Vanessa Chase Lockshin recently joined us for a webinar in which she showed four writing techniques to consistently write copy and content that resonates with a target audience – techniques that anyone can learn and apply to raise more money!

In case you missed it, you can watch the replay here:

Full Transcript:

Steven:All right, Vanessa. My watch just struck 1:00 Eastern. Is it okay if I go ahead and kick us off officially?

Vanessa:Sounds great. Let’s do it.

Steven:All right. Cool. Well, good afternoon, everyone, if you are on the East Coast, and good morning if you’re on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for joining us for today’s Bloomerang webinar: “Writing That Raises Money – 4 Writing Strategies Every Fundraiser Should Know.” And my name is Steven Shattuck and I am the Chief Engagement Officer over here at Bloomerang and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion, as always.

Just a couple of housekeeping items before we get started, just want to let you all know that we are recording this presentation and we’ll be sending out that recording as well as the slides later on this afternoon. So if you have to leave early or perhaps you want to review the content later on or share it with a colleague or a friend, you’ll be able to do that. Just look for an email from me a little bit later on this afternoon.

And as you’re listening today, please feel free to use that chat box right there on your webinar screen. I know a lot of you have already. We always love seeing questions and comments as we go along, so don’t be shy. We’re going to save some time at the end for Q&A. We’ll try to answer just as many questions as we can before the 2:00 Eastern hour.

And if you are a Twitter type person, you can follow along there as well. We love to see your tweets. You can use the hashtag #bloomerang, as well as our user name, @bloomerangtech.

And if you’re having any audio difficulties, these webinars are usually only as good as your own internet connection, so if you have a phone nearby and don’t mind using your phone, we have found that the audio quality is usually a little bit better by phone. So if you have any issues listening to us today, I would try to phone first there. There is a phone number you can dial into in the email from ReadyTalk that went out just about an hour ago.

If you are new to Bloomerang, if this is your first Bloomerang webinar, I just want to say a special welcome to you folks. We do these webinars just about every Thursday afternoon. We have a great guest like Vanessa on to give an educational presentation. But beyond that, we also offer donor management software. So if you’re in the market for that or maybe just kind of curious about Bloomerang, check out our website. You can even download a quick video demo to get a look at the software.

But for now, I’m super excited to introduce one of our favorites, a stalwart on our annual Bloomerang webinar series. Vanessa Chase Lockshin is joining us from beautiful Vancouver. How’s it going, Vanessa?

Vanessa:Great, Steven. Thanks so much for having me today.

Steven:Oh yeah, I’m excited to have you. I’ve been looking at your slides. This is going to be a really great presentation. If you guys listening in don’t know Vanessa, you’ve got to follow her. Follow her on Twitter, check our her blog. She’s an international nonprofit consultant. She’s a thought leader, she’s a trainer, she’s a speaker. She’s a frequent webinar and conference speaker. If you see her name on a conference schedule, definitely go to her session.

She is the author of a great book. It’s actually right here on my bookshelf next to me, “The Storytelling Non-Profit.” Definitely pick up this book if you like her presentation, which you will, lots of great templates and real-life examples of the kinds of things she’s going to talk about today. It even has a Jean-Luc Godard quote, one of my favorite directors, so really good book.

She is also the founder of The Storytelling Non-Profit and she has provided training and professional development to over 9,000 nonprofit professionals, helping them raise over $10 million. After you see this presentation, that is no longer going to be surprising to you.

So I’m going to pipe down. Vanessa, why don’t you take it away, my friend?

Vanessa:Yeah, thanks so much, Steven, for the introduction. It is terrific to be here with all of you today, and welcome to all of you to today’s webinar. So as Steven mentioned, my name is Vanessa Chase Lockshin and I’m really delighted to be here today for this webinar. We’re going to talk about writing strategies that can help you raise more money for your nonprofit.

I know not all of you may be fundraisers, per se, but maybe you work in communications or maybe you’re an executive director and you’re doing some fundraising writing. These are absolutely strategies that you can use as well, and I hope they’ll be really useful for you.

I am a fundraiser by profession and that’s what I have been doing for a number of years, but I have to say one of my favorite things about fundraising is the copywriting piece and that’s usually surprising for a lot of people to hear because we often think about fundraisers as being folks who like to be out in the community doing face-to-face work. But I actually think there’s real value in having a strong writing toolset and being able to really write compelling copy that not only resonates with your audience, but also helps you raise money and really achieve the goals that your organization is working towards.

So I’m really excited to talk about that some more with all of you here today. And before we dive in, I just wanted to ask you all a question. I’m going to show it to you here on the next slide. My question for you is how do you feel when you think about sitting down to write something? And you can let me know in the chat box and you can just send in your answers there. So the question is how do you feel when you think about sitting down to write something?

Yeah, so I see some people are saying “anxious.” That seems to be a big one. Some say, “Where do I start?”, “Excited,” “Worried that no one’s going to respond.” “Overwhelmed,” a lot of folks are saying “overwhelmed.” Yeah, I totally hear you on that. And I have to say, years ago when I first started in fundraising, I didn’t necessarily think that I was the best writer, and I can think of many times when I sat down at my desk to write and I would think, “Oh my gosh, I’ve no idea what I’m going to write. I feel really anxious about this,” and that would really prevent me from being able to actually get into my work and to get the thing that I needed to get done.

But I want to say that one of the things that I really found in the last few years about writing is that it is really a skill that can actually be learned. And I say that because I think that writing for fundraising specifically is actually more of a science than an art and I think that there’s some principles that if you know and you apply them consistently, you can absolutely improve your writing. So I want to say that if you’re in the boat of feeling nervous, anxious, overwhelmed, not too sure about what you’re doing with all this writing business, hopefully today’s webinar will give you some pointers.

