Five Copywriting Mistakes to Avoid

Most charities these days, large or small, are operating on tighter budgets than ever before. So when you spend good money to get a letter in the mail to your donors, make sure you get it right. Here are five all too common mistakes to avoid if you want your fundraising letter to actually raise funds:

  1. Every letter tries to cover everything you do. Most charities have various programs as part of their overarching mission. When writing a letter to your donors, it is not necessary to detail ALL the ways that your charity helps others. Even in acquisition, you don’t have to discuss EVERY single program provided by your organization. Instead, choose one compelling program to focus on and tell a personal, in-depth story that makes an emotional connection with your donor.
  2. Avoiding the ask. Never stray away from asking for donations. Don’t worry, you’re not being pushy. Direct mail means being direct with your supporters. Tell your donors exactly what you want them to do – DONATE! Remember to ask early and ask often. Unless you actually ASK for their help, very few donors will offer.
  3. Overlook the reply device. A common mistake is to write the response device as an afterthought once the letter is completed. Even before writing your letter, be clear on where it will lead your donor – it should be directly to the reply device. A good response form not only asks for the donation, but also reinforces the reason to give.
  4. Fundraising by committee. With every additional person who reviews your appeal, the copy gets weaker. Not better. Copy that’s written by committee fails to be “real” or authentic. Your letter should sound like it was written by a human being to another human being. Overall, strive for an informal, warm, conversational tone because that’s what people respond to.
  5. Copy is NOT donor-centric. When writing your copy, keep in mind that it’s not all about you or your nonprofit. After all, your charity didn’t rescue the litter of kittens found in the dumpster…Your charity didn’t build that water well for a poor village in Guatemala. Your donors did all thatand more!  The truth is, your supporters want to know what’s in it for them. What they get may be intangible, but when they give they get something just the same. Your letter needs to offer it to them.

I hope you’ll remember these five mistakes to avoid when crafting your next fundraising letter. If you need additional help with your direct mail appeals, send me a recent sample and I’ll send you several ways to make it better – no cost or obligation!

You can send your direct mail sample to:

New River Communications

Attn: Sean O’Neil/Package Makeover

1819 SE 17 Street, Suite One

Ft. Lauderdale, FL


Five Copywriting Mistakes to Avoid
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What will your non-profit do with the public’s social media addiction?


So check out the stats. 23% of people’s internet time is spent on social media. 91% are on Facebook, 63% Twitter, 45% YouTube and 35% LinkedIn. You might say many of us are addicted. The good news is, SM addiction is not the life-threatening variety. In fact, for non-profits, the public’s SM obsession offers a great opportunity to engage, energize, and educate your supporters and prospects.

But first rule of SM engagement: Be present every day and make at least one great post in all forums. Say you have a great photo of a local family your organization saved from losing their home. Post it, share it, and tell your donors about them – and let your donors know they’re behind the good work. How about when your organization was first to respond to the deadly tornadoes this past year? Show us some of the action, what you did, where the money went, where future gifts are going.

And when you post make sure to connect the dots. Use your Twitter accounts to post teasers for whatever you have going on Facebook. You can even link your Twitter account to make posts on your LinkedIn account. They all connect in some shape or form. Use them!

When you post great photos, videos, updates, and statistics, you’re energizing your supporters. But don’t stop there. Remember, this isn’t a lecture, it’s a conversation! So invite them to comment on and share your posts. Get them excited and they’ll help spread the good news about your organization to friends, family, and colleagues – as word travels, it builds your brand and opens the door to potential new donors. People are more likely to give if they’ve heard about you, especially from someone they know, love, and trust.

You also can utilize SM to educate your donors. Make posts on current statistics, upcoming goals, continuing problems you need help with. The more informed your donors are, the more likely they’ll be to support your cause. So don’t hold back with all the info you slaved to pull together for your 2011 Annual Report. Use SM to post some compelling statistics … Let your supporters know what they helped you accomplish this past year and why you need help now in 2012.

Bottom line is don’t miss out on all the SM possibilities for involving your supporters and prospects. You have the power to engage, energize, and educate them. You just have to be present each and every day and keep the posts, sharing, “liking”, and comments coming. Happy posting!

