[NPFX Ep. 6] 12 Mistakes Nonprofits Make in Their Fundraising Copywriting, Part 2

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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 2

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Combining logic and emotion in your appeal to inspire readers to donate
  • How to design an outside envelope that uses curiosity to get people to open it and read your appeal
  • Why A/B testing elements of your appeal is vital to understanding your donor audience
  • How to use authentic urgency to boost response
  • The importance of extrinsic motivators in your donor value proposition
  • The value of highlighting the donor’s crucial role in your work when messaging about your nonprofit’s impact on beneficiaries

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Continuing our discussion from last week’s episode, we explore the top 5 copywriting mistakes made by nonprofits. 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 the five most common ways 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, I’m Curtis Schmitt, and I’m back in the studio with Russ Phaneuf, IPM’s Managing Director and Chief Strategist. Welcome back, Russ.

Russ: Happy to be back.

Curtis: Before we dive into the top five copywriting mistakes fundraisers make, I’d like to review quickly the list from last time. Mistake number 12. Not making clear and direct asks, we discussed how to use specific ask amounts and how to keep your asks consistent within an appeal, and also from appeal to appeal. Mistake number 11 not thanking donors. Here we talked about why you always want to thank donors and how to do it in a way that’s authentic. Mistake number 10. Not translating the core issue into a solvable problem at hand. This section was about translating the larger cause or issue your nonprofit is fighting for into a specific problem that the donor can directly help solve through their support of your organization. Mistake Number nine, not explaining what makes your nonprofit unique. This one was all about setting your nonprofit apart from others working in the same namespace so that donors understand why your nonprofit is worthy of their investment. Mistake Number eight, not using the PostScript effectively or at all. Here we discussed why the PS is so important in a fundraising appeal, and different ways to use it. Mistake number seven, making the donation process too complicated. We talked about removing friction from the donation process, as well as a B testing to find out what works best for your donor audience. And Mistake number six having a weak case for support. This was about how donors have lots of causes and organizations they care about. So you never want to assume they know why your nonprofit is worthy. You want to explain clearly why they should give and how their donation will make a difference.

Russ: Good list. All important considerations when writing an appeal.

Curtis: So for any listeners who are joining us for the first time and didn’t hear our previous episodes I strongly encourage you to go back and listen. Everything on this list is important. Okay, Russ ready to proceed?

Russ: Ready.

Curtis: All right, well, we are entering the top five. So this is getting exciting here. The top five mistakes nonprofits make in their fundraising copywriting.


Mistake 5: Not Balancing Logic and Emotion

Curtis: So number five, not balancing logic and emotion.

Russ: Yeah. So people that read your appeals are driven by different things. And there’s been a lot of talk about storytelling and how important storytelling is. And that is incredibly important. It drives the emotional part of appeal in many cases. But don’t forget about the logic because a lot of folks are driven to respond by the logical aspect of it. So you, you hook them with your emotional content, but you reinforce your case for support by saying, you know, of course To The World Health Organization, X number of children in Latin America, you know, are in families that earn less than $1 a day. I mean, those are the kind of specific points, usually by a third party that can reinforce the story that you’re telling. And it’s really, really important to add that into it. You can’t really flip it and go all the way in on the other side, like you don’t want to have an appeal that has all logic points. Because you still need to have some elements of storytelling, and some elements of emotion. And you know, storytelling doesn’t have to be complicated. I think it’s just really the new buzzword that has gained a lot of traction. As we we’ve shifted to online content and so many people have really tuned themselves to consuming content. We’ve kind of made this umbrella of storytelling kind of substitute for what emotional content But emotional content has always been part of fundraising appeals that are really effective.

Curtis: Yeah, yeah. And storytelling is very efficient at doing that emotional work. It personalizes the universal or the general, you know, you, you can include a lot of logical points about the extent to which your organization is helping thousands of people. But it’s difficult if you’re reading that it’s difficult to connect with, you know, how is my $25 going to, to really help, you know, and a story can talk about a single family or single beneficiary, somebody it puts a face to the work that your organization is doing, which is really, really helpful for that person who wants to know that their donation, especially donors on the smaller end, their donation is going to make an impact.