For those of you who feel really confident about your writing already, fantastic, and I see there are a lot of you who said writing is some of the best part of your job or the best part of your work. That’s awesome and I’m really glad that you’re here, so I hope we can also give you some additional tips to help you really take things to the next level.

So, one of my favorite authors of all time is Anne Lamott and she wrote this fantastic book on writing, and while it’s not specific to fundraising writing, it’s something you might be interested in. It’s a book called “Bird by Bird.” Yes, I know it’s a very strange name. But I wanted to share this quote with you because I think it’s so applicable to some of the things that we do here in the nonprofit sector.

“Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader.” So I love this idea of being able to throw the lights on for a reader, and I think it’s so applicable to what we do for our donors every time we communicate with them. We want them to see truth. We want them to come to new understandings about the world and to really be engaged with what it is we’re doing. We want them to see the problems the way that we see them, and then hopefully respond philanthropically.

The big question, though, that probably comes to mind for a lot of you is how can you actually do this for your donors, and that’s something we’re going to be spending some time here today exploring on the webinar. My personal belief is that I think this really occurs through story and authentic connection and we’re going to spend some time talking about how we develop connections through writing, because I think that’s one of the key things that we really have to think about doing when we’re communicating with a larger audience.

So a couple of things we’re going to talk about today. We’re going to talk about how to write donor-centered material. We’re going to talk about how to actually write for your audience. We’re going to talk about the concept of urgency and ease because these are big pieces of successful fundraising copy. And we’re going to wrap up with talking about the concept of writer’s block because, like a lot of you mentioned, sometimes writing can be difficult and we need to have tools at our disposal to be able to work through that.

So we’re going to cover these things, hopefully have lots of time at the end for questions and I also want to say as we go, I love interacting with you all. So I’m going to ask some questions for you, so I hope you’ll respond in the chat box as we go.

So Steven already introduced me as we started so I won’t tell you too much more about myself other than to say it’s great to be here with all of you and always a real pleasure to work with such passionate individuals doing great work in the world.

All right, so let’s go ahead and dive in. The first thing I want to talk about is this concept of knowing your audience. So I’m going to ask you all a question, which is how many of you have ever heard the advice you have to know who you’re writing to, or maybe writing for? Maybe you can just let me know “yes” or “no” in the chat box. So have you ever heard the advice you have to know who you’re writing to?

Yeah, I see a lot of you saying, “Yes, absolutely.” A few of you say, “All the time.” I totally hear you on that. You know, it’s a really important piece of advice, right, understanding your audience is a real key. It’s a real important piece of how we can strategically write to that audience. And yet, I think a lot of people are not really sure how to know their audience, how is it that we get to know them, what information is important, and then how do we actually use that information when it comes to writing an appeal or writing a donor newsletter, whatever that is.

So, I love this quote from Jeff Brooks, really kind of speaks to this a lot more. Jeff says, “If you need to raise funds from your donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them.” So I think that this is such a great quote because when we talk about donor-centered fundraising copy or donor-centered writing, this really gets to the heart of it, that we build everything we do around our donors. And that really requires us to actually know them and to, on some level, kind of study them. Sometimes that means looking at data that we have and sometimes that means exploring, getting to know them in other ways. So we’re going to talk about that here in this next little section.

So my question for you, and you can think about this if you’re taking notes, is does your writing currently revolve around your donors? Do you really put them at the center of that work? Are you really intentionally thinking about who it is you’re writing to and then writing to that person or that group of people?

I think that this is a great question to ask yourself. And if you’ve never really done an audit or done some reflection exercise around this, I highly encourage you to do that. It can be a really generative thing to think about.

Okay, so let’s talk about how we actually get to know our donors here. One of the ways that we can get to know them more, as Jeff mentioned in that quote, is by studying them more or less. One of the ways we can do that is to actually research them and to create what’s called an “audience profile” or maybe some of you have heard it called an “audience persona.”

Basically what an audience profile is, it’s a summary of kind of the typical person in your donor audience or in the audience that you’re writing to. So it may not necessarily perfectly represent every single donor, but it’s going to capture the majority of them and it’s going to help you write to the biggest segment of that audience possible.

So why is this helpful? Well, as I said earlier, it’s always great to write with someone or a group of people in mind. And having this information at your disposal, I think, really helps you to clearly think about who are you writing to and almost perform a litmus test in your editing process to think about is this actually going to resonate with them, have I kind of touched on their motivation for giving, have I touched on their connection to our organization, have I really gotten to the root of what it is they care about? These are all things we can ask ourselves in the editing process, which, you know, can really be generative into making sure that we’re on point and also kind of staying the path to successful writing in this case.

So I want to give you an example of why this is so helpful from my own work. Years ago I worked for a social service organization here in Vancouver and we had a very large annual giving donor base. I think it was about 30,000 donors or so, so fairly large organization. Our typical donor who was giving by direct mail was someone who was over the age of 60, most likely a woman, and we found that she was often widowed and she had been married for a long time, probably had children, and was usually giving back because she thought giving to the community was really important or there was some sort of faith-based reason for her deciding to give. Those were kind of the two common ones that came up.

So in my role at this organization, I was managing a monthly giving portfolio of about 3,000 donors. I kind of initially, when I started at the organization, operated under this assumption that our monthly donors and our annual giving donors looked very similar. I thought, “Well, why wouldn’t they? They’re kind of in the same level of giving. Is there really that much difference between them?” And, frankly, no one had ever questioned this before so we were all kind of operating under this assumption.

