[NPFX Ep. 5] 12 Mistakes Nonprofits Make in Their Fundraising Copywriting, Part 1

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Welcome to The Nonprofit Fundraising Exchange, a podcast from IPM Advancement. Our mission is to help you raise more money so you can make the world a better place.

Today’s topic: 12 Mistakes Nonprofit Make in Their Fundraising Copywriting, Part 1

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How to use specific Asks in your appeals to boost response
  • Why thanking donors (and thanking them authentically) within your appeal is an absolute necessity in fundraising
  • One of the most read parts of an appeal letter, why you must include it, and how to use it effectively
  • How to translate your cause into a solvable problem that attracts donor support
  • Ways to set your nonprofit apart from other organizations working in the same space
  • Why you must test your donation process to eliminate obstacles for people who want to give to you
  • The importance of crafting a compelling and concise case for support that cuts through the noise and engages donors 

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Additional IPM Resources for Fundraising Copywriters:

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For most nonprofits, fundraising appeals are an important part of how they communicate with supporters. Without effective copy that engages your donors and makes a strong case for supporting your nonprofit, you will consistently struggle to raise the funds you need to deliver on your mission and serve your community. In today’s episode, we discuss how fundraising messaging can go wrong and what you need to do to ensure that your copy feels compelling and authentic to those who care about your cause.


Curtis: Hi, this is Curtis Schmitt. I’m joined today by Russ Phaneuf, the Managing Director and Chief Strategist for IPM. Thank you for joining me, Russ.

Russ: Thank you, Curtis. Thanks for having me.

Curtis: So we’re changing up the format a little today. Instead of doing a panel discussion, what we’re going to do is a more casual one-on-one conversation, and we’re going to talk about some of the most common mistakes that nonprofits make in their fundraising copywriting. We’ve got quite a bit to cover, so we’ve broken our list into two parts. We’ll count down mistakes 12 through 6 today. And then we’ll cover the top 5 in our next episode. Russ, is there anything you would like to say to set us up before I start with the first one on the list?

Russ: The only thing that I would say is, we’re gonna start this list and go down this list — it’s somewhat in order from least important to most important, but I would say that everything on this list is pretty important. So pay close attention, there’ll be a quiz at the end. And I would say that what we are not going to cover in this conversation are typos, grammatical errors, things like that. I think we don’t really need to cover that in this conversation. My general rule is typos, grammatical errors, those introduce variables into your copy that could affect the way that people perceive your organization so you absolutely don’t want them. Take the time to go through, don’t completely depend on spellcheck because it’ll miss a lot, and make sure that multiple people read your copy before it goes out.

Curtis: Great advice. So that’s really the baseline there.

Russ: That’s where we’re starting. Bam.


Mistake 12: Not Making Clear and Direct Asks

Curtis: Great, well let’s start the countdown then. So number 12 is not making clear and direct Asks.

Russ: Yeah so this is a this is a good one — obviously it’s on the list. But this, this idea of having specific Asks is really important. You don’t want to go through all the work of creating an appeal, getting it out to people and then not being clear, concise, and direct with the way that you ask them for money and the amounts you ask them for. You can choose all kinds of different methodologies to work from when you’re developing Ask amounts. Some people use formulas, some people base it on past giving, and it’s going to depend on whether a person’s a lapsed donor, a long lapsed donor, a current donor, a prospect. Your Ask amount calculations are a different conversation. What we’re saying here is that you want specificity in your asks; you don’t want to just say, “Will you please make a gift?” We want to say, “Will you please make a gift of $50, $35, or $20?” Something like that. And in general in our experience if you use no Ask amounts at all, and just present a soft Ask without a specific amount, your results are going to be much, much worse; you’re just not going to get the kind of results that you want from an annual giving appeal. 

Curtis: Good, good. Yes, so specific Ask amounts, that’s really important. And Russ, I think there’s another part of this conversation that’s important for us to address too. When you as the copywriter are sitting down to write an appeal, before you start constructing your case for support, you want to be clear on the single desired action that you want your reader to take. So that when you craft your appeal, everything in it is moving the reader toward that action. Now I say a single desired action. We have seen certain cases where multiple actions actually boost response, for example pairing an advocacy Ask with a fundraising Ask. But in general, we recommend a single desire to action so you’re not overwhelming the reader with a long list of things that you want them to do. That’s a big part of clarity here and it’s a big part of not confusing the reader.

