The A to Z of writ­ing fundrais­ing appeals: M to S

Mon­keys, mother’s wis­dom, slo­gans and polemics ‑and more- are all cov­ered in this third part of Steve Lynch’s A to Z of writ­ing fundrais­ing appeals.

Written by
Steve Lynch
August 15, 2019

The A to Z of writing fundraising appeals: M to S.

by Steve Lynch.

This blog initially appeared on the Queer Ideas site here. We've shortened Steve’s initial entry from M to Z to M to S and will bring you part four soon.

M is for Monkey

Do you notice anything odd about the monkey I’m holding (I’m the one on the right)? Look closely. Yes, that’s right, it’s a bloody fake. 

In the seventies at the seaside you’d often see men (it was always men) who would, for a small fee, take a photo of you with exotic animals. And I loved monkeys, so begged my mum to get the photo taken. Except the bloke only had two monkeys and there were three of us and you can see what happened next. No wonder my sisters look so happy, they’ve got proper monkeys!

Am I still bitter? You bet I am. But the relevance to fundraising is the old cliché that a picture really can tell a thousand words.

As a writer you need to always bear in mind how donors might react to the pictures they’re seeing. And your words have to be in harmony with the images. So if, for instance, you only have one pic of a case study and they’ve got a big beaming smile on their face, the content, tone and approach of the copy has to reflect that. If you are featuring a pic where a case study looks hungry or vulnerable, it will jar if you then have an upbeat tone talking about the wonderful transformation your charity was behind. 

You should never start a letter, or email or whatever, without knowing what pictures people might look at when they read it. Look at them closely and ask yourself how the copy and images are going to work together, rather than fighting against each other – like me and my sisters did about three seconds after the photo was taken.

M is (also) for Mum

While the final arbiter of the success or failure of any fundraising campaign is the balance sheet, results can take ages to come in. So for the impatient amongst us I’d like to suggest an alternative, although not in my case foolproof, means of determining whether your latest campaign is working as hard as you’d like it to.

Show it to somebody outside of the industry whose opinion you really respect, or if like me you are still fighting a desperate and probably vain battle for parental approval, you could show it to your mum.

If yours is anything like mine, I’d suggest only showing her materials in the public domain (inserts, press etc.). The simple reason being that despite years of my explaining that lots of people want to receive Direct Mail, and value their relationships with the charities they support, my mum still insists that I write ‘begging letters’ for a living.

I don’t think my mum could ever be described as a typical anything, and she certainly isn’t a typical charity donor (she’s half way between a Dorothy Donor and a Baby Boomer – does that make her a Doomer?). But she reads the papers (OK, she does the crossword and checks what’s on telly, but you know what I mean) and has a sharp eye for any contrivance or, as she would put it, ‘old flannel’.

So in many ways, she’s a one-woman, extremely cost-effective focus group. If you suspect yours might be able to offer you the same service, can I suggest the following, completely unscientific, scale for assessing whether your fundraising is really hitting the mark?

If she says ‘Mmmm. Lovely.’ then hands your lovingly crafted insert or press ad straight back to you and quickly changes the subject, its time to go back to the drawing board. 1 out of 10.

You’re on the right tracks when she takes a while to read it, has to flip back pages a couple of times to get her bearings and says at the end “Oh yeah, I get it now, that’s quite clever”, but you could do better. The proposition’s got a bit muddied somewhere along the way. 2-4 out of 10.

If she says, ‘Who’s my clever little boy?’ (I’m 51) and offers to rustle up a quick bacon sandwich, you’ve definitely got something. 5-7 out of 10.

When she asks, ‘Blimey, where’d you get your brains from?’ and does a quick ring round to make sure sisters, aunties and assorted acquaintances get to see your piece, and are left in no doubt as to whose child was responsible for it, you know you’ve produced a winner. 8-9 out of 10.

But you know you’ve produced the best, possibly award-winning work, when despite your pleading and protestations, she insists that, ‘You never did that,’ and flat out refuses to believe that you could possibly have been involved with the creation of such a moving or inspiring piece of work*. 10 out 10.

*This doesn’t happen very often.

N is for Newspapers

A couple of years ago I met up with an old colleague whom I had ‘trained’ to be a copywriter. Now very successful, he said that I had given him the best piece of advice he’d ever received on his path to copywriting superstardom. Can you guess what it was? I know I couldn’t, I’d completely forgotten that I’d ever said it.

My colleague said that the career-changing advice was simply to ‘read a newspaper every day’.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I think the reason the advice worked for my colleague is because it gave him something that fundraisers are always looking for – an insight into the mind’s of their supporters.