But as I started working in that position, I was talking to donors more often, I was going out on business–some of you might as well–and I noticed that basically none of the people I was interacting with fit this profile that we thought was accurate for our monthly donors as well. So we actually had sent out a survey to our monthly giving donors to find out how different are they from people who give to our annual fund who give through direct mail. And the results were pretty surprising.

We actually found that our monthly donors’ average age was significantly lower. It was, like, 42 I think. They were married. They were advanced in their career. They had kids. And one of the reasons they loved giving as a monthly donor was because they wanted their family to be involved in philanthropy and they wanted to teach their kids about giving back. That’s so different from our other donors who were giving to the organization, and recognizing that really allowed me not only to tailor our monthly giving stewardship to them a little bit more, but it also allowed us to better tailor our copy when we were doing monthly giving acquisition because we had a much clearer idea of who it was that was likely to become a monthly donor at our organization.

So these are just an example of kind of the value of having this research and doing these sorts of things, so I’m going to talk a little bit more about how to actually do a survey, although there’s lots that we could say about that. We could probably spend a whole hour just talking about that so I’ll just touch on a few of the highlights.

But I want to say that really the starting point to researching your audience is identifying what your current assumptions are. So what are the things that you think you know about your audience that you assume are fact but you actually have no data to prove or support? These are your assumptions and these are the things that you want to find out whether or not they are actually fact or real for your donors because if they aren’t, then maybe it’s an opportunity to rethink how you’re writing to them, and that can be a really important learning opportunity for your organization.

So, questions for you to think about, and you’re welcome to share some answers to this in the chat box, my question first is what do you currently know about your donors? As you think about that, maybe put a star by those things about whether or not they’re fact or assumption. So maybe you know their age range, their marital status, maybe the geographic region that they live, all those things are important pieces of information and you could certainly start by creating a big list of those pieces.

Then the next question I would have for you is what else is it that you’d like to know about them. What questions do you have about them? Are you curious about them? What is it that you’d like to understand a little bit more about their motivations for giving? And that’s certainly something that can help direct a survey.

Yeah, so I see a lot of you are thinking about the question, “Why do they give to us?” Absolutely. That’s such an important question to ask. I always say that in storytelling, and I think more broadly in fundraising copywriting, one of the things that we really tried to get to the bottom of is connecting with people on a values level. We want to connect with them from these inarguable values or principles that they hold true that have now fueled their philanthropy. Really understanding what those are and being able to reflect them back to those people in writing is hugely valuable. It really creates that sense of simpatico in the relationship that they have with your organization. So great things to be thinking about.

I want to give you some examples of survey questions and things you can think about here on the next couple of slides. For those of you who are thinking about this, it’s a really great idea if it’s something your organization has not done before.

So a couple of ideas around getting to know your audience. Certainly surveying donors is great. You can host a few focus groups. I also want to say you can just pick up the phone and talk to them. It does not have to be a super formal, really structured process. If a lot of you are making “thank you” phone calls to your donors, this is a great opportunity to ask a couple of questions to find out why it is they give, what are their motivation, just kind of ask them some of those questions. Maybe you have a Word document or something where you can keep track of those pieces of information.

So those are just a couple of ideas to get you started. There are a lot of different ways that you can get out there and get this information from donors. Specifically, if you are thinking about a survey, which there’s a lot of things that you could think about there, I’ll give you a couple of pointers on this.

When I run surveys with clients or help organizations figure this out, there’s a couple of things that I always like to think about, which is, first of all, what is our objective, so what is it that we’re trying to learn? Is there an assumption that we’re testing? That’s always the place I like to start from.

My kind of guiding principle for survey design is to aim for somewhere between 5-10 questions, and I would say 10 is probably on the high side. We don’t want to ask people endless questions. We don’t want the survey to be so long that they don’t finish it. So we need to give it…we need to make sure that it’s quick, it’s something that’s very doable for people, and that requires us to be a little bit more ruthless in our question selection, right?

Asking a mix of demographic and psychographic questions is really helpful. This will really help you get to both qualitative and quantitative information about your audience, so open-ended questions, but also questions where they can pick a box or select an answer, those are all really useful.

A couple of questions that I like to ask in case you’re thinking about what kinds of questions you could ask, I love to ask people, “Why do you give to organizations?” And I love to make that an open-ended question so that they can really share their own language and their own words about why they give. “What do you like most about our work?” So really trying to understand what it is that drew them in.

Also asking questions about their preferences or about what they enjoy about your communications can be really helpful. “Do you enjoy our newsletter?” or, “Do you enjoy reading the stories that we send out by email?” Those things can all really help you also determine the effectiveness of your communications in addition to figuring out how to better proceed with your content as well.

So taking all of this information and then distilling it into your profile or a summary of who your audience is is such a useful activity for your organization and is really the first step in having much greater clarity around who it is your audience actually is and being able to communicate with them much more effectively.

As we go throughout the webinar, I do just want to give you some action items and suggestions for things that you could do if you wanted to act on some of this information, and I hope you will. One suggestion for this strategy is to talk to three donors in the next week. They could be people who have made a gift recently or if you work with major donors, maybe some folks you haven’t talked to in awhile, pick up the phone and talk to them. Maybe strike up a conversation, ask a couple of these questions that we’ve talked about and take notes and see if from those conversations you start to see anything emerging or any similarities. But this will help you get your feet wet and hopefully encourage you to keep doing this work because it really is so important.

All right. So, I want to ask you all a question, and this is something you can answer in the chat box. My question for you is how can you write something that resonates with your audience? And this kind of ties into what we’re going to talk about next. But I’m curious, if you sit down to write, is there anything you specifically do or think about that helps you make sure that you’re kind of resonating with that audience in an important way?

