A way with words – how I try to write good

I often think that my job in direct marketing fundraising is a weird hybrid. You need to love numbers (don’t even get me started on the debate of Excel vs Access!). You also need to have a love of words, storytelling, and a ruthless eye for proofing and editing and re-editing again.

Storytelling is what we do. We tell stories of what donors can achieve when they support our university. We weave a narrative around students, buildings, research – life-changing, world-leading, transformative, impact. These are the kinds of words we all use.

I love writing fundraising copy. So when colleagues ask for advice or a fresh set of eyes on projects they’re working on, I’m always happy to pitch in.

By the way, I am in no way claiming to be an authority on this stuff. I just like to help if I can.

Here’s what I always go back to when I’m writing something new:
• Not sure where to start? People. Start with people.
• Tell a story. Talk about one individual and tailor your story to the experiences of your audience.
• Inspire hope. You get more flies with honey!

When I’m thinking about making the ask:
• Throw out at least your first paragraph. Chances are you’re waffling to get going. Ditch the waffle and go straight to speaking to the donor.
• Remember it’s a dialogue, not a monologue. Ask questions. Get the donor thinking: “I can answer that with my gift!”
• Personalise as much as you can. You’re speaking to that one reader, even when you’re sending 100,000 letters.
• Include a specific call to action, and only one!

I try to write thank you letters at the same time as the appeal letters. I’m in the headspace of that project and I want the donor to feel like their gift made the difference. In my thank you letters, I always try to:
• Actually say thank you, and say it more than once.
• Be specific about what I’m thanking them for – their gift to project X which will do Y!
• Get the letter out promptly. The day the gift arrives, if I can.

None of this is especially earth-shattering. Or new, really. Whether you’re embarking on your first letter or your thousandth, a quick list like this can be useful (I hope!). And no matter what I’m writing, there’s one thing I keep coming back to. I’ve heard it hundreds of times but it bears repeating: there’s one word I always use as much as possible.

You. You, you, you, you, you.

You blog post

It’s not about us. It’s not about how amazing we are and what we’re achieving. It’s about the donor. What they’re achieving with their gift, what difference they’re making to that student. How amazing they are.

Tell stories, be personal, discover new ways to say how wonderful your donors are. And enjoy it!

“Some people have a way with words, and other people…oh, uh, not have way.” ~ Steve Martin



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