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How to Keep Writing When You’re on Empty

NOTE: This blog post was written during — and is about — normal times. Now is not a normal time. There are a number of suggestions below — like “sneak out to a movie” and “do your work in a café” — that you cannot or should not do right now. I hope you will take this advice in the spirit of what you will do when things get back to something like normal. In the meantime, do the things you can to overcome the barriers. Stay healthy, look out for others, and be kind!  – Jeff

I know how it is. Sometimes you’re just a wrung-out sponge. No more ideas. No creative energy. No inspiration.

Even with deadlines looming and colleagues waiting, the thought of sitting down to write your next fundraising project fills you with loathing and dread.

That’s okay. It’s normal, and it happens to all writers.

The problem is, your deadlines don’t know that. They march on no matter how empty you are.

And nobody wants to hear your whining about it.

Seriously, one of the most annoying — and pointless — things you can do is talk to your colleagues about how blocked and uninspired you’re feeling. Cry me a river, they’ll say, rolling their eyes.

But I have some good news: There are ways to beat that empty feeling.

It’s not easy, but it is simple: You just need to change the size and shape of whatever box you find yourself in.

You see, you are always in a box. Sometimes it’s a cozy, comfortable, happy little box that you really love to be in. Sometimes it’s a gigantic box, with plenty of room to run around as much as you want. But often, the box is cramped, uncomfortable, weird-smelling, and missing all the things you need to do great work.

Your box is made of two things:

  1. Your circumstances — the things outside of you, like the time of year, what your topic is, how busy you are, etc.
  2. Your attitude — how you feel about those things.

There are things you can do to change your circumstances, but on the whole, they are hard to change. How you feel about those circumstances is more important than what those circumstances are. This is why the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Because nobody has an attitude about someone else’s circumstances. Their problems always look simpler and more solvable as a result.

There are many things you can do to change your attitude, to break out of your box and recharge your energy.

Starting with these quick actions can rescue you from being stuck in a matter of minutes:

  • Meditate or pray.
  • Breathe for one minute (or more). Take deep and slow breaths and pay close attention to how it feels.
  • Turn on some music. (This doesn’t work for everyone, the type of music is important — and specific to you. Experiment with this!)
  • Write in a journal. (Maybe write about how it feels to be empty.)
  • Drink some cold water. (The colder, the better.)
  • Drink caffeine.
  • Read, listen to, or watch something funny.
  • Read, listen to, or watch something inspiring.

If the quick methods aren’t doing the trick, you may need to take more time-consuming steps. These things may take an afternoon or even a whole day.

  • Do something creative other than writing: draw, make music, dance. You don’t have to be good at it. Just do it.
  • Watch a movie. For best results, sneak out and watch it at a theater.
  • Sneak out and do anything. Doing something you don’t have permission to do can have an almost magic effect on how you feel.
  • Listen to music actively. Really concentrate on it.
  • Go to a museum.
  • Work out.
  • Work in a café. (This is my go-to option when I’m stuck. Cafés seem to have good writing magic for me.)
  • Take a nap.
  • Take a walk.
  • Copy — by hand — a passage of writing you admire. (This is weirdly powerful. I don’t fully understand why, but it really charges me up sometimes!)
  • Memorize something. Poetry, scripture — anything you’d like to have in your head.

Beyond the things that can recharge you and overcome blockage, there are a number of “maintenance” activities that can prevent the emptiness before it hits:

  • Now and then, take the long way home. You’ll be surprised how energizing that can be.
  • Participate in community activities.
  • Practice thankfulness: Think about everything that’s good in your life and say “Thank you” for it all.
  • Take vacations. I know it can be hard. But it really makes a difference.
  • Study a language.
  • Take a class.
  • Learn a new skill, especially something that’s unlike the things you normally do.

Finally, cultivate a general attitude about writing: It’s just a task.

Think about it this way: Do you suppose your plumber ever gets “plumber’s block”?

The answer is: Of course she does! Sometimes she really doesn’t feel like doing anything at all involving pipes and water!

But she does it anyway.

Writing is hard. But when you get right down to it, writing is just another profession. Writers aren’t special. The blockage that we experience sometimes stops us cold — because we let it. If you remember that writing is just another task like plumbing, it can help you get on with it even when you don’t feel the magic.

And these exercises can really help you get out of the box. Let me know if you have any additional things that work for you by posting a comment below!

Get the help and inspiration you need to keep you writing with strength and confidence: Join The Fundraisingology Lab!

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One Rule That Can Turn Your Fundraising to Gold

“This is why people should give!” the new executive director said. He dramatically threw a newspaper on the table, leaned back, and glowered at everyone sitting around the conference room.

The newspaper was folded open to A13. Near the bottom was a smallish article headlined “Study: Homelessness Up Sharply.” It related how there were nearly 20 percent more homeless people in the community than there had been three years before.

