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The Seven Cardinal Rules of Fundraising Writing

The Seven Cardinal Rules of Fundraising WritingFundraising is a funny profession. It requires you to learn a specific style of writing that's unlike any other you're likely to have learned—such as business writing, journalism, or grant writing.

But if you go to the trouble to learn the conventions of fundraising writing, donors will reward you with more gifts. Larger gifts. And they'll stay with you longer.

Here are seven cardinal rules of fundraising writing—seven principles that will make your work more effective. You’ll find a detailed discussion of the points I make below in my books, The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications and How to Turn Your Words into Money.

1. The Importance of Being Urgent

Man down! It looks like a heart attack. You spring into action, knowing a life may be at stake.

If you’ve had CPR training, you know that one of the first things to do is pick a bystander, point at him, and loudly say, “You—call 9-1-1!”

Why not shout, “Somebody call 9-1-1”? After all, anyone can call. But the training makes it clear: you put all the pressure on one person. If you don’t, it’s possible (in fact, likely) that every single bystander will think, “Someone else will do it”—and nobody will make the lifesaving call.

Fundraising requires that same sense of aggressive urgency. When it’s not there, when it’s the equivalent of “Somebody call 9-1-1?” we get the same result. Everyone thinks someone else will take care of it. Hardly anyone gives.

2. Make It Easy to Read

If readers have to labor to read your fundraising message, they usually won’t bother. This isn’t because donors are ignorant or inattentive. It’s because concentration is hard work and most people are already doing all the mental work they care to do.

You have to earn every second of their attention. One of the best ways is to make what you write easy to read.

The most common reading-ease tool is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. It’s a standard that looks at sentence length and the number of long words to yield a grade level. Microsoft Word calculates the grade level as part of its grammar-check function. You can also find online calculators if you Google “Flesch-Kincaid.”

Effective fundraising copy has a reading-ease level somewhere between 4th and 6th grade.

Here’s one of the most important truths I can tell you: Reading ease is not about education. And it’s especially not about intelligence.

Sixth-grade level copy isn’t just for 6th-graders. It’s just easier to read. Easier for everyone, no matter how well-educated.

3. Long Messages Work Better

I hate long letters. I wish they’d just get to the point. I bet you don’t care for long letters, either. Nevertheless, long fundraising messages work.

I’ve tested long against short many times. In direct mail, the shorter message does better only about 10 percent of the time (a short message does tend to work better for emergency fundraising).

But most often, if you’re looking for a way to improve an appeal, add another page. Most likely it’ll boost response. Often it can generate a higher average gift, too.

Some believe the era of long messages is ending. They say text messaging, 140-character tweets, and changes in the way people communicate and retrieve information work against people sitting down to read. Maybe. But so far, longer fundraising messages are holding their own.

4. Grammar for Fundraisers

Fundraising copy that works is colloquial, informal, and simple. It doesn’t call attention to the education of the writer. In fact, it’s far more important to sound natural than it is to obey the grammar, usage, and structure rules your English teachers taught you.

Let me admit something here: before I was a fundraiser I was an English teacher. I taught the rules of grammar and composition to thousands of students. I struggled and sweated to make them understand and value good academic writing.

Then I became a fundraiser. Like many who have an academic background, I struggled. My best writing wasn’t getting the job done. The better I wrote, the worse the results.

But then one day I had an epiphany. I was reading some of my own copy, enjoying an especially elegant turn of phrase, mentally patting myself on the back for my cleverness. Then out of the blue I had a vision of my mother reading that same passage. It became clear that my beautiful writing would have puzzled and annoyed her. I could visualize her frown as she made a good-faith attempt to understand what I’d written.

She would have simply responded: “Jeffrey, if you want me to give, why don’t you just say so?”

I immediately embarked on a self-imposed reeducation program to become a real fundraising writer.

5. Persuade with Story, Not Statistics

So many fundraisers think the size or intractability of a problem is what makes it compelling. What they’re missing is that donors don’t want to solve a problem because it’s big. They want to solve it because it’s solvable.

You’ve heard that 22,000 children die from hunger-related causes every day. That’s mind-boggling. Heartbreaking.

I spent years looking for ways to make that fact vivid. I talked about how many children die in an hour (917) or a minute (15). I painted visions of emptied-out American towns with populations around 22,000 (Portsmouth, New Hampshire, or Fairfax, Virginia). It never worked.

The fact that the daily toll is mind-boggling is exactly why it’s a terrible fundraising platform. It’s a fact we can’t process. It has so many faces it effectively has no face at all.

If you want action, you must help donors feel the pain of hunger by seeing it play out in one life. Then give them the opportunity to save one life—then another and another.

If you want to put it in environmental terms, it’s one pelican, covered in sticky tar and flopping along the beach, that galvanizes response to an oil spill. Not the reports of millions of gallons of oil churning into the ocean.

6. Make It All About the Donor

You’re not raising money to fund your organization. You’re enabling your donors to make the world a better place—through your organization.

That means the only facts that matter in fundraising are those you can directly connect to donors. To do that, apply the BOY rule.

BOY stands for “Because of You.” It means you never lose a chance to credit donors for the good work your organization does. Make it a habit to include “Because of You” with everything you say:

  • Our programs help homeless people all over our city because of you.
  • There are long stretches of beautiful open beaches and shoreline in our state because of you.
  • New audience members enjoyed the ballet this year, including hundreds of elementary school kids, because of you.

7. Call to Action

It’s normal to start a conversation with easy, inconsequential small talk (“Nice weather we’re having”). We do this to gauge the mood of those we’re talking to and to ease our way to the topic at hand, especially when the topic is difficult.

It’s tempting to do this in fundraising because asking for money is hard. Resist! Time spent “warming up” to your asking is time for donors to lose interest.

The reason fundraisers do this, in my opinion, is to avoid the call to action—because it feels, well, aggressive to come right out and ask for money.

Let me tell you a secret: Nobody is fooled by your fundraising appeal. They don’t think they’re getting a letter from a pal. They know you sent it to ask for money. If you fail to ask, or pretend not to ask, all you accomplish is unclear communication.

So just ask.

The Seven Cardinal Rules of Fundraising WritingThe preceding is a guest post by Jeff Brooks, author of How to Turn Your Words into Money and The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications.

Topics: Fundraising fundraising appeals fundraising writing