Nonprofit Writing Dos and Don'ts
The incomparable Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising recently joined us for an episode of Bloomerang TV in which she discussed the importance of nonprofit writing, and shared some of her tips and tricks for appeal letters, envelopes and mailers. You can watch the full episode below:
Steven: All right, hello, welcome. Thanks for joining us for this
episode of Bloomerang TV. Thanks for tuning in. My name’s Steven. I’m the
VP of marketing over here at Bloomerang and I’m so excited to introduce
today’s guest, Mazarine Treyz. She’s one of the best bloggers, one of the
best speakers in the non-profit world. She’s someone that I’ve read since I
really got into the non-profit sector. So, thanks for being here. It’s a
real treat to have you.
Mazarine: Okay, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it Steven.
Steven: Yeah. I doubt there’s anyone watching who isn’t familiar with
you, but just in case maybe you could tell people a little bit about the
things you’re into and what you do.
Mazarine: Sure. Well, I’ve co-founded non-profit, I fundraise
internationally as well as for chapters of national non-profit. So, I’ve
also fundraised really tiny domestic violence non-profits and I’ve blogged
and written and taught fundraising since 2009 and my blog is about 48,000-
50,0000 monthly readers and my goal is really fundraising empowerment for
whoever wants to learn. I just feel like my heart is so connected with what
I’m doing that I get to help people all over the world that I’m never going
to meet, but I get to hear so much from so many people that it’s helpful to
them and that’s what makes the most difference to me. So, I’m really
looking forward to hoping we can provide some tips for people watching.
Steven: Yeah and I know you’re a fellow English major like me. You love
writing, I love writing.
Steven: Writing is a big part of the non-profit world and I feel like
it doesn’t get as much attention as it should; writing appeals, writing
grants, writing social media updates, everything. It seems like donor
communication’s being the huge topic that it is. I know you’ve read a lot
of appeal letters in your career. You’ve probably seen a lot of them and
helped write a lot. What’s your sense of what’s going on in that world?
What are people doing wrong? What are people doing right? What are you
seeing in terms of fundraising writing?
Mazarine: Steven, I’d have to say, most of us don’t ever think we’re
going to be in fundraising at all or even marketing. As you mentioned we’re
both English majors. Imagine you’re writing an essay, but with the added
pressure of you don’t write a good enough one some people will have to lose
Steven: Yeah, right.
Mazarine: So, we . . . . That’s your pressure on your writing. On the
other hand, unlike a lot of short stories people are actually going to read
it, you know? So, you’ll get published really fast, but there’s extra
pressure. So . . .
Mazarine: I feel like good writing only happens if you keep doing it and
you have a community of people that help you do it and that you constantly
seek to learn from the best. And so that’s why I like the Who’s Mailing
What archive because they have what’s called grant controls there and you
can go in and say, okay, we’re a non-profit museum for example and we want
to look at what other big museums are doing. Like the Smithsonian, we make
hundreds of thousands of dollars a year with the mailings, so what are they
You can sign up for their English letter for free, but their appeal letter
would be total gold for you.
Mazarine: So, how do you look at that? It’s why I created a membership
group on my website called Fundraising Mastermind Elite so that people
could come together, see all of these different ways to fundraise and then
get like a huge resource sort of basket of things to pick from and then use
in their writing. And then also where I can say, okay,
this works, this doesn’t work after writing a blog post a day, everyday for
a year and then just constantly writing and studying and making courses
It’s been . . . I thought I knew a lot after five years working full-time
in fundraising, but I really knew nothing. I work for all kinds of
organizations, but even if you got a one person shop and your total
pressure to know everything, you sometimes feel like you can’t ask
Mazarine: I really felt like admitting your mistakes and asking questions
can be one of the biggest things that will help you rise and learn more as
a fundraiser, so.
Steven: Yeah. Those are all great resources. We’ll be sure to share
them on this blog post.
Mazarine: Oh, yeah.
Steven: As you’re looking, you see your non-profit looking at what
other people have done. Fundraising, writing and appeal writing, and donor
communications is truly an art. Do you think that you can look at what
other people are doing and emulate them easily or do you think that every
organization should have more of a unique approach in how they tell their
story? What do you think about that?
Mazarine: That’s a good question. I guess . . . Well, let’s think of
something that we both know, Harry Potter.
Mazarine: Right, did you read that?
Steven: Oh, yes.
Mazarine: Oh, me too. All the books, four or five times each, right?
Because they’re so good.
Steven: Yeah, they are.
Mazarine: So, look at the first scene. Harry Potter, like, Harry is okay,
being a baby within a doorstep, right?
Mazarine: But then the next scene is he’s in the cupboard under the
stairs, the spiders are falling on his head, his uncle is yelling at him
and they’re banging on the little door and he’s just like . . . and so you
suddenly start to feel empathy for this person that . . .
Mazarine: . . . is so downtrodden.
Mazarine: Then he comes out of the cupboard and he’s even more
Mazarine: I think we all can identify with that. If we’re meeting
another, we’ve all had different experiences in our lives and so the
question becomes with fundraising writing, how do you create that immediate
sense of, now I’m in a story, now I care about this.