Russ: Yes, and I would add to that too, consistency, that helps with clarity. So when you write out your Ask, the language that you use, the word choice that you have, it’s okay to repeat that language multiple times throughout your appeal and even in the P.S. You don’t want it to be an exact carbon copy but you want the language to be consistent because you don’t want to throw people off. When you’re presenting the Ask, the first time you present it, decide on your language; and then the second and maybe third time that you present that Ask in the copy, make sure that aligns with that first Ask so that you’re not requiring people to use too much thinking at that point. You’re just reinforcing that original first Ask that you put into the copy.

Curtis: And that consistency carries over to the reply form as well.

Russ: Right, exactly. You’ll want at the top of your reply form — before you even mention the Ask amounts or the checkboxes that you might have for choosing the amounts — you’ll want to repeat that language and again have a consistency. And when I say repeat the language, it’s really about word choice. Do you call it a contribution, do you call it a gift, do you call it a tax-deductible gift. Those are all things to consider in how you construct the way that you position an Ask to your audience. And you not only want it to be consistent from paragraph to paragraph in your appeal, you want it to be consistent from appeal to appeal over the course of the fiscal year.


Mistake 11: Not Thanking Donors

Curtis: Good, well counting down: Mistake number 11, not thanking donors. And this one is very interesting because the idea that there are even organizations out there who aren’t thanking their donors is a bit shocking to me. But I know that we’ve encountered that, and it’s a good one to cover. So what advice do you have regarding the importance of thanking your donors?

Russ: So, there’s an opportunity to thank donors throughout the year with stewardship pieces and newsletters and things like that. In this instance, we’re going to talk about the actual appeal, when you’re when you’re fundraising. And it’s important to recognize people’s past giving, their past involvement and engagement with the organization. And it might not always be a dollar amount that you’re citing but oftentimes it is, especially if you’re dealing with lapsed donors or current donors that you’re messaging to. You’ll want to find that language that is authentic and isn’t smarmy, doesn’t feel like you’re trying too hard, but that you’re authentically really appreciative of their involvement. And I think that’s a fairly easy thing to do for people. You take a donor-centric point of view and you think about, “If I was a donor, what would I want to hear from this organization?” And typically, you can put those thanks at the front of the letter and in the P.S., but at minimum, you’ll want to put something in the P.S.

Curtis: Yeah, and I like what you said about it being relatively easy because I think most people, when they’re thinking clearly, recognize the value of donors to their organization. So just simply expressing that, letting that natural gratitude come out and be expressed, I think, is what we’re talking about here. What about prospecting? What about a presumptive thank you in a prospecting letter? 

Russ: Yeah, I think you can do that if you get beyond that initial setup, you get beyond the case for support. And you can get into this language and copy around the idea that donors are at the heart of having impact on beneficiaries. And I think if you convey to people that their — they have an opportunity to join this group, to join this kind of exclusive club and become a donor, I think that if up front, kind of in your pitch to people, you immediately in your first communication to them really vault donors, right? You’re holding up donors and you’re saying, “Hey, donors are incredible people, and you want to be part of this group.” I think that is the way that I would use thanks.

It’s very difficult to kind of balance that. If you don’t have a relationship with someone and you’re sending out a prospecting piece, it’s very easy to cross that line where you haven’t developed enough trust with your audience yet to be conveying that they deserve thanks, basically. And so it’s tricky. I think, again, it depends on the audience. If these people are folks who have never given but they went to your gala, or they’ve been to an event in the past, or they’ve signed a petition or something like that, those are all things that can be thanked. They’re all real, tangible engagements that you can cite and thank them for. Hopefully you’re tracking those because it’s important. Engagement is what drives giving. And so you can have an internal prospect list that absolutely deserves to be thanked. But with external lists, you do have to be careful.

And there’s also that kind of idea that, you know, if you’re fundraising in a vertical, say your organization is an animal welfare organization, and you rent a list to go out to some some prospects, and those people may have heard of you, but they’ve had no experience directly with your organization. I think that that’s where you have to be careful because you don’t want to tip them off that, “Oh hey, we got your name from World Wildlife Federation and we know you love animals so we want to thank you for that.” That’s going too far, right? You want to have that donor-centric mindset whenever you’re writing to make sure that you’re not crossing that line — that we have those kind of expectations of privacy. You haven’t yet developed a relationship with someone who’s the prospect, in most cases, so I think that you want to be careful with how you message any kind of thank you to people who haven’t had any experience whatsoever with your organization.

Curtis: Hmm. Lots of subtleties in this one.

Russ: Absolutely. Yeah.


Mistake 10: Not Translating the Core Issue into a Solvable Problem at Hand

Curtis: Good. Good. All right. Mistake number 10, and this one may require some explanation of some terms, so. Mistake number 10 is not translating the core issue into a solvable problem at hand. So what do we mean by core issue and problem at hand.

