How I wrote it: the Starlight Children’s Foun­da­tion emer­gency appeal

In this, the fourth of a series of inter­views with lead­ing fundrais­ing writ­ers, Sean Triner talks with Fer­gal Byrne about a fundrais­ing appeal let­ter he wrote on spec for the Starlight Children’s Foun­da­tion, Aus­tralia, in 2009. In this con­ver­sa­tion Sean tells Fer­gal how he wrote the let­ter and what real­ly mat­ters in mak­ing sure this kind of let­ter is a success.

Written by
Fergal Byrne
& Sean Triner
August 04, 2011
Click on the image above to view the full file in PDF format.

Fergal Byrne: Tell me how this project evolved.

Sean Triner:The charity, Starlight, were struggling. They’d embarked on a little bit of press advertising but had lost out on some events and corporate money.

I wrote the letter, produced the pack and took it along as a pitch, to explain that this is what we could do for them. The client hadn’t seen the letter. I knew it would be the power of the letter that would either persuade them or not. Once they’d seen the letter, they’d either say, ‘I get it,’ or they’d decline, but showing them the letter was the only way.

Explaining what a letter like this could do, without actually writing it, would be just too hard, so I actually wrote it in a café by the beach on the way back from the airport. The first draft took me about two and a half hours, that’s all. Though, I needed to get facts about Starlight from them and add some bits.

So instead of doing a normal pitch with graphs, pretty pictures and mock-ups, I just stood up and read the letter. Their chairman was at the pitch and after I read it he simply said, ‘You know, that’s it. That’s what we need to do.’

They stopped their current campaign and went with this instead. We got it out in about a week.

FB: It’s a pretty hard-hitting letter and feels very honest. How much was this a part of the appeal’s success?

ST: The secret to a successful direct marketing piece, whether it’s mail, email, or any other communication, is authenticity – soul if you like – honesty and engagement. Being honest and engaging is really about respect, respecting the donor. With all packs, you have many different tactics. You’ll make X number of asks, make it of Y length, you take people through a journey; these are all relevant and they all work, but really none of them works so well without sincerity, authenticity.

FB: In this campaign, the CEO is writing in the first person singular.

ST: Yes, that’s standard direct marketing practice. It is something you should virtually always do. By writing in the first person singular, the CEO is taking personal responsibility. She’s saying, ‘I am responsible. This is the issue. I need your help.’ It’s the primal, one-on-one ask that convinces people and gets immediately to the heart of what makes good direct marketing.

FB: What about length? There is a direct marketing rule that longer is better, too, isn’t there?

ST:For charities, generally speaking, yes. The reason longer letters work better for charities has to do, again, with respect.

You need to be respectful enough to build a case and explain to people why they should give. You explain the consequences; what impact their giving, or failure to give, will have.

FB: Did you choose specifically to make this letter four pages?

ST:A letter should be as long as it needs to be. I once wrote a letter for the Green Party that took 18 pages because it was explaining policy whilst asking for money. It was huge but it got a 50 per cent response rate. I think longer copy tends to work, not because its longer copy, but because you need to include a good clear case for support, a reason to give, a consequence and a really good story: I think that’s really important to remember.

FB: This kind of honesty doesn’t seem to be the standard approach. Isn’t it unusual to do something like this?

ST: It’s quite unusual for someone to put themselves on the line like this and say, ‘The future of this charity is at stake’, if that’s literally true. You shouldn’t say: ‘we’re in an unprecedented financial crisis,’ if you’re not. You can’t lie.

The case study in the Starlight pack is a nice one. It’s all about little David, it reports he’s in the hospital, how old he is and how Captain Starlight helps him. It’s lovely. But for this kind of emergency campaign, you also always need an immediate story that’s affecting your charity right now. If you run with just the news story, the appeal will make perhaps half or two thirds of what it should, so you need to combine the current story with a case study. Nearly always, the case study you choose is the most important thing. I’d say the sole exception is when you have a crisis and decide to declare it outright.

Sometimes we’ll get resistance from the board and staff that we’re pushing too much, being too emotional, asking too much. The moment people start saying this, they’re likely to undermine the campaign. So we need to say clearly and honestly, ‘This is what we need the money for and this is what happens if you don’t give it.’ Anyone who considers this too greedy or that it’s the wrong thing to say doesn’t understand charity appeals. It’s not about greed; you’re giving donors opportunities to donate.

FB: How important is a direct proposition?

ST: If you don’t have a good proposition your campaign simply won’t do as well. In this case, the key proposition is, ‘If you don’t give again I’m going to have to cut these services.’

FB: In general, how much time do you spend thinking about the proposition compared to writing the letter? Once you have all the elements of a letter, how much time do you spend on the elusive hook?

ST: A direct marketing campaign is a combination of art and science.Data analysis, knowing the audience, who you telephone, how many times you write, that’s the science.

The art is in the copy. I spend around 80 per cent of my time on the first five per cent of the copy. Once I’ve got that going, I spend most of the remaining time on the rest of the pack. So, most time is spent on the hook, to make it really tight.

FB: What about the design of the Starlight pack?

ST:I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a designer at such short notice so, basically, I took bits from the client’s website and previous packs, copied and pasted them into a word document and, adding in the four case studies, I had my pack.