Mazarine: So, I actually have . . . I want to link the blog post Eleven
Tips to Write a Better Appeal Letter . . .
Mazarine: . . . that could help some people for sure, but it could apply
to anything. It could apply to newsletters, annual reports, blog posts,
even tweets. Just put somebody instantly in the middle of the action and
you’ll go far, but the thing is probably you’ll have to write three
paragraphs before you get to the middle of the action.
Mazarine: I still struggle with this. I just opened an appeal letter from
the St. Joseph’s Indian School and they do a lot of things right with this
appeal letter. They have little indentations because your . . . I don’t
know if you can see very well, but . . .
Steven: Yeah, the indents are important.
Mazarine: Yeah, the indents are important. It’s not any smaller than
12.5. You can write the best story in the world, but if you put all the
text together in one little page, no one’s going to read it. So, your
formatting is almost as important as your writing.
Mazarine: The back of it, it allows you to have a tear-off where you can
say, okay, it’s like a little bill. This was sent to my great aunt,
Patricia Stoddard and then I stole it from her and she’s like, please take
it. I’m like, great, thanks.
Then they have a daily needs list on the back of this, but they have a one-
page letter. They’re just trying to see if they can get her to do
something. She’s never given to them, so this is what’s called an
acquisition mailing and most people don’t know what is an acquisition
mailing, what is an in-house mailing.
Mazarine: Acquisition means they’re buying a list and trying to get
people to give to them for the first time.
Mazarine: In-house list means they’ve given to you before. So, aside from
a good story you should have, a remit envelope, this is what’s called a
buck slip and you can have all sorts of things on it like including why
your non-profits are important. This is a rate plan. I don’t even know what
this is about and then there’s like a little brochure. There is a bookmark
with people on it. So they’ve really gone all out with her.
But there’s lots of different . . . There is smile train. Oh, my gosh. You
should look at smile train. You can see on the outside of the
envelope. You can see what they do. They help kids who have cleft lips and
Mazarine: They are one of the grant controls people who makes hundreds of
thousands a year. So, if you look at their mailing, you can really
Steven: Good example.
Mazarine: So, think about how you can put a picture of what you do on the
outside of your envelope and then look at sort of like they have on the
outside, one of those productive charities in the world, Dollar for Dollar
with the New York Times. So, that’s creating what’s called . . . What would
you call it?
Steven: A little bit of urgency and credibility.
Mazarine: Yeah, urgency and credibility. Thank you.
Mazarine: Exactly. So, then they have, of course, the envelope and they
have lots of pictures. Oh. They’ve even gotten
really creative. A triple match coupon with kids on it.
Mazarine: Yeah and then it’s just like donate today. So, 25 can be
tripled to 75. So, they really make it clear for you how you can help these
poor children and then the really big pictures of kids.
Mazarine: So, big pictures of your cause that are really good are worth
Mazarine: It’s about showing them exactly what their money’s going to
give. So, it’s very, very compelling.
Mazarine: They just called her by name, they have a date on it. If you
don’t have a date on your letter, then it’s just a brochure. You have to
have a date on it. You’re like, well, we don’t have any room. Put a date on
The back, you can see that there’s like a blue signature which is
important. It almost looks real, but it isn’t.
Mazarine: Then it has a handwriting font, [email protected] So,
if she wants to go online, she doesn’t have a computer, but if she did she
is a very typical potential donor. Most donors are older women.
Mazarine: So, what you want to do is respect the older women in your
life; your great aunt, your mom, your grandma and say, give them the
appeal letter to read and be like, would this make you give?
Steven: That’s a good idea.
Mazarine: Does this make me give? No, we’re like, read it like
an editor, Mom. Would this really make you give? Could I do anything
better? Then they’d be like, well, it’s a little hard to read.
Mazarine: So then you’re like, oh, crap, I didn’t write it big enough,
Mazarine: Fourteen point font is okay. You have to eat the cost. Just do
it. Okay, so . . .
Steven: I love that idea, showing it to someone in your target audience
Mazarine: Yes and show it to several people. The more people you show it
to the better. Even show it to some of your most loyal donors. A couple of
them, take them out for coffee and say, hey, I just finished
writing. Can I get your advice on this? How could I make it more
compelling? They’re going to be so grateful that you asked for their
Steven: I love it.
Mazarine: So, your writing can really like asking them for advice can
really pay off for them.
Steven: All right, so you’ve done your research, you’ve gotten your
Steven: You know what you want to say. You’ve got your pictures, you’ve
got your signature, all the things that you just said need to be in the
letter and now it’s finally time to write. So, who’s going to sit down and
write this. How do you decide within your organization who’s going to be
your storyteller, who’s going to approve, who’s going to have feedback and
you’ve worked with a lot of organizations, how do you navigate that whole
Mazarine: You don’t want to let people who don’t have any experience have
any input on your letter. So, your board.
Mazarine: Your E.D., if they don’t have any experience doing it, the
don’t get it. So, if you’ve done your homework, and you’ve taken your
courses, and you’ve taken your webinars, and you’ve written a lot, you
should have final say.