“We need to be straight with our donors,” he continued. “Show them these facts—not emotional pabulum.”

I was the one who’d cooked up the pabulum.

Specifically, it was a direct mail letter focusing on an unemployed local man who’d lost everything after two years. He was living under a bridge, on a diet of what he called “homeless mac and cheese” — made from a packet of ramen noodles with a handful of cheese puffs mixed in. The resulting orange stew is warm, fills you up, and tastes almost like real food. But it won’t keep you healthy for long.

The executive director hated my letter because it zeroed in on one person, not the “real problem” of increasing homelessness. It wasted an entire paragraph on homeless mac and cheese — a meaningless distraction. And my letter never once cited the new study on homelessness. Worse yet, it never mentioned the organization’s pioneering program that helped the homeless recover their shattered self-esteem. My letter was about meals.

“Anyone can serve up meals,” the director said. “Our self-esteem program is unique.”

In fact, he’d gone to the trouble of composing a letter to replace the travesty I’d written. It was one-page long (mine was four). It opened with an extensive quote from the newspaper, then went on to describe the self-esteem program. Finally it bullet-listed several other programs he was proud of. It didn’t directly ask. It just sort of hinted: “Many in our community are banding together against the scourge of homelessness.” He didn’t want his organization to be known as one that begs for quarters in the street. There was no P.S. (“That’s unprofessional,” he sniffed.)

You’ve probably been in a situation like this, so you can guess the outcome. We mailed the executive director’s letter, and received the lowest response in the organization’s history. It was a devastating loss of revenue, so deep the organization had to let staff go and scale back their services.

The worst thing about this story I’m telling you — and you’re probably already thinking this — is that it happens all the time.

What is it about fundraising that causes people who know nothing about it to feel so confident they can do it better than the pros? People who’ve never read a fundraising book . . . never read one of the hundreds of blogs on the topic . . . never been to a conference rich with useful content . . . never labored under a mentor who knew the profession — they know they can do better than those who’ve done all that.

Houston, we have a problem. And it’s costing us millions, maybe billions, in lost revenue. If Congress were debating a bill that even hinted at doing as much damage to revenue as the misguided red pens do, we’d march on Washington!

How can we stop this!?

There’s a solution, and it’s already at work: the Ahern Rule.

It’s named after master craftsman Moceanic course-creator Tom Ahern, who has an agreement with his clients: “Unless I’ve spelled your name wrong, you don’t change my copy.” (He calls it the Verbatim Clause; I’d rather name it after him.)

When Tom writes your fundraising copy, you agree to let him apply his expertise without your guesswork. You have to let him succeed without interference. He’s not quite as it sounds. He happily hears suggestions from his clients, and he freely admits they often make suggestions that strengthen his work. But the rule keeps the destructive garbage out.

Not every fundraising writer is Tom Ahern. Many don’t have the mastery to justify a hands-off privilege. And every writer, no matter how talented and experienced, can benefit from the thoughts of someone who knows fundraising and can comment based on facts and experience.

But we could raise a lot more money for our causes if we could say, “Thanks for the feedback, but no thanks,” to misguided attempts to fix our work. Someday. Maybe.

(Adapted from How to Turn Your Words into Money by Jeff Brooks.)

Read these great posts by Tom Ahern:

Want to take terrific online courses from Tom Ahern and other fundraising masters? They are all available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.

CFRE Points:
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26 Tips for More Effective Fundraising Writing

1. Write the call to action (the reply device or landing page) first

It’s very un-Zen to say it, but fundraising is more about the destination than the journey. You’re going to arrive a lot more successfully when you know exactly where you’re going.

2. Write the thank-you letter next

I find it very helpful to express thanks before fully expressing the ask. As in tip #1, it can clarify where you’re going.

3. Think of 25 reasons why a donor should give to you

Then, get rid of all the reasons that are some version of “because we/our processes/our values/our staff are awesome.” Then start over until you have 25 donor reasons a donor should give to you.

4. Ask yourself, “How would the trashy tabloid press write this?”

Low-brow publications know the value of the amazing, the lurid, the outrageous, the unexpected — because they live or die by impulse purchases. Same with click-bait websites. Are you doing that, or are you imitating “respectable” journalism, purposely keeping it as colorless and purely factual as possible? Guess which approach gets more readership — and raises more funds?

5. Ignore your brand guidelines

Your brand guidelines are meant to sharpen and define your message and make it consistent. But there’s usually a fatal flaw: The guidelines are all about you, not about your donors. They’re all about self-focused communication, and that will hurt your fundraising. There are pro-fundraising brand guidelines out there (I’ve seen a couple of them) … but they are truly rare.

6. Show, don’t tell

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, you’ve heard this. It’s good advice. It’s easy to assert that something is sad, or great, or special, or cutting-edge. It’s more persuasive to paint the picture that add up to those things.

