These 7 Copywriting Secrets Can Make You a Fundraising Hero

July 18, 2010

Regular readers know that I’ve made no secret of the fact that I believe, of all of the skills a good nonprofit marketing and development person needs, copy-writing tops the list.


Start collecting the nonprofit annual appeal letters that arrive in your mailbox.  Read through a few nonprofit websites.  Check out some of the brochures, press releases and even grant proposals offered up by most nonprofit organizations.

Are you still awake?

Chances are you read through a lot of “The mission of the blah blah blah organization is to blah blah blah.”  Chances are you didn’t run across a single headline in the mix.  Chances are if you tallied up the number of “I, me, mine, ours” they would outnumber the “you’s” two to one.

Good copy-writing is persuasive.  Good copy-writing engages the reader and draws them in to the possibilities.  Good copy-writers are constantly honing and refining their craft.

When it comes to your nonprofit’s copy – be it web, email or direct mail – bland and boring doesn’t cut it in today’s economy.

That’s why I am delighted to feature a guest post from Niels Teunis.  Niels is a freelance writer and researcher for non-profits and small business and the author of the Future is Now Online Fundraising E-Course. You can visit his website at:  You won’t find the typical nonprofit marketers in this bunch of recommendations from Niels.  But you will find the copy-writing geniuses that top nonprofit marketers studied on their way to becoming great.

What is the most difficult form of persuasion?

To ask someone to take their wallet out of their pocket, open it and give you money. In particular if you are not meeting somebody face to face, but have to rely on the written word to persuade on your behalf. Some people make a living, often a very good living, specializing in that kind of writing. These are known as Direct Response Copywriters. The term Direct Response refers to that fact that they ask their readers to act the moment they are communicating with them. They are not asking someone to “think about it.” They want them to take action and they make them.

That’s exactly what you’re looking for when you write a fundraising appeal. Take a look at some of the key advice from some of the best known Direct Response Copywriters and you’ll see how you can easily apply it to email fundraising.  If you are ever asking someone for money, you should study these copywriters very carefully.

John Carlton

He markets himself as the most ripped off copywriter in the world. Of course, he gave his stuff away for people to use. Carlton’s writing is so good that people gladly took him up on his offer and ripped him off. Carlton has a blog and several resources for aspiring copywriters. I took his Simple Writing System and it is damn good.

What Do You Want Them to Do?

Lesson number 1, for me: Before you put a pen to paper, you decide what it is that you need your prospect to do.

•    Call this number,
•    Sign this petition,
•    Give your credit card number at this website,
•    Make a donation,
•    Write your congress person.

What is it? What is the action you need someone to take. Never write, and certainly never send an email, without knowing exactly what it is that you are going to ask your recipient person to do.

Guy in a Bar

John Carlton writes and talks about a specific scene of a guy in the bar. Imagine that you are sitting in a bar, and a guy (or gal) walks in. He talks to the bartender and tells him a story of something that is just not right in the world. This guy is visibly upset about this injustice and wants to put the earth back on its axis. It so happens that this wrong is the exact thing that your organization is trying to fix, the very raison d’être of your nonprofit.

What do you say to him? How do you now tell him that you are working on this problem and that he has the opportunity to help by giving you a donation?

Write that in your email.

But remember, this guy is completely skeptical and doesn’t believe that a solution is possible. Furthermore, he does not trust that nonprofits will use his money well. He suspects that somebody is wasting his money with stupid bureaucracy and ineptitude. He has no time, and frankly little inclination to listen to you. After all, he was talking to the bartender. Who are you?

What do you say?

Gary Halbert

Gary Halbert is widely revered as one of the best marketers ever. He passed away a few years ago, but for some, his advice is the most powerful that any marketer can give you. You can read many of his famous Gary Halbert Letters here.

A Hungry Crowd

The very first thing you need if you are peddling a product, is figure out if there is a demand for it. If the demand is strong, your marketing and writing efforts can even be minimal and amateurish. If somebody is hungry and you have hotdogs, all you need to do is hang out a sign. No persuasion necessary.
When an earthquake hits Haiti, all you have to do is give people a phone number or website, and donations role in.

