A Pep Talk

When you're reading blogs like this one, you often get complex information presented as easy-to-remember slogans and buzzwords: It's all about relationships! Friendraising! Storytelling! Three simple ways to... It all sounds so easy. I often find myself reading a few blog posts, attending a webinar or two and coming away believing I should be able to incorporate all my new knowledge without a hitch. It rarely goes so smoothly as I think it should.

It takes time and effort to perfect new techniques.

beach gazingI see a lot of organizations jump on a trend or try a new way of doing things, only to abandon it when it doesn't pay off immediately. But how likely is it that you are able to stand up on your first attempt at surfing? Won't you have to learn how to read the waves, move your body in relationship to the water and the board, and teach your muscles how to maintain a new kind of balance?

The same is true for fundraising tools. You may need to work on your new skills over many months and many mailings, tweaking and perfecting constantly, before you see your efforts bear fruit.

In other words: practice, practice, practice.

People who write blog posts with "easy" new tools have been working with those tools for years. Many of the writing tips and techniques I talk about are skills I've been honing for decades.

So if you try something you read on a blog or learned at a fundraising conference once and it didn't work…give yourself a pat on the back for trying something new. And then try again.

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.

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.

Busting Direct Mail Myth #3

I spend a lot of time reading up on the latest "musts" of direct mail and talking to fundraisers about their programs, and I've noticed quite a few direct mail myths that just won't die. You can read my earlier posts debunking the first two big myths here and here. Today, I want to talk about the third common myth: Direct Mail is too old-fashioned for our donors. Pie might be old-fashioned...but it's still darn tasty!

Believe me, I understand where this one is coming from. We all want to think that our donors are different. They're special, more sophisticated than the average donor. They don't need all those underlines and bold and emotional language.


A few years ago, I wrote a letter for an organization run by a very respected, very intelligent scientist. He was widely published in prominent scientific journals and national newspapers and magazines. He was a great writer, and he hated the letter I wrote for them. Ripped it to shreds. He deplored the overly emotional tone and the use of 2nd person point-of-view. He was adamant that his donors would see through such a hackneyed ask and leave the organization in droves.

Naturally, I was upset. I had worked extremely hard getting the complex technical details in the appeal right and melding those with the kind of impassioned, personal plea I know works in direct mail.

The development staff and I sat down and discussed how to proceed, and eventually, we convinced the executive director to test his approach vs. my approach. The results were definitive in my favor.

Now, this guy was a Ph.D. He had a couple of decades of experience in writing about his subject on me. But he didn’t — at that time — know direct mail at all.

He took one look at my appeal letter and saw all the things a good academic writer is trained to avoid like the plague: hyperbole, simplified language, lots of “you”, too much bold and underlines.

But those things work.

Which isn't to say you can't inject some sophistication into your direct mail. Many of my clients routinely fundraise for incredibly complex and technical issues, and they get great results. But they use tried and true direct mail techniques, as well.

Remember, your primary goal is to get your direct mail opened and responded to, so make it easy for people to understand what you want them to do. That means bold important passages, underline key points, bullet your arguments, and include an emotional P.S.

And yes, dome of your donors will be put off by direct mail. It's important to remember that a large percentage of the population is not direct mail-responsive (including me!). Which is why it's critical to have many channels and opportunities for your donors to give.

Next week, I'll bust Myth #4 -- so stay tuned!

The Two U's of Fundraising

Who doesn't love to inject a little creativity into their day? One of the things I love about my job is the chance to be creative. People often complain that direct mail letters are formulaic, and yes, there is certainly a well-tested format for them that can easily make them feel stale. But like a sonnet, within that strict formula, your letter can range as far and wide as your imagination will take you.

But there are two things you must have in your fundraising copy -- the two "U"s of fundraising.


I've talked about this before, but a direct mail letter is a personal letter from one person at your organization to one donor. Ideally, it's the opening (acquisition) or continuation (renewal or special appeal) of a critical conversation about your organization and your cause.

And when you're having a conversation with someone, you use "you" a lot.

In fact, it's the most important word in your letter (unless you're personalizing, and then the most important word is the donor's name)! It tells your donors that you know who they are, that you're talking directly to them and that you care about their thoughts and opinions. It makes them feel important.

Use your "YOU"s!


urgentLife is busy. This week, in fact, two of my children start soccer practice, all three children have piano lessons, my husband starts a new job, and I have five conference calls, two playdates, school supplies and soccer cleats to buy, and a kid's bedroom to finish painting. And all that is on top of working, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, exercising and spending quality time with my family.

Your donors have full lives, so you need to give them a reason not to set that fundraising piece down on the "I'll get to this later" pile.

