let me share it with you, as long as I protect her privacy."

Adhering to strict ethical rules does not have to kill your creativity, nor should it. Always try to push yourself to find the most organic and natural way to adhere to your standards, and your nonprofit copywriting will shine that much brighter.

The rules I mention above are a great starting point. But I think storytelling ethics deserve more thoughtful consideration. So please check in later this week for more thoughts on storytelling, ethics and where (and how!) to draw the line in your own organization.

All Aboard! Use storytelling to unite and inspire

I had the good fortune to present at the Willamette Valley Development Officers fundraising conference in Portland, OR earlier this month. My friend and business partner Amy Blake and I debuted Super Storytelling, our comprehensive how-to on storytelling and story-collecting for nonprofits. (If you attended that session, thank you so much!) You can see the slides from our presentation here, and we hope to offer the presentation again live and on the web soon. (Stay tuned here and at the ARC Communications website for details!)

In the course of preparing for the presentation, I did a lot of research about the power of story to get the word out, educate and inspire. And since there wasn't time in the presentation to talk about all the exciting things I discovered, I thought I'd do a little brain dump here.

One of my favorite resources was Story Proof: the science behind the startling power of story by Kendall Haven. In the first couple of pages, I learned that people have been sharing stories for 100,000 years. (Not being up on my pre-history, I was pretty impressed humans had been around that long!) All that storytelling has left our brains hardwired to learn through stories and to think about life in story terms.

Haven spends a lot of time in the book going through actual neuroscience studies that clearly show that we learn better, engage more and remember details through stories. Psych studies back this up, too. And if that isn't enough for you, he includes dozens of anecdotes showing just how well it works. From schools, to corporations, to the World Bank, people have discovered -- by accident and by painstaking work -- the power of storytelling.

For nonprofits, one passage in particular stuck out to me:

"Want to develop a sense of belonging and buy-in in your organization? Collect and refine the stories of your group members that best embody the attitudes and outlook you want to promote. Actively tell these stories and encourage others to create and share their own."

If you want to get your donors to remember you, if you want them to understand and appreciate the importance of your work, and above all, if you want them to give, all the statistics in the world aren't going to work for you as well as one good story.

Make stories a key part of your fundraising strategy. Engage everyone -- fundraising folks, program people, volunteers, board members, execs, constituents and even donors -- in collecting and sharing stories. Value all contributions and share stories wherever and whenever you can.

Once you do, you'll find -- as Haven reports in anecdote after anecdote -- that the effort pays off in remarkable ways. People love stories, and when you foster a culture of storytelling, it builds on itself. People become more engaged and committed to your mission, and they pass on that engagement and commitment to newcomers.

Bottom line: Create a community of storytellers in and around your organization, and you'll inspire your staff to greater heights, lead your donors to greater giving, and ultimately, enhance the effectiveness of the critical work your organization performs.

Fighting the Formula

The other day, one of my Twitter pals -- Kevin Monroe from X Factor Consulting -- asked me what copywriting tips I like to share with fellow consultants. It wasn't something I'd actually considered much before he asked, since a) I work in my kitchen and b) I'm usually on the receiving end of writing advice. But his question did touch on something that I have been thinking about off and on over the last couple of years. During the course of my 14-year copywriting career, I've dabbled in other kinds of writing, including publishing several feature articles and neighborhood profiles in The Oregonian and having a short story appear in VoiceCatcher.

During times when multiple deadlines were looming, I wondered if that moonlighting was hurting my main money-making endeavor, and I have downplayed my extracurricular writing in my professional life.  But I now think all that second-guessing was a mistake.

In fact, I think one of the reasons I have been so successful in my copywriting is because I have a richer web of writing experience to pull from.

Fight the formula

I have written hundreds of direct mail letters, and there is definitely a formula for the successful ones. But in following a formula you should never become formulaic. The minute you do, the letters you pen become stale, lacking the passion and verve that are absolutely necessary to convince people to give their money to your cause.

When I feel myself treading an all-too-familiar path in my copywriting, I know it's time to fight the formula. So I take another look with my fiction-writer's glasses on. Are there themes I can weave through this letter more effectively? Is there a character begging to leap off the page?

Then I put on my features-writer glasses. How can I make my descriptions more vivid? Are there sights, sounds, tastes and smells that would make the issues in this letter come alive for the reader? Perhaps I'm rambling and need to tighten everything up with a journalist's editing eye.

Let's face it, there is a LOT of writing advice out there, and good writing is good writing, whether you're penning a direct mail letter, a slick advertisement, or the Great American Novel. Sure, there are degrees, but the rules are the same: use action verbs, aim for clarity, be as specific as you can, tickle all the senses...

