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How to Turn Your Words into Money
The Master Fundraiser's Guide to Persuasive Writing
Are you ready to write your most effective fundraising message ever? One that touches donors’ hearts, connects with their passions, and inspires them to give? Here’s the book to help you do it.
Jeff Brooks, author of The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications and one of America’s top fundraising writers, pulls back the curtain on the counterintuitive world of fundraising to reveal:
• The sentence top writers always use to start every project.
• The easy revision that will impressively improve your writing nearly every time.
• The tested truth about making donors feel guilty.
• How the pros tell powerful stories even when they can’t find the right story.
• The secret of the lady on the monitor and how she powered a writer’s career.
And for the first time, a proven template for a sure-fire, never-fail fundraising letter.
Whether you’ve just been handed your first writing assignment or you’re a seasoned pro, whether you want it for yourself or need to show someone else how the veterans write fundraising, How to Turn Your Words Into Money is a guide you’ll keep on your desk and return to again and again.
About the Author
Jeff Brooks, creative director at TrueSense Marketing, has been writing for and about nonprofit fundraising for more than 25 years. His clients have included St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, CARE, The Salvation Army, Ronald McDonald House, Feeding America, the American Cancer Society, and many more. A propagandist for the donor-focused fundraising revolution, his previous book is The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications.
Table of Contents
Part I: The Style of Fundraising Writing
1. Four Things That Don’t Work in Fundraising
2. Fundraising Writing Is Different
3. Be SURE about Your Writing
4. The Call to Action
5. The Magic Words
6. The Sound of Your Writing
Part II: Why Stories Matter in Fundraising
7. The Elements of a Well-Built Story
8. Five Ways to Use Stories for Impact
9. How Storytellers Tell Stories
10. The Hero of the Story
11. Word Pictures
Part III: What We’re Really Doing: The Psychology of Fundraising
12. The Evil Cousin of Fundraising
13. Wholehearted Fundraising: Meeting Donors' Emotional Needs
14. What Good is Guilt?
15. Four Smart Assumptions about Donors
Part IV: A Brief Survival Guide
16. Who’s Ready for the Ahern Rule?
17. Five Fundraising Traps and How to Avoid Them
18. Things I Wish I’d Learned Sooner
Four Smart Assumptions about Donors
One of the main differences between a professional writer and someone who writes is this: The professional is obsessed with the audience. This sometimes confuses non-writers. They see a writer energetically pursuing information about the audience and think it's a waste of time. "Why don't you just get busy and write?"
Professionals know you won't succeed that way. They know writing that isn't aimed at a specific audience is just word confetti. Professionals accept that it's our fault when readers don't get our message. If you're playing darts and hit the wall, do you blame the dartboard?
Non-writers, unaware of the audience, make themselves the audience. They write to please and persuade themselves. But as a fundraising writer, you need to become an expert on your donors. You should know their demographics, their psychographics, and have a bank of knowledge about what has succeeded and what has failed to move them.
Not all donor groups are the same. But the following assumptions are common to most:
Donors Are Older Than You
If you're eighty-five or older, you can skip this section.
When you write fundraising copy, you’re not talking to people like your pals. You’re communicating with people like your parents, your aunties, and your grandparents.Think about the ways you talk with your elderly relatives. Tone, vocabulary, subject matter, allusions—it's different, probably very different from your discourse with coworkers and friends. That's a social adjustment we all make without thinking much about it. But in fundraising you have to be conscious of the difference.
Here are some of the ways writing for older people should play out in fundraising:
Don't be clever. Cleverness—irony, puns, cool allusions—doesn’t cross generational lines well. Be clear and plainspoken. Be so obvious that there's no possible misreading of your message.
Avoid hype. It's tempting to follow the conventions of commercial advertising because it's well developed and everywhere. But most advertising is aimed at younger audiences. That's why it employs so much hype—big, bold, exciting claims like Best! First! Biggest! Newest! Your donors weren't born yesterday. They know that something claiming to be the greatest ever probably isn’t so great. Hype impresses the young and inexperienced.