The CEO had reservations at first about the design, thinking it looked as though we’d rushed the job. She asked me, ‘There won’t be a problem, will there?’ I said, ‘What we want is a piece of paper that looks like we’ve cut the headlines from a newspaper, stuck them on a piece of paper and photocopied it.’ She said, ‘Oh, ok.’ She understood my vision. So that was the letter. The other big statement was already on the website; the CEO had already put it there.

There’s no new material in this campaign. No additional research, no extra interviews. I used a previous case study that had already been published. I took the public statement from the Internet and edited it. Of course, with the headlines from newspapers, we credited them. So the design was zero. It was all done with existing words, some scissors, a piece of paper and glue: the old-fashioned way.

You’ll notice the copy is set in Courier (standard typewriter font). We can rarely get clients to use this, but in an emergency like this it was sensible. It looks like it was pulled together fast, which Starlight was happy to do on this occasion. It doesn’t fit their brand guidelines so, since the crisis, they haven’t used Courier again. But to put out an emergency appeal, you don’t do what you normally do. You do something like this pack.

Having said that, when I look back at some of the most successful packs our clients have produced with us, creative genius (in terms of brilliant studio work) is found in most of them, but it’s not the most important factor in the success of the packs. The key factor is the proposition, the campaign strategy.

FB: Can you talk more about the campaign strategy? Boil it down to its essence?

ST:It’s getting the hook and the proposition. In Ogilvy’s words: ‘What is the offer?’

In this case I had the offer immediately: ‘Give us the money, we need to ensure this service.’ That was easy. The standard offer for all charitable organisations, whether they’re child-related or not, is ‘Give us the money or the ____ gets it.’ You’ve got to work out what that missing bit is for you.

You know to start using another proposition when the one you’re using stops working, not just because you’re bored of it.

FB: What about the envelope? Were you tempted to indicate what was inside, besides the fact that it was a communication from Starlight?

ST:No. Generally I feel envelopes should be blank, without even a logo on them. You can get brilliant overprinted envelopes occasionally but you’re safer with blank. Really good teasers are as rare as hens’ teeth.

FB: Is that because it’s a difficult thing to do?

ST:Yes, it’s a bit like viral emails: for every hundred thousand viral emails that go out there’s only one that catches fire. It’s the same with teaser envelopes. A tiny proportion of them are brilliant.

You also need to think about the delay that special printing and design might have caused. The loss of days would outweigh any benefit because we wanted to get this pack out while the stories were in the news.

FB: Do you think that if you had a week or maybe even two or three days to work on the letter, you would have had time to develop and improve the copy?

ST:The only thing I missed on the first letter was a proper Johnson box and I didn’t use underlining as I was trying to make it look as much like a letter as possible. In the follow up though, we used both. But revising letters too much can be dangerous. When you get a good or great letter, when you really hit it, the first letter you write is the best one; revisions are unlikely to improve it. Often, the more people involved, the worse the copy will become.

FB: Do you believe faster campaigns are better campaigns?

ST:Yes. I think the urgency fosters creativity and intuition and you end up with a better pack.

FB: How do you draw the line between manipulating and managing the emotions of the reader? Is there a balance?

ST: Manipulation has negative connotations but whatever you’re selling, you are playing to people’s emotions. It’s your job to convince people to reach into their wallets in a way that will benefit them or someone they love. People want to gather, keep, protect and spend money for all sorts of different reasons, many of which are not at all negative: for their families, for their security, for good causes, all sorts of good things. So of course I emotionally engage them. People who care want to give more money so the causes they support can do something good with it.

In his book The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer says we have aresponsibility to manipulate people. I persuade charity staff who are constantly worried about this issue, that it’s okay, it’s not a bad thing, that they’re not wrong by doing so.

Charities get confused about respect and language. It is not disrespectful to write to a 14 year-old age group. There’s a wonderful quote by David Ogilvy: ‘It is a mistake to use highfalutin language when you advertise.’

Ogilvy gives an example: the word ‘obsolete’ isn’t understood by a third of housewives; ‘ineffable’ is known to no one, including him. But a lot of charities use ‘write space’ language. The phrase ‘write space language’ means using a poorly understood word or phrase that you would never say to normal people in regular conversation.

For example, medical research charities should be writing to people saying, ‘Give us the money or the kid gets it’. Instead, they write about great medical research breakthroughs and say things like, ‘Our researchers have just discovered that the haemoglobin protein 612 is…’ whatever! Donors are not interested in the pride of researchers or on how their careers are advancing. What the donor wants to hear is that these people are dedicated to saving lives and the money they donate helps.

FB: When you write to a donor, how do you show her respect for what she’s doing or will do?

ST:Always say thank you and, of course, don’t actually ever say, ‘Give us the money or the kid gets it.’ If you’re talking about people starving, say people are starving. If you’re talking about places in the developing world where measles is killing children, say it’s ridiculous that kids are still dying of measles while you can help stop this. So, in terms of respect, it’s just always be honest. That’s it.

About the author: Fergal Byrne

Fergal Byrne

Fergal Byrne is a seasoned freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Financial Times, The Guardian and The EveningStandard. He’s been writing about finance and business for more than 20 years, but his main area of interest is now non-profits and charities. Contact Fergal here.

About the author: Sean Triner

Sean Triner is co-founder and director of Pareto Fundraising and Pareto Phone. He is based in Australia.

Sean says:
‘There is a barrier though, and a difficult one for many fundraisers. You need to talk to some donors.’

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