Yeah, so lots of you are sharing suggestions, which is great. So I see a few of you have said “sharing a story”, “mention their values and goals”, “appeal to emotion.” Yeah, lots of appealing to emotion, absolutely. “Making it personal, kind of connecting in with them”, yeah, absolutely, these are all great suggestions. “Sharing stories”, “making sure the reader feels like the hero,” yep, what a great donor-centered principle in our writing. Absolutely.

So it sounds like you all have a lot of really great ideas about how you can kind of resonate with that audience on a deeper level. I want to give you another way that I think is really useful and probably one of the simplest things that you can do. This kind of builds on what we’ve just talked about–using what you know about your audience, and that strategy is to actually use your audience’s words, and I think I saw a couple of you mention that in the chat box.

This is a really interesting strategy and probably one of the best things that I’ve done personally in my own writing and also in the writing that I do for a client. I’ll start by saying that the reason this works is because when you mirror people’s language, they’re really able to see themselves in what you’re saying and really feel like there’s some deeper connection with your organization.

As I mentioned earlier, this concept of simpatico or kind of harmony that people feel when they read your copy, that ultimately gives rise to them knowing, liking and ultimately trusting your organization in a very different way. So, using their words and really being able to mirror that back to them is something that can be hugely helpful.

So how do you actually do this? Now, I’m going to give you some examples from one of my clients. It’s kind of one of the starting places of this is to really just go back to what the basic things you know about your audience, so as I said, building on what we were talking about here in that last strategy. One of the things that can be really helpful is in open-ended questions, go through those answers and look to see are there recurring words or phrases that people use to describe the work or ways in which they talk about it? Those are absolutely words that I would add to a word bank or a document where I was collecting this kind of information. And paying attention to that can be really useful.

There’s also a lot of ways that you can listen to conversation online and kind of pick up on some of those cues and words and phrases that people are using. We really ultimately want to find a hook, right? We want to look at the breadth of data that we may have and think about what is the best hook for the most people and use that in our writing, in the call to action, in various parts of that copy.

But it really comes down to never stopping learning about your audience. There’s always more to investigate. There’s generational changes. There’s shifts within your database. Don’t get complacent and go through this exercise once and think that it’s kind of a one and done thing. Always be interested. Always be learning, and always use that opportunity to continue to get to know them at a much deeper level.

I want to give you an example of what it can look like to kind of go into the space of using your audience’s words and how that can really transform writing. I want to give you an example from someone I’ve worked with in the past, and the organization is Feba UK. They do international development work basically using the radio and text communications to help inform people during disaster situations. That’s the gist of it.

The text you see here on this slide is from their donation page and I’ll just go ahead and read it in case it’s not super clear for folks. It says, “You can help ensure that life-giving media reaches communities most in need right now. Feba’s work is made possible by generous donors who care about communities in need. Our supporters give to inform, educate and inspire change in the world.” Then it talks a little bit about one of the projects that they were working on at the time, which was the Ebola outbreak several years ago in Sierra Leone.

So they talk about this in pretty broad terms, right? When I first read this, I kind of had a lot of questions about, well, what does life-giving media mean and why is it so important that we use radio to respond to a crisis situation like this? It doesn’t really give us a lot of clarity on those things. It’s not a ton of substance and that was really affecting their donation rate.

I had a lot of questions when we started working on this project about is this actually how your audience describes your work? Would they actually use the term “life-giving media?” It was something the organization used over and over again and I just kind of wondered is that really resonate with them and is that how they think about this work?

So we spent some time together doing a lot of research on our audience. We mostly used surveys and a few other tools to kind of collect information and think about how we could change the copy on this donation page and in a few other places on their website.

So this is the after and I’ll go ahead and read this and talk a little bit about how some of these changes came about. It says, “Your gift to Hands on Health will tackle Ebola by community radio. You’ve probably heard a lot about Ebola on the news in the last year. For all the discussion about containing the spread of the Ebola virus, many agencies are not looking at the most fundamental way to contain the spread–communication. By supporting the Hands on Health project, you’ll enable local communities to be active in the response to eradicate Ebola by using media to strengthen community resilience, awareness, address stigma and rebuilding community structure.”

So this reads pretty differently, right? I have to say, there’s a couple of things about it that are much more different. It’s colloquial, so it sounds like someone would actually talk. It kind of addresses what is community radio and why is that so important. It really says that at the bottom, uses media to strengthen community resilience, raise awareness, address stigma, etc., and it gives us a reason to understand why this is actually the best tactic to help contain the spread of Ebola or why this is a better way to address this work compared to others.

The other thing about this too is that we really switched to a much more donor-centered way of talking about the work. So probably the broadest way that people talk about donor-centered copy is using the word “you” or the pronoun “you.” So just being able to address people directly, kind of pull them into the copy, pull them into the work, talking about how they can make a difference, not just your organization, that was another way that there was a real shift in the copy.

Yeah, so let’s see, Annie, you asked if I could go back to the other letter after explaining this one to get a quick look back. Yes, absolutely, so I will just flip back to the last slide in case a few of you want to take a look at this, and I think the slides will be available after as well if you want to take a closer look at these.

But you can see in this one, again, this is the before, there’s a lot of data, there’s a lot of big numbers, there’s some acronyms. It’s much more broad. It doesn’t have the kind of familiar feel of talking to a layperson or a friend about this issue and feeling like you can actually understand what’s happening. Yeah, definitely, there’s a lot of passive sentence construction in it, yeah. There’s kind of a lack of urgency about it and that might be true in the after example as well. It’s always an ongoing process of perfecting things, I find.

All right. So I hope that example helps you kind of think about how this might apply to your work. Like I said, that was just one piece of copy from that organization. It was their donation page.