Russ: So the core issue is kind of think of it as the the overarching issue that your organization is trying to solve right the overarching issue, say for a gun violence prevention organization, the overarching issue is too many people are victims of gun violence right that’s the core issue, the problem at hand might be a slice of that that you focus on for the appeal. So the problem at hand could be in states that don’t have background checks on gun buyers, then your, your core issue is magnified right you have higher levels the research has shown you have higher levels of gun violence. When, when you’re in places that don’t have strong background checks on buyers. So that could be your problem at hand. And I think that these are really important to differentiate in your appeals and especially for folks who don’t know your organization and don’t know your work. So when you’re looking at writing a prospecting appeal. It’s really important to define these because you’re really using them to start that process of differentiating your organization, and making the case for why your organization is the most qualified to do the work that you’re asking them to support.

Curtis: Right, right, right, just to illustrate that distinction again, using your example of gun violence prevention, the core issue may feel sort of too far in the future or too big for the donor to think, how can I really help like you know gun violence is an epidemic in the United States, but the problem at hand, which might be, let’s pass background checks in whatever the state is that we’re talking about. That’s something that’s much more tangible and achievable, that you can use to introduce your organization’s particular solution or work that you do, is that the sense that we’re talking about.

Russ: Yeah, and I think the core issue can be shared by many organizations right your issue isn’t necessarily unique to your organization. But an end it, take it one step further your problem at hand. Could doesn’t necessarily need to be specific to your organization, but what you’re presenting in the appeal might include specifics about how your organization is best equipped to, to solve it. Mm hmm.


Mistake 9: Not Explaining What Makes Your Nonprofit Unique

Curtis: Great. And that’s a fantastic segue talking about what makes your organization unique so Mistake Number nine is not explaining what in fact makes your nonprofit unique.

Russ: Yeah, I think a lot of organizations in their appeals especially their appeals to people who are familiar with the organization. They kind of fall into the trap of letting the core issue or the problem at hand, carry the entire appeal and you know it might be an incredibly difficult problem that needs to be solved. But you really have to take the time to sell your organization, you still have to reinforce all those positive things about your organization those perceptions you want people to have that you are the most well equipped to solve this problem. I mean, there could be 10 different organizations working on this problem. And we want to be cordial we want to be inclusive with organizations that are working in the same space, but at the same time we owe it to people in an appeal to explain why their investment in us, is a good one, right and and a lot of that has to do with organization merit, it’s, it’s your proof points about your effectiveness. It could be related to longevity. It could be related to what you’re doing specifically programmatically. To address these problems. Those are all things that are going to help differentiate your organization, and really convey that uniqueness to people.

Curtis: People with a background in marketing may be familiar with the concept of a unique selling proposition that USP. And that sounds like that applies just as much to a nonprofit.

Russ: Absolutely. Yeah, it does. And it’s not just an appeals I mean these are things that, like you said, they translate into marketing so the folks who are working in marketing should also be aware of these unique selling points and these differentiations and be emphasizing them. And that’s how you can get a little bit more bang for your fundraising buck, to make sure that you’re working interdepartmental Lee and intra departmental to make sure that everybody’s on the same page about this unique selling points a lot of the times, you can workshop those in brand exercises and things like that. And they are fairly evergreen for most organizations they are not just a one and done you know this appeal is going to feature this unique selling point, there are things that you can continue to message, every every appeal and year over year.

Curtis: Great. So just to reiterate what we’re saying here specifically is it’s not enough to simply demonstrate that your organization is worthy of support, we’re suggesting that you also want to explain how your organization is different, even unique in its work or programs or reach, but in some way what what makes it different from other organizations that are may also be worthy of support that crap.

Russ: Absolutely and an easy way to do it is to just simply ask yourself the question, our organization is the only organization that does blank answer that question. So, that is going to those answers are going to inform that uniqueness section of your copy in your appeal copywriting.


Mistake 8: Not Using the Postscript Effectively (or at All)

Curtis: So let’s now look at a different part of the appeal: The PostScript. So Mistake Number eight is not using the PostScript effectively, or at all.

Russ: Yes, you know some people like kitchen sink messaging and they have spec limitations that limit them to maybe one or two pages. And so they say well you know i need to gain some room, and I’m going to delete the PS. and in general I think it’s widely understood, among copywriters who specialized in fundraising. And if you ask any mail house that’s got deep experience in fundraising for nonprofits. I think the. The general consensus is don’t get rid of your PS, it’s, it’s like the first or second on the list of things that people actually read if they’re going to skim your letter. And so I think it’s important to keep it in there pretty much at all costs, and what you want your PS to do is act like a super condensed version of your appeal. You’re going to thank people, you’re going to ask for a gift, you’re going to explain why the gift matters. And you’re going to probably think them again at the end of it, and maybe make one more statement somewhere in there, a very short statement of solidarity, short statement of exclusivity something that reminds people that their gift isn’t just going into a black hole you’re part of a community of donors that’s actually pushing forward on solutions to the problem at hand or the core issue.