When the attention is not that hot though, you still need to figure out, who is hungry for the solution that you offer. Who are the people, and where are the people who want to make the same difference that you do. Can you describe them, their aspirations and frustrations, their pains and pleasures? Do you have a real idea who it is that you are asking to hand you over some money?

A Great Product

All marketing is easier if you have a great product.

You probably don’t need this advice. Ahem.

I am curious. Can you easily explain how your programs, your actions, are going to solve the problem that I care about? How many words do you need? More than a sentence? You don’t have a good product yet.

Gary Bencivenga

This is one of those heroes that all the insiders know about, but those outside of the field of copywriting haven’t. If you don’t know his name, I suggest you start getting familiar with his writing at Gary Bencivenga’s Bullets. Short and extremely valuable pieces of advice for anybody in business and nonprofit marketing.

The Two Most Important Words

What are the two most important words you can use?

1.    You. Think about this seriously. How often does your organization send out an email detailing all the latest about your organization. “We hired a new CFO, welcome Jane.” Nobody cares. I want to right a wrong in the world and your organization is allowing me to do that. Read that line again. You are not doing it for me, but you are allowing me to right this wrong. In all of your email, you should always remind me that I am improving the world.

2.    Because. Bencivenga is the king of “reason-why” copy. You need to explain to me why I should support your organization, by telling me how that support translates into improving the world in the area that I am interested in. Furthermore, I need to trust you. Will you use my money in the way that I intended it, and will you make sure that it doesn’t get eaten up by some bureaucracy somewhere.

Copywriters always tell you to sell on emotion and justify with reason. If you prospect correctly, you have probably hooked me on emotion already. The next critical step is to make sure that I can justify a donation when I am sitting at the proverbial kitchen table with my significant other. Can I explain why this donation should be on our budget, particularly if you are asking for a recurring donation—which I hope you are doing.

John Caples

Again, someone who copywriters all know about, but you might not. He is long gone from the earth, but his book Tested Advertising Methods remains a must read for all copywriters. The good ones read this book over and over again.


The first four of 18 chapters of this book are devoted to headlines. They are that important. If you do nothing else, you should study the art of writing good headlines. He says that headlines are 50-75% of your copy. In email this percentage may be higher. Does the subject line entice your readers to open the email, trash the email, or, oh horror, mark the email as spam? Every good email vendor will allow you to do A/B testing so you can find out what subject lines work.

Good copywriters write many dozens of headlines before they settle on one. Usually they get input from others in the process. Some write headlines before they write anything else, others strongly advise against that. I have no specific advise to give you on that point, except to say that you should write many, many headlines or subject lines.

Caples gives four qualities that make good headlines. They
1.    Appeal to the reader’s self interest,
2.    Provide news,
3.    Evoke curiosity,
4.    Give a quick and easy way.

Dan Kennedy

I don’t even remember in which book he wrote it. But this is one of the most important sentence for a business person to understand, and I suggest it is just as important for you:

You don’t get a client to make a sale, you make a sale to get a client.

For fundraisers:

You don’t get a donor to get a donation, you get a donation to get a donor.

It is the long term relationship and recurrent donations that count. You know that. Do you act on it? Thank you, because when you do, you will also end up treating me like a human being with a real interest in the world instead of an ATM machine.


Finally, let me leave you with a list of books that I learned from John Carlton. These are classics in the field that he return to, and I believe you can learn a lot from them.

•    Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples
•    Scientific Advertising/MyLife in Advertising by Claude Hopkins
•    How to Write A Great Advertisement by Victor Schwab
•    Maximum Money in Minimum Time by Gary Halbert
•    The Lazy Men’s Way to Riches by Joe Karbo
•    Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.
And then there are these websites. There is so much free content on these sites, they will keep you learning for a long time:

Now it’s up to you. Go ask for the money!

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