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The Beauty of Ugly Fundraising

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How many times have you heard people complain about fundraising — especially direct mail:  It’s so ugly!

In fact, you’ll often hear the hypothesis that if it weren’t ugly, it would work a lot better. As if the problem is one of skill or talent — as if somehow we have trouble finding designers with actual design skills to do our direct mail.

For organizations working from that assumption, life is destined to be hard.

Because here’s the reality:  In fundraising, ugly works.

Ugly is in the eye of the beholder, so let me give you my definition of “ugly” fundraising:

  • Clunky, not elegant. Visually interruptive, too many words, harsh images.
  • Homemade-looking, not professional. As if someone with a typewriter and some glue did it.
  • Old fashioned, not cutting-edge. The way stuff looked in your parents’ or grandparents’ time.
  • Loud, not understated. Plenty of strong colors, often clashing with each other. Too-big fonts.

It’s not esthetically pleasing, artistic, or likely to get good marks in design school. It’s likely to give your colleagues (especially the younger ones) conniption fits. They will hate it!

But if you want to maximize your results, you need to get used to ugly fundraising.

There are three very important things to know about this ugly design:

  1. Calling it ugly is kind of crazy. How can you call something ugly that reaches more donors, helps them care more deeply — and raises more money for causes that make the world a better place.
  2. The type of ugliness that does the job is not the product of a crappy designer. In fact, it takes a lot more skill to make something readable and emotional within the tight constraints of “ugly.” If you can find a designer who embraces that truth, you have a real treasure.
  3. You don’t raise a of money just by doing ugly fundraising. Ugly is not the active ingredient of fundraising, just a vehicle for it. What makes fundraising work is having a strong offer, compelling copy, specificity, emotion — all the basics. Get all that right, and make it “ugly.” You’ll do better than you would if you got it all right and made it pretty.

So the real question is, why do we call it “ugly”? It’s a design approach that helps bring about so much good in the world. In my book, that sounds much more like a definition of “beautiful.”

One of the most important milestones in the life of a fundraising professional is when you learn to accept and embrace “ugly.” That’s when you stop clumsily aiming your messages at yourself and start doing real fundraising.

Want to know more ways to make your fundraising even more effective? Take my Moceanic online course, Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits. It is available inside The Fundraisingology Lab and it will help you take your fundraising to a whole new level — guaranteed! (Yes, guaranteed, as in you get your money back if it doesn’t help you seriously improve your fundraising results!)


  • Jeff Brooks

    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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