7. Overdo it

Be too dramatic. Too emotional. Too strong. Eight times out of 10, you’ll realize later that you didn’t overdo it at all. The other two times — well, it’s much easier to tone it down than it is to pump up weak and underdone writing.

8. Use your data

You know quite a bit about the people you’re writing to — their names, their cities, what and when they’ve given, and more. Use these facts to make your copy more personal and relevant. Just make sure you don’t sound awkward and robotic.

9. Flunk your English teachers

Your teachers meant well and they probably taught you many useful things. But not everything they taught was useful, especially for fundraising. Paragraphs don’t have to start with topic sentences and be complete units of meaning. Passive voice is not all that bad. Neither are sentence fragments. (Read the confessions of a former English teacher: How to Write Like a Nonprofit Genius and Motivate People to Join Your Cause)

10. Write at low grade level

Keep your writing at around 6th Grade reading level. It’s just easier to read. Don’t worry about “talking down” to your donors — grade level is about ease of reading, not education. The easier it is to read, the more it will get read — and the more you’ll raise. Check your readability with the grammar-check function in Word or try the excellent Hemingway App.

11. Repeat yourself

Whatever it is that you want people to do, tell them that thing again and again and again. Repeat yourself because you don’t know if they understood or even noticed it the first and second times. Repeat yourself because hardly anyone starts at the beginning of your message and reads every word straight through to the end. Repeat yourself because it works!

12. Annoy yourself

You are not your donor. That’s one of the most important truths you can know, and it has a dramatic side effect: Messages that motivate donors very often will turn you off. It will seem simplistic, emotional, and repetitive. Sometimes it helps to make your own distaste a barometer for effective fundraising.

13. Use a cliché or two

There’s a reason clichés catch on. They express things that people often want to express — in short (and sweet) ways that are easy (as pie) to remember. Fundraising isn’t creative writing class — you aren’t going to lose points for lack of originality. However, you will get extra credit for motivating more people to give.

14. Cut back on adjectives and adverbs

If your nouns and verbs aren’t doing the job, adjectives and adverbs aren’t going to pick up the slack. Well-placed modifiers can add zing. But most of the time, they just make the copy harder to read — and make you sound like a huckster.

15. Avoid huge numbers

Donors don’t want to solve a problem because it’s big. They want to solve it because it’s solvable. Yes, many thousands of children die from hunger-related causes every day, and thousands are diagnosed with terrible diseases, and the glaciers are receding at an alarming rate. It’s mind-boggling. The fact that it’s mind-boggling is exactly why it’s poor fundraising. Give donors the opportunity to make a difference that they can grasp and afford — and then another and another.

16. Free yourself from grammar

Don’t deliberately make bonehead grammar errors. But sometimes getting your grammar precisely correct makes you come across as a schoolmarm, which — unless you’re an actual schoolmarm — is pretty unsympathetic. For instance, correct use of “whom” doesn’t sound natural to most people. Avoid it. If you can’t stomach doing it wrong, revise the sentence so it doesn’t come up. Any correct grammar that people don’t commonly use in speech is a candidate for flouting or revising around.

17. Replace at least one paragraph in your next fundraising project that’s about you

Replace it with a paragraph that’s about your donor. This will make your message a bit more engaging and persuasive. Keep doing this!

18. Limit your paragraphs to 6 lines

Long paragraphs are forbidden territory. Anything more than seven lines is long. Most paragraphs should be one to four lines.

19. Read everything you write out loud

This is one of the best ways to make sure your copy is clear, colloquial, and easy to read. If you stumble while reading, sound pompous or arrogant, or just sound a bit incoherent, your copy needs more work.

20. Cut your first paragraph

No joke. It’s like magic. Most likely, your first paragraph is a warm-up — and your real lead is your second or even third paragraph. Give it a try. It’s one of the quickest and most sure-fire copy revisions I know.

21. Make the message longer

I know you wouldn’t read a long letter. Neither would I. For all we know, nobody reads long letters anymore. But we do know long letters work. Nearly every time I’ve tested, longer letters worked better than shorter ones. (A major exception is when you’re raising funds for a major emergency that’s heavily in the media.) Add more pages to your letter — or let that email be long, and you’ll almost surely get more response. See The Most Controversial Non-Controversy in the Fundraising World

22. Use photos sparingly — but use them

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So choose photos carefully. Too often we use photos that add nothing to the message or even contradict the story we intend to tell. If the photo and the words are in conflict, guess which one will carry more persuasive weight? Make sure the photos you use support the message you want to get across.

23. Underline stuff

Emphasis and variation are great for readability. So underline key points. Also use bold, italics, and other ways to draw the eye. Just don’t overdo it, because too much emphasis is the same as no emphasis at all.

24. Use black serif type over a white background (in print)

Any variation from this — using sans-serif type, colored type, white type over color, even black type over a tint, — will meaningfully degrade the reading comprehension of your donors and hurt response. (It’s worth noting that sans-serif fonts are more readable on screens.)

