Donor Communications



How To Write Bad Direct Response Fundraising Copy

As predictive analysts and veteran direct marketers will tell you, there’s no crystal ball for really knowing whether your next direct response effort will be stellar or just so-so. But there is a remarkably accurate trick for telling whether your copy is any good before you hit send and, in turn, predicting where you might land on the marvelous-to-mediocre scale.

It’s pretty simple. After you’ve written your copy, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Does the copy thoroughly explain who your organization is?
  2. Has it been carefully reviewed and edited by a minimum of four people in your organization?
  3. Do you like it?

Did you answer yes to any of these questions? Then I’m afraid your copy probably stinks.

Of course I say this with nothing but affection and respect for all the great organizations that deserve equally great fundraising communications. But let me tell you why your copy isn’t working on these fronts so that you can hit the ball out of the park, as you deserve to, with your next draft:

1. Effective direct response fundraising isn’t about your nonprofit’s interests. It’s about your donors’ interests. No one wants to have a conversation with the person at the party who only wants to talk about himself. Instead of being that “let’s talk about me” bore (i.e. the painstaking explanations of who you are and what you do), take a “let’s talk about you” approach toward your donors and talk about your mission from their perspective. You may be pleasantly surprised by how they respond.

2. Multiple editors drain the life out of copy. They strip personality, spontaneity and risk (the good kind) out of copy, leaving a truly awful string of weird clauses and bland institutional messaging behind. They also make you slow. An organization that can’t respond rapidly to breaking news because of unwieldy routing and approval processes can’t leverage current events in its fundraising efforts. If you want your direct response fundraising to be as strong and as timely as it can be, put your foot down and radically limit the number of people with editorial authority over your direct response copy. I assure you, you will find it liberating both in terms of process and your results.

3. It’s not important to write copy that you like; you need to write copy that your donors will respond to. If you can accomplish both, that’s great. But you should worry about your donors’ interests first (see #1 again), and check your personal likes at the door. In short, write for your donors, not for yourself.

So what now? If you find that you have strayed into the territory of bad direct response copy for any of these reasons, let me assure you, you will find it well traveled by pretty much everyone, actually. It’s just evidence that you are a human living in the real world.

But be brave! Consider it a reminder that GOOD direct response fundraising copy is worth standing up for, because your organization’s mission is too.




Let’s Reach for the Peak at the Bridge Conference!


Bridge 15


It’s almost here! The 10th Annual Bridge to Integrated Marketing & Fundraising Conference kicks off Wednesday July 8.

As Co-Chair of this year’s conference along with Deborah Peeples, and humble witness to the extraordinary talent of the committee volunteers and speakers that make Bridge possible, I can assure you there’s no end to the insights you’ll gain, connections you’ll make, and new ideas you will discover at Bridge.

To make sure you get the most out of your conference this year, be sure to peruse the schedule in advance to plan your Bridge expedition. Not sure where to begin? No sweat! Here are 10 things you can do with us to reach spectacular heights at Bridge.

1. Get the App! Simply search “BridgeConf” in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Download it on your iPhone or Droid, and you’ll unlock your own virtual Bridge Sherpa to help you plan and navigate your sessions and connect with other conference adventurers.

2. Attend the keynote sessions. I’ll be blunt: You will not hear more powerful, relevant, smart, thought-provoking speakers at any professional conference you’ll attend this year, and possibly ever. In fact, we went a little overboard this year to bring you three extraordinary industry thought leaders and doers—an unparalleled lineup in the history of Bridge.

3. Step outside your comfort zone. Bridge is the time and place to stretch and learn new things. Challenge yourself to:

• Meet 10 new people.
• Discover 10 new ideas.
• Take 10 minutes to explore a new product in the Solutions Showcase.

4. Sharpen your Excel skills. If you’ve ever found yourself swearing your way through pivot tables, conditional format formulas or data filters, then drop in to the Popup Excel Classroom in the Solutions Showcase. Sessions will run throughout the day, every hour on the hour, and there’s no need to pre-register.

5. Strike up a conversation in the Solutions Showcase Smorgasbord. That’s right, with over 100 specialists in essential nonprofit services, the exhibit hall offers a BOUNTY of expert solutions to your organization’s needs—plus ways to improve your marketing and fundraising efforts that you may not have even considered. Launch an expedition to the Solutions Showcase and you’ll be glad you did.

6. Beat a path to the sessions! This year’s conference features 77 breakout sessions from leaders in the field, expertly curated by Bridge Conference Education Co-Chairs Angela Struebing and Julie Carter, along with a dozen ridiculously talented track deans. The only downside of having so many amazing sessions is you can’t attend them all. But not to worry! You can download the presentations you missed by logging in at the Bridge Conference website.

