The first big lesson in fundraising copy

Written by
Margaux Smith
Added
December 09, 2011
‘I had completely lost whatever ability I’d had to write.’

Margaux Smith moved to the UK in July 2011 from Canada, where she was a grad student studying fundraising and volunteer management at Humber College in Toronto. The last part of her degree involved taking a fundraising internship and, after figuring out exactly what she wanted, she contacted Aline Reed, the head of creative at Bluefrog, over Twitter, and asked for a job. Here, she talks about the frightening process of becoming a writer.

‘Perfect!’

As the newest copywriter at Bluefrog, it still feels ridiculously novel to refer to myself or be referred to as a writer, but I adore the feeling. Writing is somewhat of a new dream for me – it only first occurred to me as a possibility about a year ago. But I know some day I’ll be able to combine it perfectly with my most fundamental goal – to protect animals from cruelty. This is the beauty of fundraising copy.

Writing has definitely not been an easy ride so far though.

In my first few months as an intern and then as the Bluefrog receptionist, I was able to prove that I knew the basics of raising money for charity (thanks to my training at Humber) and, more importantly, that I could write conversationally. I didn’t even realise the latter was a skill until recently. It was just something that came from being ‘trained’ online for13 years using sites like Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. I’m a bit too old to be considered a ‘digital native’, but digital-since-14 turned out to be pretty close.

Learning how to communicate in this way marks a major departure from the dry, academic writing we learn in school. But it also leads to a massive disconnect in how we perceive our skill. I’d done horribly at academic writing in school and therefore believed that I couldn’t write. And now I’m a professional writer. Go figure.

‘Let me tell you a little secret: You started out a great writer. But as you went through school, and were conditioned to think of writing as writing rather than as simply communicating, you got progressively more self-conscious about it – and progressively worse at it.

‘The best writers are the ones who are able to completely ignore everything they’ve been taught about writing, and instead get on with the job of just telling.’

D Bnonn Tennant.

I wish someone had told me that in high school (or university).

When I actually made the official move up to the creative floor just over a month ago, I experienced a few weeks of intense struggle. And I mean the kind of struggle where you’re calling your mother nearly in tears every night. Looking back, it really only did last about three weeks, but it felt like a lifetime. I had completely lost whatever ability I’d had to write. Every idea I handed in would come back with the same disheartening (but honest) comments:

‘Try starting again.’ ‘These sentences feel clumsy.’ ‘You’re trying to say too much.’

Or, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’

Aline was perfectly nice about it but she was right – it was all pretty crap. I felt completely overwhelmed by the pressure. I knew that the previous two copywriters hired before me had both been let go after only a few months because they hadn’t been able to grasp the fundraising style, and it seemed it might be completely beyond me as well. Aline would edit my letters (a nice way of saying re-write) and I could see the obvious vast improvement, but I just couldn’t seem to make letters like that come out of me. I couldn’t help but consider the fact that maybe I just wasn’t good enough to be a real writer.

Every day I prepared myself for the pain of being fired. Aline was being so patient and nice but I knew that could only last so long. Before long, she’d get fed up with having to tell me the same things over and over. It was a stressful time, but I realise now that the stress was entirely self-induced. The pressure was all in my head.

Thankfully, in mid-October, I got a break for a week and went to the International Fundraising Congress in Holland. I knew this was exactly what I needed. I love working at Bluefrog and am learning skills that will be completely invaluable to my ability to raise money in the future, but I was also finding myself drifting away from the day-to-day fundraising involvement that I’d had for a solid year at Humber. I was getting so focused on writing style that I was losing sight of the big picture and my enthusiasm for charity. I knew that IFC would force me to take that step back and get my head back around why I’m here.

And it did. IFC gave me everything I needed it to. It showed me the big picture again and reaffirmed my love for the profession (and the people). But something else seems to have happened and I didn’t realise until well after I’d got back to London.

I finally ‘got it’. All of a sudden, I could write a fundraising letter.

And it was actually so simple. It turns out I was just getting in my own way. I had felt like I had to write something that had never been said before to bring a fresh new voice to the company. I was terrified of not being original. In fact, I had refused to even look at the material my co-workers had written because I was scared I’d inadvertently copy their style.

Something must have clicked subconsciously during the conference because I came back and things just started falling into place. I sat down to write a thank-you letter with my brief, the appeal pack and the charity’s last thank-you letter and I read them all. I drew from them until I had something new that was my own. I worried less about my voice and more about the charity’s voice. I made it simple and easy to follow, but still emotional and donor focused. And I finally handed something in and heard: ‘Perfect!’

I’ve sure got a whole lot more to learn, of course, but at least I feel like I’ve got over the first hurdle. But, some day, I will write something that has never been said before. For now, I’ll work on perfecting the tried and tested methods. I think you have to really understand the fundamentals before you can properly flip them on their heads.

Funnily enough, this past weekend I was re-reading something I’d written seven months ago and I found this:

Being creative doesn’t mean you have to invent something no one has ever thought of before’.

I’d heard it – had even shared and taught it, but I guess I hadn’t really learnt it until now.

About the author: Margaux Smith

Margaux Smith

Margaux Smith currently lives in Sydney, Australia, working closely with incredible clients at Flat Earth Direct, creating digital and direct mail campaigns with them to help change the world. This Canadian fundraiser misses her compatriots in London and Toronto, where she learned almost everything she knows, but is enjoying the Australian sunshine a little too much to leave any time soon.

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