Make your asks urgent. Tell your donors you need their help NOW. Better yet, give them a deadline by which to act. And make it sooner rather than later. Plaster that deadline on the outer envelope, on the reply form, in the letter and on the reply envelope. Explain to them why it's so important that they act fast.

If they're anything like me, your donors' "I'll get to this later" piles probably morph pretty quickly into the "Let's just recycle all of this" piles. Use urgency to get them to act immediately, and you'll receive more gifts.

Use your "U"s!

Using you and urgency will give you better results in your fundraising letters -- and make your creativity in the rest of the letter pay bigger dividends.


Three Ways to Make Your Writing More Conversational

I stumbled into the world of nonprofit copywriting by happy accident. I needed a job, any job, and a "Nonprofit Marketing Firm" in my town was hiring a receptionist. My six-month stint answering phones at an answering service gave me a leg up in any receptionist job, so I applied. In the course of the interview with the owner of the company, I mentioned my love of writing. They hired me as a copy editor, and a career was born.

A few weeks later, I had my first solo writing assignment. I was terrified as I handed my boss the piece. She had a reputation for wielding her red pen with wild abandon, and I was so, so green.

She glanced at it long enough to read two-thirds of the first sentence, crossed out the entire page, and said, "Make it more conversational."conversation

Making your copywriting conversational is one of the biggest challenges for every copywriter. We all talk to people every day, so why is writing like we talk so darn challenging?

Here are three sure-fire ways to make your copywriting sound conversational:

1. You, you, you.

When you're having a conversation with someone, there's none of that stilted "When one brushes one's teeth, it is critical to reach every tooth" business.

Contrast that with something more like this:

You and I both know how to brush teeth. You make sure you get every tooth.

Which one sounds friendlier, more personal? And which one sounds like an expert handing down dictums from on high? Now, you're probably not writing a whole lot about tooth brushing, but the principle applies regardless.

And if this makes it easier to use "you", remember, even if your letter or ad will be viewed by thousands of people, you should aim to write as though you're talking to ONE person. 

2. Read Your Copy Aloud

This is probably the most re-hashed and basic advice that any writer receives. And you'd be shocked at how few writers heed it. (Confession: I have been known to skip this step myself...and I always regret it later!)

Even when you think you're doing a bang-up job writing readable, conversational copy, I guarantee that you will have a few passages that sound awkward when read aloud.

So lock yourself away in an office and read it like it's a bedtime story you're reading to a 6-year-old. Any sentence or phrase or word that trips you up -- go back and fix it. You'll have more conversational copy in moments.

3. Axe the Jargon

Please tell me you're going on jargon patrol each and every time you write copy! If not, you need to add this step to your revision process right now. I don't care if you use terms like capacity-building, participatory action, leveraging stakeholders or value proposition in your conversations at work (though your colleagues might), but please don't use them in your copywriting.

Donors want to hear what you're accomplishing with their donations. They've invested their time, attention, resources and passion with you, and they want to know you're worth it. They can't know that if you're holding them at arm's length with insider language they don't understand.

Use one of your revision passes to replace any words or phrases that would be more at home in a conference room with those that would be heard in a donor's dining room.

I used those three steps to revise that first piece of copy. My boss still tore it up with her red pen, but on the second time around, she read the whole thing.

Adding to My Resource Library

coolbookshelfI spend as much time as I can spare trying to learn from my colleagues. Here are three great posts, articles and other resources that I'm loving these days: 1. This amazing post by Stuart Glen packages 10 solid gold copywriting tips into a wise and fun tribute to Dr. Seuss. The legendary children's author and I share a birthday, so I'm a sucker for anything Seuss-related, but there's a lot of great information here for non-Seuss-fans, too.

2. The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation is dedicated to bringing people together to create real progress for their communities. Their Harwood in Half an Hour worksheets are a great package of tools to help you zero in on your goals and make them a reality.

3. After going through huge re-branding campaigns with several clients, I have a lot of ideas about branding, public awareness campaigns and the near-constant pressure on organizations to raise their public profile. Jeff Brooks sums it up nicely in this post.

Anything I've missed? Post it in the comments or send it my way on Twitter or via e-mail!

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.


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.

Passionate Persuasion

"Passionate people are the only advocates which always persuade. The simplest man with passion will be more persuasive than the most eloquent without."
~Francois de La Rochefoucauld

When I interviewed the executive director of an environmental organization recently, he was extremely eager to give me statistics about Congressional budgeting as it relates to the environment and to talk about specific legislation winding its way through Congress – down to the subcommittees and staffers involved. I think we can all agree that only the most wonky among us have that level of interest in environmental legislation.