What will your non-profit do with the public’s social media addiction?
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Lessons from the Kony 2012 Campaign


By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock – a rock without internet access – you’ve heard of the Kony 2012 Campaign. Hopefully you’ve seen the video. If not stop reading this and go here We’ll wait.

Everyone back? Good. Now if you’ve been following the story you’ll know that there is a lot to learn for nonprofit fundraisers, marketers and public relations professionals. Lessons on both sides of the equation. Some things worth emulating and some mistakes to avoid.

Let’s start with the positive side. First off we must acknowledge that this campaign has already accomplished its goal. The goal of the viral video, as one component of a broader campaign effort, was to make Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony famous. The premise put forth in the video was that if Kony became a household name this would increase pressure on policy makers to ensure his capture.

Time will tell if Kony is eventually captured as a result but there is no question that the campaign has already accomplished the goal of making him famous. The video has received more than 100 million views and it has been reported that more than $8 million has been raised by the non-profit organization behind the campaign. This response is unprecedented and has established a new gold standard for viral fundraising campaigns. The campaign, video and resulting media coverage has brought a lot of welcome attention to the issue of child soldiers and I think we can all agree that’s a very good thing.

So what can other nonprofits learn from the success of the Kony 2012 campaign? I have a few thoughts:

  1. Viral video campaigns can be very successful at generating attention and support. While your effort might not generate this kind of “lightning in a bottle” success most nonprofits would be thrilled with 1/10th of a percent of the views this video created. Wouldn’t you be happy if a modest 100,000 new people heard about your organization’s good work?
  2. Some causes are harder to explain than others. Either because they are too complicated or too obscure. With all forms of fundraising, but especially when trying to recruit new people to the cause, you must humanize the problem. This video does a great job of first humanizing the cause by featuring the story of a young Ugandan Jacob Acaye whose brother was killed by LRA members.
  3. We also can learn a lot from the effective way this campaign simplified the cause. The issue of child soldiers is complicated. Like most causes it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a cut and dried solution. But this video uses the device of explaining the situation to a young child to make it simple and sets up the easily understood premise that if we can make the bad guy famous it will lead to his capture and solve the problem.

Of course most problems aren’t really that simple and that’s a good segue to discuss lessons we can learn about what not to do. The initial, and perhaps even inevitable, criticism this campaign generated was focused on the charge that the video over-simplified a complicated issue. Fair enough but I doubt a complicated accurate explanation would have generated the interest that this video did. And I also think this initial criticism came with just a tad of sour grapes. Surely to be this successful they must have cheated somehow?

But as this story continues to unfold bigger and more legitimate concerns have come to light. In American culture we’re used to the cycle of building something up before tearing it down. Our pop-cultural landscape is littered with bones of celebrities, politicians, companies, causes, etc. that were first greatly celebrated and then roundly criticized. And this Koby 2012 campaign and the organization behind it have probably broken the record set by the Herman Cain presidential campaign for roller-coaster plummets.

The main take-home lesson? Be ready when your moment comes. Especially if you are carefully orchestrating your moment. In all fairness it is extremely difficult for any little-known organization to be ready for the kind of media attention this campaign generated. But still, in hindsight, we can see that some obvious mistakes were made. The organizations servers crashed under the weight of response. There appeared to be no ready response to some predictable criticism regarding the organization’s finances. An email sent to the organization today received a witty but disappointing response that “it may take up to 3 weeks to receive an answer.”

And of course we all know by now about the…uh… unfortunate incident” leading to the hospitalization of the video’s star Jason Russell. We don’t know yet the full story behind Russell’s breakdown. If you were made world famous overnight – and then forced to deal with very public blistering criticism – how well would you handle it? I don’t think most of us would handle it well but let’s just say keeping your pants on in public would be a good start.

It’s been a fascinating story and I’m sure fundraising and nonprofit professionals will be studying this case for years to come. But let’s give them well-deserved credit for shining a very bright light on a very serious issue and if Kony is indeed brought to justice we’ll have the Hollywood ending a story with this much drama deserves. Even if he is not captured the issue of child soldiers is on the minds of a lot more people than it used to be and for that alone we all owe a hearty congratulations to the people behind this campaign.

Lessons from the Kony 2012 Campaign
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The Write Stuff


For most major non profits, direct mail will continue to be the biggest revenue generator this year. The fact is, it’s still the most effective way of reaching new donors and cultivating them.