This is an exercise that you could also do, just this one thing on your website, maybe your donation page or an “about” page. Take a look at that copy and think about how could you incorporate your audience’s words.

One other tool I want to suggest is to actually start keeping a list of words and phrases your audience uses to talk about and describe your cause. I think that this is a really great thing to do. I personally have a Word document on my desktop where I keep track of how people talk about storytelling, for instance, and it’s really helpful because it reminds me of the variety of ways in which people communicate about these topics and helps me kind of plugin to that a little bit more.

You might also be able to do the same thing for your organization. I find that this is similar or can be somewhat similar to developing some branding guidelines or something you might find in a book, if your organization has such a thing. Or if you don’t, this is a great piece to add into that. A brand book will often go through and talk about language, tone, what words do we use, what words do we not use, things like that. It’s a kind of similar concept to that and certainly something that can help you out as you’re thinking about how do you incorporate this into your work.

All right. So we’re going to come to the third strategy for writing and talk about this a little bit more, which is “urgency plus ease equals magic.” The reason we included this in today’s webinar is I often get asked questions about how to increase response rate in appeals or how to increase the amount of money that’s raised and my short answer is that there has to be a sense of urgency and ease in the language. We’re going to explore both of those ideas here in the next few minutes and hopefully I’ll give you some more suggestions as to how you can do those in your work.

So my question for you here on this next slide, and you’re welcome to answer this in the chat, is how do you create urgency in your stories, and maybe not just in your stories but how do you create a sense of urgency maybe in your appeals in direct mail or in an email? What is it that you do to hopefully make that sound more urgent for people?

Yeah, so Claire says, “using the word ‘now’,” “give a deadline for a challenge gift match,” “tie it to an event.” Yeah, so a lot of you are saying “making it really deadline-driven.” A few of you have mentioned “tying it to current events.” Yes, news cycle fundraising is very useful and such a good thing to think about. Yeah, making it really top of mind for people, contextualizing it and other things that are happening, whether it’s holidays or seasonal things like that, absolutely. So those are all examples of stuff that you can do to create a sense of urgency in your writing.

There’s a lot of things that we can talk about here and I’ll give you a couple of ideas around how I personally do this and what you can do in your writing as well. So when I’m thinking about sense of urgency, here are a few things that I consider. First of all, if there is not a sense of urgency, then no one is going to respond. I know that that might sound a little bit bleak but the fact of the matter is that you and you alone as an organization are responsible for giving people a reason to give today, as opposed to five years from now.

If that type of urgency is not there, then there’s just not going to be a real desire to answer that call to action. The thing about it is that urgency can be weaved throughout an appeal. It’s not just the call to action, and I think that this is the mistake that I often see in writing is that we wait to throw out the call to action at the end and that’s the only place where there’s a real sense of urgency.

Well, instead what we’ve got to do is we’re building up our appeal, we’re talking about our theory of change, we’re making our case for support. That’s why we’ve also got to talk about why is this a problem we have to solve now, why is there some urgency or some value in figuring this out relatively soon, as opposed to leaving it for a few years or not even addressing it at all. That’s really something that is worthwhile doing.

One way that I think about this, especially in a call to action, is a deadline plus what’s at stake and really talking to one person. So, again using the pronoun “you” can be very helpful, really making sure that it speaks to that person rather than saying, “Donors can help,” or, “Help today.” Those things are kind of broad and impersonal. But really making sure that people get that you’re talking to them, there’s an opportunity for them to do something to help really drive that point home.

Let’s see. Sue, you asked if I could show what was on the last slide. Oh yeah, it just says, “Urgency plus ease equals magic.” I think the slides will go out after so you can also take a look at that then.

So those are just a couple of things to think about around urgency specifically. There’s a lot of stuff that we can talk about and then I want to look at a couple of examples, so I’m going to flip to the next slide here. I want to ask all of you, do you think this has a strong sense of urgency? I’ll give you all a chance to read it and maybe you can let me know, just a “yes” or “no” in the chat box. Do we have a strong sense of urgency here? Is this something that you would reply to?

I’ll tell you, this is of course just the end of the email so you’re not getting the whole benefit of seeing the whole thing. Yeah, so I see a lot of you are saying “no.” Yeah, you know, I agree with you, Julie, maybe it needs a match with limited time but I also think that matches can be a little gimmicky, especially if you’re doing them all the time for an organization. I’m trying to think of who it is that keeps emailing me with matches. I think it’s the UNICEF USA Fund. I swear to goodness, they have like a match every single week, and yes, maybe it’s working for them and maybe they have the data to back that up but there are other ways that we can create urgency so it doesn’t seem so redundant over and over again.

Yeah, so I’d agree with you. There is some sense of urgency but it could be stronger. And this is the thing that I encourage fundraisers to do is to really look at other people’s appeals and also your own as well and critique them. Think about what would I do differently? If I wrote this call to action, what would I add, what would I change, how would I make this better? This is how you can start to think about improving your own writing and start to become a little bit more attuned to what you like, what you don’t like, and what works and what doesn’t. So that’s all something that you can think about doing as you’re practicing your writing and thinking about how to do this through your organization.

Yes, “P.S.” are definitely a great thing to include. I would say the “P.S.” is really the opportunity for you to characterize what you said above and quickly make the case that someone should donate in the event that they have not read the whole email or the whole letter. I’ll say this is definitely a longer “P.S.”, as you can see, but they do give us a very quick synopsis of what happens in the email itself and makes another call to action, which can be useful.

In terms of the placement, ideally it’s always below the signature line, which it is in this email in particular, because having it above sometimes, it’ll just get lost in all the text there, so you really want it to be at the bottom so that people scroll all the way down and there’s kind of a hard stop and they’ll see that. Yeah, so like I said, I think there’s real value in looking at what other organizations are doing and thinking about what you would do differently or what you might do to improve it or how you can use some of those techniques for your organization, and that’s really what I wanted to bring here by showing you this example.

