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The Language and Design of Fundraising: Interview with Jeff Brooks

Jeff Brooks recently spoke with his publisher about the topic of his new book, The Fundraiser's Guide to Irresistible Communications: Real-World, Field-Tested Strategies for Raising More Money. GuideStar has published two excerpts from the book (see the links on the right), and we're pleased to be able to share Mr. Brooks's additional thoughts with you.

In your book, you claim that the best look is "plain, corny, and obvious." So can we save money and dispense with designers now?

BROOKS: More than ever, we need better designers! Any art school grad can throw out slick, modern, overworked design, and, in fact, that's what many do. Design that looks homemade, unadorned, old-fashioned, completely readable, and conveying emotion—only the masters can pull that off.

You advise readers to write their fundraising materials no higher than a sixth grade level. Won't that insult a wide range of intelligent readers?

BROOKS: There's no connection between reading grade level and intelligence. Low grade level—which is a function of shorter sentences and shorter words—is easier to read. That's all. Everybody, no matter how intelligent or educated, is more likely to read and understand barrier-free, easy-to-read copy. If your copy insults the intelligence of your reader, no matter what its grade level, it's bad copy.

I feel if I follow the advice in your book, most of my correspondence to donors would be as busy as Times Square: lots of highlighting, underlining, italics, words of different sizes in boldface, even handwriting in the margins. Sounds awfully distracting, but you're saying it really works?

BROOKS: Emphasis helps draw readers into your appeal. It's up to us to entice them, and visual emphasis is an effective way to do that. Writing interesting and readable copy is even more important. But too much emphasis is the same as none at all. Keep it to four emphasis points per page at most. It should look more like Times Square in the 1940s than Times Square today.

I've been told for years that long copy outpulls short copy. But considering text messages, Twitter, and the snippet quality of news on the Internet, aren't you a little bit behind the curve—perhaps showing your age?

BROOKS: I am showing my age, but more importantly, I'm showing our donors' age. They are overwhelmingly older—a "young donor" is someone under 60—and older people adapt to changes more slowly than younger people. That's why long messaging is king in direct mail. In e-mail, it's not quite as consistent, but in my experience long e-mails do better somewhat more often than short ones. We don't know what will happen when today's 30-year-olds turn 60. Will they end the reign of long copy, or will their reading habits become more like those of today's older folks? This is something we should keep testing.

Here's something I've wondered for a while: Are donors more likely to give when you tell the bad news about the problem you want to solve, or the good news about the impact they'll have?

BROOKS: Donors are much more likely to give when you tell them bad news about a problem you need their help to solve. However, if all you ever talk to your donors about are problems, you aren't building relationships. When you're asking for money, your message should be largely about the problem, with a picture of what will happen when the donor gives. Paint a vision. Then, if you're really doing your job, you'll have a newsletter or other reporting-back vehicle that brims with good news about the difference the donor makes by giving. That's how you move someone from casual donor to committed supporter.

The world has some huge problems, like the fact that more than 20,000 children die every day from hunger-related causes. But how do you take such a mind-boggling number and make it real to donors?

BROOKS: You've captured the root of the problem by calling the huge number of deaths "mind-boggling." The human brain basically doesn’t process massive tragedies. We put them aside and change the subject. We refuse to think about them, much less have our hearts broken. Stories about individual people are more persuasive than facts about situations. Learning that Rahima's baby died because she couldn't read the instructions on his medicine is far more impactful than knowing that 62 percent of Afghanistan is illiterate. You might think the statistic is more effective because it's bigger than the story—but donors don't want to solve problems because they're big. They want to solve problems because they're solvable.

You emphasize storytelling in your book. And, you know, I like a good story as well as the next person. But every time I pick up a newspaper today, practically every article starts with an anecdote. After a while I say, "Enough already. Get to the point." Do you think maybe we're taking this approach a bit too far?

BROOKS: I know what you mean. Articles that start, "The rain beat down on the windswept parking lot," when the story is about a school board meeting that discussed new rules for middle-school sports is just poor writing. And if your fundraising is like that, it's poor fundraising. Stories have to be relevant and interesting. They don't have to be long. And they don't need to be the way you start your message.

What's the most important thing we should know about donors today?

BROOKS: It's this: donors are overwhelmingly likely to be 60 and over. It's just a fact of life that human psychology and biology make older people massively more open to charitable giving to multiple causes and to remaining loyal to charities. If you're serious about fundraising, you'll study older people. You'll be obsessively interested in their culture, the way they think, how they talk, what they care about. You'll write and design for them. In certain cases—such as celebrity-driven fads and major disasters—you can get outpourings of charity from younger people. But they fade back into the woodwork when it's over and never give again (at least until they're 60 or so). It's the old folks who keep on giving, who make the entire charitable world go 'round.

© 2012, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Reprinted with permission.

Excerpts from The Fundraiser's Guide to Irrestible Communications


language-and-design-of-fundraising_jeff-brooks.jpgJeff Brooks, creative director at TrueSense Marketing, has been serving 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