Russ: Yep. And if you want to balance that out, that idea of Having those logic points is kind of the proof that gives your brain permission to act on it, then your brain takes in that emotional story. And then it combines it with those logic points. And then it gives you the green light to actually take action.

Curtis: Right, right. And most people require both logic and emotion in order to open up their checkbook or take out their credit card. So it’s really important that the two are both included. And they’re also it’s also important that the two pieces the logic and emotion, work together to support each other and they’re not separate, you know that you have a single appeal. It’s living and breathing. And it has just like we have right brains and left brains. That’s what your appeal has as well.

Russ: Yeah, and logic points can take different forms, right. I mentioned a logic point. That was kind of a statistic right about made up statistic from the who. But another logic point might be a tangible benefit that the donor gets. So logic can take a lot of different forms and an appeal. Right?


Mistake 4: Overlooking the Importance of the Outside Envelope

Curtis: Right. Yeah. Great. All right, number four, getting closer. Mistake number four. This one I like a lot. It’s something that I am myself, I don’t have a lot of skills in this area, graphic design in particular. So I really, really envy the people who do it well. So Mistake number four is overlooking the importance of the outside envelope.

Russ: Absolutely, Curtis. So the best appeal you’ve ever written, could be inside an envelope. But if people don’t open that envelope, you’re never going to be able to share that with them. You’re not going to get the kind of engagement that you want. So the outside envelope really drives your spots. It drives your results for fundraising appeals, and it’s incredibly important. For your outside envelope to generate curiosity. That’s basically the number one thing you want to do with euro se. When people get your envelope in the mail, it should stand out. But it should also present them with a question or some kind of curiosity generating statement that compels them to find the answer inside the envelope. That is, the best way to get open rates up for your organization, is to think about presenting people with something that is going to challenge them is going to ask them a question. And the easiest most frictionless way for them to get the answer to that is just by opening the envelope. That is, that’s the best way to do it. And basically, there’s a good way to do it, which is you pay it off fairly quickly, either at the top of your letter, or with an insert or a brochure or something like that where you know, you’re carrying a theme Through the piece, and the package, but the one thing I’ll say the mistake that people make is they come up with this really great curiosity inducing teaser for their envelope, and then you open up the package, and you never get an answer, or you get an answer that’s kind of only tangentially related to how people got you in the envelope and that can actually work against you. People can look at that, like they’ve been duped to get in your envelope and they could actually repress your your response rates.

Curtis: Yeah, clickbait is a great example. You know, how, yeah, if you click on an article and you’re like, you know, is your tap water poison? And no, it’s not, but you know, it might be and it’s like, right, that’s not what I wanted.

Russ: Yeah. And, and that’s a great example. I mean, that you can get so trite with it, that you could have something like that on the outside of the envelope and you could pay it off right away. And that’s even questionable. You want it to be something of substance. You know, for for one of our clients, USA Swimming Foundation, they have a program that teaches kids to swim all over the country. And the crux of the program is that kids are drowning, without training without swimming training. Too many kids drown in the United States every year, because they don’t know how to swim. So that’s the problem at hand. That’s what they’re solving. And in a lot of instances, we can, we can use that curiosity because a lot of people just don’t know that a lot of people don’t know that this is is really an epidemic. Drowning is one of the leading causes of death for children in the United States. And if we can present it to people on the outside envelope and present them with a teaser that generates curiosity about that, it leads directly into making the case for support describing the problem at hand, all those things and so it really pays it off very nicely once you get into the appeal. And there’s that feeling of, Okay, I open this envelope, I’m learning something, I’m getting something in return for my time of reviewing this letter. And that puts you that much further ahead on convincing someone to give to you.

Curtis: Yeah, I think when your appeal can educate somebody, you are, you know, a couple steps ahead in the whole process.

Russ: Yeah, absolutely. It’s all part of the value exchange, ya know, you want to offer people something of value, because otherwise it’s a take take take relationship on behalf of the organization. And that’s not the position you want to be in as an organization you want to be looked at as a source of good information, trustworthy information that completely reflects on your brand, and it reflects on your fundraising program.

