Tutorial 52: executive directors: learn to love a fundraising letter.

I realise most executive directors would sleep better at night if they could raise money without sending out fundraising letters.

Written by
Jerry Huntsinger
Added
April 22, 2010

Their job is tough. They report to a board of directors. They rarely have the budget to hire the necessary staff. They are forced into the dual role of politician and administrator. And late on Friday night they are still struggling to finish the monthly appeal letter.

Here are 10 suggestions for executive directors, when it’s time to ‘get the next appeal out’.

1. Resist surrendering to the ‘good news compulsion’

The president of your organisation feels good when he reports good news in a fundraising letter. And the chairman of the board feels good. And you feel good. And your staff feels good. And everybody sits around and says: ‘Our donors are impressed by the way we manage this organisation. We tell them good news. Not bad news.’

Then, about two months later, after the appeal is a total disaster, everyone will completely forget about the ‘good news compulsion’. And they’ll blame it on the post office, or the famine in Africa, or the latest tsunami or earthquake.

So, does bad news always raise more money?

Not exactly, specific need raises money. People give you money because they want to help you carry out your mission and goals. And if it’s all good news, then why should they give you money?

They want to help you. But your job is to convince them that you need their help. Your job in a fundraising letter is to communicate need.

So how do you communicate good news? In a newsletter, annual report, a thank-you letter, or press release. Never in the fundraising letter. If that bothers you, test a good news versus bad news letter. I can tell you how it will turn out.

2. Talk about yourself. Don’t be reluctant to say ‘I’

Your donors don’t want a letter from a stuffy, institutionalised non-entity. Instead, they want to hear from a warm, compassionate, real live person, who loves a lot; who laughs and breathes and cries about the suffering of human beings.

To raise money by mail, you must share a part of yourself with your donors.

3. Don’t let your donors anticipate what you are going to do next. Keep them off balance. Keep them guessing.

Every fundraising package they receive from you should contain an element of surprise.

When your letter arrives in the home, and the donor knows by glancing at the outer envelope that it’s another appeal from charity XYZ, you are defeated before she even opens it. What is all this superstition about always identifying your organisation on the envelope? It works sometimes, but not always. Under many conditions it cuts your response drastically.

Examine your mailing package formats. I’m sure you feel comfortable with standardised formats, but perhaps you should feel uncomfortable. Perhaps your donors are anticipating your every move. Perhaps they feel comfortable. Think about it.

4. Tell more stories this year about the real live people being helped by your organisation.

Your donors want to help needy people, not your organisation. And the best way to motivate them is to tell them about the people you are helping. They don’t care very much about your budget, your theology, your philosophy, your administrative methods. They only care about one thing: ‘how is my money going to help a real live human being?’

5. Put more graphic excitement in your letters.

People are busy. They save time reading by first scanning the page and then deciding if the material deserves more of their time. They skim the page, their eyes sweeping from the top of the page down to the bottom looking for key words to identify content.

What does this mean? It means you need more underlining, more short paragraphs, more ‘attention-grabbing’ statements, more headlines. And more ideas couched in numerical sequences. Don’t let a ‘quick read’ be the death of your fundraising letter.

6. Rethink your prejudice against long copy.

If I am creating a newspaper ad for a shoe shop, the purpose of the ad will be to display a pair of shoes in such a way as to compel the prospective customer to come into the shop to try the shoes on to see how they feel, to touch the leather, to walk around the with the new shoes on their feet, to stand in front of the mirror and see how they look.

But if I’m selling a pair of shoes by mail, I have to describe exactly how the leather feels and smells, the thickness of the soles – all in words and illustrations. That calls for lots of copy.

It’s exactly the same for fundraising. If I want you to come to a charity ball, about all I have to do is tell you what celebrities will be there and send you a ticket and you will show up, knowing full well that you will probably be asked to make a major contribution.

And, at the charity ball, you will see an emotional documentary film of the work, you will meet the people who actually go out in the field and deliver the services to needy people. Maybe you will meet a priest, or missionary, or a social worker, or someone who will give you a first-hand description of the need.

But if all you receive is just your mailing package, then the package has to take the place of the documentary film, the eyewitness report and the positive group dynamics of people sharing a common cause. Try this logic on your board chairman the next time he asks why your fundraising letters are so long. He may believe you. He may not.

7. Stop worrying so much about people being offended by your fundraising appeals. Worry more about convincing them to send money

A few days ago I was a bit angry because a client called and said there were ‘a lot of donors’ upset about the most recent appeal.

How many donors is ‘a lot of donors’? A staggering total of five! Out of 50,000 pieces mailed.

The client reminded me that those five letters could be statistically multiplied by a factor of 10 or even 100, which meant that there were several thousand donors out there who were dissatisfied with the appeal. How could I argue with a theory that has never been proved to be true?

I realise it is a hassle to deal with complaints and hard to maintain a positive balance. But that is one measure of a successful executive director. Don’t let the vocal minority who send in complaints dictate the policy for the silent majority who send in the money.

8. Give up the ghost. Writer, that is.

If you are going to sign your name to a letter, don’t have a staff writer or freelance try to read your mind. You are the leader. You have strong feelings about your organisation. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be the boss.

So spend 10 minutes dictating a memo sharing your depth of feeling. Then give it to your writer. That frees the writer from the burden of putting the wrong words in your mouth. How can you expect a letter to ‘sound like me’ if you don’t share your inner thoughts?

9. Get to really know your donors.

Specifically –

  • Go to the post room. Look at who signs the cheques. Mostly women, right? With shaky handwriting.
  • Read the positive ‘white mail’ (Letters that have been sent voluntarily by your donors, rather than a reply to a mailing.) Usually only the complaints come to your desk.
  • Every week call three donors, at random. Talk to them. Tell them you are trying to get acquainted with the people at a grassroots level. You’ll be amazed at the response.

10. And finally, remember, your donors don’t think about you nearly as often as you think about them.

When do they think about you? Only when they receive a letter from you.

© SOFII Foundation 2010-2014.

About the author: Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger

Jerry Huntsinger is revered in direct marketing circles as the dean of direct mail. 

Some years back Jerry gifted his archive of direct mail tutorials to SOFII and we’ve been serialising them ever since. All 50-plus are gems. Together, they add up to complete ‘how-to’ guide to everything you need to know about direct mail fundraising.

These tutorials are edited and presented by Gwen Chapman.

Gwen Chapman is a passionate advocate for donor-centric fundraising. She is a senior consultant with international experience in the non-profit sector in Canada, the United States, the UK and South Africa.

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