Published on May 23, 2014 by

What bad fundraisers don’t understand about long copy

This year, I’ve taken on several new clients. And I’ve found myself having variations of the long vs. short copy discussion with all of them except one.

What surprised me was some of them were working with other consultants before me. So I thought they would not be averse to trying long copy to lift income and/ or response. Not so.

Here’s the “I’m-going-to-fight-you-on-this-even-though-I-know-little-about-fundraising-and-we-desperately-need-more-money” version of the discussion.

ME in meeting to discuss upcoming appeal letter: “Now how would you feel about doing a four-page letter?”

CLIENT: “I HATE long letters! I/ my wife/ the chairman of the board/ the CEO/ my second cousin thrice removed always throws them in the bin.”

ME: “Er… okay… but do you realise that lots of tests have shown long copy performs better than short copy?”

CLIENT: “That’s a load of garbage. I don’t believe it.”

ME: “I know it’s counter-intuitive. But giving is an emotional decision and it actually takes quite a lot of copy to…”

CLIENT: “I just want a SHORT letter with the facts. You should be able to tell people what you want in one page rather than making people read a long letter full of drivel.”

ME: “Well, yes, if you do four pages, it has to be four pages of good content. Two pages of good content will do better than four pages of crappy content. But what I would write would include at least one really strong story of the beneficiary, show the problem or the need, how the donor’s gift actually helps…”

CLIENT: “I just don’t believe anyone would read that much text.”

ME (resigned): “The best way to really know for sure is to run a split test of a 4-pager versus a 2-pager. I’m happy to write a long and short version for you if you want.”

Not all clients are this combative. But any consultant or agency working with a new client is familiar with this type of scenario.

I wondered why so many non-profits already doing direct mail are so resistant to doing longer letters. Even when presented with evidence that it works.

Then it hit me.

Many charities think a good fundraising letter is about communication.

Great fundraisers know a good appeal letter is about persuasion.

Persuasion usually takes a whole lot more words than communication.

An illustration for you.

If you’re telling your friend about last week’s footy match, it doesn’t take a lot of words to communicate to him which team won and who scored the most goals. You can even do that in one sentence.

But what if you’re trying to convince the same person to become a footy club member? I think you'll agree it will take A LOT more words to persuade him.

You need to explain why supporting the club is a good thing, why the club needs more members, what benefits they get as a club member, how much fun it will be, and so on. You need to get your friend excited about joining up.

If your friend is half-hearted, you may need to go further and show him what’s in it for him.

For example, hanging out with mates at matches or great family days out. Perhaps the chance to meet the players and get autographs for the kids. Or getting the kids interested in team sports.

If you know your friend really well, you can hone in on the benefit that will get him to sign up.

See how much more talking it may take to convince him?

The same applies in fundraising.

If you’re simply communicating information about your charity, you can do it in fewer words. You can tell donors about your vision and mission statement. You tell them how many years you’ve been around, how many people you’ve helped, and provide a list of your programs.

Sadly, a lot of charity direct mail letters are little more than waffly versions of this.

But if you’re trying to persuade donors to give, you need a different approach. You need to get them excited or outraged or inspired enough to make a donation.

You need to tell them stories about people you’ve helped, show clearly what still needs to be done, and exactly how the donor’s gift will accomplish that.

If you’re really good, you’ll couch everything in terms of how the donor has helped or will help you achieve your mission. And how supporting your charity helps donors achieve their goal of making a difference in their area of interest. In other words, what’s in it for the donor.

And if you know your donors really well, you can hone in on the motivations, emotions and values that are more likely to prompt a gift.

To do all this takes a lot more words than simply communicating information about your cause. And the more complicated or abstract or unsexy your mission is, the more words you need.

Can you see why persuasion takes more words than communication?

(Are there exceptions to the use of long copy? Yes, a few. But most cases do not fall into the exception categories. That's another post.)

2 Comments

  1. Kate

    Hi June

    Can you refer me to any evidence on long versus short?
    My new CEO is challenging our next 4 page appeal letter. The copy is great - but he personally hates the length.
    I need evidence to combat this personal preference.
    Can you help?
    Kate

  2. june

    Hi Kate, I've sent you an email with some links! Cheers, June

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