People’s outlook and ideas are formed, in the first instance, by personal experience. But after that how we understand the world doesn’t materialise from thin air, it comes from the news media and the culture around us. All of the issues charities deal with, whether it’s poverty, health, education, homelessness, development or palliative care are, in the good newspapers, covered extensively and often. How the papers discuss these issues will almost certainly be reflected in your donor’s understanding of them. Reading a paper, every day and not online (its too easy to miss content), will help you understand how your donor’s understand you.

A brief example. A few years ago a paper ran a big expose of how aid was not getting in to help people in a conflict-affected area. Nobody in the charity had seen it (they were all quite young and didn’t read the traditional news media), so when the brief for an appeal came over it wasn’t mentioned – even though the donor profile told us they were predominantly readers of the paper the article appeared in. 

So if I hadn’t read that article, we’d have asked people to fund aid that they had just read wasn’t going to get to the people who needed it!

Instead the appeal focussed on getting the aid in and, alongside a petition, asked for donations so that the charity could get the aid they bought to people at the first possible opportunity. At the time, the appeal was the charity’s most successful ever.

So read the Guardian, the I, or The Times and watch Channel 4 News or Newsnight. Maybe even occasionally listen to Radio 4. Your donors do.

N is (also) for Ngrams

This is brilliant.

Google has scanned I don’t know how many million of books, and developed a tool which tells you how many times words appear in them over time. 

It’s great for finding out what are ‘new’ or voguish words. If you check a word and it hardly appears before 1970, chances are it will be unfamiliar to your donors. I suggest searching for ‘empower’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘access’.

With the possible exception of new nouns, if your donor didn’t grow up using a word its odds on it will sound strange to them – and could make your organisation feel distant and corporate. If you’re thinking of using a word that shows a steep increase after 1970, I’d suggest it’s time to go back to the thesaurus.

O is for Orwell

If you can forgive him for the gendered pronouns, anybody aspiring to be a writer should familiarise themselves with this brilliant advice from George Orwell, published in his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language

‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 

1. What am I trying to say? 

2. What words will express it? 

3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 

4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more: 

1. Could I put it more shortly? 

2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases: 

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do. 

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. 

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active. 

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

P is for Polemic

Historically, some on the left haven’t been great fans of charities and philanthropy. George Orwell, most famous for being the subject of the previous section, wrote: ‘However delicately it is disguised, charity is still horrible; there is a malaise, almost a secret hatred, between the giver and the receiver.’

In the extract below, from Friedrich Engels’ The conditions of the Working Class in England (1845), the author asserts that charities exist only to assuage the guilt of ‘luxurious bourgeois’ who directly profit from the terrible conditions of their workers, which they occasionally give a few pounds to alleviate.

When you read the letter to the Manchester Guardian he reproduces, you might understand why he was so angry.

The piece is a great example of polemical writing – something I believe we see all too rarely in the charity sector these days. Engels saw charitable giving as a tool of his enemy, and if your cause has an enemy, such as the fossil fuel industry, wildlife trade or plastic polluters, a good old-fashioned polemical tirade could be the perfect way of rousing people into action behind your cause.

Let no one believe that the ‘cultivated’ Englishman openly brags with his egotism. On the contrary, he conceals it under the vilest hypocrisy. What? The wealthy English fail to remember the poor? They who have founded philanthropic institutions, such as no other country can boast of! Philanthropic institutions forsooth! As though you rendered the proletarians a service in first sucking out their very life-blood and then practising your self-complacent, Pharisaic philanthropy upon them, placing yourselves before the world as mighty benefactors of humanity when you give back to the plundered victims the hundredth part of what belongs to them! Charity which degrades him who gives more than him who takes; charity which treads the downtrodden still deeper in the dust, which demands that the degraded, the pariah cast out by society, shall first surrender the last that remains to him, his very claim to manhood, shall first beg for mercy before your mercy deigns to press, in the shape of an alms, the brand of degradation upon his brow. But let us hear the English bourgeoisie’s own words. It is not yet a year since I read in the Manchester Guardian the following letter to the editor, which was published without comment as a perfectly natural, reasonable thing: 
For some time past our main streets are haunted by swarms of beggars, who try to awaken the pity of the passers-by in a most shameless and annoying manner, by exposing their tattered clothing, sickly aspect, and disgusting wounds and deformities. I should think that when one not only pays the poor rate, but also contributes largely to the charitable institutions, one had done enough to earn a right to be spared such disagreeable and impertinent molestations. And why else do we pay such high rates for the maintenance of the municipal police, if they do not even protect us so far as to make it possible to go to or out of town in peace? I hope the publication of these lines in your widely circulated paper may induce the authorities to remove this nuisance; and I remain,–
Your obedient servant, ‘A Lady.’
There you have it! The English bourgeoisie is charitable out of self-interest; it gives nothing outright, but regards its gifts as a business matter, makes a bargain with the poor, saying: ”If I spend this much upon benevolent institutions, I thereby purchase the right not to be troubled any further, and you are bound thereby to stay in your dusky holes and not to irritate my tender nerves by exposing your misery. You shall despair as before, but you shall despair unseen, this I require, this I purchase with my subscription of twenty pounds for the infirmary!” It is infamous, this charity of a Christian bourgeois! And so writes “A Lady”; she does well to sign herself such, well that she has lost the courage to call herself a woman! But if the “Ladies” are such as this, what must the “Gentlemen” be? It will be said that this is a single case; but no, the foregoing letter expresses the temper of the great majority of the English bourgeoisie, or the editor would not have accepted it, and some reply would have been made to it, which I watched for in vain in the succeeding numbers. And as to the efficiency of this philanthropy, Canon Parkinson himself says that the poor are relieved much more by the poor than by the bourgeoisie; and such relief given by an honest proletarian who knows himself what it is to be hungry, for whom sharing his scanty meal is really a sacrifice, but a sacrifice borne with pleasure, such help has a wholly different ring to it from the carelessly-tossed alms of the luxurious bourgeois.

