A wicked worry when you write all kinds of fundraising content is “Will this really bring us donations?”
How do you start your missive? What do you include? How do you get people to act?
If only a little ethereal being could push your hand to write the most compelling stories that reel donors in like lovely, friendly fish.
But let’s face it: reeling them in is a lot more like trying to extract a carnival prize with The Claw.
Because just when you think you’ve positioned yourself correctly, your prize just slips away.
So, is there a way to write effective fundraising content that makes you come out a winner?
While there are no guaranteed formulas, you can definitely learn the basic components of good content that seriously ups your fundraising game.
This way, you won’t forget anything essential to win your donors over to your side–while helping them win at changing the world too.
First, if you haven’t done so already, read this post: An In-Depth Guide to Why People Give: 6 Lessons to Help Your Nonprofit Raise Cash.
This is a primer about the human impulse for charity, so you can match your formulas with the motivation for giving that you’re trying to tap into.
Are you back? Let’s go.
The first order of business for any type of fundraising content is your headline.
Ask any copywriter or marketer, and they’ll all give you the same answer: the headline is everything.
On a blog post, your website content, your direct mail piece, your social media post, the headline has to do so many things.
But what are those things exactly?
First, let’s turn to a handy article on powerful headlines by copywriting coach Will Newman.
Overall, he says that your headline needs to:
Create a relationship with your prospect.
A relationship means that your content isn’t about you or what you want: it’s about the person you’re writing to.
Newman gives an example from a Covenant House fundraising letter: “I am praying that you will be able to help me today. The kids really need you.”
This kind of opening is like a lonely call for help that only the donor can bring.
Right away, it speaks to the donor’s inner hero and the desire to bring light to the darkness.
Deliver a complete message.
A headline has to drill down into what your whole piece is about. Does your reader get a benefit? An offer? A change?
You need to deliver that message without giving everything away.
The trick is to stick to one core idea without going “all in,” while you try to arouse curiosity with your idea.
Instead of “We set a Giving Tuesday campaign record of $15,000 and helped kids fulfill their potential” (a headline that basically says it all), try “Which donor-driven campaign drove our results through the roof?” (Now the reader needs to click to find out more.)
Tap into the reader’s self-interest.
The “What’s in if for me?” factor has nothing to do with selfishness and has more to do with relevancy and connection.
If your headline zeroes in on a prospective donor’s very deep need to help, then the donor will read on.
For a fun run for moms, try something like, “6 ways our charity run will boost your mommy power.”
Describe a powerful benefit.
A powerful benefit means something your prospects, in their deepest, darkest souls, really want in life.
Some people get angry at the injustice of the world, while some feel that something just has to be done to help the environment.
Others yet feel a sense of duty because they would want help if they were in the same position.
In your headline, you need to tap into that a powerful benefit as well.
For an environment group, a headline might be “These Two Crazy Quick Fixes Will Ensure Big Oil Doesn’t Stand a Chance”
Curiosity is what makes people click your headline and your email.
You give them just enough information to set the context, but leave out a missing part for their brains to hunger to fill in the gap.
(In fact, in dramatic terms, this device is precisely called “the gap between expectation and result.”)
This post from Content Marketing Institute discusses how curiosity works, but make sure your goal is to engage your audience with solid promises instead of simply driving traffic to a page with little engagement.
One way to do this is to look into the specifics of your topic: “How this 7-year-old girl saved 5 people with just 5 cents”
How to come up with good headlines
It’s all well and good to learn the theory behind headlines, but it’s quite another to actually write good ones.
For example, over at Upworthy, they write no fewer than 25 headlines for each post!
Should you do the same?
Yes. But I’ll be the first to admit that I generally don’t have time to write that many and tend to go with more like 5 or 10.
The principle is to avoid going with the first idea you come up with and to take the time to develop something great.
Here are some basic headline resources to get you started:
Fundraising copy expert Karen Zapp has a great list of headline formulas for your newsletter: Donor Newsletter Headlines: 19 Ideas
Winspire News has an infographic on Writing Amazing Headlines for Your Nonprofit Blog.
This post from Nancy Schwartz’ Getting Attention blog tells you how to strike a balance between arousing curiosity while fulfilling your promise to the reader: Do Your Headlines Deliver? Nonprofit Wordsmithing Makes a Difference.
You can also try the Co.Schedule Headline Analyzer, which won’t guarantee a good headline, but can show you where you may be making mistakes.