25. Use 13-point type (or larger) for body copy

Your donors wear bifocals. Small type is hard for them to read. Would you rather be part of their daily struggle to read small type or a strain-free oasis in their day? Which choice do you think will make them more likely to respond?

26. Bypass most of your reviewers

Committees kill fundraising. They systematically drain life and power from anything they touch, while bulking up the message with irrelevancies and worse. It’s not that they’re trying to make it worse — that’s just what committees do. Work without committees, and you’ll see improvements — to your copy and your revenue. See How To Free Your Fundraising From The Destructive Power Of Committees

Get ongoing great advice for powerful fundraising writing by joining The Fundraisingology Lab.

CFRE Points:
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Direct Mail

3 Last-Minute Tweaks for Your End-of-Year Campaign

Tweak: a fine adjustment to a mechanism or system

Here are some fine adjustments you can do that can meaningfully improve your upcoming year-end campaign.

Tweak One

Make a direct ask. As in “Fiona, will you please make a donation today to help train more lifesaving paramedics?”

A lot of fundraising hints at giving, hoping donors “catch your drift.”

They don’t know what you need them to do unless you tell them! And we don’t receive unless we ask. I have tested this many times — not asking in an appeal letter simply means you will raise less money.

The more specific and direct the ask. The better. As in “Fiona, will you please make a donation of $125 today to help me train more lifesaving paramedics?”

This is even better. That $125 is based on my previous giving. Donors respond best when you suggest what they do, and suggesting they give a gift that’s around the size of their previous giving is your best bet.

Tweak Two

If you have direct mail donors who have also provided their email address, use email to support your campaign.

One email is not enough. It’s hardly worthwhile unless you send around seven emails. That way you’ll get far more people opening at least one of them.

Tweak Three

Call your top donors and ask them for a gift. Sean has done an awesome video to talk you through this and you can find that here: How to Boost Your Direct Mail Campaign After it Has Gone Out.

Now here’s the hard part: These three tweaks will make little difference if you are not basing your appeal on an emotional and engaging story that helps the reader feel the problem and see how they can be part of the impactful solution.

Want to really sharpen your fundraising skills? Take our online course, 7 Steps to Creating Record-Smashing Direct Mail. It’s your hands-on workshop in what works, how to do it, and how to apply these truths to your cause! It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.

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9 Truths about Fundraising I Wish I Had Figured Out Sooner

One of the more disturbing things about spending decades in a career is looking back and remembering how incredibly wrong you used to be!

So I’m going to give you a quick tour of some ways I used to be seriously wrong but have since grown a little more right….

1. Fundraising should be “ready, aim, fire” — in that order

Some people call fundraising without planning ahead a “bias for action.” I used to think that. I thought ready, fire, aim was cooler and more exciting.

Then I noticed something. Just about every time you fire before you aim, you miss your target. You have to keep trying, over and over, until by dumb luck you hit it — and by that time you’re so tired and demoralized from repeated failure that your work is bad. As often as not, you just run out of ammunition and end up never getting the job done at all.

You think you’re saving time by skipping the nettlesome planning stage. But you’re eating up all that saved time — several times over — by re-doing everything all the time. And you succeed a lot less often.

So here’s what I’ve learned: For every project you do, make the first step planning. Really figure it out. Then put it in writing, and get everyone with a voice in the project to agree to the plan — before work starts.

This thinking ahead isn’t easy, because it requires concentration and some abstract thinking. But “ready, fire, aim” fundraising — also known as “I’ll know it when I see it” fundraising — is a sloppy way to work. It sucks the life, energy and effectiveness out of a project. And it takes a lot longer.

2. Focus groups can make you make bad decisions

I love observing focus groups. Sitting in that room behind the big one-way window, eating snacks, trying not to laugh too loud. It’s great fun. And I love the things people say in focus groups. It can be very enlightening.

There’s just one big problem with focus groups. You find out what people say, not what they do in real life. You hear their opinions, spoken out loud in a social setting.

That’s not an accurate predictor of how they (or anyone) is going to respond in the marketplace. So if your focus groups loved your new brand or your exciting marketing concept, that doesn’t mean it’s going to do well in direct mail, e-mail, or anywhere else. In fact, the focus groups loved it is usually a strong sign that it’s not going to work in real life! Likewise, focus groups always absolutely hate the stuff that actually works.

If you make major decisions solely on the input from focus groups, you are making serious mistakes that are likely to cost you big. It’s the same with survey research. Use focus groups to generate ideas and get a sense for the ways people talk about your issues. If you want information you can really count on, test your ideas in real-life response situations.

3. Insider insights can mess you up

My first job in the nonprofit sector was as the in-house copywriter for an organization that fought poverty, hunger, and disease in the developing world. I worked hard to make those things vivid for donors.

