A top-secret source of fundrais­ing ideas: swipe files revealed

Lis­ten close­ly now. I’m about to ask you to do some­thing bold. Brazen, even.

Written by
Lisa Sargent
June 02, 2012
Bold and brazen it may be but plagiarism isn’t an insult. Rather it’s the most sincere form of flattery. But you have to adapt, improve and acknowledge. And at times, it comes at a price (though not on SOFII).

I want you to steal the idea behind this article. Adapt it, then claim it as your own.

Will you do it?

Chances are, you won’t. I’ll bet the mere idea of swiping someone else’s creative idea makes you feel, well, icky inside ... like when your bare foot lands on something squishy in the back yard.

But I’m here to change your mind. Why?

Because I want to help you do better fundraising. Which, in this case, means that stealing other people’s ideas is a strategy you must embrace and regularly practice. In fact, copywriters and graphic designers all over the world have a name for the top-secret place where we collect other people’s creative ideas. It’s called a ‘swipe file’.

For years, the process of building a swipe file was laborious. Costly, too. In a nutshell: you gave token (or not-so-token) donations to a handful of nonprofit organisations –typically those similar to yours – and then collected what arrived: fundraising appeals, donor thank-you letters, monthly-giving upgrades, and so on.

From this nonprofit counter-intelligence collection you ‘harvested’ the best creative gems: catchy headlines, shrewd choice of tick box amounts, irresistible envelope teasers…

When it was time for you to launch something new – from acquisition appeal to holiday newsletter – voilà! You snuck off to your secret swipe file to pluck one of those creative gems to revise, adapt and test. When the donations began to roll in, kudos all around.

Another advantage: swipe files let you spy on nonprofit competitors, in real time

The best swipe files are painstakingly built over many years. But they're not confidential, as they're compiled from work already in the public arena.

Don’t believe me? I make it a practice to build a swipe file of the competition for my long-term clients. Years ago, I was able to alert a CEO client of a comment made by the leader of a competing nonprofit. We crafted a polite counter, and garnered positive press.

Swipe files still work today. In fact, atop my filing cabinet at this very moment sits a giant wicker basket chock-a-block full of direct mail appeals.

And swipe files don’t just work for direct mail. They work online, too. For example, this year I built a nonprofit email swipe file by creating a gmail account to serve as my electronic swipe file location, then I subscribed to 99 nonprofit email newsletters. At last count there were over 1,600 email newsletters and e-appeals, full of priceless ideas, waiting for me to tap.

You can create one too, by stealing my strategy. (Stealing – there’s that word again!)

Do you remember I mentioned that building your own swipe file can be laborious? And that, due to the donations you must send to get your name ‘seeded’ on those direct mail lists, it can be costly? Fear not, when shy of time and money, you have another secret weapon: SOFII.

Simply put: SOFII holds the world’s greatest swipe file

And this world’s-greatest-swipe-file is yours to access online, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week – for free. All because you belong to the SOFII family of fundraisers. How cool is that?

I’ll tell you how cool, with three real-world examples.

This month alone, a client and I decided to modify Greenpeace’s Big Ask on our holiday reply slip. For another client, a couple of creative concepts fromSOFII’s direct mail appeal samples. And when one of my e-news readers (not a client) asked me about thanking donors, I sent her to the before-and-afterdonor thank-you letters exhibit. (Full disclosure: that was my exhibit. But: still free.)

Bottom line? I use swipe files because they work for my copywriting business; for my clients; and for the amazing causes for which they work so hard.

And swipe files can work for your nonprofit, too. So why not begin with the world’s best? SOFII.

Go ahead. Try it. I won’t tell...

Author’s note:

Earlier I used the phrase ‘revise, adapt and test.’ Here’s why: first, because directly plagiarising someone else’s words is still wrong, no matter how you slice it. So, second, you’ll need to rework it and adapt the idea, so it ‘fits’ both the voice and image of your organisation. Third, because simply seeing the idea and thinking it looks catchy is no indication that it will work for your organisation. Try it out, yes. But test, always.

In praise of a good swipe file

From SOFII user Julia Keith, in Australia

“When I was first told about the SOFII website site I was sceptical – a free site that shared fundraising initiatives from around the world – is this possible?
And then I realised it is possible, very possible , brilliantly possible!
The SOFII site has an amazing array of top of the class, proven fundraising success stories and a mountain of ideas. To me this site has been gold. I refer to it all the time and wish I had more time to sift through every single document.
As a one person fundraiser – I need to be economical and targeted with my fundraising efforts – and this site helps me do this. It is like you get to see the secret recipe for fundraising – but you must add your own unique ingredients.
I have used SOFII for direct mail, donor care, thank you letters, donor surveys, campaign ideas, bequest (legacy) communication and also just for my own personal professional development in learning more about the scope of fundraising. At times when I see the cost of a campaign I realise it is out of our league – but it is still interesting to read and so much to learn from.
I am so appreciative of those who contribute to SOFII, and who created this amazing resource for all to share. I think it is a fantastic resource for everyone in fundraising and in particular those who are smaller or just starting out.
I am just starting out and I feel my best is yet to come. The more the fundraising ideals are reinforced by reading materials and using sites like SOFII – the easier it gets to put it in practice. I can feel it is coming along but still need some practice. For me it’s the stories – and letting them flow naturally or better still - listening to the donors and asking them for their stories... because they provide them and it is often me in tears reading their words.
This site puts you at the forefront of fundraising today and can immediately steer you towards not only creating successful campaigns, but developing a better relationship with your donors. I couldn’t ask for a better teacher. Thank You.”

Julia Keith
Research and Business Development Manager Centre for Companion Animal Health, School of Veterinary Science, University of Queensland, Australia.

About the author: Lisa Sargent

Lisa Sargent

Lisa Sargent (she/her) is head of Sargent Communications. She helps non-profits raise more money and keep more donors through better donor communications. A creative strategist and copywriter, Lisa works exclusively with non-profits on direct mail, email fundraising and donor care communications – acquisition appeals, annual reports, proposals, welcome packages, e-appeals, newsletters, thank you letters and more.

Lisa’s articles have been featured in Mal Warwick’s newsletter, FundRaising Success Magazine and The Agitator. Lisa also publishes The Loyalty Letter, a free e-newsletter for non-profit and charitable organisations read by subscribers around the world. Lisa has regularly contributed to SOFII over the years, including the wonderful thank you letter clinic, which you can read here.

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