Five ways to ‘Harry Potterise’ your Internet and direct mail appeals…. and get donors giving when times are tough

What do high-performing appeals and Harry Potter have in common? And, in both cases, what makes donors give and readers buy even when they’re going through a rough financial patch?

Written by
Nicole Schmidt
May 20, 2014
Could Harry Potter and his team work some magic for you?

The answer? Creative writing principles that will grab your readers’ attention and keep them reading. The principles that make novels like Harry Potter phenomenally successful and that sell millions.

As Cheryl Clarke puts it in Storytelling for Grantseekers (Jossey-Bass, USA, 2009) ‘I believe that storytelling is at the very core of all successful fundraising.’

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A cold acquisition letter from the Dogs Trust

The Dog’s Trust in the UK used these skills and raised millions. One appeal recruited a donor who later left a £7.5 million legacy to the charity. Their communications always came from the dogs they were sheltering; one was written from the perspective of a poor abandoned dog:

I was really scared and hungry and in the end I curled up in a ditch to keep warm.’

This excellent piece of writing formed the core of a direct mail package that helped Dog’s Trust’s income rise exponentially, with ROIs as high as 1:12 (for every £1 investment there was a £12 response from donors)

One important caveat here – this article is based on the assumption that it’s not just finances that cause donors to stop giving. According to a recent article in the UK’s Third Sector, 80 per cent of donors who cancelled their direct debit giving did so because they no longer felt a connection to the charity.

Economic realities matter, certainly. But the emotional and psychological factors matter just as much. And storytelling is an excellent way to forge emotional bonds with donors.

So, with that said, do you want donors to be emotionally involved enough to give even when they’re a bit short on cash?

One sure-fire way to improve your chances of that kind of engagement is to Harry Potterise your appeals by using the following commercial writing principles.

Imaginatively engage with your audience while you write. You often hear the old adage that you need to know your audience, but I would go even further. You need to actually think about and consider your audience while you write. In Relationship Fundraising (Jossey-Bass, USA, 2002), Ken Burnett suggests visualising the donor as she picks up the envelope that’s been pushed through her letterbox. Try to imagine what she’s thinking and feeling as she opens and reads the headline or the first sentence.

1. Keep the structure simple and elegant.

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A cold acquisition letter from the Dogs Trust

Try to fight the impulse to tell the reader everything your organisation does. Focus on one story or one aspect of your work; focus on one way your donor can change the world through you. I know this may seem a bit counterintuitive but if you cram an appeal with too much information, you’ll lose your reader’s interest.

Consider that one story, that one simple angle, a portal to your larger work. By keeping the structure of your appeal elegant and simple, you’re likely to arouse a natural curiosity within the reader. And then she’ll feel compelled to make a donation and maybe even want to find out more about you by going to your website or finding you on Facebook.

2. Uncover the conflict and make the donor the protagonist.

Here’s an excellent example from Canadian fundraising copywriter Alan Sharpe’s letter for Street Kids International:

In Kazakhstan, in the city of Almaty, in a bustling neighbourhood of that city, the locals don’t look to Ted Rogers or Bill Gates for their inspiration, but to a local lad called Jamshed. He’s a business hero, thanks to you.’

The letter goes on to describe Jamshed’s struggle, his father abandoning the family, leaving him as the family’s sole provider, and uses Jamshed’s own testimony to present the conflict. The letter is peppered with details about Jamshed’s triumph, as well as phrases like ‘thanks to you’ and ‘with your continued help’. Here, the donor is the protagonist, a major figure in a tale of empowerment.

3. Tap into elemental human emotions.

In his book The Power of Personal Storytelling (Tarcher/Putnam, USA, 1998), Jack Maguire suggests that you ask yourself two questions repeatedly when doing any community-oriented storytelling.

  • What gifts do my personal tales have to offer: what joys, cares, values, interests and special life experiences do they convey?
  • Where, how and why in my community might these gifts be needed or appreciated?

Answering these questions will help you approach your story with the emotional motivations appropriate to your audience. And you’ll be surprised by how that then comes out in your writing.

4. Show! Don’t Tell!

This one is in bold – and I left it for last – because I think it’s one of the most important. In fact, most creative writers worth their salt will have had this principle rammed down their throat, either through self-training or through more formal creative writing training.

What does it mean? Well, rather than just telling your audience about an event, you show them what it actually looked like through imagery and detail.

Here’s what that looks like in a fundraising appeal.


As a charity, we help the elderly overcome social isolation by organising outings and social events.’


If you had visited 80-year-old Bill in his small flat a week ago, most likely he would have been alone, watching television or sitting silently. In fact, Bill’s only visitors would have been his social worker and his nurse. But that was only for an hour, perhaps once a day. But thanks to supporters like you, yesterday was the first day of a new life for Bill. A bus came to pick him up and when he emerged through the door, a chorus of “hello, Bill” from his peers greeted the lonely man. He went for a stroll on the beach and struck up a conversation with another man who was a veteran of the Second World War. Then, he companionably ate fish and chips, feeling the glow of being a part.

The difference is huge. Number one is fine for your elevator speech*. But number two brings the donor directly into the experience of the beneficiary. And the beauty of this principle is that it can transform all your donor communications: direct mail appeals, email appeals, newsletters, blog posts, etc.

(*If you’re in a lift, or elevator, on the ground floor and your fellow traveller asks you to describe your organisation before you get to the seventh floor, that’s an elevator speech.)

About the author: Nicole Schmidt

Nicole Schmidt

Nicole Schmidt is a fundraising copywriter, speaker and storyteller. She has a MA in literature and is a teacher of creative writing. She uses these skills in her own writing and public speaking to help charities infuse their donor communications with passion and energy.

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