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What Fundraisers Need To Know About Donor Communications

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Want to make more money, thanks to your insanely great donor communications? Here is my short list of surefire “secrets for success:”


You have just one thing to give your donors in exchange for their hard-earned cash: your organization’s blazing love.

“Donor-centric” comms are different. They loudly trumpet how wonderful donors are … how important donors are … how desperately needed, how compassionate, how kind, how blessed and critical donors are.

But most nonprofits do not talk this way. Most nonprofits talk about themselves … which means their communications are doomed to raise a tiny fraction of what they could.

Understand “tribe”

Super-guru Seth Godin wrote the book on Tribes, published in 2008. And in his massively popular blog, he continues to expand on this essential sales idea.

Customers (i.e., donors like you and me) can derive vast emotional gratification from our charity “tribes,” if we truly feel we belong.

Recently, Seth pointed out that “effective tribes are built around connection … commitment … conversation.”

Connection? Donors find causes they share something with: a value, a hope, a fear, a delight, an anger, a grief, a belief, a background, a trauma. They feel sad about something. Pitching in to the cause makes them happier.

Commitment? “There’s no cliff. This is a mission, a journey, a cultural covenant for the long haul.”

Conversation? “The tribe thrives when it talks to itself, not when it merely listens to you shout.”

“How much jargon did I kill today?”

Ask yourself that question a lot.

Don’t explain your mission this way. Does anyone seriously think this kind of language will persuade people to join your merry band of social revolutionaries?

I’ve said it many times: I blame the environmental movement for global warming. They used science to sell a horror story. People are still scratching their heads.

The late, sweet, caustic, religiously innovative, and hugely successful UK copywriter, George Smith, instructed, “All fundraising copy should sound like someone talking.” Like a conversation. Not like a book report.

Measure retention

That’s the metric that matters.

If it steadily climbs and stabilizes at a high average, then your donor communications are working.

If it falls or never reaches a high average, then your donor communications are NOT working.

How do you measure retention? Here’s a simple formula from Roger Craver’s brilliant about-to-be published book, Retention Fundraising:

Step 1: Count the total number of donors who gave in your most recent calendar or fiscal year.

Step 2: Divide the number of donors who made a donation in year 2 by the total in Step 1.

Step 3: Multiply the result from Step 2 by 100 to obtain your retention rate as a percentage.

Size doesn’t matter. Quality does.

Why DO professionally-written four-page appeal letters bring in more new donors than shorter letters?

(1) Is it about the page count?

(2) Or is it about the quality of the writing?

If you guessed #2, give yourself a gold star.

Four pages of dull writing will not bring in droves of new donors. While four pages of great writing can open the flood gates.

So … time for some honest self-appraisal: How IS the writing in your appeals?



Don’t know?

If you do your direct mail in-house, have you at least read a good book about creating direct mail? (Here’s one, for both print and digital.) Or taken a hand-holding webinar? (Here’s one, for both print and digital.)

Assume nothing about direct mail. Even though we all receive tons of it, only serious professionals actually know how it works.

I went to a meeting of the Direct Marketing Association once. It was like wandering into open mic night at an astrophysicists’ bar. All they talked was math. Ridiculously arcane math, not balance-your-checkbook math. Most recipients have no clue how ultra-sophisticated successful direct mail is.

And you’re always learning how to do better.

Want to see evolution in real time? Watch direct mail professionals at work. Just today at lunch (cold green gazpacho and the grilled cheese sandwich with fontina and manchego, house-made fig spread, roasted red onions, apricot, and walnuts, on toasted fig bread), I learned of yet another incredible direct mail guru, Eugene M. Schwartz, author of Breakthrough Advertising.

I ate lunch with Nancy Schwartz (no relation to Eugene). She was in RI, for a week by the water; she’d spent the morning strolling her alma mater, Brown.

Her husband, Sean, a Manhattan-based direct mail professional, told me Breakthrough Advertising was his bible. That afternoon I ordered an out-of-print copy. Eugene Schwartz will now join my short shelf of direct mail gurus: Mal Warwick, Joseph Sugarman, John Caples, Siegfried Vögele, David Ogilvy.

You’re always learning. Because there’s always FAR more money to be made.

Board chairs and executive directors are particularly susceptible to delusions of competence when it comes to direct mail appeals.

Successful direct mail appeals differ from anything else your organization has ever written or will write.

Direct mail appeals are NOT AT ALL LIKE …

… a grant proposal (pish)

… an annual report (tosh)

… a strategic plan (heaven forfend)

… a brochure (ugh! never)

… a memo “from the desk of” (puh-leazzzze)

Direct mail is a confoundedly counter-intuitive medium … one that is vilely and unmercifully cruel to the untrained.

Professional direct mail looks easy. “My child could write that.” But it’s devilishly hard to master … and turn a handsome buck at. Few do. [BTW: If you’re curious what mastery looks like, visit the Copyblogger.]

What IS a direct mail appeal — finally and basically?

It’s a conversation between two well-meaning people about an issue they agree on.

Direct mail is by far the most tested English-language communications medium on the face of the planet.

Yet what works in direct mail also makes uninformed people squirm. Even ill.

As expert Jeff Brooks attests, “Ugly works. Tacky works. Corny, embarrassing, and messy all work. In print, or in digital.” He’s speaking from decades of in-the-trenches experience.

Your direct mail checklist:

[ check? ] The letter is conversational (ZERO jargon).

[ check? ] The letter makes a strong offer early.

[ check? ] The letter can be skimmed in seconds.

[ check? ] The letter profoundly thanks past donors.

[ check? ] The letter is about how great DONORS are … and NOT about how great the organization is. [99% of appeals fail this critical test]

Final word, slipped on a note under your door:

You really have nothing to lose by changing the way you communicate with your donors. Absent the “secrets to success” listed above, I promise you that your communications are built to fail, not succeed. So, right now, unless you’re served by a handful great agencies around the world (Pareto, Bluefrog, Agents of Good, Revolutionise and there are a few others) you are likely now harvesting merely a small fraction of what you could gather from the very same donors you currently solicit. I believe most of the philanthropic fruit is left in the orchard, unpicked. What do you have to lose?

This post originally appeared in the Ahern Donor Communications newsletter.

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