Then the organization sent me to India to see the work first-hand. I was bowled over. I understood the cause like never before. I learned that helping the poor is a complicated process if you want to do it right and do it in a way that empowers them.

And that’s where things started to go wrong. It became important to me to share my insight with our donors. I wanted to bring them along on my voyage of discovery. I figured if they could get it the way I now got it, they’d be better donors. They’d give more, obviously!

So my fundraising messages got a lot more involved and complicated. I tried to make the complexity clear and spelled-out. My colleagues at the nonprofit said it was the best copy ever: so complete, not simplistic like it used to be.

You can probably guess how it went. As we rolled out my “improved” message, our fundraising results dropped. Then dropped some more. Then crashed.

Sadly, we couldn’t see the correlation between the change in my writing and the change in our results. After all, how could “better” writing get worse results?

In fact, I never really understood that I was causing the problem until I moved to the agency side, where I was held accountable for getting results. Our job wasn’t to improve donors but to move them to action.

It took a while (an embarrassingly long time, to be frank) but it finally dawned on me: Trying to replicate insider insights about the cause is not the fundraiser’s job. It is directly at odds with motivating people to give. The more you try to educate donors, the less money you’ll raise. That’s one of the most dependable truths there is in fundraising.

4. My preferences are a poor guide

I love complex metaphors that conceal multiple layers of meaning. They’re so rich, challenging and beautiful — like some kind of 3-D impressionist Encyclopedia Britannica on a tropical island.

I’m sad to say that most people don’t share my preference for those metaphors. In fact, most folks hate having to figure out what something means, even when it’s really cool. They don’t like the sense that something’s being hidden from them. They have no intention whatsoever of solving a puzzle as they read. They want clarity, simplicity and easy reading.

I don’t get it. I love those things!

We all have personal preferences for the way we like communication to be. Most of the time, our preferences will lead us to weak fundraising. If you want to reach people, you have to cater to their preferences, not your own.

5. Don’t try to bang it out in one sitting

You have lots to do and not enough time. But when it comes to writing fundraising messages, break the task into pieces. Time spent not writing is a critical part of the writing process.

Another way to say that is “Write drunk, edit sober.” And I don’t mean literally write drunk (bad idea!), but have two phases to your writing: The part where you put a bunch of stuff down on paper, and a part where you craft and improve that stuff.

6. Simpler is better

I’ve been so proud of carefully explaining a complex process. That’s not easy, you know. But it’s not the right solution.

When something is complex, the fundraiser’s job is to make it simple for donors.

If you can’t say your fundraising offer in one sentence, you’re in trouble.

7. Donors aren’t paying as much attention as you want them to

This one can really bruise your ego. To most of your donors, those amazing messages you create are noise! It’s junk mail, inbox-clogging stuff, messages they don’t think they need, and they didn’t ask for.

At best, your donors lightly skim your well-crafted fundraising message. That’s not to say you shouldn’t strive to make every word right and sweat the details. Just make sure you sweat the big picture even more. Whether to use a comma or a dash matters — a little. Whether you have a topic that’s going to move people to action, whether you’re talking to the right people, whether the call to action makes sense — those things matter a lot. Spend your time there.

8. If the writing is weak, design won’t fix it

I hate to think about the number to times I’ve struggled to get copy right but just couldn’t quite do it — then ended up saying, “It’s not quite there, but we’ll make it work with great images, brilliant type treatment, and flawless layout.” That doesn’t work. Good design matters. But it can’t make bad copy good. In fact, good design probably makes bad writing even worse by amplifying what’s wrong with it!

Garbage in, garbage out!

9. Enthusiasm is good, but experience is better

I remember years ago studying direct-mail response rates. They averaged around 5% for mail sent to previous donors. We considered that decent. Not great, not terrible.

Suddenly it struck me: A 5% response rate is a 95% failure rate! I was off like a thoroughbred, campaigning against these huge failure rates. I had a hunch if we could just write better, we could drive response rates up to somewhere around 50%.

Turns out trying to supercharge response by improving the writing is like trying to speed up a race car by installing better seat cushions. I spent lots of time on my crusade for better response. Experience has taught me there are much better ways to improve fundraising. They aren’t as exciting, but they actually have impact. You can get that 5% average up to 7% or even more. And that adds up to a lot of revenue over time. (The most dependable way to meaningfully improve response comes from high-level donor targeting, not better copy.)

There’s more leverage in experience than in enthusiasm. On the other hand, experience without enthusiasm can be a curse. It devolves into cynicism and becomes a force against innovation.

Related post: Where Good Fundraising Ideas Are Born

Discover how you can connect more with your donors, grow your fundraising income, and master your career. Join The Fundraisingology Lab and you join the thousands of smart fundraisers who are becoming EXTRAORDINARY FUNDRAISERS. Check it out.