Curtis: And I think it’s also important here to note that the, what we’re suggesting is there’s a very close relationship between the PostScript and the main letter. They’re not separate things they work together, they may work in a way like you described where if somebody skimming the PostScript can do the job of the sections maybe that they didn’t read, or it can also be sort of that final push you know they’ve read the whole letter for somebody who does read every single word, and the PostScript kind of sums it up, you know, like a, a summation in a court case would and in that same way. The other thing I wanted to add was. I have seen, I’ve actually gotten letters from organizations that I love and I support, and I have seen them use the PostScript for a completely new thing like it has nothing to do with the main letter. It’s something that clearly they had to fit too much into the letter and somebody thought, Well, why don’t I just this doesn’t work in the main body of the main letter, why don’t I just throw it in the PostScript, and it’s so distracting and weird and it makes you think like, what, what’s the action I’m supposed to take here. Just a really, really big mistake so if you’re doing that, you know, at a minimum stop that. And then, you know, you can take things to the next level and use the PostScript as we’re describing here.

Russ: Yes, and there’s a really easy way to fix that. What you do is you write an actual PostScript that we talked about and then you have a PPS in the PPS pivots to whatever other thing you want to talk about. It’s way way too difficult to insert a new idea in a postscript and have it be, you know, three or four lines of text, it’s much much better it flows a lot better if you complete your PostScript as part of the letter, and then you can use your PPS to introduce a new idea or or to pivot to another piece in the package. So you have a lift note from somebody, it’s much easier. In most cases, to have a PPS, and then redirect people to the lift note using the PPS.


Mistake 7: Making the Donation Process Too Complicated

Curtis: Okay, so let’s talk about Mistake number seven, making the donation process too complicated. This is a good one.

Russ: This is a good one because this is all about the point of sale right so when you write a letter, you have your intro, you make your case for support you have your asks you have your proof points, and hopefully all those things are designed in a way that gets people to a reply form that’s in the package already or, it puts people to a landing page, and that reply form, or that landing page should be considered a point of sale. And if you’re familiar with how retail points of sale work. It’s always a good idea to not introduce obstacles at the point of sale if someone’s about to give you money. You don’t want to introduce an obstacle that will make them think too hard or make them pause and reconsider their action, you just want them to be on autopilot at that, at that moment. And so the best way to do that is to make sure that your reply form is very clear and concise, that again the language of your asks matches the, you know, on the reply and the letter, and you don’t want to introduce things like, like forms that ask for too much information before people can actually complete the process you really want to streamline it. There’s a word for it in user experience design it’s this idea of friction that you’ve introduced to a process and you want your reply forms and your landing pages to be as frictionless as possible.

Curtis: Yeah, and I think this goes back to kind of the point I was trying to make earlier about, you know, constructing what what your ask is and doing that, thinking of it as the desired action for the person who’s reading the appeal to take and like using that as your starting point and understanding that all of the other parts of the appeal are building to that desired action. And once that person is primed to take it. You want it to be as simple as possible like you’re saying as frictionless as possible. Can you give some examples of things like not requiring a stamp on an envelope, you know some other examples of things that make it a little bit easier and remove some of that friction for donors,

Russ: Absolutely yeah you. My advice is to really think again from that donor centric point of view, and think holistically, about how someone is going to experience your appeal all the way from the outside, envelope opening it, reading the letter reading any inserts, going to the reply form, filling out the reply form and then actually putting it in an envelope but not stopping there thinking about how that person is going to get the envelope back to you. Some people just do courtesy reply on envelopes, which require a stamp totally fine. In some cases courtesy reply envelope seem to have better response rates for some groups of people but it really depends on your organization and that’s something you should test, and the baseline should be removing obstacles so if if having to go get a stamp and put it on your return on envelope is an obstacle. You need to know that. And, and I think the best assumption is to assume that you want to make it as frictionless as possible start with that as the baseline, and then move to a courtesy reply envelope test that, to see if response changes. Donors cut, you know, sometimes they can do crazy things we’ve tested all kinds of different packages we’ve done a lot of a b testing, and we’ve had some really surprising results, and a lot of the assumptions that we had about Tom giveaways and notepads and things that you might include in your appeals, have been proven wrong over the years so my best advice is to, you know, think about it comprehensively, think about it holistically from a donors point of view, where are those barriers that people are going to get hung up on where they’re going to have to take more time or go look something up or, you know, get a stamp or have to go to the post office, whatever it might be. And, you know, think about your landing page in the same way, is the landing page concise, does it require them to basically reread the appeal, that’s not great, that’s going to slow people down, or does it allow them to quickly complete the action. So those are those are all things to think about and I think that’s my best advice to people is to just think about it holistically but also remember that this isn’t necessarily, you know, the mantra that your organization has to follow, you’re going to find out what’s best for you by testing AV testing is still your best friend. When it comes to direct mail and fundraising appeals.