7. Get lucky … at the lunchtime prize drawings. If a fabulous lunch and the company of your colleagues isn’t enough incentive already to be there, keep these six words in mind: you must be present to win. Geoff Peters took home a Jetpack in last year’s raffle.*

8. Tune in on Twitter. The Twitter feed at Bridge is a lively and, at times, irreverent pipeline to breakthrough tests, strategies that moved the dial, food for thought, and more. Hear what people are saying and join the conversation at #Bridge15 and by following @bridgeconf.

9. Pack a sweater. Our fantastic conference center works hard to keep 1,700+ Bridge adventurers comfortable at all times (no small task in DC in July!). But sometimes we are a little, shall we say, overzealous in the endeavor. Stash a light sweater in your conference tote and you’ll be equipped to reach for the peak no matter what climate conditions you encounter in your ascent.

10. Have fun! Most of all, enjoy yourself! Revel in the company of your tribe. Pick up a souvenir in the Solutions Showcase. Step out with friends to ride the Ferris wheel. Oh, and be sure to mark your calendar for July 13-15 2016 to take it to 11 with us!

Can’t wait to see you soon!


*Okay, Geoff did not really win a Jetpack at Bridge. But we do have a a very sharp looking Kindle Fire and half a dozen other excellent raffle prizes this year.




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.




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.




Best of Bridge 2011

The sixth annual Bridge Conference on integrated marketing and fundraising for nonprofits ended Friday, but the great content will stay with us long after.

Here are just a few words of wisdom from sessions I was lucky enough to attend at this year’s conference:

“I’ve never regretted taking the high road.” – Jocelyn Harmon, Care2 (on online etiquette). Good advice offline too.

“Write stronger; someone is going to weaken it.”– Barry Cox

“Blogging without responding to comments isn’t community building; it’s broadcasting.” – Sarah Durham, Big Duck

“Remember: monthly donors are future planned giving donors.” – Steve Kehrli, PETA

“50% of donors who have had a bad experience with a nonprofit don’t complain to the nonprofit … the problem is, they complain to others.”– Katya Andresen, Network for Good

“The message that matters most isn’t what your nonprofit is doing; it’s why it’s doing it.” – Barry Cox

Great stuff – but a woefully incomplete list! What were your favorite comments and advice from the conference? Post them here or email directly, and we’ll compile a complete “Best of Bridge” comments list. Looking forward to connecting!




Is the Annual Report Dead?

It’s no secret that our organizations’ donors have been moving and shaking in the last decade. Not a week goes by it seems without a new report on the magnitude of their migration online, social, and mobile.

One of the most exciting developments in donor communications as a result of all this has been a renewed focus on something that’s not new at all: the idea that fundraising isn’t about our nonprofit’s interests; it’s about our donors’ interests. Or to put it another way, being all “me, me, me” doesn’t cut it in a relationship.

What’s different, however, is how our uber-connectedness today has held our feet to the fire on this point at a totally new level:

What we say about ourselves is becoming less important than what our donors say about us, what they think about us, and what we say with our donors.

Where we used to have no choice but to talk at our donors, at least on a large scale, now we can talk with them (and are expected to), and they talk about us with each other.

The great news is, we know this. While we may not have realized our full potential yet, nonprofits are building vibrant communities and fostering connections on Facebook and Twitter. We are getting interactive on our websites, blogs, and in our emails, inviting our donors to share and take action. We’re even taking the conversation on the go, exploring exciting possibilities in our nascent mobile communications programs.

It’s a “let’s talk about you” world that has turned our donor communications strategy on its ear. And as our social media intern, Facebook page, blog, and mobile program say: We got that memo! We are down with all this!

But did we? Are we?

Because – curious thing – many of our organizations are still pushing out the ultimate “me me me” document, year after year.

The annual report.

For decades it’s been a mainstay of the development officer’s toolbox and a vital instrument of nonprofit accountability. It’s an important document that says a nonprofit recognizes its responsibility to its donors as investors in the organization’s approach to fulfilling its mission.

But at the same time, even with the long donor lists as the end, more often than not it also says “but enough about you, let’s talk about me.”

Is that so wrong? Until recently, no. Truth is, there are a lot of nonprofits that could do far worse than monopolize a conversation with powerful stories of their beneficiaries, interesting details about their issues and work to enact change, and their plain all-around awesomeness.

But our donors’ expectations and preferences are changing. (Apparently their brains are changing too.) And so as good communicators, we need to ask the unthinkable.

Is the annual report dead?

As we know it – words on paper, content on PDF, 2D, monologue – maybe it is. But, at least in fundraising, I believe in reincarnation. The things that are good and essential in fundraising never die; they just take different forms over time.

And so perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t whether the annual report has left the building. Maybe it’s this: are we going to greet our donors at the door with a new kind of annual report that’s in step with the way they’re thinking and behaving? Or are we going to catch up to them later – and are we willing to risk being too late?




