Tips for fundraising letters

July 31, 2013

Filed under: Communications,Fundraising — jonathanpoisner @ 2:15 pm

Clients regularly ask me what goes into a good fundraising letter sent to previous donors.

Here are some tips, in no particular order:

  • Spend time thinking about the opening sentence or two.  It should be engaging, interesting, and provocative.  Don’t save your most engaging material for a third of the way into the letter.  Open with your strongest stuff.
  • Make the ask.  At least once per page in a multi-page letter.  Letters that provide an update and then just softly suggest donations are almost never effective.
  • Make the ask specific.  Don’t ask for “generous support” or other similar wishy-washy terms.   If you can, segment your list to make the ask at an appropriate level for different levels of past giving.  If not, you can ask for a several specific levels (e.g. “give $35, $50, $100, or whatever you can afford.”).
  • Personalize it.  Don’t send it to “Dear Friend.”  Send it to “Dear Susan.”
  • Thank them.  If the thank you can be personalized, all the better.  For example, some organizations as part of a mail merge can personalize based on how much they last donated (e.g. “Thank you for your most recent gift of $50” – with $50 being a field inserted from the mail merge unique to that donor).
  • Write it from a person, not the organization.  It should be first-person singular from the author, not “we” from the organization.
  • Create urgency by noting some monetary need of your organization with a deadline.  Create an artificial deadline if necessary.  Make it clear donations in the next few weeks are critical.
  • Tell a story with visually arresting language.  But the story shouldn’t be over – the ending should depend on donors stepping forward to complete the story.   The donors should be the hero(s) of the story, not the nonprofit.
  • Focus on the mission-impact you’ll be making on the world with more resources, not the process or internal organizational benefits.
  • Close with a strong repeat of the ask.
  • If the author has time to actually sign each individual letter instead of printing one, then it’s worth doing so.  I found this to be a painless activity to do while watching a movie or tv show at home and am pretty sure donors appreciated when they could tell an individual signed it, not just the computer.  This also gave me a chance o write 1-2 sentence personal notes on any letters where I knew the person receiving it.
  • Use a PS that once again repeats the specific ask and the urgency/deadline.
  • If the volunteers are available, experiment with having half your letters hand addressed by volunteers and sent first class.  See if the extra dollars generated by higher returns justifies the extra postage and volunteer time.   If so, make this part of your standard practice.

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Making them move

July 25, 2013

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 2:37 pm

Lesson 7 of Why Organizations Thrive is to become a very good public speaker.

Here’s one public speaking tip that I’ve found useful over the years: make the audience physically move.

Rather than being a distraction, this almost always will increase their mental and emotional connection to the speech.

When giving my annual presentations at the Oregon League of Conservation Voters Gala, more than once I determined that movement was going to be a powerful way of increasing the audience’s excitement about the dinner that was unfolding.  I felt that the motion of their standing up en mass with others would help generate excitement and make them feel “part” of the speech and not just listeners.

So I asked a series of questions (another way to increase audience engagement) that I knew would over the course of 30 seconds get the entire audience standing up and feeling good about their collective power.

The two times I used this trick (several years apart), the sense of increased excitement in the room was palpable.

Of course, if you’re giving an annual presentation, you can’t use this “trick” every year or it will start to feel stale.

But in putting together your presentations, think about what you’re trying to accomplish and whether some movement can increase the audience’s engagement.  In addition to standing up, movement could mean raising their hands, having them introduce themselves to the person next to them, having them stand up and turn once around and sit back down, etc.

If you’ve used this technique or seen it used with real success, let me know what worked as I’m always trying to add to my own toolbox.


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The point comes before the story

July 24, 2013

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 11:15 am

Readers of Why Organizations Thrive know that I’m a big believer in nonprofit leaders becoming excellent public speakers and organizations knowing and telling their stories.

When giving a speech, which comes first: developing your point or your story?

I recently stumbled across a blog by Rich Hopkins that convincingly made the point that the point comes first.

Stories are only as valuable as the point they are trying to convey.

When crafting a speech, start with your point and then figure out what stories help illustrate it.  Don’t start with the story.

Hopkins writes:

“…no matter how great your story is, if it doesn’t match the point you’re trying to get across, it’s nothing more than a diversion, and in the worst cases, can completely derail your speech.

Building a speech for the real world means having a real point to share. Granted, it may start with a story you want to tell – surviving abuse, climbing Everest, passing the 400th level of Candy Crush – but ultimately it must have a takeaway point – a spine on which the muscle of your stories can always attach.”

Read Hopkins full blog entry and let me know if you agree or disagree.   

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Quick thoughts about e-newsletters

July 9, 2013

Filed under: Communications — jonathanpoisner @ 4:10 pm

Because I try to stay in close touch with both current and former clients, I subscribe to a large volume of e-newsletters from nonprofit organizations.

There are a lot of great ones.  But I also see clients repeatedly issue newsletters that violate some of what I believe are best practices.

Here’s five examples of mistakes I see being made on a regular basis.

