A Common Sense Declaration … Or Why Thomas Paine Would Not Have Survived the Copy Approval Process

In January 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, was first published. It’s reported to have sold 500,000 copies in its first year. Considering that the population of the 13 colonies was around 3,000,000, a book would need to sell over 50,000,000 copies (or downloads) to reach the equivalent percentage of Americans today.

Commemorating the publication’s anniversary in The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor recently wrote that Common Sense “explained why the American colonies should declare independence from Great Britain. It was easy to understand, it was popular, and it rallied a lot of people for the revolutionary cause who had not been involved before they read it.”

Mr. Paine had a talent for conveying complex ideas plainly and convincingly to people who were barely literate. In his introduction to another of Paine’s works, The Rights of Man, Howard Fast describes how: “[Thomas Paine] simplified by going directly to the heart of the matter, to the crux of the issue, not by writing in pidgin English.” (Emphasis mine.)

Common Sense certainly wasn’t edited by committee, as happens to so much of today’s fundraising copy. Brand consistency obscures the heart of the matter. Reviewer after review buries the crux of the issue under soulless organization-speak. In other words, there’s a lot of pidgin English out there.

With the pressure of deadlines and schedules, it’s tempting to give in to – rather than challenge – edits that weaken strong copy. I’ve been there. As a client, I’ve needed to have specific sentences approved by fellow staff members and volunteers. (Yes, volunteers.) As a consultant, I’ve dreaded the email with a word document attached, tracked-changed within an inch of its life, and sympathized with my frustrated client.

But by letting these edits through, we are doing a disservice to our causes. Every dollar lost from a watered-down appeal is less money for hungry children, abused animals, human rights, cultural institutions…. The list goes on.

Let’s make a Common Sense declaration. With Mr. Payne’s persuasive rallying cry as inspiration, let’s all resolve to fight for the appeals that we know will raise the most money. Of course, not every edit is worth going to the carpet for. So let’s pick our battles accordingly, pushing back on changes to leads, the ask, the P.S. and key transitional sections. We must defend powerful words and phrases that evoke, not tell, the story against dry language that could have been pulled from a foundation proposal.

Consultants: let’s be mindful of the challenges our clients face during the approval process, and arm them with facts and test results they can use to build bridges with their colleagues in programs, marketing, and other departments. No, none of this is easy. The conversations will be difficult; some even may be risky. But we owe it to the causes we are so passionate about.

Hey, Common Sense rallied a bunch of scrappy colonists to unite against – and beat – Great Britain. Surely we can fight against soul-numbing boilerplate and passive voice.

Bonnie CatenaOur guest blogger, Bonnie Catena, Principal, Catena Connects, provides integrated fundraising consulting services to nonprofit organizations, including direct response program management, copywriting, and program and creative audits. Follow Bonnie on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn.



Branding + Direct Response Fundraising = Love, Actually

Jack Lemmon Pointing At Walter Matthau

Much has been said about the tension between good nonprofit marketing & communications and good direct response fundraising. Good nonprofit marcom thrives on brand consistency; good direct response thrives on brand inconsistency.

But when you get right down to it, good nonprofit branding/marcom is actually an essential prerequisite to good direct response fundraising.

That’s because an organization must have a clear sense of self to communicate effectively. A strong voice, confident look and feel, a structured communications program, clarity on priority messages, a personality…. These are all things that come out of good marcom – not direct response – and get better defined over time.

If they’re any good, your organization’s direct response staff or agency will lobby to break from all that at times for better direct response results. They’ll argue for less perfect and more human. But rest assured, they only want to depart from brand technically. Agents of good direct response are deeply loyal to true brand.

In fact, we are lost without it.

So if you want your direct response fundraising to thrive, begin with a well developed brand. Then break it, but not really.



4 Reasons Your Nonprofit Needs a Monthly Giving Program

At the DMA Washington Nonprofit Conference earlier this month, I got the chance to speak about one of our favorite things – monthly giving.

Yet from some corners, I still heard this:

How did you convince your [board / boss / staff ] to invest in monthly giving?

For sure, monthly giving isn’t always easy. It takes an additional investment of time to implement a monthly giving program, to ensure gifts are processed correctly, to report on and fully understand your program metrics. But despite the challenges, your organization can’t afford to ignore it. Here’s why …

1. This is the donor climate we’re all working in …


Source: Target Analytics donorCentrics™ Index of National Fundraising Performance.

For years now, the universe of donors has been shrinking, and the number of new donors has been declining even faster. Although this trend was certainly not improved by the recent recession, declines in donor numbers began as early as 2005 and there’s no strong evidence that we’ll soon see a dramatic turnaround in this trend.