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Arts and Culture Fundraising: the Story to Tell When Nobody Is Dying

The standard formula for a fundraising message goes like this:

Something is not right. It needs to be changed, or somebody might suffer in some terrible way — maybe even die. By making a donation now, you can save a life.

If you craft a message like that with drama, urgency, simplicity, and clarity, you will probably do very well.

All that is true if you are working in one of these sectors:

  • Poverty
  • Social service
  • Health
  • Animal welfare
  • Environment
  • A number of others similar to these.

But there’s a big wrinkle. And if you are raising funds for an arts or culture organization, I can almost see you scratching your head or even rolling your eyes.

Because the standard formula doesn’t really apply to you!

Yes, you read that right.

If you’ve been listening to me (or just about any fundraising expert), you might be struggling with your fundraising because we’ve been leading you astray with the standard formula.

Here’s why the standard formula doesn’t do the job for you: If the show doesn’t go on, nobody dies. Nobody even suffers all that badly.

That doesn’t mean the show is unimportant. It just means you have to approach the whole conversation a little differently.

And that’s how fundraising is different for arts and culture:

Your donors don’t give out of altruistic compassion for the suffering of others. They do it mostly for themselves.

This becomes extremely evident when we note that your donors are also your customers. In fact, they are typically customers first, donors second. They’re already giving you money in the form of their purchases.

Why would they donate at all? There are several reasons they donate:

  • To make sure the art form will continue to be available for them. They understand the economics of the arts. They know that admissions and tickets don’t fully fund their favorite arts.
  • To get benefits. They value access and privileges that enhance their experience of the art.
  • To get recognition among their peers and community.
  • To “pay it forward.” This is the part of their motivation that comes closest to the standard fundraising formula. They value your art for what it has meant in their lives, and they know it’s important to pass that along to others.
  • To boost their community. Most of your donors know how your artform improves the quality of life, the reputation, and the economy of the community. This is rarely a primary giving motivation, though.

But it’s never to “save” someone. The main thing this tells us is that arts fundraising is only slightly about donors helping other people. It’s first about donors enriching their own lives.

So the action you call them to needs to include:

  • Keep the art available.
  • Get donor benefits — be specific about them, including what benefits are available at what giving levels.
  • Be recognized for your contribution. Bake donor recognition into your program, from donor lists in programs to naming opportunities.

(One thing you might think is notably missing from this list: To reach out to children or marginalized communities (i.e. outreach). I’m not saying outreach is unimportant to donors. Only that it’s not a primary reason most of them give. Most arts organizations have outreach as part of their mission, and find that there’s a (small) segment of donors who are extremely devoted to it. If you are an organization that is all (or mostly) about outreach, more (possibly all) of your donors may be motivated by outreach than the reasons above. That means your story will be somewhere between the standard formula and what I’m describing here.

The story to tell for arts fundraising

Since donors give primarily for themselves, the story you tell should be about someone like them. Not a superstar. Not an expert. Not a celebrity (unless the celebrity is clearly a fellow non-expert).

And the story they tell should be “What this artform means to me.” Or more specifically, “What something presented by this organization has meant for me.”

Here’s an example:

Cancer took my dad before his time. There are a lot of details to take care of when someone dies — everything from planning the memorial service to dealing with the estate, to cancelling subscriptions and getting rid of clothing. You’re almost too busy to mourn.

A few weeks after he died, while I was still in the thick of it all, I went to a Symphony concert. On the program was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony #5, a piece I know and love. Dad hated Mahler. We used to argue about it all the time. But he deeply loved that Adagietto (slow movement) of Mahler’s Fifth.

When the orchestra got to the Adagietto, I was taken by surprise at how powerful it was. Every phrase reached straight into my heart and wrung it out. I could almost literally see and hear my father, whom I thought I’d never see or hear again. I wept and shook and squeezed my hands into fists.

The Symphony took me on a difficult journey that night. But I’ll always be thankful for it.

Many of your donors have experiences like this that they can share. Make it a habit to find their stories and tell them in your fundraising and your reporting back. Because each story like this leads naturally to a fundraising ask: If the Symphony is important to you too, donate today to make sure it stays available for all of us!

Another way to tell this story is to describe the artform from that same point of view, but in your own words. Remind them how it feels and what they get from it:

Remember Rigoletto this season when the Duke leaves the love-struck Gilda? Their good-bye is a glorious 15-minute duet. You’ve probably never sung a duet like that with someone you love but you know exactly what they’re feeling! A tidal wave of emotion. We’ve all felt that, and the opera captures it and adds so much beauty and depth.

And that’s the power of opera. It makes your life richer and fuller. It’s a place where we come together and feel deeply. How hollow and sad life would be without that!

This second approach doesn’t require you to find and interview an articulate audience member, but it does mean you have to know the material.

What this approach to the story does most is that it’s about the artform as experienced by the audience. Not the insiders and professionals of your organization. That can make telling these stories a challenge. The audience/donor take on what’s happening is most likely simplistic, even “dumbed down” in the eyes of your insiders.