Curtis: So follow up question for you, Russ. What, if anything, what do we want to say about the different elements that that work together to make an outsider envelope compelling, like the graphical elements, the you know, you’re talking about something that generates curiosity could be a question. It could be a picture. Do we want to say anything about how those different elements might work together or separately?

Russ: Yeah, so I think in general, just speaking from a design perspective, it’s it’s important if you’re able to do it, if your budget allows for it, it’s important to at least have a black and white picture on the outside of the envelope that that grabs people’s attention. It’s important to have a teaser or some kind of maybe at most two lines of text, preferably a question that gets people inside the envelope. It’s also important to not make the envelope look like something it isn’t. Don’t make your envelope look like it’s a, you know, an urgent letter from the IRS. Right. Don’t try to do people. We talked a little bit about that just a couple of minutes ago, in terms of making sure that you pay off your teasers In a really good and authentic way, but you know, don’t try to get too clever with how you package, your direct mail piece in terms of trying to get people in the envelope in a way that’s maybe a little bit, you know, taking some liberties with the design.

Curtis: Yeah. And speaking of budget, if you have the budget definitely test different envelopes. 

Russ: Absolutely. I mean, you might find that, you know, a craft brown envelope works better for your organization than a number 10 window envelope, you might find that personalization on the outside of the envelope, even though it’s more expensive. Eventually, you know, pays itself off in terms of response and average gift. And again, it gets back to that idea that your organization should be a B testing all this stuff and when you do a B testing as someone especially for the folks who are out there in the trenches in annual giving, it’s super important for you to document all your AB testing, keep a log of everything. write up a summary of why you did it, what the outcomes were so that when you move on to your next organization or you move up in your organization, the person that inherits your program knows that they don’t have to recreate the wheel. They know that you’ve done this stuff already, that you’ve found that B works better than a and then B became your new control, and that you really built a program. And I would say, for the folks who are out there in annual giving, that’s also a really great way to convey to your boss that you are managing your program in a very effective way. You’re being very methodical about your program. You’re not just throwing a bunch of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. You’re being methodical about tracking the changes that you’re making. And you know, in some cases, some things that you test will require multiple rounds. You know, the one variable we really can’t get rid of an A B testing, is seasonality and what’s going on with external Internal environments, and especially right now with COVID-19, and how that’s affecting the way that people interact with nonprofits and fundraising, you might have to kind of keep your testing regimen going. But put an asterisk next to it, like Major League Baseball is going to have to do this year with their season stats. You know, 2020 is a different year than anything we’ve ever seen. And so it’s important to keep testing, but maybe keep in mind that your results this year might not be indicative of results in the future.

Curtis: Right, right. Yeah. Apples to Apples. That kind of thing.

Russ: Right.

Curtis: Yeah. Great. Good. Well, we’ve reached the top three mistakes non processing exciting.

Russ: Yeah. Exciting.

Curtis: Unfortunately, we are out of time and we’ll have to wait until next week. That’s a joke. That’s a joke.

Russ: That’s that’s one of those bad teasers.

Curtis: Yes, exactly. Yes. Yeah. All right. Nobody opened that envelope.

Russ: We’re getting we’re getting real punny. At the This point.


Mistake 3: Your Appeal Lacks Urgency

Curtis: All right, so Mistake number three is your appeal lacks urgency.

Russ: So urgency drives response. And we’re kind of living in an era where donor behavior has changed quite a bit. If you haven’t already read some of our blog posts in our in our white paper on rapid response fundraising. It’s I think it’s worth your time, if you’re in the trenches on annual giving, and you’re writing appeals because having that awareness of what could be authentically urgent for your organization is is pretty important. Nowadays, most donors are savvy enough to be able to sniff out when you’re kind of faking urgency. And so I think the takeaway here for urgency and appeal is that you want to find those things that are really authentically urgent and very compelling. And most of the time, an easy way to do that is to think about what is really urgent to the people we serve. That’s a good filter to use as you think about urgency for your appeals. Think about beneficiaries. Think about the people that you support and that you serve. And what’s top of mind for them, what’s really affecting them in their day to day lives that your organization addresses.