I realize that for many charities reading this blog, you may not have the budget to hire a consultant or agency that’s expert in crafting a direct mail appeal. So I want to share several nonprofit copywriting tips with you to make your next direct mail appeal the best it can be:

1. There’s nothing like a good story well told: Donors enjoy a good, personal story and if you have a short relevant one that pulls your donor (or prospect) right into your benefits, then by all means use it!  If it’s an especially compelling story, you might even consider leading with it on the outside envelope.

Think what your reader might be asking and answer it right upfront: “Have I heard of this organization before?”“Do they really need my help?”…”Can I trust them with my contribution?”  These are just a few questions your potential donor is most likely pondering as she first glances at your letter copy. Anticipating the concerns of your readers and addressing them in your direct mail letter helps you gain their trust and support.

3. Tell your donor exactly what you want her to do. Be clear and direct about the action you’re seeking.  It’s not enough to simply say, “You can help.” Instead, ask the donor directly for her support today, “Please, will you send a gift now of $35 to help feed a child for five days?”

Hope these tips help when working on your next direct mail campaign.

The Write Stuff
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Lessons from a Fiasco

If you are like me, you watched the recent drama between the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and Planned Parenthood with a mix of horror and morbid curiosity.  Think what you may about either organization, it’s unfortunate to watch such large, successful organizations tarnished. 

This was a great learning opportunity, though, on the dangers of letting your organization get off mission. Without getting mired in the details, I thought it important to highlight some lessons I was reminded of from the kerfuffle and how to avoid them before they happen:

1) Avoid Cognitive Dissonance:

Your donors have an image of who they think your organization is and that’s why they give you their financial support.  Organizations should be doing everything in their power to not upset that opinion.  Stick to your mission statement.

There’s an old saying; “There are two things you don’t talk about in mixed company; religion and politics…”  For religious and political organizations, this is obviously a non-issue.  Otherwise though, it’s likely that your donorbase comes from a diverse background and you should do your damnedest not to stir your supporters. 

2) If You Disregard #1, Have a Good Reason:

And explain it!  Not every move a nonprofit makes is going to make everyone happy at every turn, but it is pretty easy to know in advance when you are making a potentially risky move.  Your donors are naturally pre-wired to agree with you; if your decision making is sound, you should be able to explain your moves in a way that donors will be able to understand.  Be consistent and ACCURATE when explaining it!

3) Know Your Donor:

The reasons that people give to your organization are probably wide-ranging, but there are likely some trends regarding who and why people give you their support.  Immerse yourself into their world, so that you are better aware of what potential pitfalls you might face with changing or new initiatives.

4) Help Your Donors Know You:

Your financial house should be in clean enough order that donors should have no doubt where their donations are going.  The more explaining you need, the less compelling your offer seems.  This can be taken to various extremes, but it’s always good practice to let donors know where and how their dollars are helping.

5) Know Yourself:

This is one of those leadership issues vital for the long term success of any organization.  There are often short term incentives to move a small, monetarily insignificant project to your forefront.  However, it’s very important that these short term pushes don’t trump the long-term goals of the organization. 

I’ll give an example:

An emergency need on the periphery of your organization’s work is gaining media attention, so you shift communications to highlight your work on that issue.  The short term dollars gained are a boon for the organization, but you are also attracting and renewing donors that don’t necessarily support your primary mission.  It’s important that efforts be made to shift back on topic.  Otherwise, you risk cultivating a database of donors that aren’t compelled by the body of your work.

Lessons from a Fiasco
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Go multi-channel, but don’t forget to do this…


It’s “multi-channel madness” out there these days, with every
non-profit across the country thinking about how to connect with their

Just count the many ways…

Get them to like you on Facebook. Tweet ‘em on Twitter. Direct mail
‘em, email ‘em, call ‘em. Meet ‘em not where you want them to be, but
where your analytics people tell you they are – online, offline, on the
phone, on the moon… wherever they may be! 

All good advice, BUT…

you start blasting out your message by every communication channel
known to humankind, do this: Slow down, take a deep breath and find a
story worth telling.

You’ll know it when you come across it, because it’ll speak to
your heart and remind you why you got into this crazy non-profit
business in the first place…

 It won’t likely be your PR person’s dream tale, a story that portrays
your non-profit in all its glowing perfection (and leaves donors saying
“that’s wonderful, but who needs me?”)