Religion, Politics and Branding

Want to get a roomful of people who work in fundraising riled up? Forget religion and politics. Talk about branding.

Maybe that’s because branding is a lot like religion. And politics. It has its thought leaders, moderates, fundamentalists, left wingers, independents, evangelists…. And like religion and politics, it stands for different things for different people.

Nonprofit branding gets especially controversial in direct response fundraising. A brown logo-free carrier envelope with your organization’s name and return address in Times New Roman will almost always generate a better response than a meticulously branded one. It will also almost always irritate, and possibly even enrage, your communications director.

Jeff Brooks rails regularly, and rightfully so, over at Future Fundraising Now against the type of narrow branding mentality that kills direct response fundraising.

But this doesn’t mean you have to violate your brand to create really good direct response fundraising. That’s because branding is about a whole lot more than logos, color palettes and font families. In fact, if your brand IS your logo, then you’re in trouble.

Some think that branding is about how you present yourself. But branding is really about how people see you. Or as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos put it: your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

And so in direct response fundraising, true brand integrity comes down to one simple thing: being recognizable to your donors in a way that goes far deeper than your logo and fonts.

What does this mean? Well, take yourself.

You don’t wear the same clothes every day. You mood isn’t always the same. You come up with new ideas and ways of expressing them. But this doesn’t prevent your friends from recognizing you and caring about you when you walk into the room. In fact, they love you. Not because you’re some vanilla version of who you think you should be for them. But because you’re you and you’re interesting.

So think about – or rethink – what it means for your nonprofit to be “on brand.” Being human is a pretty great starting place.




Eight Ways to Jump Start Your Fundraising Creative

jumper-cables1It’s easy to develop a fundraising idea. The real challenge in donor development is coming up with fundraising ideas, continuously, so that you can present your contributors with a steady stream of varied giving and engagement opportunities.

Depending on the size of your organization, your healthy membership program may rely on you to develop anywhere from four to twelve to twenty (!) fundraising campaigns per year. Sure, you know your organization is awesome, but saying why and how up to twenty different ways in a single year – let’s face it – is not easy.

So when you’re out of ideas, which you occasionally will be, here are eight ways to jump start your creative thinking and get the ideas flowing again:

  1. Roll up your sleeves. Go to work – on the program side – for your organization for a day. Serve meals, put up drywall, go door-to-door. You’ll be inspired all over and will no doubt find new ways to convey that inspiration to your organization’s donors.
  2. Reverse the way you build your case for support. Most of us naturally take a funnel approach to building a case for support. That is, we start wide with the big picture of what our organization does and then we narrow in and substantiate with specifics on why our work is important and examples of the impact we have. But if you build your case the other way around instead, you’ll actually end up with a more effective case. Next time, start narrow – tell a single story conveying your impact on an individual level – and then expand to the larger discussion of what your organization is doing and why the donor’s support matters. For inspiration, check out The Girl Effect, a collaborative effort that manages to talk about and tackle global world poverty from a very simple starting point and perspective: that of a 12-year-old girl.
  3. Check your idea file. What, you don’t have one? Well get started right away! It can be hard copy, electronic, or both. Whichever, keep a folder of clippings, notes and samples from other organizations that you like. Individually, they’re just scraps but collectively they can be a valuable springboard for new ideas.
  4. Share with and learn from other nonprofits and colleagues. Make time in your calendar and budget to attend high-quality conferences. But don’t be a session hermit. As Seth Godin points out, it’s the engaged conversations you have in hallways that can often be of the greatest value. I’ll be headed to one of my favorite conferences later this week by the way – NTEN‘s Nonprofit Technology Conference – which kicks off on Thursday. If you’re not able to enjoy the opportunity to engage and learn in person, you can still attend online.
  5. Read up. What’s going on in the news about your issues? What are people saying? Are they saying good things or bad things about your issues? Are there any new studies or statistics that are relevant to your organization’s work? Spend an hour taking the external pulse on your issues and your reading will likely spark ideas for new ways and reasons to make your organization’s case for support.
  6. Remember that donors don’t want to hear about your programs; they want to know what you accomplish. Nonprofits usually organize their program areas in ways that make sense from an implementation perspective. Programs are things like: “Education,” “Research,” “Advocacy,” and “Community Outreach.” This is rarely compelling from a donor’s perspective however. Donors don’t give because you “do community outreach.” They give because of your organization’s impact, and at the most individual level possible. So instead of showcasing a program in your next appeal, think carefully about what you really do. I still think one of the best examples of this is the American Cancer Society‘s More Birthdays campaign. For all the organization’s many program areas and initiatives, this campaign distills the impact and goal of ACS into one simple thing: more birthdays.
  7. Spend an hour with your results. Data is one of the best places to look for messaging and campaign ideas. What approaches have your donors responded to the best? Which issue areas have your donors been most interested in? The least? Sometimes revisiting your results helps shape new ideas and approaches that you can test in your program.
  8. Take a walk. Seriously. An apple can’t hit you on the head if you don’t step outside. And by outside, I mean anywhere you’re not staring at a computer screen or mobile device. Your most inspired ideas – of any kind – are more likely to show up on those rare occasions when you’re unplugged and alone with your thoughts.