2. At the same time, we’re seeing more and more donors acquired online. While there are some benefits to online donors – they’re often younger, richer and give bigger gifts – donors acquired online are harder to retain, even controlling for age and income level.


Source: 2011 donorCentrics™ Internet and Multichannel Giving Benchmarking Report

Together, the picture that emerges is that it is harder than ever to get new donors … and harder than ever to hold on to those new donors.

As development professionals, our mandate is two-fold: to do whatever we can to retain donors, and focus on upgrading donors to higher levels of support, so that as we’re spending more on those ever-harder-to-acquire donors, we can be sure that our investment will pay off.

And this is exactly where monthly giving can help.

3. Monthly giving improves retention. Although rates vary by organization, retention for one-time donors is around 41%. In contrast, retention of monthly givers is 70% to 80%. Acquire a prospect as a monthly donor, or convert a new donor to a monthly donor, and you’ve immediately improved your long-term expectations.

4. Monthly giving will upgrade donors.  Consider the following example …

One-Time / Monthly Comparison

We’d all be thrilled to have the donor on the left on our file; she’s a dedicated supporter who makes nice gifts several times a year. Yet by accepting a far smaller monthly contribution, we can increase this donor’s value by $85 annually – a more than 48% increase.

So next time someone asks if you think your organization can afford to do monthly giving, ask the opposite – can you afford NOT to?

Stay tuned! Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing the seven steps your organization needs to consider to start – or improve – your monthly giving program. Many thanks once again to Matthew Rojas of Lambda Legal and Sanaya Kaufman of Friends of the High Line who joined me to talk about monthly giving at the 2013 Washington Nonprofit Conference and so generously shared their time and expertise!



8 Ways to Get the Most Out of the Washington Nonprofit Conference

The DMA Nonprofit Federation’s annual Washington Nonprofit Conference kicks off on Thursday. With information-rich sessions from leading direct response fundraising minds in the field, it’s well worth making time in your calendar and budget to attend.

For the past 10 months, Craig Zeltsar, Tricia Reyes and I have been working behind the scenes with an incredible planning committee to ensure that the 2013 conference is no exception. In fact, I’m blown away by the originality of the session topics, the caliber of the content, and the networking opportunities that the Washington Nonprofit Conference has in store this year.

Whether you’re a new or returning visitor, here are recommendations for what to do and see when you’re here to get the most out of the conference:

1. Check out the “Not-Your-Usual-Roundtable” discussions. This year, we turned the tables on the usual roundtable format and energized them with new topics to rev up the conversation and get your ideas flowing, like … Help! My Board Totally Doesn’t Get Direct Response Fundraising, 50 Shades of PMS 429, and I Am Not Sorry To Call You During Dinner.

2. Get to the ballroom at 9am sharp for the keynote address from Katya Andresen (Network for Good, Katya’s Non-Profit Marketing Blog). Katya will be talking about what technology can and can’t do for fundraising. Plus toast and butter.

3. Use your networking stickers. Be sure to stop by the information desk and pick up a set of networking stickers. Who do you want to meet at the conference? What’s your favorite movie? Put it on your sticker, wear it, and strike up a conversation with a colleague.

4. Go for an early morning run (or a walk). Join your colleagues on Thursday morning for a scenic 4-mile run/walk in the nation’s capital for a healthy start to a big day of learning and networking.

5. Soak up the sessions. Welcome messages that work, risky fundraising stunts, crisis communications for nonprofits, thinking beyond premiums … This year’s conference offers 24 sessions filled with valuable case studies and tips from leaders in the field. (And if you’re thinking of starting a monthly giving program – or want to improve the one you have, drop by Monthly Giving and Your Organization: 7 Steps to Success at 3:45 on Thursday with Friends of the High Line‘s Sanaya Kaufman, Matthew Rojas from Lambda Legal, and MKDM‘s Eliza Slone.)

6. Check out the Gallery of Breakthrough Fundraising Campaigns. During the conference, you’ll have a chance to view innovative multichannel fundraising campaigns – and vote for your favorite. Voting ends at Midnight February 7 and the winner will be announced at the closing luncheon on February 8.

7. Go to the networking reception at The Carnegie Library (6:15-7:30pm, 2/7). Wind down after the conference and catch up with colleagues at the Carnegie Library networking reception (pre-registration required).

8. Join the conversation. Share what you learn and keep up with the conference by following the DMANF on twitter @dmanf and via hashtag #DCNP2013.

Be sure to check out the full list of sessions and networking opportunities. Hope to see you there!



5 Fundraising Resolutions You Can Really Keep This Year

The start of a new year is a great time to weigh up your membership program’s strengths and challenges and set a course for new and improved direct response strategies.

