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Seven fundraising 'myths'? Not so fast!
Mal Warwick

January, 2008

All right, already. Debunking myths is a competitive sport that probably has its roots in the Sumerian court of 3000 BCE—or even earlier. It’s fun, and often it makes us think a little harder than we might otherwise have done. But it’s a risky proposition to take on the accumulated experience of decades in any field. Calling well-established guidelines "myths" can effectively be the equivalent of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

1. "The list is everything."

Take this fundamental precept of direct marketing, for example. OK, so the list isn’t quite "everything." But it’s been clear to me since I started in direct mail fundraising nearly 30 years ago that the list is, without question, the single most important controllable factor in determining the success or failure of a fundraising mailing. When I’m forced to quantify that guideline, I say the list accounts for 50%, and all other controllable factors—offer, copy, format, design—together account for the rest.

But I’m not sure that’s even an adequate measure of the importance of the list. After all, in a professional direct marketing program, decisions are made about all those other factors only after we know what list or lists will be used. So, the list is the independent variable, the other elements dependent ones.

One more thing. Though I made my reputation in fundraising principally as a copywriter, I do not agree that copy is even the second most important factor in the picture. The offer takes precedence, and format and design can be equally important as copy.

2. "The more you tell, the more you sell."

True enough: The greybeards in direct marketing can often still be heard to mouth that ages-old maxim, " Long copy sells." These are the people who will tell you in a fundraising workshop—with a perfectly straight face—that you should always write a long letter.

We know better nowadays. There are many circumstances in which shorter appeals are more desirable, but they boil down to two: First, sometimes the message just doesn’t require many words—"Your dues are due," for example; and second, some causes have such high name recognition and compelling branding that they just don’t need long copy to persuade the reader of their worthiness.

However, in the bigger scheme of things, these exceptions are just that: exceptions. Most of the time . . . for most nonprofits . . . writing to most audiences . . . longer copy makes sense. It can easily require two, three, four pages, or more to lay out the case for giving.

Few of us pretend that the recipients of our appeals sit down and pore through our precious copy with bated breath. If we’re sensible, we know that most people skim direct mail copy (and we format accordingly, to make it easy for readers to skim). But we also know that some people really do read the whole letter, and it’s impossible for us to predict in advance just which facts or which arguments will be most persuasive for them.

Now, if you don’t trust my opinion, please trust the test data my colleagues and I have turned up over the years: In countless head-to-head tests of four-page letters versus two-page versions of the same message, the two-pager has almost never come out on top.

3. "Positives work better than negatives."

There are those in marketing who insist that all human motivation boils down to such negative emotions as hate, greed, fear, anger, and lust. Clearly they have their followers in our field: how else to explain the vitriolic letters that have been mailed over the years by some fundraisers (especially those at some political and advocacy organizations)? There’s no doubt these appeals work . . . in the short run. But I don’t think a relationship based on hate, greed, or fear is likely to endure—and it’s our job as fundraisers to build mutually fulfilling relationships that will last for many years.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that Bob Knight resorts to these base emotions in his copywriting. I know better. What I’m saying instead is that if ugly or unfortunate facts are needed to make the case for giving, by all means, include them. But don’t let those ugly facts become the heart of the message.

Case in point: In years past, I received a large number of direct mail appeals from organizations that purported to rescue and care for abused animals. A large proportion of these appeals included horrific photos of maimed and wounded animals. I still see such things from time to time. Fortunately, though, the overwhelming majority of ethical fundraisers in the animal protection field shun such practices. And they know they can raise far more money when they offer hope— when they tell heartwarming stories of rescued animals after they’ve been treated.

Case in point: I’ve observed similar practices by nonprofit organizations that claim to feed hungry people overseas. Photos of skeletal children with haunted eyes dominate the direct mail packages from such organizations. But you won’t find that sort of thing in an appeal from
UNICEF. Nor are you likely to see such disheartening sights in packages from other outstanding organizations engaged in overseas humanitarian relief and development. Why? Because they, too, have learned that donors yearn for hope. They want to be told that their gifts can make a difference—not have their noses rubbed in the dirt.

4. "The tighter the copy, the better the copy."

Thanks, Bob. You’ve made me wonder what it would be like to receive a direct mail fundraising letter signed by Winston Churchill. As I try to envision that impossibility (since the man has been dead for half a century), I wonder if the cadence and timing he put to such extraordinarily good use in his speeches would work in a direct mail package. What do you think? I’m skeptical. As a sometime speechwriter myself, I doubt that the oratorical tricks that keep an audience engaged would have the same effect on a direct mail reader.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to admit that I shamelessly use repetition in writing appeals. Repetition is essential in all direct marketing, and that clearly leads to the opposite of what my eighth grade English teacher would say is "tight writing." But if I’m writing a donor-acquisition package, and I have to cram in literally a hundred facts or more to make a solid case for giving, you’d better believe I’ll have to exercise great discipline and tighten my copy in a number of successive editing sessions.

5. "Four-color packages don’t work in fundraising."

Oh, it’s true, all right—more and more nonprofits are using four-color printing in their direct mail appeals. What’s not clear to me is whether this practice is based on hard-nosed testing.

It’s common for nonprofit organizations to be intensely concerned about their image and to demand "creative" work from their agencies or fundraising staff. (More often than not, "creative" seems to translate as clever and flashy.) Nowadays, nonprofits seem to care as much about winning awards for their direct mail packages in competitions as are the agencies.

Clearly, a lot of this work represents highly professional effort, and at least some of the flashy packages that are to be found in the mails these days must represent rigorous testing.

However, I remain skeptical about the utility of using four-color graphics in most fundraising appeals. Every time I’ve tested colorful, graphically "engaging" packages against plainer versions without the flash, the plain one has always come out on top. I can’t help but think that at least some of these "creative" packages are mailed more for the public relations effect than for the fundraising results.

6. "It worked for them; it will work for us."

This "myth" is what is known in logic as a "straw man." I have never heard anyone seriously advance this point of view in fundraising. Not in mixed company, anyway.

7. "Don’t repeat an approach that failed for you before."

Yes, time and again, I’ve found that re-testing has paid off well for my clients.

However, you need to take this statement with a large grain of salt. If an approach—a list, an offer, a package, or an insert—failed dramatically in the past, it is not wise to re-test it. Re-testing is advisable only when you’ve experienced marginal results in the past. Don’t beat your head against the wall trying to rewrite history.

This article was reprinted with permission from Mal Warwick. Consultant, author, and public speaker Mal Warwick has been involved in the not-for-profit sector for more than 40 years. He has written or edited seventeen books of interest to nonprofit managers. He has taught fundraising on six continents to nonprofit executives from more than 100 countries. Copyright (c) by Mal Warwick. All rights reserved


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