For fresh ideas and inspiration this week be sure to follow the Nonprofit Technology Conference on Twitter via hashtag #11NTC.




The Problem With Year End Appeals

I often get asked when the best time is for an organization to send its year end appeal. The problem with this question, and the problem with year end appeals, is that they’re all too often viewed as single events that take place at a single moment in time.

November 1, November 15, the Monday after Thanksgiving … these are just dates. But your year end appeal, of course,  is not a date.

Your year end appeal is:

  1. Part of a larger, ongoing dialogue with your donors.
  2. An expression of your donors’ highest values and dreams.
  3. A whole season of communication through varied channels, not a single direct mail piece.
  4. Only just beginning, right now.



How to Apologize to a Donor


The author who wrote love means never having to say you’re sorry obviously didn’t know the first thing about direct response fundraising. Direct response is complicated, involving dozens of elements – data, production, content management systems, the post office, and the perfection of mere mortals to name a just few.

And so it’s inevitable: occasionally we mess up. But how well we say “I’m sorry” when we make a mistake is one of the most compelling ways we say “I love you!” to our supporters – and, in turn, earn their respect and loyalty.

So what do you do when you mess up? First, take a deep breath. Then take these three simple steps – and you may just find that those lemons you accidentally lobbed at your donors can make for some pretty great lemonade.

1. Act quickly. When you’ve made a big error that warrants recontacting your donors, drop everything. Get back in touch with your donors as soon as possible to respond to the mistake. This means if it’s a major donor, you should communicate with them via phone or email within hours. Same thing if it’s an erroneous email to a large number of donors: get your correction out via email within hours. And if your communication channel is direct mail, take the “snail” out of mail and get your correction out within 48 hours.

For example, a mailshop once made a production error on a client’s direct mail project in which a #10 window envelope was enclosed in a solicitation mailing instead of standard #9 closed face reply envelope. This meant that when the donor mailed their gift and personalized reply device in the window envelope that was provided with the solicitation, the gift did not deliver to the organization. Instead, it mailed right back to the donor. It was a huge mistake, worsened by the fact that it occurred within a high dollar segment of the campaign. Fortunately the mailshop knew it too. The error was discovered Friday night. They worked all weekend and remailed corrected packages Monday morning.

2. Be transparent. When you make a mistake come out and say it. When one organization realized that it hadn’t acknowledged a sizeable batch of donor gifts for over two months, they addressed their error head-on in their delayed thank you letters saying:

Please accept our sincere apologies for the delay in acknowledging your very generous gift. We encountered a mistake in our computer system and have realized that a significant amount of time has passed. We’ve since resolved the problem and assure you it will not happen again.

Likewise, in the case of the reply envelope mess up, the corrected packages were sent with a cover note from the Executive Director that got right to the point:

Dear Friend of (Organization Name),

Last week, we sent you important information about (Organization Name)’s (Special Campaign Name). We have just learned that due to a production error however, you might not have received the correct set of materials from us. As one of (Organization Name)’s most valued supporters, I want to apologize sincerely for this error and ask you to please be sure to review the corrected information enclosed …

3. Be positive. You may have messed up, but your donors are still incredible and your organization is still doing incredible work. After you say “I’m sorry,” take the opportunity to let your donors know how much you appreciate them, and remind them how important their support is to the work you’re doing together.

Here’s what the organization that messed up on their acknowledgment letters went on to say to their donors:

Your support means so much to us and we are profoundly grateful to have you with us. Thank you again, not only for your gift, but for your understanding.

Pretty great, huh? And here’s the rest of the cover note on the high dollar donor package resend:

If you have already responded to our (Special Campaign Name), and this letter has crossed in the mail with your gift, I want to thank you for your generous support. If you haven’t yet considered our request, I would like to convey my hope that you will take part in (Special Campaign name) by sending your gift today. On behalf of the Board of Directors and all of us at (Organization Name), please accept my deepest thanks for your ongoing friendship and generous support.

Not only were its donors impressed by the organization’s attentiveness, but they also gave more to this mailing than they had ever given to a single solicitation before.

So on those rare occasions that we may disappoint our donors – or ourselves – remember that all is not lost. On the contrary, when you mess up, it’s an opportunity to improve your processes for implementing your campaigns. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to show your donors how much you value you them, because in direct response membership development nothing says “I love you” like “I’m sorry.”