We go to great lengths in annual giving (and development) departments to build quality relationships with donors. Thank you calls, handwritten notes and other genuine tokens of appreciation are extended to donors when they make gifts. Perhaps your non-profit has a healthy flow of gifts at the end of the calendar year when people seem to be naturally inclined to give. But what about the rest of the year? Do you find yourself disappointed by appeals with low response rates during the Spring and Fall?
Sometimes, all of the other things you do to steward and cultivate donors are overshadowed when that donor has an appeal letter in their hands. In that moment, the copy is the deciding factor.
The Frustration of Low Response Rates
The Direct Marketing Association estimates that a successful retention appeal garners a response rate of 5.53%. This might be a low-ball estimate and it can vary from organization to organization, so it’s really best to set your own benchmarks. If you have an appeal that falls below your organization’s average, it can be super frustrating when you’ve put in tons of time writing, editing, designing and segmenting data only to have a low response.
There can be a number of reasons for low response rates, but the aspect of your appeal that offers the most room for improvement is your copy.
Curing Your Copy
I recently read this article on Copyblogger that discussed 5 reasons why copy doesn’t convert. Converting means the number of people who decide to purchase what you’re selling. In non-profit speak, this would translate to the number of gifts made, which is measured by the response rate. There are many parallels between corporate direct marketing and non-profit direct marketing like this. I mean, at the end of the day the strategies are built on the same framework.
Another point of intersection is that sales and donations can’t depend on cultivation and relationships alone. Writing compelling copy is still a must!
Let’s look at what Copyblogger suggests are the 5 most common reasons why copy doesn’t convert, how these are applicable to non-profits and how to fix them.
1. They don’t want what you’ve got
This can be a hard reality to stomach if you’re emotionally engaged with your work. Yet it’s a fact of life. Your audience isn’t everyone in your city or the world for that matter. It’s a select group of people who you’ve managed to connect with to the point that they care about what you’re doing and are financially supporting your organization. Within that group of current donors – there will be times when certain projects or appeals just don’t resonate with them.Take it as an opportunity to figure out what your donors actually like to support and make sure your next appeal is positioned in that same light.
Take the time to really get to know your donors using tools like surveys. This will help you craft the best calls to action that entice donors to give.
2. They’re confused
I have received so many e-appeals that are terribly written that leave me confused as to what the non-profit wants from me. Clear, concise language is your most powerful weapon when writing copy. If a donor reads your copy and doesn’t understand what you want them to support, what impact that support will have and how much it will cost them, there isn’t a chance in the world they are going to respond to your call to action.
It may not be fancy, but simple, colloquial language is always your best bet. Take a step back from the complicated, jargon-laced explanations. Figure out what it boils down to and start from there. I highly recommend Jeff Brook’s book A Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications if you want more tips.
3. They can’t see the pretty picture
Most often in sales, businesses identify their customer’s problem and then show them what life without that problem will be like. It’s a proven strategy that works again and again. Non-profits can also use this strategy. You’re also trying to solve a problem. Paint a picture for your donors as to what life is like with that problem and what it would be like without it.
For example, if a non-profit serves women who are victims of domestic violence, that may not be a cause that your donors can readily relate to. Tell them a story about what it’s like to be in a violent relationship – the fear and suffocation that comes with it. Then tell them about how your non-profit eases this problem from women in your community – it’s a safe haven for women who want a fresh start but don’t have the financial independence or support network to leave.
Your goal is to make the copy come alive so that your reader can’t look away. Copy so vivid and gripping that people can’t help but deeply understand.
4. You didn’t ask
This may be the most common copy mistake. You write a great story, tell people about your program and make a compelling case as to why this program is necessary for the community. . . and then you sign off. You leave you reader hanging. They have no direction as to what they need to do next so that letter makes its way into the recycling bin.
At the top of your editing checklist should be – is there an ask with a specific dollar amount? If not, make sure to add in a sentence that tells the reader how they can help support your cause and at what dollar amount.
5. They don’t believe you
There are two ways that #5 is causing your organization grief – acquisition and retention – and each should be approached differently.
Let’s start with acquisition donors. If someone has never given to your organization before, your copy might be their first introduction to your organization. In order to compel that person to make a gift, you must establish rapport and credibility from the get go. This includes mentioning your organization’s history (“We’ve been helping Vancouver’s homeless since 1940) or providing a number suggests social proof (“Last year we served over 300,000 meals to those in need.”) (“Over 19,000 community members chose to partner with us last year to make a difference in the lives of people in need”). Give your reader a reason to believe that you will use their money effectively and are credible establishment to donate to.
Now with retention donors, I would venture to say that if someone has given to your charity at least once before, they probably trust you. However, if you’re trying to sell them on a new program or project, it’s still important to reinforce your credibility. For instance, if your organization serves meals to the homeless and now wants to offer high school education classes to your clients, you must build a bridge to show why that service is necessary and why your organization is the best one for the job. This is also where stewardship comes into play. Did you report back to donors after their last gift? If not, donors may not feel like they have a clear sense as to how their gift was used and the impact they had.
Is your organization struggling with direct mail or email? Leave a comment and let me know which of the five reasons you think might be the problem and what one action you’ll take this week to fix it.
My issue isn’t on the list and it’s that my copy feels redundant and repetitive. I’ve been writing appeal letters since 2014 and I’ll be writing appeal letters for (hopefully) many more years, but I feel like I’m repeating myself. We do direct mail and then we do follow-up via email. This is fine and dandy and it gets us gifts. We did over $7K at year end (woohoo!), but I’ve got to spice things up. I brainstormed a few ideas with my coworker last week and I’m going to implement those for my next appeal, but I need more ideas. Our biggest request is scholarships and thousands of dollars go unfunded each semester so that’s our focus, but I feel like there are only so many ways to say, “hey we have thousands of dollars in unmet financial need. Will you help us?”