I think COVID-19 is a good example, where we’ve seen organizations use the pandemic and use kind of how it’s changed our lives in a good way. For some organizations and and in other ways that aren’t so good. I think early on in the pandemic. In March, I saw a lot of organizations messaging with a very trite fundraising statement that COVID-19 has shut us down. It’s really affected our fundraising, please give money. That’s not really an effective way to leverage the urgency of COVID-19 a better way to Do it is to think about your beneficiaries. Think about the people you serve and how it’s affected them, tie it back to the work that you do. And then you can make a really authentic and compelling sense of urgency come forth in your appeal writing. I think the other thing to think about too, is the opportunity to create a sense of urgency around dates, anniversaries, and some current events. And these are nice because you can typically plan for dates and anniversaries, right? If you if you work in a certain space in the nonprofit world. There are going to be important dates, anniversaries, maybe of legislation or a founders or people who have been really important in your part of the movement in whatever you do. And and those are opportunities that you can kind of build some urgency around that. And have your giving is always an opportunity to leverage some urgency. It’s not quite This powerful I think we live in a time now, where a lot of organizations get into the matching game. And nowadays, like you can’t even have an annual giving year end campaign without some kind of donor match at the 11th hour. So I think that look, you know, if you can look beyond those time based, kind of standard reasons for urgency, that’s always good, too.

Curtis: So I would like to, I’d like to add something there. I think that looking through the lens of urgency can really help you strengthen your appeal. It can help you strengthen your case for support, it can help you identify a strong problem at hand to feature because what it does is it forces you to look at what is your organization doing now that will motivate somebody to make a donation. So it could be simply that you feed families, let’s say that’s what your organization does. You feed families. A sense of urgency could be create By saying, there are families right now who are counting on your support. You know, that’s urgency, right. So I think that there’s, there’s a, there’s something really interesting that happens when you examine your appeal through this, like I said, this lens of urgency. I think what it does is it brings your attention more to the impact that your organization is making right now. And then you can translate that for the donor in an appeal.

Russ: Right, exactly.


Mistake 2: Having a Vague Donor Value Proposition

Curtis: Good. Well, counting down the second worst mistake that nonprofit organizations make when they’re messaging to their donor audience having a vague donor value proposition and I know this is a big one with you. So I’m very eager to hear what you have to say about this one.

Russ: I’m big on donor value proposition, Curtis, I’m very big on it. And the main reason why is I don’t think organizations A lot of them do a great job at conveying what that donor value proposition is, you know, a donor value proposition is what signals to donors that their investment in you is going to be something that gives them value as well. What am I getting? In return for my time, energy and money that I’m putting into this organization? What am I getting in return? And and what we’ve seen typically is the donor value proposition will hinge for a lot of organizations, far too heavily on the validity of the core issue and how compelling their solutions are. It’s it’s more about the organization, and it really shouldn’t be donor value proposition should be about the donor, what are they getting out of it? And so again, it’s great idea to take that donor centric point of view. And if you’re going to make an investment, and you have X amount of dollars that you’re going to give to this organization, what am I going to get in return Okay, just assume that the baseline is you have a worthy cause. And the work you’re doing is effective, and it’s making progress in addressing the problems at hand. But beyond that, what’s your donor value proposition?

You have to think about what donor benefits are the unique things that donors get to engage in or be part of, when they give and become part of your donor group. Those are all things that that really define the donor value proposition. And so that can range from the warm and fuzzies of supporting a cause that I care about all the way to the specific donor benefits I get at certain levels of being a donor for the with this organization. Nowadays say there’s more and more people who are relying on these extrinsic motivators for philanthropic engagement, right. There’s there’s two kinds of motivators for Giving one is intrinsic. That’s that idea of altruism of, I’m doing this because I want to make the world a better place. According to the research, a much bigger driver of donor engagement is extrinsic rewards. Those are things like recognition, being part of a group of like minded people or people that you aspire to be like donor benefits, specific tangible things that you get in return. And so that may sound cutthroat to think of the donor value proposition in terms of extrinsic rewards. But that’s a really important place to be thinking about your program, what extrinsic rewards are driving people to engage. 