Portent has a pretty popular headline generator you can try, but you have to be pretty specific about your topic. You can’t just throw in something like “education” and get something good.
(Unless you really want to write a post called “15 Unexpected Ways Education Can Give You Better Hair.” Now that would really skyrocket your headline’s curiosity factor!)
The best way is simply to practice, practice, practice and then test what works and what doesn’t.
A lead (or “lede”), if you’re not familiar with the term, is your introduction.
The problem with leads? Most of us learned how to write them for run-of-the-mill high school essays and research papers. You know, the inverted pyramid or hamburger method we all know and love.
But your prospective donors aren’t reading your content like they are a newspaper.
A lead therefore has to do more than just introduce what you’re going to say with the 5W’s.
For fundraising content, a lead does two important things: 1) it creates a promise of what your content is about and 2) pulls the reader into your case for support.
An offer, an example, a story, an illustration, a fun fact, or an unexpected situation are all ways that you can set the scene for what’s to come.
But when do you use which type of lead? Are some more effective than others?
For answers, let’s turn to copywriters Michael Masterson and John Forde to find out the six types of great leads for sales messages.
An offer lead is very straightforward, direct way to open your content.
With this approach, you basically tell the prospect what they’re getting from the get-go.
Leads like this may include offers for matching donations, free gifts or premiums.
When to use this lead: For donors who already know about you and when there’s no need to beat around the bush.
Promise leads are less direct than an offer lead. In copywriting parlance, this is called focusing on the sizzle, not the steak.
How much better will your donor feel after giving to your cause? How will they become a better person? How will their gift solve a problem they feel strongly about?
The main idea with promise leads is really how your donor will feel after giving to you.
When to use this lead: For mostly aware prospects who are almost ready to donate.
As you can guess, this lead is all about describing your prospect’s problems and desires: what keeps them up at night and how does your nonprofit assuage their inner angst?
For example, if your donors are extremely angry at the plight of women and children who are victims of sex trafficking, you can lead with a description of that problem and then explain how your nonprofit is the solution.
When to use this lead: When your prospect knows your nonprofit’s name, but not its mission.
Big secret leads:
This type of lead is a teaser: exclusive knowledge, the chance to “join the club,” or a system for effective results.
An important survey or insider information are ways that the “big secret” can entice people to read your fundraising content.
When to use this lead: This lead is very similar to prospects for problem-solution leads, but for people who are probably more interested in your mission but don’t know about you.
A proclamation makes a very bold statement that makes your donor sit up and take notice.
This is where you trot out your fascinating facts and head-scratchers, which, let’s admit it, are meant to ease your prospect into the fact that you’re trying to get them to donate.
Example: “Why our program will ensure no child suffers from malaria–ever again.”
This lead is perhaps less common in the nonprofit sector, as you want to be careful you aren’t making claims that you can’t back up.
But if you’ve done your due diligence and can prove the claim, then this bold statements really catch people’s attention.
When to use this lead: For prospects who are fairly unaware of your cause.
Story leads are a very indirect way to open your fundraising content, but they really work.
Generally the story of someone you helped, someone who’s life was transformed, someone who went on a journey from pain to their full potential lays the foundation for what your whole mission is about.
You can find a good example over on the Sumac blog. Instead of “Since 1998, our nonprofit serves breakfast to 20 children…,” the Sunny Days Community Centre opens its letter with, “It was a Saturday morning and we looked around to see the breakfast club full of happy, smiling children.”
See the difference? The storytelling lead immediately pulls you in, while the journo-type lead makes you want to drop the letter right down the recycling chute.
When to use this lead: Storytelling is of course all the rage these days, but I tend to agree with Masterson and Forde that this lead is best for prospects who don’t know you.
Having said that, I’ve had success using this lead for existing donors too, since stories are just so engaging. But the key in this case is to make the story very concise and make sure it fits in with your overall idea for your content.
While your body text can vary depending on whether you’re writing a letter, an email or a web page, the basic components are pretty consistent.
For example, you can simply follow the four P’s below, which are a copywriting staple that will never lead you wrong. Here I’ve reframed them just you nonprofit types.
For fundraising content, the promise tells your reader about the general impact of your cause and what’s in it for them to donate.
The promise can be what your mission accomplishes every day, the reach you have in your community, or the accomplishments you’ve made–and need their help to continue to make.
The promise can also clearly spell out what’s in it for your donor. What do they get out of the appeal? A good feeling? A warm glow? A better community?
Painting a picture of the benefit of your appeal means using very concrete, descriptive words to put your prospective donor right into the action.