But knowing the rules and using them well are two different things.

Tap into a different part of your brain!

Try writing poetry to hone your ability to use imagery to make a point. Write a short story to put yourself in a different person's shoes and sharpen your storytelling. Become a blogger to learn how to encapsulate big ideas and personal feelings in 500 words. Try your hand at literary criticism or movie reviews to learn how to identify weak spots in your writing and in others'.

Above all, love writing, all writing. Play with language, revel in how words get put together, rejoice in how they can connect, inspire, educate, and move.

And don't just write. Read! Starting with this article about the business benefits -- it's scientific, people! -- of reading fiction.

Storytelling 101


You've no doubt heard about the importance of storytelling to nonprofits. As a writer with an English Lit. degree, I love a good story, and one of the best parts about my job is uncovering those stories and sharing them with my clients' donors.

But what makes a good story? And how do you tell your story in a way that moves your donors to give?

A Story Has a Destination

A story can be as simple as "I went to the store. I bought three grapefruit. I returned home." But how inspiring is that?

You want your story to arc from the kernel that starts it all, through the challenges in the middle, to a satisfying resolution. Once you've written your story, you should be able to point to each section and see how the details you've chosen propel the reader forward.

Your story should always arrive somewhere. Most of the time, this destination will be different from the place you started, but sometimes you'll end up in the same place you began. Either way is fine, but there must be some destination.

A Story Has Significance

When you arrive at your story's destination, it means something. A lesson was learned, a decision was made, an epiphany occurred -- something about your destination offers your audience some true, deep knowledge they didn't have at the beginning.

For most nonprofit organizations, the stories will often be about how your work helped a person. So when you're telling that story, think about how your work impacted that person's life. What would have happened without your intervention? How were minds and hearts opened? Ask your reader to imagine what would happen if this story were repeated with other people.

What does it mean that your organization exists?

A Story Helps Us Understand Our World

Since the beginning of time, people have been telling stories as a way of explaining the unexplainable in our world. You can harness this power in your own storytelling.

One good story explains who your organization is helping, what innovative tools you're using, why your organization's mission is important, how you're using your resources to make a difference, and how your donors can help. A well crafted story will give your donors everything they need to understand why they should give to you.

A Story Helps Create Community

Doubt the power of a good story to unite us? Consider the Twilight phenomenon.

When you knock it out of the park, your story will get read and passed will get noticed. And those who notice it will have that bond that comes from shared experience and understanding. Telling the stories of the work you do to your donors is one of the most effective ways to connect your donors to your organization and keep them giving for years to come.

Stories have power, and the better you learn to tell them the more power you'll have.

Check out the Mercy Corps blog for great examples of nonprofit storytelling. And if you want more on the art of storytelling, I loved this article from Jane Friedman's blog.

Three Ways to Collect Testimonials

We all know we should be collecting testimonials from our Members, board members, constituents, volunteers and those affected by our organization's work. They're the stuff of fundraising gold, able to leverage gifts more effectively than any facts and figures can ever do.

But how do you collect them?


Nonprofit professionals work long, hard, often thankless hours. By the time you answer that 50th phone call or head off to that Friday night Member event, it's hard to remember what your own name is, much less to muster the energy to actively chase down testimonials.

So don't.

All you have to do is listen. People want to tell you their stories. They want you to know why they support your organization and what your cause has meant to them. Give them the space to say what they want to say, and they'll give you the gift of a shining testimonial. (You might have to take notes, though!)

Ask the Right Questions

Some people need more guidance than others. If you find yourself with someone who has a story to tell but doesn't know how to tell it, ask them a few questions to get them thinking in the right direction:

  • How did you become involved with this organization/issue?
  • Why are you passionate about it?
  • What have you seen personally that drives you to support this organization/issue?
  • What does the organization's work accomplish? For you? For your community? For the world?
  • What would the world look like if this problem was solved?
  • What are the barriers to solving it?

Any one of these questions can get people's testimonial juices flowing -- and give you oodles of great stuff to use in your fundraising.

Get Everyone In On the Act

Testimonials are great for fundraising, but collecting them is not just the job of fundraisers. In fact, the best testimonials often come from program staff as they're out in the field because they're the ones who see firsthand what needs to be done and how your organization is progressing.

All staff members -- program staff, executive staff, board members, interns and volunteers -- should be on the lookout for good testimonials.