So I asked him why he cared so much. There must be a reason he was willing to delve so deeply into the minutiae of the legislative process on this one issue, right? It took him a few minutes to shift gears, but once he did, he talked about what prompted him to become an environmentalist, his outrage at what he sees as the immoral way government is spending taxpayer money, and his fears for the future of humanity if we ignore Global Warming.

In just a few minutes, we went from a dry fact piece about Congressional spending on the environment, to a Control-tying acquisition letter based on an impassioned plea for moral and humane fiscal decisions.

It’s easy to get caught up in the facts about what you’re doing – and for a lot of people working in nonprofits, people who face desperate circumstances every day as a part of their job, it’s an important method of self-preservation. But when you’re trying to get people to support your mission, you have to be able to recreate that initial surge of passion. Because all the facts in the world won’t get you as much support as one good, emotion-driven story.

This is where that old writing rule “Show, Don’t Tell” comes in.

Need an Example?

It’s easy to tell your story like this: “Every week we see more than 50 homeless, often ill, dogs come into our shelter. And tragically, fewer than 20% of those are adopted. As our canine population grows, our needs grow, too, and today, we’re facing a crisis situation. We urgently need an infusion of $XX to house, feed and care for the dogs we currently have and those we expect in the next few weeks.”

You’ve got the numbers, it’s pretty emotional, and your core group of donors will probably respond.

But consider this approach: “Zoe cowered in the back of her dog carrier, shaking. I looked at her check-in sheet: She’d been abused in her previous home, and she suffered from malnutrition and a bad case of fleas. I got down on the floor, my eyes fixed on her big brown beauties, and coaxed her forward. It took a while, but eventually, she scooted out of her carrier, calmed her shaking, and placed her head trustingly in my lap. One small triumph…that will be replayed more than 50 times this week. You can help Zoe – and all the dogs of XX shelter – make this challenging transition…”

Who can resist a pitch like that? By painting the picture of one dog the shelter has helped, you give your donor the chance to feel like they are there with you. What’s more, this approach breaks down an overwhelming problem – 50 dogs a week that need homes – into a small, do-able task. They may not be able to help every dog that needs them, but they can help this ONE dog.

Very few people dive into the nonprofit world without having some passion. So don't forget why you chose nonprofit work in the first place. Communicate that in your fundraising, and you'll find others flocking to your organization as well.

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 around...it 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.

Thanksgiving Thankfulness

This fall has been a whirlwind of activity -- from kids' school and soccer, to a husband in grad school, and a work load that threatened to bury me in direct mail. There were more than a few moments I wasn't sure how much longer I could keep up the pace.

A friend of mine once told me that if you work for a nonprofit, you will always have work on your desk and exhaustion in your bones.

And these days, when more organizations are trying to meet increased need with decreased resources, I think that's more true than ever. If you don't find a few moments during the year to remember why you do what you do, you'll go bonkers...or worse, burn out completely.

So now that I have a light, short week in which to take a breath and reflect, I want to jot down a few of the things I'm thankful for...things I haven't been able to see amidst the deluge of responsibilities this past few months.

  • Clients who consistently surprise and delight me. It is so much easier to endure crunch time with people who appreciate what we're trying to accomplish and who collaborate fully and openly. What a treat!
  • Family support. Even my four-year-old knows when Mama needs a break, and my husband and three children are my biggest caretakers...and biggest fans.
  • Friends and neighbors who step up, no questions asked. Whether it's providing emergency child care, donating a hot meal, helping me network, or volunteering to proofread my latest letter, these people have my back!
  • Work that I believe in. One of the best things about my job is being able to channel my creativity into efforts that make the world a better place to live.
  • Connectivity. I'm old enough to remember how cumbersome working at home used to be, and I'm thankful every single day for the tools that allow me to work with people all over the world from a corner of my kitchen.

There are, of course, many other things I'm thankful for -- my home, my town, my good health, the bottle of wine on my counter, peppermint jojos from Trader Joe's, and more. But those are the biggies.

Try to take a moment this week to think about what makes you thankful in your job and in your life. Colleagues? Donors? Small successes or huge triumphs?

Nonprofits are busy places at year's end, and sometimes the only way to make it to the other side is to remember what keeps you going. So, what are you thankful for this year?

Angling for donors

The other day, I overheard a development professional I know telling a potential client, "I like to let board members have input into all direct mail copy."

My alarm bells went off, and I wanted to jump in and offer all sorts of unsolicited opinions about that. But instead, I decided I'd just save them for you.

Now, he went on to explain that he likes to involve board members so they have buy-in to the direct mail program -- a sort of "We're all in this together, folks!" idea. I am all for inclusion and board buy-in.

