The Importance of Being Earnest

November 20, 2014 - by Lisa Maska

Be Authentic:  Don’t Trip Yourself Up Worrying About Being “Original”

As fundraisers, we often groan when we approach our umpteenth year-end appeal or annual renewal mailing.  We feel we have to dream up a new way to say “thank you,” or “please make a year-end gift,” or “your support made a real difference this year” to donors.  

But the truth is, we feel the need to “shake it up”- because we get bored.  Donors aren’t comparing this year-end appeal to the one they received from you last year.  They’re not judging you on the creativity of your letter or your package.  They’re responding based on two simple criteria:  do you make a strong and heartfelt case for support?  And, have you shown them through all your fundraising communications that they make a difference with every contribution?

I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity lately, and it seems to me that often, strong fundraising is sabotaged by the pressure to be “creative.” 

So I offer these three suggestions for keeping your focus on what is most important.  Especially at this incredibly busy time of year, when donors are inundated with competing messages, and the majority of your revenue is on the line!

1.       Be direct and clear in your copy

Which letter would you rather read?  A letter that begins:

This Thanksgiving, as we approach the season of gratitude, I am writing on behalf of XYZ organization and our board of directors to let you know how much we appreciate your support this year. Thanks to the generosity of thousands of caring friends like you, we were able to deliver lifesaving meals to thousands of homebound seniors …


Thank you.  Thanks to your incredibly generous support, we have been able to deliver lifesaving meals to the 2,000 homebound seniors who depend on us every week … 

The second opening makes me feel so good about my support.  It’s more conversational, and far more direct.  It’s less stilted, and focuses immediately on the donor. Not on a “hook” (in this case, making an overt reference to Thanksgiving) to open the letter with.  (And, it addresses ME alone, rather than “thousands of caring friends.”  I feel like my support is really important to them – not like I’m just one of a multitude of donors.)

The best letters are those that are simply written and direct.  They are more likely to get read – and more likely to elicit a response from the donor.

2.       Don’t (necessarily) reinvent the wheel

Did the year-end email series you sent out last year work well?  Then don’t feel you have to overhaul this year’s.  If you sent four emails last year, add a fifth – since you can increase revenue by adding an additional contact.   You can tweak the copy in each message to update it.  But don’t feel you absolutely need a whole-sale rewrite unless there is something you have to change (for example, you had a match last year and don’t have one this year).

That said, do take the time to consider if there are any new strategies you could incorporate this year.  For example, if you didn’t use a lightbox on your website during December last year, make that part of your strategy this year.

3.       Remember that your donors like you – they really do

What do I mean by this?  You don’t always have to “lure” (or trick) them into the envelope.

Yes, there are times when it is appropriate to use a teaser (“Annual Renewal Enclosed”, or “Matching Gift Opportunity!”), but you don’t have to be clever by changing up your carrier envelope.  Your donors care about you … they are likely opening the mail and email messages you send them (if you are making your content meaningful to them).  If you’re doing your job right, a straightforward approach will likely work best.

In the tests we conduct, donor mailings usually perform better with a plain carrier envelope that simply identifies you as the sender – rather than envelopes that include teasers (with the exception of what we categorize as “information” teasers like those described above).

What’s the bottom line?   Yes, creativity is incredibly important in direct response fundraising!   Take the time to brainstorm and you’ll uncover new ways to engage your donors and increase revenue.   But know when it’s okay to keep it simple, so that “creativity” doesn't get in the way of strong fundraising.


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