If your nonprofit hunts down whale-killers, channel your inner action adventure writer and describe what it’s like to be out on the ocean, the spray on your face and your heart pumping in your chest.
Or, if you help communities in developing countries access water, describe in descriptive detail how hard life is by having to trek miles on end to find a well.
For some fantastic tips on how to paint a picture, read this post from Sumac: Making a Scene: The Recipe for a Great Fundraising Letter
You’ll see the before and after versions of drab text compared to pictures that come to life.
You definitely need data to back up your arguments of impact.
The proof is how you appeal to your prospect’s logical side.
How exactly have your programs curbed child hunger? How many seniors have been able to stay at home because of your hot meals? How many people have you kept off unemployment?
Percentages, facts, and figures are helpful, but remember that the proof needs to be given in context and has to be tied to your mission.
For more ideas to wrangle data for your fundraising content, check out this post by Heather Krause at nonprofit data consultancy Datassist: How to Wrangle Data and Get More Funding
In nonprofit terms, the push is also known as the ask.
I’m sure you wouldn’t forget to ask your donors for money, but you may not realize how many times you need to do it or clearly spell out to people how exactly they are supposed to give.
Make sure you connect the dots for your donors by asking them multiple times in your content and telling them why they need to give now.
In addition to the four P’s, you may also need to:
Sell the benefits of giving
At The Life You Can Save, a charity dedicated to eradicating poverty, they really stress the individual advantages of giving.
From the helping high to tax deductions, you can never go wrong with reminders of personal benefit (again, the “what’s in it for me” factor).
Word of advice: track which benefits truly motivate your donor base to be most effective.
When you understand the general fears of giving, you’re more likely to include vital information in your appeal:
For example, if your donors are worried about overhead, “Your donation covers 85% of all program expenses, with the remaining 15% covering our small staff and administration costs.”
People may not think you actually need help, so you may have to address why your program needs the money:
“You may not realize that colleges are extremely underfunded; we can’t keep the lights on or the computers running without your donation of $75.”
Whether in the form of a P.S. or an email call to action, the close prompts your prospect to take action.
One letter I got from a nonprofit arts magazine goes like this: “These are some of the myriad reasons you should join us as a subscriber. The rates and offers are included in the order form. We look forward to seeing you among our regular readers.”
What am I supposed to do here? Fill out the form? Go online? Um, that appeal went off to recycling heaven, post haste.
The close has to overcome your reader’s inertia to do nothing. It takes effort to give, so you need to remove as much effort as possible.
If there’s no urgency to do so, I’ll put it off until tomorrow and forget.
If there’s no specific reason to give, I’ll just think you’re bothering me just for the sake of it.
Eye-tracking studies also have shown that people spend the most time looking at the P.S. in a letter, although online they tend to skip it.
In either format, you still need to have a close that clearly, concisely and convincingly urges people to take the action you want them to take.
Focus areas for you
Now that we’ve covered the basics, I’ve got even more resources for you to dig through.
I’ve started with headlines, as I find that this is where people struggle the most.
Copyblogger: How to Write Headlines That Work
Copyhackers: Headline Formulas and the Science of CRO Copywriting
Enchanting Marketing: 47 Headline Examples: Steal These Nifty Formulas From Popular Blogs
For more general resources, check out:
Tom Ahern: Tom has a TON of free fundraising content samples that you could spend quite a long time studying. His before and afters, critiques and how-to’s are spot on. http://aherncomm.com/download.php
Pamela Grow: Pamel’s blog and newsletter is a cornucopia of tips on storytelling and fundraising. She also has very low-cost educational products that cover the basics of fundraising communication (which is often all you need to know).
Mal Warwick: Mal wrote my favourite go-to fundraising text book: How to Write Successful Fundraising Appeals. He also describes his own challenges and pitfalls when he started writing appeals, so you can feel good that even the masters have had trouble.
Copyblogger: For a refresher on the four P’s, read The Four “P” Approach: A Persuasive Writing Structure That Works
To write stellar fundraising content, you need to know your audience, know why you’re writing, and know what you want people to do.
You need to have someone very specific in mind when you write
Write as many headlines as you can. Even if you don’t usually include a headline in your letter or your email, practice the principles for your subject lines or subheadings.
Clearly spell out why you are writing, what the money is for, and why people should give to you
Overall, you need to make your fundraising fishing line as strong as possible so that your donor fish end up on your nonprofit pond, right where they should be.
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