John Thompson, Chief Creative Officer  ●  11/29/2017

The Most Important Rule(s) of Fundraising Copy

fundraising copy fundraising appeal
“If you see an adverb, kill it!”
—Mark Twain

Rules, Rules, Rules

A former boss (a wise direct-marketing guru, NOT Mark Twain) once imparted to me the Most Important Rule in direct-response fundraising: Sell only one thing per campaign.  (In nonprofit terms, present only one problem to be solved per package.)

This maxim sat along the Other Most Important Rule: It’s easier to raise money against evil than to raise money for good.

And, depending on the day, it sat alongside these Even More Most Important Rules:

  • State the problem in a way that makes the donor feel they can make a difference.
  • By directing a donor to take some kind of action, you increase the chance they will also contribute.
  • Never impede the donation process.
  • The older the donor, the larger the font you should use.

So, yes, there are many important rules to keep in mind as we craft fundraising appeals to the heroic donors who fuel the remarkable work of The Salvation Army.

The MOST “Most Important Rule”

However, all the above “rules” are rendered ineffective if we overlook, perhaps, the most important one of them all: Keep it simple.

This has nothing to do with America’s great dumbing-down or any generational propensity to read.  It has everything to do with the pace and clutter of today’s complicated world.

American donors — regardless of age, wealth indicator, or channel preference — are besieged with marketing and media messages … nearly every waking moment of every day.

In reality, we ask donors for two precious commodities.  Before we ask for a bit of their hard-earned money, we ask them for a bit of their time — time to read about and (hopefully) reflect on our mission and its merits.

Given its scarcity, we must show respect for the donor’s time with the courtesy of being brief. We owe them concise, easy-to-comprehend, quick-to-visualize messages that require a simple response.

The Importance of a Singular Focus 

Don’t overcomplicate your fundraising messages.  So, if you want donors to help fight homelessness, don’t describe the data behind the nationwide problem.  Instead, show them how a night off the streets restored one man’s life.

If you want donors to feed hungry neighbors, don’t describe the shelves of food in the food bank.  Instead, show how one meal turned a family’s life around.

If you want donors to help those displaced by floods, don’t talk about how many homes were destroyed.  Instead, tell them about one little girl who lost her dog.

Above all, respect the donor’s time and attention.  To that end, regardless of the channel in which you communicate, make your message accessible, scannable, easy, and quick.

Quick Tips and Guidelines

  • Show the need, either by painting a picture in words or using a picture.  (Don’t relate the details of the program.)
  • Use succinct language, employ active verbs, and eliminate those lazy adverbs.
  • Maintain a singular, human focus.
  • Rewrite, cut, rewrite, cut — always paring down to basics.

Simple.  Focused.  Concise.  Follow these rules, and your donors will thank you in the most important and beneficial way they can — with their support.


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