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Four Fundraising Traps and How to Avoid Them


Excerpted from How to Turn Your Words Into Money

Sometimes being a writer is like starring in a bad episode of The Twilight Zone. You're about to enter a dark forest to do something heroic. An old man appears from nowhere. He fixes you with bloodshot eyes and warns you the forest is full of traps. Traps, everywhere!

When you're a writer, the things that trip you up most are inside your head. That's what makes them hard to avoid. Let’s take a survivor's tour of four of the common traps in fundraising writing. You’ll find a more in-depth discussion of these pitfalls in my new book, How to Turn Your Words Into Money.

The Trap of Knowledge

There will probably never be a cure for cancer. I know that because I've been involved in cancer fundraising for a long time. Cancer isn't one disease waiting for a cure, but thousands of loosely related, constantly mutating diseases. Some are curable. Others aren’t, at least not yet, but they're treatable. Big picture, the news is very good.

Asking a donor to help fund the "cure for cancer" is misleading. But giving donors a lecture on the non-curability of cancer (like the one I just gave) is exactly the wrong message in fundraising. Doing so is a sign you've fallen into the Trap of Knowledge.

Let's say you want donors to join you in the fight against cancer. A basic, bare-bones call to action might read like this:

“Please send your gift to help find the cure for cancer.”

If supported with an emotional story and specific reasons to give, this could be effective.

But if you’ve fallen into the Trap of Knowledge, you might find yourself unable to say something so simple. You'd want to revise the statement by watering down the cure for cancer premise:

“There will never be a cure for cancer. But we are advancing on multiple fronts, with new treatments and promising avenues opening all the time. Please join us.”

Not inspiring! (And telling donors what we and they can't do is terrible fundraising.) It would be better to change the premise. Make a simpler statement. Talk about something that is happening:

“The end of cancer as we know it is coming. Soon! Every dollar you give gets us closer to the day when cancer will no longer take our loved ones. Join the fight now!”

That doesn't raise the red-herring issue of the cure, but gives the donor something exciting he or she can become part of.

Every cause has its own world of complexity. There are people in your organization who live and breathe that complexity. Not you. As a writer, you must be a master of simplicity. Clarity in the form of battle cries that will rally donors.

The Trap of Numbers

Probably more fundraisers fall into this trap than any other because the facts—the amazing numbers about our causes—are such a temptation. The shocking number of children who die from hunger every day. The millions of people diagnosed with serious diseases each year. The breathless speed of deforestation.

Facts like these seem compelling to you and me. But they can lead us into the Trap of Numbers. We think that because a problem is big, it's motivating. But what works in fundraising is the exact opposite. People don't give because the problem is big. They give because it's solvable. That is, a small problem is more compelling than a big one.

When you tell donors a problem is gigantic, you're warning them away from giving. You're using secret brain language to say, Forget it. This is not something you can deal with.

The Trap of Cleverness

You're intelligent. You love words. You have an active mind, and possibly a slight allergy to the same old same old. Look out! It's a trap!

The Trap of Cleverness gets us when we let ourselves get bored with our work. It's not just us fundraisers. Cleverness is epidemic in journalism and advertising. Clever, punny headlines turn reading some newspapers into a frustrating lost-in-the-funhouse exercise.

Avoid these types of cleverness in your fundraising:

  • Wordplay. Hardly anyone else enjoys puns and word tricks the way you and I do. If your fundraising pitch to upgrade an old building and rid it of dangerous materials has a headline like We're Doing Asbestos We Can, you're being clever. Not communicating, and certainly not fundraising.
  • Symbolism. Always tell your donors literally what they need to know. Don't resort to symbolic ways even when that might be beautiful. There's a video produced by a nonprofit in which every time villagers in India get help, they start floating three feet above the ground. Because, y'know, helping them lifts them.
  • Abstraction. Donors want to do specific things to change the world. They're far more likely to feed hungry children than fight poverty. They'd rather keep the opera going than support the arts. And they'd rather do almost anything than stand up for an abstraction like Hope.

Ultimately, cleverness doesn't work in fundraising because it's about you, not your donors. It's the technique of self-centered show-offs, not people who raise funds and connect donors with causes they care about.

The Trap of Good News

The most frequently repeated poor fundraising advice goes like this: Show people how effective and successful our programs are. That will encourage them to give. Everyone likes to be part of success!

It's true we’d rather be part of success than failure. But when your message tells success stories and omits need or the situation you want donors to help change, you skip the main step that moves donors to action.

Donors give to solve problems. They give to save, to rescue, to defend. To turn bad situations good. They’re rarely motivated to maintain a desirable status quo. Telling donors you've already taken care of the problem tells them they aren't needed.

Most people in your organization would prefer that your fundraising focus on good news. It makes them feel better. But it's not effective fundraising.


The preceding is a guest blog post by Jeff Brooks, author of The Fundraiser's Guide to Irresistible Communications as well as How to Turn Your Words Into Money. He has served the nonprofit community for more than 20 years, working as a copywriter and creative director on behalf of some of the best nonprofits of North America and Europe. His clients have included St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, CARE, The Salvation Army, Ronald McDonald House, World Vision, Feeding America, the American Cancer Society, and many more. He is deeply grateful to be part of an industry that makes the world a better place.

Topics: Fundraising