All right. So let’s talk about ease, which is the other part of this equation. This is where I often see people really overcomplicate their copy. You’ve probably heard, or I’m guessing you have, that you should be writing for a sixth grade reading level. Here’s the thing though, most people do not know why that is. A lot of folks assume that that’s just the reading level that people have achieved, but actually, as is the case with fundraising, there’s real research that show that people’s comprehension level starts to drop off after the age of 50.

And if you think about the average age of your donors, which I’m going to guess is probably a little older than that, they might have more difficulty with reading comprehension, with all sorts of things, especially as they’re getting older. That’s not the case for all people and I’m not trying to generalize that, but I just want to drive home the point that if you are working with a demographic that is older, there is a real value in writing in a simpler comprehension level so that they can understand what’s happening.

So in terms of actual tactics, though, inside that writing, there’s two things that I like to think about: short words and also short sentences, and I would add short paragraphs, so maybe three things. So short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. We want to make our copy easy to understand, we want it to be easy for people to digest, a real sense of ease that they can confidently read it and understand it, because that’s going to build up a sense of internal confidence that they actually understand this and that they feel like they can enthusiastically answer that call to action.

My kind of guiding principle for ease in writing is always thinking about simple and colloquial, and by “colloquial” I just mean that it sounds like how someone would talk. So capturing that kind of natural tone and cadence, which I recognize is not always the easiest thing in writing, is how I always strive to write in copy because it sounds like how someone would actually talk to you and there’s a real opportunity for a connection there, which is a really great thing.

I’ll give you a quick tip around colloquial or kind of familial writing. For those of you who have a hard time kind of capturing the natural tone or cadence in your writing, one thing that you could do is–and one thing that I’ve done too before when I’ve had writer’s block–is try using the voice memo function on your phone and record what you want to say. So just talk out your appeal, talk out what it is you think you wanted to write, and just record it. Then when you’re done recording it, transcribe it and maybe that’ll be easier if it’s a shorter piece.

But I find that a lot of people, when they talk, they have a really great tone, a really great cadence, much natural language choice, and when we sit down to write, sometimes we lose that. So this is an opportunity for you to test out something new. If you have a really strong verbal communication background, this might be a really great tool for you to try out if you’re looking for some other ways to capture kind of that quality in your writing.

Okay. So, let’s see. I’m going to give you just a couple of examples around ease and understanding. So I’m going to give you two different emails here and then I’ll talk about why I think they’re good and also what could be improved in both of them just to give you some more ideas around this.

This email is too long to fit all in one scroll so I had to do it side by side for you, so hopefully you can take a look at this, although I know the text might be a little small here on the slide. The gist of this, though, is that it’s an email appeal from a rape crisis center and they’re asking donors to help give to a fund to renovate this space and to help make their group counseling space more welcoming for the women that they serve.

Now, I will say on the outside this appeal might look like it’s not that great. Is it compelling to donate to capital costs, things like that? I’ll say I was skeptical but this appeal actually did very well. They had a goal of raising $8,000 and they actually raised $18,000 from this particular email. Yes, I agree, there is a lot going on in this email.

One thing that I would do and that they have done since they sent this out is no more sidebar. It’s not useful, it’s too distracting and there’s a lot of information in there that takes away from the actual text of the email itself. Also, the block quotes that are in there, again, not really useful. It’s better just to bold or underline things so that we can focus on the actual text.

So when we talk about ease, it’s not just ease of language but also ease of design, and that’s what I really wanted to point out to you here in this email, and some of you have said this too in the chat box, but there’s a real value in less is more or really being simple in our design and making it easy for people to read and understand what’s happening. So I’ll give you another example of this that maybe does this a little bit better.

This is an email from Invisible Children, and again, really short email. They’re literally just a header above the top of it, although that’s not here on this slide. But it’s very simple, it’s to the point, there’s a task at the bottom. There’s a link to a video that also reinforces the message from this appeal.

The thing that I’ll say I like about it–very short paragraphs, yet it’s concise and tells us exactly what we need to know. There’s a problem. They told us what the solution is and the one thing that we can do to help is to donate so that the organization can keep doing this work. Overall very concise and I think there’s a real value to being able to do that.

Yeah, so, Amy, you asked, “Is the video embedded or is the image of the video linked to YouTube?” It’s been awhile since I looked at this email. I’m pretty sure this is a screenshot of it but it has a hyperlink and so if you clicked it in the email it would take you to a landing page that has the full appeal and the video on it. Yeah, so it’s certainly something you can always do.

All right. So action item for all of you and something you can think about, I would love for you to pull out your last fundraising appeal and look at it for urgency and ease and identify one thing you could improve. So maybe you could do this today or maybe next week. If you’re taking notes, just put a star next to this and think about when can you make some time to take a look at this and really try to learn from your own writing in the past and think about how you can improve that.

All right. So we’re arriving towards the end of our webinar. I want to cover one last concept for all of you and I hope this has been useful so far. The last strategy that I’m going to talk about is to have tools to overcome writer’s block.

I wanted to include this because I know that there are real times when it just feels like we cannot write anything to save our life. We have deadlines and we have to get it done so I wanted to offer you some ideas for working through those tougher times with hopefully less frustration. Even though I’m a professional writer, I would say there’s many times where I sit down too and I’m like, “Oh, I have no idea what I want to write,” or no idea what to say, and coming back to some of these tools for me helps me focus, helps me remember that, yes, I can work through this and get to the real heart of what it is I need to get done that day.