Mazarine: So, that means that, okay, for example, if anybody out there is
listening and they’re a development manager and they’re the one person
shop, you’re really the development director. You can even be . . .
Mazarine: . . . Chief Development Officer.
Mazarine: So, you have to take that power and say, this is . . . I have
an equal say in this because I know what I’m doing and all you have is
uninformed opinion. Now, that’s a little bit aggressive.
Mazarine: But, it’s true. Imagine a person comes into your creative
writing class and they’re like, well I’ve never written a story, or a
memoir, or anything, but I’m going to tell you what to do because I’m the
Mazarine: Well, if you don’t have the experience it doesn’t mean
Steven: No, no, no.
Mazarine: So, there’s facts in research and science to back this up, why
this works the way it does. Why are we looking at them instead of me just
kind of talking out of my head and saying, well, this is a good thing, this
is a good thing.
Mazarine: No, who’s making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year?
Mazarine: These people. Do what they do.
Steven: They got to be doing something right.
Mazarine: Well, exactly, copy them. So, if you haven’t had the research
then you have no right . . .
Mazarine: . . . to say what is right in your letter. So, the development
person who’s done this before, who’s studied should be writing the letter,
should have final say. They can show it to the people that are the
stakeholders in the organizations, but bottom line is . . .
Steven: They don’t have veto power.
Mazarine: . . . they say, oh, well, I don’t like that way or can we just
make is one page? You say, trust me.
Mazarine: Hey, if you want to do a split test, could I list in half and
say this half goes to . . .
Mazarine: This is the way you want it, this is the way I want it and
we’ll see which one makes more money, do that. But, you have to say, look,
you hired me for a reason. You hired me because I have experience. You
don’t have experience, get experience, learn. Yeah.
Steven: Oh, my gosh, I feel like you and I could talk about this all
day. I know we want to keep these at 15 minutes. Already . . .
Mazarine: Oh, good. It’s been half an hour, okay.
Steven: We could talk three hours, I think. We love writing. Just maybe
as a last thing before we go and this has all been great information. Let’s
say you send out your appeal letter and maybe it doesn’t perform the way
you expected and you go back to the drawing board or you go back to the
letter itself. What are things you should look for to improve that letter,
maybe aspects that you would want to change for the next note go around?
How would you identify those things?
Mazarine: I’d say you want to double the number of asks you do in a
Mazarine: So, if you ask twice, ask four times next time.
Mazarine: Put a P.S. in. That’s really compelling. It does not introduce
a new idea that puts a deadline in and speaks to some of these different
emotions. So, Tom Ingram talks about some different emotions you want to
create in each communication with the donor. Greed is excellent. So, if you
say, “Hey, I’m going to give you a tote bag if you donate now.” They’ll be
like, oh, yeah, I kind of wouldn’t mind an extra tote bag, or a t-shirt or
whatever. So, by December 31st give us a donation and so on.
You could also yellow highlighter of the P.S. because what’s really going
to get read in your letter is if we’re going to look at the pictures, if
you’re seeing it from far away. Look at the pictures.
Mazarine: Look at the headline. Look at the P.S. The P.S. should never
introduce a new idea. So, if people want to put in everything, well, come
to our event. Well, also give us a gift. Oh, also . . .
all these things.
Steven: It’s too much.
Mazarine: One letter, one idea. So, their P.S. says, “To triple your
gift, select one of the enclosed triple match coupons with the appropriate
amount and enclose it with your tax donation before the February 8th, 2014
deadline. Send a gift today that can help three times as many children.
Steven: That’s it.
Mazarine: That’s it.
Steven: That’s it.
Mazarine: Yeah, so they tell you exactly what to do and you think well,
that’s kind of overkill, everyone knows how to use an envelope.
Mazarine: You know? Do that. Make sure that you have really clear
compelling pictures with end captions. They didn’t have captions but you
could. Make sure that your headline is compelling too. Triple the impact of
your support to help three times as many children. That’s what it says. So,
that’s why there’s three pictures. It’s like everything is going towards
donate, donate, donate.
Mazarine: There’s one idea, triple support.
Steven: I love it.
Steven: Great tips. Amazing. This was amazing. Thank you so much for
joining us. I feel like everyone who watches this is just going to go out
and triple their income from the next letter. This is great. I want to give
people a chance to find out how to find you. Where can they find your blog?
Where can they find you online because I want them to follow you?
Mazarine: Oh, sure, yeah. My blog is wildwomanfundraising.com and my
Twitter is Wildwomanfund and if you want to email me, my email is
[email protected] and that’s woman, singular, fundraising.
Yeah, and I would love to see people just engaging in conversation on the
discussions that we have on the blog or take a course with me or a webinar.
Mazarine: I think it would be beneficial, so.
Steven: Yeah, check that out. Read her blog. Bookmark her blog, I’m
serious and sign up for webinars. If you see her speaking in an area, you
got to go see her speak because you’re awesome. This is great. Thanks so
Mazarine: Thank you!
Steven: Thanks everyone for watching. This is a great time and we’ll
catch you on the next episode. So, see you soon.