By the way, the attitudes expressed in the letter are still alive and kicking today. A few months ago I overheard a diner at a nearby table complain about the injustice of having a new ‘social housing’ development built near her five bedroom house, and having to watch ‘all sorts of riff-raff traipse by’. Poor woman! We had a discussion…

Q is for Queer Ideas

I have a visceral aversion to crawling, bootlicking and sucking-up of any kind. So when I advise you to read Mark Phillips’s blog, you can be absolutely sure it’s not because he’s my boss. It’s because, and believe me it pains me to say this, it’s good.

Mark’s blog is called Queer Ideas and in it he does something very important. He asks why?

Let’s be honest, the fundraising industry can be a little complacent and lots of us do things purely because everybody else does. Like asking for a £3 a month Direct Debit or chasing younger, probably non-existent, donors. Mark challenges the received wisdoms and digs out the evidence and statistics that help us understand what really works and what doesn’t. 

And at Bluefrog we have a revolutionary way of unearthing our donor’s motivations, interests and passions – we talk to them. A lot of Mark’s posts are about how we should learn from what our donors tell us.

All fundraisers, and particularly anybody who has responsibility for a fundraising budget, would do well to read it.

R is for Repetition

The problem with advice, is that sometimes people listen to it.

Take the oft-repeated adage that fundraising copy should embrace repetition. Say it once, say it twice then say it again, if you really want your message to hit home.

I’ve got no problem with that, except when it’s taken literally. As in repeating the exact same bloody phrases. 

You can state your proposition as many times as you need, but always try to find a different way to say it, or to contextualise it. Repeating the exact same thing isn’t compelling, it’s annoying. There’s a reason the word ‘repetitive’ is very nearly a synonym for ‘boring’.

Another misconception about repetition is that you should never use the same words within the same section of text. I’ve had people tell me I shouldn’t use ‘the’ twice in the same paragraph! Repeating prepositions is absolutely fine, and sometimes repeating the same words, even within a sentence, can be a powerful way of emphasising or underlining an idea. Like here:

‘We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.’ 

Joan Didion, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968).

S is for Slogan

In 1936, Republican Madrid was under siege by Fascist troops led by General Franco and armed by Hitler’s Germany.

In an attempt to rally the Republican forces in defence of their capital, Communist leader Dolores Ibarruri Gomez (known as La Passionara – the Passion Flower) gave a famous speech that culminated in a call to arms and slogan that perfectly encapsulated her determination to defend the city at all costs:

No Pasaran (They shall not pass)

A great slogan is a truly powerful thing, and as well as helping you drive back fascists, could give your fundraising campaigns a huge boost. It can be built around a final aim, or target, or aspiration, and helps to focus people’s minds on what you are trying to achieve while allowing supporters to feel part of something bigger. 

But a good slogan is really, really hard to come up with. Sometimes, the less words you have to play with, the more difficult it can be to find the right ones, and campaign slogans have to be short. 

My advice would be to start by writing down anything that comes into your head. Maybe stop when you’ve got to 100 possible slogans. Then use a thesaurus to see if changing any of the words for a simile would make any of your attempts better. Then whittle it down to say, 20. Then show other people and ask what they think.

When you’ve got your winning slogan you’ll need to google it to make sure nobody else has used it in the last few years. Then you will, almost certainly, need to start again. Sorry, but I did say it was hard.

Here’s just a couple of the slogans we’ve developed at Bluefrog:

This must have been OK, the campaign’s raised over $25million so far.

Stay tuned for part four!

About the author: Steve Lynch

Steve Lynch has been a charity copywriter for 15 years, the last seven of which have been spent with Bluefrog. He is particularly passionate about development charities, and has been fortunate enough to visit many interesting places such as DRC, Gaza and Lebanon in the course of his work. He is notorious for getting very grumpy when people don’t like the copy he writes.

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