All right. So a couple of suggestions for writer’s block. I mentioned this first one earlier but try talking it out. Sometimes just talking out what it is you want to write can be really helpful. I don’t know what it is about sitting in front of the computer screen, but sometimes it just…people really overthink it. So if you take a step back from that and just talk it out with yourself, with your voice recorder on your phone, with a friend, whoever, that can really be a way to kind of get the creative juices flowing.

I find for me sometimes changing my environment is really helpful. So if you always work in your office, maybe you can work in your conference room or a board room, even go to a coffee shop if you’re able to work off-site for a few hours. These are all things that can just help you kind of get out of that rut that you’re feeling in and hopefully get you refocused and moving along.

The other thing that I’ll also share with you is to fill up your inspiration cup. This is a really helpful tip because we often get stuck in this place of not necessarily looking for inspiration or looking at what other organizations are doing. And there’s a lot of value in examining other people’s writings, subscribing to nonprofit email lists, getting on people’s direct mail lists, whatever that is.

Those are all great things that you can do to see what other people are doing, to learn from what they’re doing and to be able to have some inspiration, to go through a file, so to speak, and say, “Oh, I really like that concept,” or, “I like this thing that they did. I wonder how I could use that in our appeal.” That’s really a great thing that you can do.

Years ago when I was working for an organization here in town, I actually had a file folder on my desk that was just my inspiration folder and I would put things in that all the time.

A few other things you can do that are more writing-specific, so if you’re just trying to get in the mood to write, write a letter to a friend. Just try writing about anything. You can journal or do a stream of consciousness about something that happened to you yesterday. I have to say, by far probably the most valuable thing, though, is to really develop a regular writing practice and to build that writing muscle because it will help you in those times where you really have to sit down, hunker down, and get the work done.

All right. So my action item for you here on this, I really encourage you to pick one of these strategies and think about what are some things you can try next time when the words are just not flowing. Maybe you can put it on a Post-it note by your computer and if you’re feeling frustrated this week or next week or you’re just feeling like you want to try something new, this is absolutely something that hopefully can help you get through that.

All right. So before we wrap up, I just wanted to give you one last question or some food for thought. I would love for you to think about what’s one thing you learned during this webinar today that you plan to try next week. I know we’ve covered a ton of information, but I always encourage folks to just pick one thing that they can act on and one thing that they can implement. So if you’re taking notes, just put a star by it or write it down, put it in your calendar, whatever works for you. Yeah, I see lots of you are sharing things. Fantastic.

Some of you said trying voice memos and voice recordings, looking for inspiration, streamlining your message, starting a Word list. Surveys, yes, fantastic. I’m so glad to hear those things. Sounds like you guys have really gotten a lot out of this webinar, which is fantastic.

With that, I guess we will head on over to some questions, Steven.

Steven:Cool. Awesome. That was great, Vanessa. Great tips. I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. I’m sure they did.

Yeah, we’ve got about 5, 10 minutes for questions, so if you haven’t sent in a question, please do. We’ve got Vanessa here and obviously she is an expert, so don’t be shy. Just so everyone knows, we are going to be sending out the slides and the recording, so have no fear about that.

Vanessa, a couple people have asked just kind of a general how do you sort of practice writing? Obviously you’re a writer. Do you have kind of a daily regimen? What would you recommend to someone who just kind of wants to get more practice? Is it just carving out an hour or so a day or kind of what’s your strategy there?

Vanessa:Yeah, I mean, I have a couple different things. I have a regular journaling practice, which works for me and is definitely one way that I kind of build up my confidence around writing. If you’re thinking about how to do that better or it’s something you’re interested in, there’s a book I would highly recommend. It’s called “The Artist’s Way.” It’s by Julia Cameron. I’ll repeat that again in case you didn’t catch it. It’s called “The Artist’s Way.” It’s a really great book on creative practices and being able to really build up your creative confidence, which I think is a really important piece of this.

But when it comes to actually sitting down to work on a piece of copy for a client or an organization that I’m working with, one thing that I’ll do sometimes is I will make sure that in my process time, I build in extra time for writing so that I give myself time to play and to experiment. So a good example of this, if I was writing an email appeal for instance, I would probably spend anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes brainstorming email subject lines and I would write down as many as I could possibly think about, even if they really seem silly. I just make a big list and get creative and just try to really challenge myself to think about all the different things that I could say in that subject line.

I don’t necessarily do this every time, but sometimes this is really helpful just to get you to creatively think about that, and that’s something you would kind of apply to a lot of other pieces in your writing–your first sentence, your call to action. Spending that little bit of extra time brainstorming, practicing and just being creative with that can really help kind of build up that writing muscle for you.

Steven:Cool. I love the journaling idea too. Vanessa, we’ve had a lot of people ask about kind of the concept of urgency and Adrian here has a specific question. His organization sounds like has kind of a constant need for funding. There’s sort of this constant urgency. If you don’t have a deadline or an impending match that’s going to expire, how would you recommend creating that sense of urgency without sort of tiring out your donors, you know, every day we have this immediate need every single day? Any strategies for Adrian there?

Vanessa:Yeah. I think that’s a really great point because we don’t want to seem, as organizations, like our house is always on fire, right? I think this is something I’ve seen a lot with email appeals in the last couple years is people are always kind of on their megaphones saying, “Things are going terribly,” or, “We have a match.” It’s overwhelming sometimes, right? So we have to pace ourselves and figure out what are those real moments for urgency.

I say that specifically for a deadline or a match. We can’t always do it all the time. Otherwise it really loses its power. And so we have to kind of strategically think about when to best use those devices. But in general, there are always ways to encourage some sense of urgency, even if it’s not deadline-driven, which sometimes is just as good. And that might be thinking about why should this problem be solved now, and that’s the question I often come back to.