Be straightforward. A lot of advertising relies on symbolism or wordplay to attract attention or make its case. Older people have little patience with these games. Just tell them what's up. They know life is too short to play uninteresting riddles.
Donors Are More Emotional Than You
You and I know that the case for giving to your organization is airtight. But most of your excellent facts will never motivate anyone to give. As you know, giving is a deeply emotional act. People give when their hearts tell them to give. Their heads have only the slightest say. When you get down to it, facts are often just noise—resounding gongs or clanging cymbals—in the donor's world. That's universally true. It's even more pronounced for older people—the majority of your donors.
Neuroscience has shown that with age comes a notable shift in brain activity to the right lobe. That's the qualitative, holistic, emotional side. This causes older people to be more emotional in their outlook and more reliant on emotional information. It's a less compartmentalized way of understanding the world. It’s also one of the perks of age.
If you're under fifty, you might find it hard to believe that the way a thing feels communicates more than the facts can. It's true. Trying to persuade someone to give by citing facts is like trying to interest your cat in a nice meal of birdseed. Even premium, top-of-the-line seed isn't interesting to the cat. Give your cat cat food. Give your donors emotional information.
A word picture (or an actual picture) of a child who's crying because she's hungry is more persuasive than a whole battery of facts about world hunger.
Donors Aren’t Paying as Much Attention as You Want
There's a gap between you and your donors that's even wider than the age gap. It's the attention gap. You’re being paid to spend hours every week giving close and critical attention to your fundraising.
By comparison, for donors you’re an occasional envelope in a crowded mailbox. One subject line in a long list of emails. A disruptive phone call during dinner. If you're lucky, you have your donor’s attention for a few seconds.
It's as if you live in a town for years, studying its climate, geography, and culture, whereas the donor zooms past on the freeway now and then. Sometimes he glances out the window as he passes. If your message isn't completely self-evident in the few seconds of attention you have, it can't get across.
That means one thing: keep it simple! How simple? Two rules will help:
1) Make only one call to action at a time. If you're asking for money, don't toss in an invitation to your event, or a planned giving offer.
2) Make sure your call to action can be expressed in one sentence. Or less. Save the rain forest. Give a needy child a book. Support Parkinson's research.
Donors Love to Give
The other morning on my way to work, a panhandler stepped in front of me. I tried to scoot around but he had me trapped. "I'm really hungry," he said. "I know you got a dollar you can spare. Don't say no."
I had two choices: physically push him out of my way or give him money. I fished a dollar out of my pocket and handed it over. It was the easy way out.
He got his “donation,” but I didn't feel good about it. You've probably had similar experiences with telemarketers or door-to-door canvassers. They make you feel lousy, by making you feel trapped into giving.
Your fundraising is not like that—unless you're doing something drastically wrong. When your donors give, they aren't feeling cornered, they're feeling empowered. They're giving because it expresses their values in action, not just words.
Most donors know the truth that giving feels good. You get a quick buzz of pleasure when you give. Then it improves your outlook in general and your whole situation. Charitable giving is one of the secrets to a full, joy-filled life.
So tap into that reality. Create fundraising that assumes donors want to give and are happy to be asked.
Don't write as if you're ashamed of what you're doing and just hoping you aren't doing more damage than absolutely necessary. If you think that way, you're probably making it true.
* * *
On my first day at my first agency-side fundraising job, I was setting up my computer. In those days, a computer was a huge machine that sat on your desk, along with a monitor about the size and weight of a dairy cow.
My monitor had a small photo taped to the upper corner. It was a smiling gray-haired woman. Her slightly awkward pose suggested it was clipped from a church photo directory. I asked my coworkers about it. They had no idea who the woman was, but as the monitor had belonged to my predecessor, they figured it was his mother or grandmother. Sometime later I connected with him. My most burning question: Who is the lady on the monitor?
"I don't know who she is," he said. "But she stands for my audience. Any time I’m struggling with how to say something I look at the picture and say the words to her. It clears my mind. That photo has saved me countless hours of feeling blocked and frustrated. It's kept me honest, respectful, and relevant."
I kept the photo. It worked for me, too.
Donors are real people—and they aren't you. When you understand that truth, your writing becomes stronger, smarter, and more effective.