Curtis: And that can be like insider privileges, right. Like, you were talking a little bit about educating your donors on certain issues. It could be that you feel like you’re getting something in that sense, is that correct?

Russ: Yeah, it’s It can range again. It can go from, say you’re a theatre company, and you want to give donors something they can’t get anywhere else. And one of those things might be the opportunity to have a roundtable discussion. Well, maybe in the COVID-19 era, maybe that’s a private zoom call right with with some of the actors and the people behind the scenes. It’s an opportunity. Maybe when theaters open back up to go backstage and see people, you want to think of it in a way as you know, what can I give my donors or what as a donor Can I get from this organization that I can’t get anywhere else?

Curtis: And that ties in nicely with the uniqueness conversation we had last time talking about Mistake Number nine.

Russ: Right.


Mistake 1: Failing to Highlight the Impact Your Organization Makes and the Donor’s Role in that Process

Curtis: So guess what? We made it to number one. All righty. Yeah, this is the number one mistake that nonprofits make one messaging to their donor audience. drumroll please. We don’t have a drummer. Sorry. That’s okay. Yeah, we do have a drummer, we do.

Russ: The drums are upstairs.

Curtis: We don’t have drums. That’s Yeah. Okay, well, here we go.

Russ: Number one

Curtis: Failing to highlight the impact your organization makes on beneficiaries, and specifically the donors role in that process.

Russ: Yes, absolutely. So a lot of organizations fall back on programmatic language, it’s about the organization. It’s about what they’re doing. It’s the nuts and bolts of how they’re serving beneficiaries. And it doesn’t, in some instances, make it all the way to talking about the actual impact on beneficiaries and their lives.

So a good example of this might be, say you have an organization that’s a that’s a food bank, right. And once a year at Thanksgiving, you serve people in your community who are homeless. And so you can say that in three different ways. You can say it from a programmatic side of things, which a lot of people do. They said we served 100 families with our Thanksgiving meal who are experiencing homelessness. So okay, great. That’s an outcome. It’s very programmatic related. You could check it off your strategic plan lists for the year. That’s wonderful. But let’s take it a step further. The next level emphasizes the actual beneficiaries. And you could say something like, we had 100 families this Thanksgiving, including the Smith family who found themselves experiencing homelessness after both Mr. And Mrs. Smith lost their jobs earlier this year because of the covid 19 pandemic. So that focuses on the beneficiaries.

Then you can take it one step further, you can focus on the beneficiaries, but you can tie it back to the donor impact. And you might say something like, thanks to your generosity and other donors who gave to our organization, we were able to feed 100 families experiencing homelessness this Thanksgiving. And in addition to that one of those families that we fed the Smith family, we’re able to work with them and find them permanent housing through our donor funded program that benefits people in our community. You could say something like that man, now you can wordsmith it much better than I did, because I was just doing it off the top of my head. But there’s an opportunity to just elevate the way that you message to your donors, and involve them in the messaging and project onto them, your invitation for them to really be part an active part of the solution. They’re providing the funding that is making possible this positive impact on beneficiaries.

Curtis: What I really like about the example that you gave there, using those three different levels is you’ve outlined a way for the copywriter to start from the organization’s perspective and move to that donor centric perspective. We’ve been talking about so, you know, because it’s very easy, you’re within the organization, it’s natural for you to see things through the perspective of the organization. So to get on that other side of the table, where the donor is, what you did Russ was you explained a way to kind of build to that, from the perspective that’s natural to the copywriter. I think that was really, really helpful.

Russ: Yeah, and and I think there’s an opportunity, depending on your audience to shape it differently. If you’re reporting to your board, you know, it might be good enough for you to just share the statistics, the program focused statistics, you know, if you’re presenting to your board, for you know, a quarterly update to them on on what you’ve achieved, that would be appropriate. But when you’re messaging to a donor audience, you really have to think about them and think about your beneficiaries and put them ahead in terms of, you know, having slots, one, two, and three slot one is going to be the beneficiaries. slot two is going to be the donors. And then slot three is going to be the actual program in the organization. It’s not a time to be selfish and put your organization first in donor messaging. 