Make it easy for everyone with these ideas:

  • Create a special Testimonials folder on the file server
  • Put a box on the conference table for collecting handwritten stories
  • Make a My Story form donors and friends can fill out at events
  • Learn how to use the audio recording feature on your smartphone so you can capture stories in the moment
  • Give a prize for "Testimonial of the Month"
  • Start every staff meeting off by reading one or two of the stories you've collected to inspire and inform

How does your organization collect and share testimonials? I'd love to hear your suggestions!

The Benefits of Giving Up

Why yes, I did recently write quite a nice post about perseverance and finding that one-legged-biker inspiration to keep you going in dark and frustrating times. But today, I want to write about giving up.

We're taught to never give up. A host of voices from our childhood, our adolescence, and right on up into adulthood all exhort us to keep climbing that mountain, keep reaching for those stars, don't give up. You can do it.

But sometimes, giving up is good. Especially when you're writing.

In most projects, there comes a point at which you can't figure out what's not working. You might know what's wrong or you might not. But clearly, something needs to change.

You can spend hours beating your head against the keyboard, forcing word after word onto the page. Or, you can try these four "I give up!" techniques:

Take a Walk

There's a reason this is a tried-and-true suggestion for dealing with writer's block -- or any other kind of block, for that matter. A ten minute walk around the block can clear your head and get blood flowing to those parts of your body that can go a little numb after hours and hours hunched over the screen of your laptop.

Try a Change of Scenery

Speaking of laptops, if you don't have one, get one! Then you can take it on the road -- coffee shop, bar, extra desk at your buddy's yourself the gift of unfamiliar surroundings can boost creativity and help you solve problems that seemed insurmountable when you're staring at your same old scene.

Bake Something

Or learn to knit or build a birdhouse or play the piano. Doesn't really matter what you do, as long as you funnel that creative energy into something totally different. Open new pathways, and you'll be surprised where those new roads will take you in your writing.

Take a Nap

If it's good enough for Einstein, it's good enough for you! (Seriously, Google "famous nappers" -- lots of powerful, creative people liked a good nap!) A ten minute power-nap can do wonders for recharging your mid-day batteries. Plus, I often find that while I'm sleeping, my brain keeps on working on those stubborn problems. And when I open my eyes, the solution is right in front of me.

Alright, I admit it. This post isn't actually about giving up. At least not permanently. But it is about knowing when to walk away from a creative project and let it simmer for a while. Get some distance, find a new perspective, and enjoy the view for a while. Work will still be there when you get back.


Three Ways to Keep Copy Fresh

The other day, my 8-year-old asked me what I did at work. Patiently, I explained (again) that I write letters asking for money for organizations that help people. She rolled her eyes and said, "I know that! I meant what did you do today?" I told her that I worked on a letter for one of my clients. She heaved a big, 8-year-old sigh and said, "Yeah...but, well, do you just write the same letter over and over?" Nearly every time I sit down at the computer and stare at the blank screen, it feels like a brand new mountain to climb. There are new facts to learn, new victories to share, new programs to ask for money for. Most of the time, I feel energized by the work that I do. Each letter is a new opportunity to delve deeper into an organization's mission and to find new ways of telling their story.

But everyone has days where work feels like, well, work.

And one of the most important parts of my work is making sure I don't write the same letter over and over. Believe me, donors can tell when you're phoning it in. They know when your copy is less-than-inspired, and they respond by NOT responding.

So how do I keep it fresh each and every time?

  1. Micro-editing. Like all writers, I have words and phrases I favor. Organizations have those too. I combat all that boilerplate with aggressive line-by-line editing. A stronger word or a more active phrase can liven up even the most lifeless copy.
  2. Read it aloud. A direct mail letter is a personal letter from one individual at your organization to one donor. It should sound like that person talking to a friend. When you read it aloud, you can hear those boring recitations of facts for what they are: turn-offs. Bonus -- you can also spot the complicated turns-of-phrase, the too-long sentences and the just-plain-awkward asks.
  3. Turn it on its head. Say something unexpected. Use a metaphor or simile that no one would anticipate. Ask a question that cuts to the heart of your issue (and leads the donor right to where you want them to go). Take advantage of literary techniques like assonance and alliteration. Make a pun. Unleash your creativity and see where it takes your letter. (You can always cut those bits that don't work out, but taking the risk is bound to pay off now and then!)

I told my daughter a few more details about the letter I was working on that day -- for an environmental organization -- and it led to a great dinner-table discussion about conservation and natural resources. The next day, I heard her telling one of her friends, "My mom writes a lot of letters, but they're not all the same, even though it kind of sounds like they could be."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

My Month of Trying New Things

In the spirit of reinvigorating and revitalizing my creative and business endeavors, I promised myself to spend the month of May trying one new thing each week. It didn't have to be anything revolutionary or expensive -- just something that was new to me.