Your organization can solve this issue any time, why is it a problem worth solving now and why should donors care about it now? This will really get into probably the more meatier reasons as to why you think this is something people should support. And that can be your sense of urgency.

I’ll give you an example. Going back to that appeal from WAVAW, which a lot of you said, “I don’t want to text on it,” which it did, prior to their sense of urgency in that particular campaign was that they really needed a welcoming place for women who come for group counseling session. They need women to be comfortable, they want them to be happy coming there. They want them to feel like they have a safe, warm, serene place to come for counseling after a sexual assault and that’s why they felt like they needed to fix that now.

Is that necessarily deadline-driven? No, but that’s okay. I’ve seen other examples from that particular organization. They often do appeals to support their counseling services and one of the things that they cite is that they have a two and a half year waitlist for one-to-one counseling. So if a woman came in today and wanted to see a counselor, she’d have to wait two and a half years. So they often cite that as kind of their sense of urgency that this is unacceptable, that we should be able to serve women faster. In order to do that, they need more money to hire more counselors and really build out their staff.

Steven:That makes sense. What about grant writing, Vanessa? We’ve had a lot of people ask if these sort of concepts will also sort of extend or be applicable to responding to grants. Any tips there for folks who are applying for grants that maybe want to put some of these things into practice?

Vanessa:Yeah, absolutely. I think there definitely are a couple of them that’ll be more applicable than others. I will say in general, though, if you are looking for advice more around grant writing, I would highly recommend connecting with Diane H. Leonard. She is a wonderful grant writing specialist and just a wealth of knowledge on this topic.

The piece around knowing your audience, absolutely applicable. It’s important to know the foundation that you’re writing to, what their interests are, what they fund. You don’t just want to send them a letter of inquiry or an application without knowing anything about them because in that writing you want to be able to connect with them. You want to give them reasons as to why your organization is a good fit for them or a good match, and that requires you to do some level of research, right?

With urgency and ease, of course with a grant application, sometimes they are more data-heavy. It really depends on the foundation and what they’re looking for in that application. Again, you do want to give them reasons as to why they should fund it now in this funding cycle as opposed to later on, right? And building your case for support. Why is this a problem worth solving? Why should we solve it now? And I know I keep coming back to those questions but those, I think, are really some of the foundational pieces of developing a sense of urgency.

Scott wanted to know that grant writer’s name again. Yeah. Her name is Diane H. Leonard.

Steven:Cool. Look her up. Probably got time for one last question, Vanessa, and we’ve had also a lot of people ask about is there an optimal length for these types of pieces? It seems like there’s a lot of research out there that will tell you long is good, short is good, the other one’s bad, the other one’s good. What’s sort of your rule of thumb, or is there really a rule of thumb on length?

Vanessa:Good question. I love industry research and benchmarking and these sorts of things, but I think there’s a lot of other factors that are more applicable to an organization deciding how long an appeal should be, and chief among them is really about how your organization has historically communicated with donors because the length of your appeals has set a precedent as to what people come to expect. You sort of train people each time you send them something. So it really comes down to what your donors are used to and what they respond to. So there’s a value in testing and figuring out what that could be, but also recognizing that there is some uniqueness to how you communicate with your audience and it’s a good thing to embrace that on some level.

For example, I worked with an organization who regularly sends out email appeals and advocacy emails that are anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 words long. That’s really long, right? But their audience responds to it and they know that they have to be a little bit more academic, they have to dig into the issue a bit more and that there’s real value in them spending time to write those emails. But if I sent an email that was 2,000 words long to another organization’s email list, they would probably not respond or may be like, “What is this?”

So you really have to kind of know what it is your audience is responding to, and that’s, again, where surveying, testing things, those things can all come in, can all be really useful.

Steven:No hard and fast rules, right? Well, we’re about out of time and I want to give Vanessa kind of the last word to talk about how people can get in touch with her or learn more about your book, your website and, Vanessa, would you be willing to take all of the questions that we didn’t have time for maybe on email or Twitter?

Vanessa: Oh sure, yeah, absolutely. I know there were a lot of questions that came in and if your questions feel important and you’d like me to answer them, I’d be happy to do that. You can send me an email. My email is Or you can also message me over on Twitter. Happy to answer questions there. And if you’re curious about the book that I’ve written on storytelling and you want to download a free chapter, here’s the website here on the slide. It’s if you’d like to check that out.

Steven:Yeah, check it out. Great book for sure. Vanessa, this is awesome. Thanks for being here. Thanks for taking an hour out of your day to share all your expertise with us. It was fun.

Vanessa:Oh, my pleasure. Great to be here. Thanks, everyone, for joining us.

Steven:Yeah, definitely thanks to all of you. I know it’s a busy time of year so always appreciate seeing you all hang out with us in the middle of an afternoon on a workday.

We’ve got a great webinar coming up a week from today. It’s never too early to talk about those special events, even if they aren’t happening until the fall. Terry Axelrod from Benevon is going to give you some tips on how you can really make those events shine and actually generate a lot of dollars for you. So if you’re planning an event or maybe looking at having an event soon, join us one week from today, a special 3 p.m. Eastern session, so we’re going to bump it up a couple hours. If that doesn’t quite tickle your fancy, there are some other webinars on our schedule that you can register for totally free, totally educational, but we hope to see you again some other Thursday.

Vanessa, thanks. Thanks to all of you. Look for an email from me with all the slides, all the recordings. We’ll get that in your hands today and hopefully we will see you again next week, if not sooner. If not, have a great rest of your day and a great weekend and hopefully we’ll talk to you soon.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.