But just like resolutions that people make, it’s all too easy for nonprofits to set unrealistic goals and, worse, neglect to build the necessary foundation for achieving those goals. It’s great to want to raise more money online, for example, but unfortunately good intentions alone aren’t enough. You need a plan.

When making resolutions for your new and improved direct response program, the key to success is choosing things that a) can really make a difference for your bottom line and b) you can implement. That means stay away from vague resolutions with unpredictable impact (e.g “let’s do something online that goes viral”). Focus instead on specific, implementable opportunities for building donor relationships and raising more funds for your organization’s important work.

Here are 5 practical resolutions that can help make a big difference in your program in 2013:

1. Ask for money less often relative to the number of times you communicate with your supporters. What? Ask for money less? Of course not. But DO communicate more. If you want to strengthen your fundraising program, you have to strengthen your communications program. Take a hard look at your fundraising to issue-based communications ratio and resolve to improve it in 2013. Ideally, for every one fundraising communication, you should be generating at least three to four issue-based communications. In addition to helping build stronger relationships with your constituents, more communications online will give your organization a bigger online footprint and drive more traffic to your organization’s website.

2. Build a better home page. Take a long, hard look at your home page. Is it a welcoming living room or a no-touch museum? If you want to build a better foundation for fundraising, resolve to renovate your home page this year to better welcome and engage your visitors. Among the many purposes your website should serve, signup and giving should be top priorities in the design of your home page. Be sure your home page offers clear and varied opportunities for visitors to sign up for your communications, give and get more information. And after you hone your communications and home page strategies over the next 11 months, be ready to leverage your increased web traffic in December with a lightbox and year-end ask on your home page, like this one on the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center‘s home page:



3. Make time in your calendar and budget for key fundraising conferences. For ideas, information and case studies for improving your direct response program in 2013, get up from your desk and get out to the conferences. I still think the best information and ideas can be found at the NTEN, Bridge and DMA conferences, and are well worth the time and budget. And if you are short on budget, the DMFA has just launched an excellent scholarship program that might be able to help offset or even completely cover your costs of attending these or other excellent educational opportunities.

4. Start a monthly giving program. In an era of higher new donor acquisition costs and shrinking donor prospecting universes, it’s important to tend your relationships with existing donors even more carefully. Monthly giving is one highly effective way of curbing attrition and increasing long-term value of donors – and an increasingly important component of a successful direct response membership program. For specifics on launching or improving your own monthly giving program, stop by Eliza Slone’s session at 3:45pm on February 7 at the DMA DC Nonprofit Conference. (And don’t worry if you can’t make it – check back here after the conference for a recap.)

5. Make data analysis a priority. To make meaningful strategic resolutions that will move the dial for your program, you first need to understand your donor file and trends. Roll up your sleeves and look closely at your data. Are you losing donors at a faster rate than you’re gaining them? Are fewer donors giving more or vice versa? Get a strong grasp on what’s going on with your file to set meaningful goals for how to improve results – and don’t forget to measure your results to see if your strategies worked.

No matter what your organization’s unique fundraising resolutions may be for 2013, keep them bottom-line oriented and realistic and you’ll be sure to make an impact. Here’s to your fundraising success in the year ahead!



Perfection is Overrated

It rarely pays off in direct response fundraising to wait until you have the perfect words, the perfect design, the perfect data.

The secret is showing up. In email, direct mail, online, on the phone. Make a plan and stick to it. Don’t cancel.

Just show up. The more you do, the better you’ll get at it. And the better your results will be in the long haul.



Fall Fundraising Don’ts


If you’re on track with your year end calendar, it probably feels like November at your office – which means you are BUSY!

Here’s a quick list of common fundraising pitfalls to avoid in order to create stellar year end campaigns.

  1. Don’t focus an appeal on your organization’s anniversary, or your founder’s birthday. Talk about your mission, the people you help, and the people who make your work possible.
  2. Don’t be all me, me, me (or us, us, us). Your appeals should be about what your donor has accomplished and will accomplish with her support.
  3. Don’t write a one-page letter because your boss says she doesn’t read long letters. Don’t be afraid of a four-page letter (or longer, if you need it).
  4. Don’t write for yourself … or your Board.
  5. Don’t write by committee.
  6. Don’t say “Dear Friend” if you don’t have to.
  7. Don’t have dual signers (in most cases). Do have a consistent voice.
  8. Don’t ask again before saying “Thank you” for a previous gift. Remember that a receipt is not an acknowledgment.
  9. Don’t spend a lot on full color, fancy design or special printing. Do invest in elements likely to lift response, like more personalization and first class postage for your best donors.
  10. Don’t forget who your best donors are. Your current donors are your best ones – not your prospects. The donor who just gave to you is most likely to give again. Focus your resources here.
  11. Don’t be intimidated by writing your appeals. After all, it’s the thing you love – talking about the great work you’re doing to the people who already understand and support you.
  12. Don’t send your appeals late. Late appeals affect response. Remember, 90% perfect, 100% on time.
  13. Don’t sacrifice your fundraising to your brand. Your brand is about you. Fundraising is about your donors.
  14. Don’t worry about things that are not response-affecting. (You have enough to worry about already!)