Curtis: I’m glad that came up that idea about testing because while you know we are giving advice based on our experience and what we have seen works best in most cases, there are always exceptions, and the only way that you are going to know for your organization is to test those things, great advice.


Mistake 6: Having a Weak Case for Support

Okay. Mistake number six, having a weak case for support. 

Russ: Yes. So this happens more often than you think. Where you can see two things that happen that organizations kind of get into a rep with. The first is kind of putting an appeal out there and just kind of assuming that people are going to just complete a desired action, you know will these people have been giving for years and years and you know we don’t need to. We don’t really need to make the case for support they know us, and I think that that’s a trap that a lot of fundraisers fall into is that you know that assumption that people are going to know why the organization is worthy, and why they should invest, again, this time around. And I think it’s exacerbated by this idea. The, the idea that there are just so many nonprofits that are worthy of our support at this point. It’s really a givers market. And so every chance that you get to put a case for support and donor engagement language in front of someone, you really have to make sure that that case for support is buttoned up tight.

Curtis: Yeah. The, like you said, the givers market I think it just because you have a cause that’s worthy of support, doesn’t mean that a donor is going to give you have to draw the line you have to connect the dots for that donor and explain to them why their support is necessary, and why it’s necessary now.

Russ: Yes, and this relates back to number 10 which is that idea of you know having a core issue, describing the problem at hand, really the case for support is your opportunity to take those uniqueness points, take that programmatic information, and really make the case for why your organization above any other organization is equipped to do this work and to have an impact. And, you know beyond that, you can describe the donors role in it and you can get into those things but really when you’re talking about case for support that is the reason why people should give you know and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve worked with great nonprofit organizations very, you know well regarded organizations and we will ask the staff. Why should, why should I give, why should people give. And more often than not, it’s a very difficult question for them to answer.

Curtis: Deer in the headlights.

Russ: Yeah, exactly. And you know what what a lot of people do as they just throw too much information at it. And, you know, they talk about you know programmatic things and points like that but what you really want to do is you want to work shop that question. Why should I give a workshop that question to the point where you distill it down to an elevator pitch to a 32nd pitch, maybe two or three sentences, if you’re writing it out, why people should give, and, you know, you can get into programmatic things and specific things but for a lot of organizations that case for support is can be fairly evergreen. If you’re talking about the case for support, it’s more related to that core issue than it is maybe the problem at hand.

Curtis: Yeah, and, and I’m glad you brought up the point about it being evergreen because once you put in this work and what you’re describing does take a bit of work to get that case for support to really nail it once you put in that work and you have it. You can use it again and again and again, it may, you know, over time, the world changes very quickly these days. it may require some adjustment, but that work that you put in upfront will really pay off down the line.

Russ: Yeah, we tend to recommend that folks workshop it you know fundraising messaging in general, once a year. And once you get past that initial process of really nailing down all your evergreen points. It’s not too much of a heavy lift to annually update it. Especially you do it at the end of your fiscal year. And as you’re pivoting into that fall fundraising calendar year end fundraising. That’s a great time to do it, you take part of July, and just get it on talk with folks in marketing, talk with executives and maybe even board members who are on the fundraising end of things and get everybody on the same page about what you’re going to be talking about that year.



Curtis: Yeah, yeah, great suggestion. And that’s a good stopping point for today. So that concludes the first part of this two part series on common mistakes nonprofits make when messaging to their donors. Join us next time for the top five. Thank you, Russ for sharing your insight and expertise.

Russ: My pleasure, Curtis.

Curtis: For any blog articles or other IPM resources that are related to topics we discussed today, we will link to them in the show notes. If you liked this episode, please subscribe in Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. And leave us a review. We also invite you to explore our growing library of white papers, blog posts, and infographics in the Resources section of the IPM website. That address is ipmadvancement.com/resources. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

Russ: Thanks, Curtis. Thanks, everybody.


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