I entered a contest for a writing critique, attended a virtual conference, joined a Twitter chat and took a pile of clothes and an appetizer to a Naked Lady party.

You can see that none of these were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities or even particularly bold moves on my part. But they were new to me, things I hadn't bothered to make time for before, things I might have continued avoiding if I hadn't forced myself to branch out. Doing these few simple things brought new energy, interesting people, captivating conversations and new clothes (!) into my life.

Of course there were risks that came with broadening my horizons. I risked being bored, wasting my time, meeting unpleasant people, and any number of humiliations or discomforts that come from stepping outside of that comfort zone.

Many of us are naturally reticent to try new things, especially in the nonprofit world. Trying something new -- testing a new direct mail package, working in a new media channel, cultivating a new major donor -- can be challenging, expensive and filled with risk. Why push boundaries when the old ones make us feel so safe and comfortable?

Fear creeps in: What if I'm terrible at it? What if I look like an idiot? What if I waste a bunch of money for no results?

It's all too easy to make excuses: Do I really have time to add one more thing to my schedule? If I do this, I'll have to dress up/buy tickets/skip lunch/be social/be alone. What if that direct mail test bombs?

But the thing about moving outside your comfort zone is that it gives you a new comfort zone, one that's roomier and maybe even a little more abundant than it was before.

I felt so revitalized by my May experiment that I kept it up, attending a marketing and networking luncheon with a new professional group in June! I plan on trying something new every month for the rest of the year -- if not longer -- to keep my ideas fresh, my mind sharp and my horizons broad.

I challenge you to try one new thing this week. No expectations, no long-term commitments. Just one thing you've never tried before. I bet you'll be glad you did.

But either way, I want to hear about it!


Ten Questions That Can Reinvigorate Your Fundraising

Wake Up!

Now that we're seeing some sun in Portland, I'm ready to wake up and revitalize my creative and business efforts. Each day I spend a few minutes thinking about what's working, what's not working and what could I do even better.

Before the heat of summer does you in, try taking a similar ground-up look at your fundraising program.

Here are ten questions you should ask yourself -- and (better yet!) several people in your organization -- that will reinvigorate and refocus your fundraising program:

1. In 25 words or less, what does your organization do? By limiting yourself and your colleagues to 25 words, you get at the essence of what your organization does, the chewy center that hooks your donors and makes your work real to them. If you're on the ball, you've already got a great elevator pitch worked up. That's the kind of answer you're looking for here.

2. What is your story? Everyone at your organization should know your story -- how and why you were founded, what initial obstacles you encountered and what successes spurred you on, how you got from those beginnings to where you are today. Think of a traditional story arc and try to tell your own story in that way.

3. Who is your customer/donor and what distinguishes him/her? In order to craft a compelling fundraising letter, you need to know who you're writing about and who you're writing to. The same is true for your entire program. What kind of people benefit from the work you do? And what kind of people think that's important? Look at your donor file -- how old is your average donor? Male or female? Where do they live? How much money do they make? How much education do they have? Target your letter to your donors as much as you can for the best results.

4. Why is this work so important, and why are you passionate about it? This is the emotional core of what your organization does, the gut-punch that moves your donor and inspires him or her to give. Use as powerful language as you can muster -- don't hold back!

5. What problem are you trying to solve and what steps are you taking to solve it? Here's the meat of your 'Ask' -- the very reason for your letter to the donor. Be as specific as possible here. Will a $20 gift provide lunch for 5 underprivileged students for one week? If you have more than one problem to tackle, write them all down. You may not use all of them in every fundraising effort, but having them on hand will help in the future.

6. If you could have unlimited funding to do one thing for the organization/constituents, what would it be? We all have those "If I won the lottery..." fantasies. Well, here's where you consider what life would be like if your organization won the lottery. You won't include all of this in any one letter, but it's an important exercise to dream big. What specific things could you and would you do if you had unlimited funds? Show your donors your vision, and they just might show you a larger gift than usual.

7. What does your work accomplish? For you personally? For one constituent? For many constituents? For the world? Donors want to hear that their contribution is accomplishing something important. Include a personal anecdote about a time you were moved or inspired by something your organization did. Tell the stories of people whose lives your donors have impacted through their gifts. Tell them how their support is changing the world!

8. Have you gotten feedback from constituents/donors? A couple of well-placed quotes from people who have experience with your organization can add a huge portion of credibility to your fundraising letters. Ask volunteers why they like being involved with your work, conduct a donor satisfaction survey, and write it down every time one of the people you help says a heartfelt thank you.