The Bridge Conference Starts Next Week

The Bridge Conference, one of the must-attend conferences on integrated nonprofit fundraising and communications, kicks off on Wednesday, August 8. The annual gathering co-produced by the DMAW and the DC Chapter of the AFP brings together 1,400+ people who share a common interest in stellar nonprofit marketing, fundraising and communications. If you haven’t already registered, you still can.

And I hope you’ll join Chris Helfrich of the UN Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign, Dennis Lonergan of Eidolon Communications, and me bright and early Wednesday at 8:15am for our boot camp on multichannel fundraising creative.

We’ll be covering best practices in multichannel fundraising and sharing a lot of samples to give you ideas for how to start or jump start your own multichannel efforts. So drop by in person if you can, and be sure to check back here later in August for a recap of our session. Hope to see you there!



The Case Against Bullet Points

When have bullet points ever made you think “Wow!”? Or made you stand up and say “I need to do something about this!”?

When have they ever made you cry?


Bullet points are the blah blah blah of communication. They convey information to our donors but they don’t connect.



20 Tips for Effective Direct Mail Fundraising

Online giving is the fastest growing direct marketing fundraising channel for nonprofits, but direct mail still accounts for the vast majority of funds raised. Of the nonprofits included in Target Analytics’ 2011 donorCentrics™ Internet and Multichannel Giving Benchmarking Report, direct mail comprised 79% of giving, while online accounted for just 10%.

And so as direct mail remains an essential part of good membership development, it’s important for nonprofits to know how to use this most powerful direct response fundraising tool well. Here are some proven tips for effective direct mail fundraising to keep in mind:

  1. Ask early and often. State your first ask on the first page of your letter, and reiterate it throughout your narrative.
  2. Write a long letter. Two pages should be your minimum, four is often better than two, and six or more can be even better. Never send a one-page letter.
  3. Include a reply device with a concise, compelling recap of your case for support and call to action.
  4. Personalize your gift ask based on the donor’s previous giving.
  5. Get your website in order before you mail. Studies continue to affirm the significant impact of direct mail in driving online donations. A recent study conducted on behalf of Dunham+Company by Campell Rinker showed that 17 percent of donors who gave on a charity website in 2011 said that a direct mail letter prompted their online gift. Moreover 50 percent of donors surveyed in 2012 said they prefer to give online when they receive a letter in the mail from a charity.
  6. Tell stories that demonstrate human impact and connect with the reader on an emotional level.
  7. Don’t be afraid to lose the teaser. In many cases, a teaser-free envelope will work better than an envelope with one, and it will always work better than an envelope with a forced (a.k.a. mediocre) teaser.
  8. Spend as little as possible on your direct mail.
  9. Make your fundraising message about the donor, not about yourself.
  10. Mail when everyone else is. It may be tempting to send your year-end appeal ahead of everyone else to avoid mailbox competition, but in reality it’s not an advantage to be in the mail when other organizations aren’t mailing. Your mail can get just as lost in an empty mailbox as it can in a stuffed one. Mail when your donors want to hear from you.
  11. Break your brand guidelines.
  12. Test for impact. Only test things that you think have the potential to make a real difference in your program. If you can’t think of a meaningful test, think harder.
  13. Include a P.S. in your letter that restates the ask and call to action.
  14. Keep your design simple. Direct mail isn’t advertising; it’s letters.
  15. Keep your direct mail under an ounce unless your audience dictates greater investment in postage.
  16. Check your instincts at the door. Good direct mail is counterintuitive; rely on known techniques and best practices to guide your strategy.
  17. Look critically at how often you are mailing to identify missed opportunities, and then consider mailing more. For example if your newsletter raises as much or more than your direct mail, then you’re probably not soliciting often enough by direct mail. Or if you are still netting revenue on the last notice of your membership renewal series, then you should add a notice.
  18. Target your messages. No matter how great your letter is, if you mail it to the wrong lists/segments, it will bomb.
  19. Above all else, get the mail out. 90% perfect and 100% on time is always better than 100% perfect and 90% on time.
  20. Give. You can’t fully appreciate the direct mail donor mindset unless you yourself are one. Plus it feels great helping nonprofits you care about!