Curtis: Yeah, yeah. And I think too, I’d like to add a little bit to kind of justify why this is our number one. And, you know, what I’d like to talk about is this idea of making the donor, the hero that, you know, your organization is doing good work in the world, but it relies on the support of your donors. And to really acknowledge it and directly acknowledge it in your messaging and let the donor know that you know, that and you value that I think is so helpful, you know, setting this up so that, you know, we would talk about using the word you, you know, you focus language twice as much as we focused language, you know, so you can count the use and count the weeds in your letter and see, you know, it’s it’s a rough rule of thumb, but I think it’s helpful. But this idea that like the organization couldn’t do the work that it does without the donor, thanks to your generosity With your help, you know these phrases just sort of, you can sprinkle them throughout their throughout your appeal, and almost take an appeal that doesn’t even have them. And just sprinkle a couple of those phrases. And I think you’re well on your way to doing what we’re recommending here.

Russ: Yeah, and you can take it a step further, Curtis, you can also have two types of messaging that recognizes donors, you can as the organization recognize the donor role, but an even better thing to do in some cases is to actually have the beneficiaries thank the donors directly. And that’s a great opportunity. We recently did an appeal for Ronald McDonald House Charities. And that appeal focused on a family that was waiting to, for their son to get life saving hearts. surgery and and we just had the family directly thank the donors, because there is that direct connection for that particular organization and the work that they do. There is a fairly direct connection to contributions and the ability for those families to stay at the homes while they wait for their children to have medical care. Hmm. Great.


Bonus: 4 Questions to Help You Write a More Effective Fundraising Appeal

Curtis: Well, we covered a lot today. And there’s a lot more to we could say about each of these. What I will do is in the show notes, I will link to any blog articles that are directly related to some of the points that we’ve covered. So if people want to dig deeper they can. Are there any any last words any takeaways, anything we haven’t talked about that you want to emphasize? Before we close for the day?

Russ: Curtis, I think people are listening and they’re saying I want more and so I have a special bonus point that I’d like to share. Okay, if I may be so bold.

Curtis: Sure, this is a surprise for me too.

Russ: It’s a surprise. And it’s and it’s for those people who are in the copywriting role. It’s for those people who are preparing appeals. And it’s just a quick and easy process that I go through with clients and that I go through for myself when I’m sitting down to write an appeal. These are the four questions I think about when I’m writing for a donor audience.

And the first question is, what do I want people to think? And so those are going to be focused on the logic points, their ideas about the organization and the problem at hand. And, you know, it’s it’s, it’s this more intellectual side of the appeal messaging. The second is, what do I want people to feel or how do I want them to feel? In some cases, that’s where your urgency comes in. There might be anger about the core issue that it hasn’t been solved that the problems at hand haven’t been solved. There might be actually excitement about your proposed solutions to solve the problems. So that’s how you want people to feel. And then the third is what do you want people to know? What are the takeaways? When they put down the appeal after reading it? What are they going to be left with? And then the last is, what do you want them to do? What do you want your audience to do? So you want to be very specific, you want to be very clear about your expectations for what you want people to do. And that language might even get so specific as saying there’s a reply form in this package, there’s a return envelope, we want you to complete the reply form, and rush that envelope back to us within the next seven days. So it’s being specific about what you want the outcome to be. for that person. It might just be going to a website and learning more it might be signing a petition, but you want to be very clear.

So those four things again, what do you want people to think? How do you want them to feel What do you want them to know? And what do you want them to do? and think, feel know and do will cover probably 80% of effective messaging in an annual giving appeal.

Curtis: And knowing the answers to those questions before you start writing the appeal is very helpful.

Russ: Absolutely. You can use it as a way to get into and then if you’re suffering from writer’s block, or, you know, you just can’t think about what to talk about, start with these and and see what happens.

Curtis: Think, feel, know, and do. I love it. Very, very straightforward, very helpful advice.



Curtis: Well, that wraps up our conversation on the top mistakes that nonprofits make when messaging to their donors. Thank you to Russ for sharing his insight and expertise. If you liked this episode, please subscribe in Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Podcasts, or your favorite podcast app. And leave us a review. For any blog articles that were referenced today, we will link to them in the show notes. And we also invite you to explore our growing library of online courses, white papers, 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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