In fact, I believe wholeheartedly that everyone involved in your organization, from the board president to the once-a-month volunteer, should know what's going on in the organization and be able to communicate that.


A few years ago, I wrote a letter for an organization run by a very respected, very intelligent scientist. He was widely published in prominent scientific journals and national newspapers and magazines. He was a great writer, and he hated the letter I wrote for them. Ripped it to shreds. He deplored the overly emotional tone and the use of 2nd person point-of-view. He was adamant that his donors would see through such a hackneyed ask and leave the organization in droves.

Naturally, I was upset. I had worked extremely hard getting the complex technical details in the appeal right and melding those with the kind of impassioned, personal plea I know works in direct mail.

The development staff and I sat down and discussed how to proceed, and eventually, we convinced the executive director to test his approach vs. my approach. The results were definitive in my favor.

Now, this guy was a Ph.D. He had a couple of decades of experience in writing about his subject on me. But he didn't -- at that time -- know direct mail at all.

Unless your board members -- or other people you're asking to read your direct mail copy -- are or have been involved with direct mail before, it is likely that they'll look at a good appeal letter and see all the same things my scientist client saw: hyperbole, simplified language, lots of "you", too much bold and underlines -- things that academic writers are trained to avoid like the plague.

There's a reason hopeful anglers like to hire guides when they go on a big fishing expedition: they want an expert to show them where the fish are and what they're biting on. Rather than tossing their lines out and seeing what happens, they're taking the expert's advice and adapting it to their equipment.

Your direct mail program needs that same care. If you take bits of advice from every angler on the river, you're not going to catch as many donors as you want.

Buy-in is great. But educated buy-in is better. So make sure anyone reviewing your direct mail letters has a good Direct Mail 101 course -- or at least read an article like this one from Fundraising Success -- before they toss in their line. And happy fishing!

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 office...giving 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.

The Three R's of Copywriting

There are hundreds of books out there that can teach you about the principles of great copywriting. But I find there are three simple rules -- The Three R's -- that I turn to time and again when I need a little creative jump-start. Make Your Writing Relevant

Nobody wants to be mailing an issue-based appeal on the wrong issue. So if you are an environmental organization mailing on conserving public lands, you don't want your letter to hit two weeks after a major oil spill.

Chances are, you're already paying attention to news relating to your mission (and if you're not...well, you should be!). So make sure to apply that news to the copy you're writing for your donors. Because if they're interested in your mission, they're probably paying attention -- at least in a small way -- to that news, as well.

If you know a relevant vote is coming up in Washington DC, try to time your mail to hit when news about that vote hits. If you have a newsletter featuring an issue you want to mail on, let the newsletter hit first so that your issue is already in the minds of your donors. And if a major news item happens to hit just as you're preparing your letter to go out, make sure you acknowledge it (at the very least) in your communication with your donor.

Above all, make your mailings relevant -- to your organization's mission, your donor's hopes and fears, and to the world happening outside your front door.

Make Your Writing Readable

Most of us have heard -- and some lamented -- that newspapers aim for their reports to be written at an 8th grade reading level. That's probably a pretty good rule of thumb for direct mail fundraising letters, too. Use simple, short sentences and easy to understand vocabulary.

But it's not just the way the piece is written that makes it readable. It's also the way you put that text on the page. Short paragraphs rule in direct mail -- normally no more than 4-5 lines. Toss in a couple of one-line paragraphs.

Try double indenting paragraphs you especially want people to read.

And I've said this before, but it bears repeating. Highlight your most important points, including your Ask. Use bold, italics, strikethrough or underlines to add emphasis. Ask your graphic artist to circle deadlines or other points that are tremendously important.

Anything you do that makes your letter easier to read is going to help push your donors through the letter and on to the reply form...and to their gift.

Make Your Writing Relatable

Remember, direct mail letters are personal letters from one person in your organization to one donor. Sure, many donors get that same letter, but you should always have one specific donor in mind as you're writing. One copywriter I know keeps a photo of Edna, "his donor," above his desk to remind him to always write specifically to her.

Sprinkle lots of I's, You's and We's into your copy. Remind your donor that we're all in this together. Reveal a personal hope or dream of the signer's that relates to your organization's mission. When donors see that there are real people behind the curtain, people who share their values and aspirations, they are more likely to give the first time and to stick with you for the long haul.

These personal touches, making your organization and the people who run it relatable, draw people in. Remember, it's much harder to say "no" to a friend than to a faceless organization.

Remember these Three R's as you're drafting your fundraising letters, and you'll have letters that work harder for you and your organization.

Need more examples? Have more questions? Post them in the comments!