It’s more likely a gritty story that grabs your donor by the hand and
walks her right up to the scene of a need – and leaves her thinking:
“This cannot be, I’ve got to do something!”

… a story like this one we developed for an international relief organization:


Every week, I’m receiving reports from our ministry partners in the field
who, with minimal resources, are struggling to provide starving children
with their daily bread.

        One of our team members, recently returned from Haiti with this heart-wrenching Mission Report:

        “The food program in Gonaives can only be stretched enough to feed 50 children a day. During one of those days, after most of the children had eaten, there was enough food for a few more. So I opened the door and I was surprised and pained by
what I saw: a long line of children quietly waiting. As much as we
tried to stretch the food there was only enough for a few more that day,
and then I had to shut the door…”

        With tears in his eyes and his voice cracking, Andrew said that closing that door in the face of a starving child was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do in his life…


you see, your story isn’t “our organization is the greatest ever, won’t
you lend a hand?” Rather it’s an opportunity to let your donors see,
taste, hear – to feel in their marrow – a critical need that demands to
be addressed.

course, you’re implicitly telling your donor that your organization is
ready and willing to meet that need, but that’s not your story. Your
story is the door closing on starving children and your donor seeing
herself there and thinking, “I’m going to help hold that door open so more little ones can pass through and eat.”

ask yourself:  Beyond mission statements and vision statements, when
you roll up your sleeves and really get down to work, what is your organization’s story and how will you tell it?

Go multi-channel, but don’t forget to do this…
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         I recently read a list of the most popular New Year’s resolutions. The top resolutions year after year will come as no surprise: stop smoking, lose weight, save more money, exercise more, etc.

         These are all good goals to strive for in the coming year but the list got me thinking about specific resolutions for those in the fundraising profession. I came up with a list of my top 10:

  1. Resolve to use less statistics.
  2. Resolve to tell more personal stories of lives changed.
  3. Resolve to stay on schedule. Get those mailings and newsletters out on time!
  4. Resolve to communicate better by using eye-friendly design and shorter sentences.
  5. Resolve to keep your fundraising letters positive. You have to focus on the problems
    and sometimes they are serious and grim. But make sure to offer solutions
    and hope
  6. Resolve to stop showing off your brilliance and use plain, easy-to-understand, straight
  7. Resolve to focus on the “bottom” line. Not just the top two. If you can cut expense
    without hurting revenue do it. But if you need to spend more to capture the big
    bucks have the courage to fight for the budget you need.
  8. Resolve to add at least one more ask to your annual schedule. Raising money
    takes persistence.
  9. Resolve to be more passionate.
  10. Resolve to be less cynical.

         Of course my list is more specifically focused on the direct response / annual giving side of
fundraising but come up with your own and share them with us if you like. We always like to hear from you!

         Regardless of what belongs on your list I think the best thing about New Year’s resolutions are that they remind us to focus on improving. Attack the new year with a commitment to DO BETTER! You might slip a few times but if you make a list and post it in a prominent place I’ll bet you
succeed more than you expect.

         Good luck with your resolutions and I hope you have a successful new year!

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The New Year is always a good time to step back and look at what it means to be a donor to your organization.  Take a step into their shoes for a moment and you might find out that you could be doing things better.  We usually focus on the big ideas, but often the little things are easier to address and have a much bigger pay off.

Do this – assume that you’ve never heard of your organization.  You stumble upon it; either you got a mailing or a friend “liked” them or you hear a news story about their good works.  You make a gift.  Well, what happens next?  Do you even know?  It’s good practice to every so often make a whitemail gift to your own organization.  Have some fun with it! Make up an alias, throw a few bucks into an envelope and mail it to your office.  Watch what happens next and answer these questions:

Were you thanked effectively? 

How long does it take your thank you letter to arrive?  The sooner, the better.  Take a look at the form; does it have a reply slip and return envelope?  If not, you are leaving revenue on the table.  Your thank you letters should be producing AT LEAST as much revenue as they cost.  If not, likely one of the above is not happening.

Are you encouraged to make a monthly donation?

Donors typically feel closest to an organization when they make their first donation.  That is when you want to hit them with an offer to make a monthly commitment.  But a donor is not going to assume that
they can just make a monthly pledge; they need to be told so and you want to hit them with that information as soon as possible.  Ideally, in the first thank you letter.