9. What is one big success you've had? One failure? Your successes add credibility to your organization. They show that you are able to do what you set out to do. Remind your donors every chance you get that you have a track record to accomplish what you're asking them to fund. And while you may not want to include a failure in a letter to a donor, understanding failure and the opportunities that come from it is critical to your success.

10. What are the barriers to your success and how do you overcome these obstacles? It's not always fun to sit down and think about those things that hold us back. But your donors want to hear that you have a clear view of the task before you and a strong and innovative plan to accomplish it.

Whether you've got a new development officer or consultant to acquaint with your need an overhaul of your fundraising're trying something new in your direct mail or online fundraising...or you just want to inject new spirit into your fundraising program...answering these ten questions can help you reinvigorate yourself and your organization.

How do you recharge your fundraising? Any tricks I should know about? Please share them in the comments!


Are you letting trivial problems stifle creativity?

There is nothing that stifles creativity – or that makes a consultant bang her head against the keyboard – faster than letting solvable problems stop your efforts in their tracks.

I’m not talking about normal constraints, the parameters in which you must work to get things done. No, I’m talking about that moment when you’re sitting in a meeting, entertaining an exciting new plan for a test on your direct mail, and somebody drops a little gem that sucks all the air from the idea:

  1. Our printer can’t handle that. We can’t do it.
  2. I’m too busy to take on a new project right now.
  3. I don’t know how to do that segmentation, so we can’t do it.

These are all solvable. Discuss it with your printer – you may be surprised at what ideas they have to help you out. Or find a new printer. It’s always good to have alternatives. Delegate a project and let your colleagues or volunteers get valuable experience with your direct mail program. Find someone who can help you with tricky technical issues that come up.

Look, I know that sometimes you just don’t have the energy to fight to turn a great idea into a workable project. Throw up enough obstacles – however trivial – and even the most gung-ho person will give up.

And sometimes, what looks like a great idea on the surface becomes too expensive or unwieldy the closer you examine it. Sometimes those objections aren't trivial at all.

But if you routinely can’t get new projects off the ground, take a long look at the excuses you’re generating for yourself. Are they real limits that are keeping you from trying new things? Or can you 'raise the bridge' and keep moving forward?


One-legged Biker

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I commute to work by bike. It's an easy way for me to squeeze exercise in without taking extra time away from my family and other obligations, there's a great infrastructure for it here in Portland, and it allows me to one-up those sanctimonious Prius drivers. (Win-win-win!) I've been called "hard-core" more than once as I've ridden to work in the pouring rain, hail, snow and wind. Hard-core? Hard-core is those guys on fixies who race past me up the hill without breaking a sweat. Or those folks who scream at cars that don't leave enough room in front of the bike box. I am not hard-core.

I'm not above muttering complaints about the weather, the hill, the errant squirrels darting in front of me, the exhaust fumes, and the wardrobe limitations imposed by my bike-commute. I am a whiny bike commuter.

But a few weeks ago, I rounded a corner on my daily commute (grousing under my breath about the bitterly cold wind and the threatening gray clouds) and found myself behind a one-legged biker.

That stopped my grousing cold. More than that, it made me re-think my commitment to bike commuting. Because if I lost a leg, I'm pretty sure I would give up biking.

Clearly, I wouldn't have to. Here, riding twenty feet in front of me, was proof that if I wanted to, I could continue biking even in the face of a lost limb.

Now, I don't know if that biker had a special, transcendent passion for biking, or if he lost his driver's license, or if he couldn't afford parking downtown and hated the smell of the bus. I don't want to apply some there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sentimentality to his situation, which I know next to nothing about.

But whatever his reasons, he had committed to riding his bike when that can't have been the simplest option, the path of least resistance.

Nonprofits are often faced with projects that take every ounce of perseverance for them to complete. Lack of money, staffing problems, red-tape and bureaucracy can all conspire to make every battle an uphill one. But the most effective organizations don't give up. They take setbacks in stride and continue pursuing their goals, even if, to outsiders, it may seem impossible.

That kind of perseverance inspires donors. Those stories about the times you overcame huge odds to move mountains are fundraising gold. Collect them. Share them with your staff and your donors. And remember them when the going gets tough again, as it inevitably does.

I only followed the one-legged biker for a few blocks before I turned to continue on my way to work. I didn't have the chance to study how he accomplishes what in my head seems like an impossible task.

But the memory of those few blocks has stayed with me. I challenge you to find your own one-legged biker. What inspires you to keep going? What makes you approach your projects with the creative energy of someone who would choose to bike through rainy Portland streets with only one leg?