Writing fundraising materials is hard.
Want to know what’s even harder?
Writing useful critiques of fundraising materials.
Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of an unhelpful critique and wondered why it was that way: The person doing it is intelligent, caring, and wants to be helpful.
It happens because giving useful critiques is one of the most difficult things in our profession.
If you want to give great critiques that help make fundraising better, here are some things to keep in mind:
It’s not about you
This is by far the most important thing to remember about fundraising critiques. How you feel about the work doesn’t matter. It never matters. In fact, how you feel is more likely to be a counter-indicator: If you hate it, that’s probably a good sign! If you love it, that should start some alarm bells ringing.
The first thing you can do to get your own feelings out of your critique is to modify the way you talk about the fundraising you’re looking at. It’s common to talk about messages in the first person, using phrases like these:
- I don’t like it.
- This confuses me.
- I feel good about that.
That is irrelevant information. How you think you might respond is the wrong information. What matters is how donors are likely to respond. The last thing I want someone who’s writing fundraising to have in their head is, “What will make Jeff happy?”
Jeff is not their audience. The donor is.
If your critique is stated in first-person statements (like “I’m not motivated by this”) you create a strong sense that the writer should be trying to reach you — not the donor. The effect is very strong.
So use third-person pronouns when you critique: “She’s not likely to be motivated by this.”
And remember, when you talk about donors, use knowledge about them — not guesses. When it’s a guess, it’s likely just your opinion. Always know why you think donors will or will not respond to something, based on testing, experience, or things you’ve learned from experts.
It’s always possible to be wrong when you apply knowledge. But if you guess, it’s almost impossible to be right.
Try to like it
It’s easy to get off on the wrong foot with a piece of fundraising you’re looking at.
It happens to me when I find the word partner used as a verb — as in “partner with us.” I immediately start to hate the thing I’m reading. Because to my ear, partner-as-verb sounds smug, churchy, and abstract. But honestly, is a stray partner-as-verb going to destroy a fundraising message? No. (I advise you stay away from it though, the abstraction of it is likely keeping you from being much more clear.)
My mistake, though, is that partner-as-verb triggers me to find fault with everything else about the fundraising message I’m reading. Big mistake.
A good critique flows from an open heart.
So approach your critique with an open heart, constantly asking yourself, What’s right about this?
I don’t mean to ignore the things that are wrong with it. Just be in the mindset that whatever might be wrong is an aberration, something that’s interfering with the essential rightness of the project.
Approaching it with an open heart will cause you to give better advice — helpful, solution-oriented thoughts that will not only improve the work, but help the writer grow.
There are times when you simply have to give the answer by writing it yourself. That’s almost never the best thing to do, because the original writer may have a better solution than you do. But sometimes time is pressing. Or you know that the writer is unlikely to find the solution, at least in time.
(If you are proofreading a piece of fundraising, you need to do the opposite: Read with a suspicious mind, constantly asking, What’s wrong with this? Assume every name is misspelled, every phone number is wrong, every ambiguity will cause readers to leave in a huff. Proofreading is a very different task than critiquing!)
Always offer a solution
If something falls short in the piece you are critiquing, you must point it out. But it’s not enough to just say there’s something wrong.
Suggest an alternative. Always. You don’t need to rewrite the piece — in most cases, you should not do that — but you should give a sense of direction for the kind of change that is needed.
Comments like “Needs more energy” or “Take another whack at it” are worse than unhelpful. They block subsequent improvement.
When unsure what to say, ask a question
Sometimes you can tell something is “off,” but you’re struggling to articulate what it is. Fair enough. It happens to all of us.
That’s often what leads to the “needs more energy” type of critique that makes it much harder for people.
Before you do that, ask a question. Many times, you’ll need to ask two or more questions:
First, ask yourself, “What am I missing here?” Treat yourself as the erring party, even though you likely are not. Asking yourself that often helps you find the elusive problem.
If that doesn’t get you anywhere, ask the writer a question. Something like:
- “Do you mean X?” (X being what you think is the wrong way they’ve led you. Even if you know that’s not what they mean.)
- “Is something missing?”
- “Could there be an ask about here?”
Questions like these might feel embarrassing to ask because they give the impression that you know less than you really do. But they can get you better results in the long run.
Good critiques are more work than bad ones. Sometimes a lot more. But they’re more work in the same way that tuning your instrument before you start to play is more work. It’s worth the extra effort. And you’ll really regret it if you don’t!
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When I was a Creative Director, my new MD – he didn’t last long – once threw a piece of my work across the boardroom because he hated it so much. His contemporary, the Director of Planning, fished it out of the bin and politely reminded the MD that as 40-year-old male company directors neither of them would be receiving something targeted at retired Christian female charity donors aged 70+ and that the work should be judged in that context. Of course, he later replaced the MD.