I heard Martha Eddison speak today at a local nonprofit networking meeting. It was an extremely useful and engaging presentation called, "Irresistible Stories: Translating your non-profit mission into a fundraising message that works."
Eddison's past and current clients include former New York governor Mario Cuomo and MIT. She was a speech writer for Cuomo and had some very useful tips on how nonprofit organizations can produce more effective fundraising messages and materials. Her advice focused primarily on the writing.
Here are some takeaways:
Common mistakes by nonprofits when creating appeals:
- the letter is too long
- there is too much jargon
- not enough passion
- not enough fun
- not enough urgency
Useful exercise: Write an appeal for a 6th grade audience. Compare it to your normal message. You'll find that the 6th grade message is better. It's clearer, it asks questions, it engages the reader.
Top 10 ways to have mercy on your audience:
- Remember that we were all 6th graders once (simplify, fight jargon, be concrete, shun "tion")
- Be brief - one page. Get attention and get ask in one page. Go with a word count limit.
- Shoot for "inherently interesting".
- Focus on the Big picture.
- Paint pictures by using images and metaphors
- Stories stick. Communicate with stories. Those of you who are old enough to remember Mario Cuomo will recall that he was a master of telling stories. There were times during his speeches when listeners felt like they were side by side struggling to make ends meet with Cuomo's immigrant parents.
- Say things only you can say. You have a unique perspective so leverage it. Executives at a nonprofit have an intimate knowledge of the mission and the organization. Tell people something they do not know already.
- Lend them your passion. If your excitement doesn't show, you will not move anyone.
- Be candid up to and even beyond being playful and funny! She gave an example of a successful appeal for a preschool that was written in Dr. Suess-like verse.
- Think from the reader's point of view. Anticipate, ask and answer questions because it helps people get through the letter quickly.
Stupid tricks that you won't believe work wonders in your appeals
- Alliteration. This is Absolutely Accurate.
- Power of 3. If you're using examples, use three. One is too few and four is too many. Stay away from long lists.
- Don't be afraid to point. Otherwise known as "a colon is your friend." For example, "Why does this matter: Insert answer here "
- Name things. Give the appeal a catchy name. "2007 Fundraising Campaign Letter" is not so catchy.
- Rank things. Tell readers what the most important initiative is. Your organization is doing a ton of things and you need money for all of them. But tell the reader what is really the most important initiative.
- Put the most important words last - at the end of the sentence!! This is a neat little trick. It's hard to do but very effective.
Eddison has produced many first class fundraising materials. She knows what she's talking about and those of you who read this blog regularly know that I am stingy with my recommendations. You can contact Eddison at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bringing it back home
This blog focuses primarily on fundraising done by volunteer supporters on behalf of the organization. I think nonprofits can learn a lot about what parts of their message resonate with their audience. If you run a fundraising event that allows users to raise money online and make their own appeals, it would serve you well to read the messages that your supporters use to raise money for you. Here's an example from one of our client sites (link). The event participant has taken the default message given by the organization and has highlighted the parts that he feels are most important and has added more text that he felt should be communicated. Here's another great example (link). You won't find jargon, BS, any mention of ROI or best practices. What you will find is passion and simple, clear messages.
Anytime that you can get users to engage with your organization in an online forum, blog, fundraising site, chatroom, etc...pay close attention to the points that your supporters are emphasizing. It will give you glimpse into the messages that are working for your organization and help you craft future appeals.