Finally, here are a few things your arts fundraising should not be about — because few donors care:

  • Because we work so hard, care so much and are so excellent.
  • Because this artform is “important.” Normal non-expert people love your art because it gives them pleasure, not because they “should” love it. That’s a dead-end for fundraising (and for sales) that is unfortunately much too common.
  • Because everyone should “support the arts.”

Related post: You Have No Dramatic Stories to Tell? You’re Looking at it Wrong!

Learn more about how to connect with donors in a meaningful way by taking our most popular online course, Irresistible Communications for Great Nonprofits. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.

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Denis Mukwege par Claude Truong Ngoc novembre 2014 e1555536853306

Nobel Prize Winner Demonstrates the Power of Story

Denis Mukwege, 2018 co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, used his Nobel address to masterfully tell stories about his work with survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The main story he tells is a harrowing account about a woman named Sarah. He ends it this way:

Today, Sarah is a beautiful, smiling, strong and charming woman.

Sarah has committed herself to helping people who have survived a history like hers.

Sarah received fifty US dollars, a grant our Dorcas transit house gives to women who are ready to rebuild their lives socio-economically.

Today, Sarah runs her small business. She has bought a plot of land. The Panzi Foundation has helped her with sheeting to make a roof. She has built a little house. She is independent and proud.

Her experience shows that, no matter how difficult and hopeless the situation, with determination there is always hope at the end of the tunnel.

If a woman like Sarah does not give up, who are we to do so?

This is very much like a fundraising story. What follows could easily be a fundraising ask. What does follow is a more general call to action.

Read the speech. It’s not easy or pleasant, but it’s powerful.

Mukwege’s story does one thing that careful fundraisers usually avoid: The story he tells is resolved. It has a “happy ending.” That’s called for by the context of the speech. I think what makes it work as a call to action is the direct challenge: If a woman like Sarah does not give up, who are we to do so?

That’s the secret to successful storytelling: Whatever else you do, make it about the listener.

Thanks to Bas van Breemen of Mindwize, a great fundraising agency in the Netherlands.

Interested in in Mukwege’s work? Check out the Dr. Denis Mukwege Foundation.

To discover how you can have powerful storytelling in your fundraising, take our online course; Your Blueprint for Donor-Focused, High-Revenue Fundraising Storytelling. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab. Check it out.

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Controversial non-Controversy
Direct Mail

The Most Controversial Non-Controversy in the Fundraising World

Want to stir up a group of professionals? Want to see them sweat and wave their arms and cuss?

There’s one issue that will do it every time. I’m not talking about “poverty porn,” and it’s not the overhead controversy.

The big deal that really stirs people up is the odd truth that in fundraising, long messages almost always work better than short ones.

It’s not true 100% of the time, but it’s one of the most dependable truths in direct marketing — fundraising and otherwise. Want better results? Increase the length of the message.

Whenever I say this in public, a forest of hands goes up. How could that possibly be true? It must be an isolated incident! No way!

But don’t believe just me. Ask anyone with experience — especially testing experience — and they’ll confirm it. Long messages do better than short ones. Most of the time, as in about 80% of tests.

In The Fundraisingology Lab (an awesome private group just for members), a member recently posted this:

Director of PR just emailed me about my next letter draft (not even two full pages), she suggested it should never be longer than a page/one side. She suggested editing it down before sending it to the President.

It’s a distressingly common situation: Someone with no experience in fundraising just takes it as a given that a short message is absolutely a better bet than a long one. Why? Because their gut reaction is more trustworthy than decades of training and experience by hundreds of people our in profession?

Apparently so.

But a longer message is a better bet almost every time. There is zero controversy about this among knowledgeable fundraisers.

There are exceptions, where a short message does better:

  • A short but well-executed message will usually do better than a long but sloppily prepared message with no clear call to action. (Though most of the really amateurish fundraising out there is also short, in addition to its other problems.)
  • A short message about a major disaster or another news event that everyone is being exposed to frequently does very well, and I’ve seen the short version do better than a long version in this situation.
  • An organization with a very strong brand can sometimes do well with a very short message. (See example below.)
  • Now and then a short message does better, and we just can’t see why. This is extremely rare, but it does happen!

Part of the problem is that we don’t know why it’s this way. In fact, it would be almost impossible to discover why a longer message works better. All we know is how people respond, not what was going on in their conscious or subconscious minds. You can’t just ask them; they don’t know the answer. (Most people, when asked, will tell you they’re confident they’d be more likely to respond to a shorter message!)

But here are some theories that might explain the longer-is-better phenomenon:

  • It’s nearly impossible to cram everything that needs to be said into a very short message. Most short messages are simply omitting critical contents.
  • Most readers will read about 10% of whatever you put in front of them. When the message is long, they get what they need.
  • Whether they read the whole message or not, the very fact that it is long, helps persuade some readers that it’s important.
  • Most donors are older people; older people are readers; they reward you for giving them something to read.
  • Most people read so inattentively that they simply miss the point of a short message because it appears only once!