How long before the second appeal arrives?

There is this downright dangerous idea floating around in nonprofit circles that you shouldn’t be asking people who just gave a gift for another gift.  I think it comes from major donor departments, where the idea makes more sense; if someone gives you a $50,000 gift, you are probably better off giving them some time to rest.  For the typical donor though, the people most likely to give are those that made a gift the most recently.  If you are left hanging for a couple of months after you get your thank you letter; you need to look for why and how to improve your turn around time. 

There’s a reason that every successful retailer uses secret shoppers.  So, be your own.  Make a cash donation to your organization.  By knowing your donor’s experience with your organization, you can maintain and develop your core group of dedicated donors and improve your overall donor retention

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Creative Cautionary Tips

When it comes to creative in your direct mail fundraising, sometimes what seems like a great idea may not turn out to be. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when creating your next fundraising appeal:

To tease or not to tease?

Teasers on the outer envelope that refer directly to the offer/ benefit, or alert the donor about the free gift or member card inside often work best. If you’re just including a teaser to be clever, skip it. Your copy must be extremely provocative for this kind of teaser to work – and testing proves it usually doesn’t. “Blind” carriers – those without teaser copy or logos – often are the ones that win, especially in acquisition or for organizations without high brand awareness.

Caution with inserts

Have a great new insert you’re considering to include in your package – brochure, lift note, recent news article? Make sure you test with and without the insert. While an insert might provide great additional information about your mission – they also might depress response. It’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve seen it happen too many times.

Focus on the big idea and not the window dressing 

Too often in the world of direct response fundraising, fancy design gets in the way of what it
is you’re really trying to accomplish: convincing a donor that the non-profit’s mission is worthy of her support. I’ve found that a clean, simple layout almost always wins over something that’s flashy and over-designed (usually distracting from the readability of the piece). At the end of the day, the job of creative is to create revenue – not beauty.

Creative Cautionary Tips
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Conversion Contest Winner Selected

We’ve received many great entries into our recent contest where we asked readers to submit their best ideas for converting new donors into multi gift donors. At this time of year when most organizations are doing their heaviest new donor acquisition drives we thought it was a good time to gather ideas on the best strategies for converting new donors.

In fact, we got so many good ideas we couldn’t select just one. So we’ve decided to award two winners. Both entries shared specific strategies that work for their organizations. One contest winner nailed the basics. The other came up with a unique approach that our experts thought was
sure to work.

And the winners are….

Stanton Cadow (St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary/Boynton Beach, FL)

Don’t assume something you write in the second appeal letter will be read.  Understanding this, and the idea you will need to do something extra special to get their attention, do the following:

1. Within 48 hours of the first gift, the regular thank you and gift acknowledgement letter should go out.  An industry standard yes, but not always followed.  The carrier envelope should indicate some place on its outside, preferably on the front, a big “Thank you for your support.” Print in red or a contrasting color of your design.

2. When you have good reason to believe that letter has been received, place a personal thank you call to that donor, preferably using volunteers, students, etc.  Give them a script, but make it such that
the call sounds, “unscripted,” thus increasing the genuineness of the call.

3. If you have not been able to capture a phone number, have those same volunteers write a hand written thank you, again, using a script. Mail first class, with the return address on the back envelope, thus increasing your open rate.

4. These steps will most certainly increase future appeal conversion rates.

Barbara Kehl (Wesley Community and Health Center/Phoenix, AZ)

Wesley Community Center encompasses many programs.  We have afterschool programs, a health clinic and a facility for ESL classes among other services.  So my suggestions are in line with those issues.

1. When approaching new donors consider making a plea for specific needs such as clinic supplies, band aids, flu vaccines, afterschool scholarships, garden supplies, ESL workbooks, etc.

2. When a new donor donates, an immediate and special thank you can be sent along with a current newsletter or annual report and a confirmation of how many flu vaccines the money provided and a note of continued needs, with an envelope for sending another donation.

3. Our nonprofit qualifies for the Tax credit so encouraging another donation by the end of the year for maximizing the Tax Credit can be addressed especially for Nov. donors.

We hope you’ll learn from these two great submissions and improve your own new donor conversion strategies. Thanks to all who entered the contest and if you didn’t win… better luck next time!

Conversion Contest Winner Selected
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