1. Writing with a neutral tone.

Your donors/volunteers should be superheros.   Unfortunately, many e-newsletter writers received graduate training in public policy or other fields that train you to write neutrally.  Neutrality is not your friend in enlisting others to support your cause.

2. Writing to be read, not scanned.

The vast majority of your readers will scan your content, not read it.  Think Huffington Post, not New York Times.  Someone scanning your e-newsletter should get the essential story from the headlines/photos without having to read the full text.   Before issuing the e-newsletter, look at it without the text and ask: what would my reader come away with?  If nothing valuable, then work harder on your headlines and photos/captions.

3. Writing about process, not the ultimate goal of the organization.

Particularly with advocacy nonprofits, fights over process tend to absorb significant time.  Those in the middle of those fights often become passionate about them and falsely assume their donors/supporters will share that passion.  In reality, donors/supporters are almost always focused on the end goal/mission the nonprofit is trying to achieve.  Avoid process stories.

4. Pictures that don’t connect

Pictures are good, but not all pictures help.  Given how people are reading e-newsletters (many on mobile devices), focus on pictures where you have just one or two people and you should be able to see their eyes (and hopefully they’re smiles if appropriate).  Pictures of large groups where you can’t see anyone aren’t as effective in my opinion.

5.  Long sentences with parenthetical clauses

Many of us in college learned to write complex sentences that embody multiple ideas and show the relationship between those ideas.  These are almost always a bad idea in an e-newsletter.  My rule of thumb: if it can be broken into two separate short sentences, do it.

Let me know what other mistakes you see and think should be avoided?  I’ll cover them in a future blog entry.


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Talking in values language

October 20, 2011

Filed under: Communications — Tags: , — jonathanpoisner @ 2:41 pm

I recently was speaking to a board of a conservation organization and said that they were working to protect “environmental values.”  And that we should lead with our values, not our policies.

One of them asked, what’s that mean?

Here’s my answer:

Values are the first-order rationale for why you want the policies you want.  They are too often unstated by advocates.

Clean water is a policy choice.

The value is why you want clean water.

Here there are multiple potential answers:

Safety — Because people deserve to be safe from poisons

Fairness — It’s unfair for current generations to rob future generations of the world’s precious resources

Responsibility — We have a responsibility to protect the natural world for future generations

And you can I’m sure think of other examples.

Safety, fairness, responsibility, legacy, family — these are examples of values that underlie the why behind the work that conservation advocates do.

Organizations focused on other issues have their own constellation of values.

The important thing is that we need to be up-front about our values.  When we are, people will pay more attention to us when we drill down into the policy.  If we lead with the policy, their eyes will glaze over and they won’t find us worth their time.

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Growing your Facebook fan base

April 22, 2011

Filed under: Communications,Online Communications — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 11:30 am

Sometimes investing a little bit of dollars has a big impact on your base.

The good folks at Idaho Conservation League did an interesting strategy and let the folks at Groundwire share it with the world.

Bottom line:  Facebook for a very low dollar figure lets you microtarget ads at a very small group of people who’ll be highly likely to become fans.

I’d be interested in seeing how other organizations use this opportunity over the next few years.

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Communications plans for institutions

April 19, 2011

Filed under: Communications,Strategic Planning — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 4:34 pm

I recently had a conversation which went something like this. . .

Person A: “We need a communications plan for our organization.”

Me: “Why?”

Person A: “We need to know who the swing vote is on our issue so we can persuade them.”

Me: “Why?”

Person A: “Because they’re the swing vote.  That’s who we should be talking to.”

Now I wasn’t pushing back on the “why” because I’m not a fan of communications plans for institutions.  To the contrary, I think they’re extremely valuable once an organization gets to a reasonable size.

But I’ve been struck a few times now by people coming out of the “campaign” world who don’t get how communications for institutions are not the same animal as communications for a campaign  — whether it’s a ballot measure or candidate campaign.

In a campaign, you have a very identifiable goal, with a timeline, and a specific set of people you’re trying to influence.  In most tough campaigns, Person A is right — your communications plan should identify the swing and figure out how you’re going to move them.

But what about institutions?  Institutions may engage in campaigns, but their interests run beyond the campaigns.  They may be trying to influence a variety of different audiences, making different asks of each.

In my experience, the most useful communications plan for an institution asks:

What’s our brand?

Who do we need to take action and what actions do we want to take?

Of these, which audiences are most important?

How do we reach our priority audiences?

What investments in additional capacity (staff, technology, other) do we need to make to have the capacity to reach them?

It may well be for an institution, very little of their communication is aimed at swing voters and the vast majority of its communication is aimed at potential donors, volunteers, and champion opinion leaders.  There isn’t a right answer here — the important thing is to make sure your communications plan for an institution is focused on the organization and not some campaign or project that has only short-term implications.

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Great study on citizen to Congress communication

February 4, 2011

Filed under: Advocacy,Communications — Tags: , , — jonathanpoisner @ 8:32 am

Great study showing how Congressional staff rate different forms of communications as a means to influence members of Congress.

The bottom line: personal is king, and content is more important than volume.

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