But all of these are just theories. They may all be true or partially true. Or they could all be complete balderdash.

But this we know: You will almost certainly raise more money with a longer message than with a shorter one!

Here is an exception to the longer-is-better rule. I don’t have any inside knowledge about this pack, but I’m pretty sure it’s a champion in new donor acquisition. Because I keep getting it!


(This is just the message/reply coupon. But there isn’t really more. It comes in a small envelope. And the only other piece is the very small return envelope.)

Note that the sender, The Salvation Army, is a super-brand. An organization with top-5 recognition in the US — that is top five among all brands, not just nonprofit brands. That might explain why the short message works. It also breaks a handful of other fundraising principles that would likely sink most fundraising packs.

But unless you are with The Salvation Army … a short message is risky and less likely to accomplish your fundraising goals!

See also:
Why Your Boss Is Wrong – Long Letters Do Work Better In Fundraising 
The Weird Power of Long Fundraising Letters

Want to learn more about what really works in direct mail? Uncover all of the amazing best practices of direct mail fundraising by taking our 7 Steps To Creating Record-Smashing Direct Mail online course. It’s available for members of The Fundraisingology Lab.

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Pop Art Adventure e1542586243367

Effective Fundraising Is Always a “Choose Your Own Adventure” Story

Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books? They are kid-fiction adventures that originated in the late 70s. Each book is narrated in the second person — you — and offers periodic decision points for the reader. It goes something like this:

  • If you decide to explore the cave, turn to page 52.
  • If you decide to walk away, turn to page 65.

The reader chooses. Your choice leads to a different outcome of the story. It’s a more active form of reading than normal books.

Fundraising should be like that. A way for each donor to participate — to make choices that matter.

Fundraising should actually be way better. Because it’s real, not fiction. When a donor decides to give, she not only feels the joy of giving … she actually helps change the world!

A fundraising message structured like a Choose Your Own might go something like this:

Something is wrong in the world. It’s wrong in a way that breaks your heart. It’s very clearly wrong, and it urgently needs to be fixed, and the way to help fix it is to send a donation.

  • If you decide to send a donation, turn to page 52.
  • If you decide not to send a donation, turn to page 65.

What happens if a donor decides to give and turn to page 52?

They get a warm glow as their brain confirms to them that helping others is the right thing to do. They quickly get a thank you message that specifically tells them what their money is on its way to do. Later on, they get more information proving to them that their gift really did make a difference! It’s almost as if you decided to explore the cave in the Choose Your Own book and then found a real-life chest of treasure!

What happens if the donor decides not to give and turns to page 65?

Not much. Story over. She’ll have other chances.

That’s the beauty of it. Every donor always has the right to say no when giving isn’t the right option for them.

But this is why fundraising is so amazing. It’s not just hypothetical outcomes. It’s a reality. What donors choose to do has an actual impact on the real world.

Sadly, you wouldn’t know that by reading most fundraising. It doesn’t set up that moment of decision. It doesn’t give the donors the chance to do something thrilling — or not do it, if they choose not to.

Instead, most fundraising is like this:

We are an awesome organization. We do awesome, important things. We’re very good at what we do. You can help fund our awesomeness by donating.

  • If you decide to send a donation, turn to page 52.
  • If you decide not to send a donation, turn to page 52 because the same things will happen either way!

In this telling, the awesomeness doesn’t depend on the donor. She can support it or not — but it makes no difference.

Charitable giving should be about action, change, progress, and relationship.

Does your fundraising create clear choices like Choose Your Own Adventure books? It should. And it can!

Want to know some specific ways to make your fundraising like a super-thrilling Choose Your Own Adventure? Check out our popular online course, Your Blueprint for Donor-Focused, High-Revenue Fundraising Storytelling. It’s available when you join The Fundrasingology Lab.

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Pop Art Children Christmas tree e1534403489644

VIDEO: How to Feel the Holiday Season When It’s Still Far Off

One of the strange challenges of the serious fundraiser is the long stretch of time between when you should be crafting your messaging and when it finally goes out to donors.

And now, the midst of August, is when that gap is weirdest and most challenging, because you should be working on your end-of-year and holiday season fundraising now.

The most un-Christmasy time imaginable! It really causes cognitive dissonance to try to get into the holiday spirit at a time that’s so not that holiday!

Here are some simple writer’s hacks to help you, drawn from a long career doing year-end fundraising months before December.

I think you’ll like these simple approaches.

PS: And while you’re getting into the Holiday spirit, it’s also time to think about ways to strengthen your fundraising. I can show you how in my online course 7 Steps To Creating Record-Smashing Direct Mail (Without spending more time or money!) Check it out when you join The Fundraisingology Lab!

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