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Building Credibility in Fundraising Copy

As direct mail fundraisers, we've gotten away easy: The recipients of our mailings have given us a lot of slack where credibility is concerned. Their open-heartedness has allowed some of the outrageous scams of direct mail fundraising to take place, where unscrupulous mailers took advantage of people's naiveté. Some still do.

But the tide is turning: Donors to philanthropic causes are getting more savvy by the day. A growing number of people want to know what percentage of our budget goes to fundraising costs, what the watchdog organizations have to say about us and how we compare to similar organizations. Donors with access to the Web can run a quick search on the organization to find out what's been in the press. Certainly they'll look at your Web site for nitty-gritty information that proves we're fiscally sound and responsible.

The pressure's on for direct mail fundraisers to make credibility an issue and to be assertive about it. Rather than burying financial information in fine print, we need to prove our worthiness boldly in the main vehicles of the direct mail package — primarily the letter and the reply form.

Know who you're talking to, and speak accordingly. Your reader won't even get far enough into the letter to look for salient facts if you don't use the tone that fits the audience. The tone and style of copy should vary to suit the addressee: You wouldn't write to uncle Harry the same way you'd write to your old college roommate.

Nor would copy for the National Wildlife Federation and The Nature Conservancy share the same tone, though the groups share some aims. Discerning the right tone for your direct mail isn't a task for the corporate communications department, but for direct mail testing. Some people want to be reasoned with and some people want to be shouted at. Find out who's who by testing variations in copy tone regularly.

If you don't demonstrate that you know your audience right up front, all else is lost. So find out who you're talking to before the writing starts, and let your findings guide your writing.

Play up your organization's history. You don't have to be old to have a history worth telling. In fact, newer organizations can successfully point to their development in response to a pressing current issue. Whatever the organization's age, report the most intriguing human details about its beginnings. For example, a letter for Gay Men's Health Crisis talks about its founding by a small group of concerned gay men in response to the new “gay cancer” in 1981 before AIDS even had a name. This is a great credibility builder: It demonstrates that GMHC was there before anybody even knew what AIDS was and that the organization arose from the personal commitment of individuals profoundly affected by the crisis. Telling the organization's story usually involves talking about the cause as well, so your credibility copy meets a dual purpose.

Cite favorable statistics. If you can say that 92 cents on every dollar raised goes directly to programs, do so. If the number is under 90 percent, I would avoid citing it, but there may be other numerical measures of your effectiveness that would make a favorable impression. For years, international relief charities would hang their copy on the old “We can save a child's life with the money you spend each day for a cup of coffee.” Be specific about what you can do with a gift of $25, $50. Show that you have concrete plans for the donor's money and that those plans will meet a pressing need. Then show them, through your acknowledgment mailing and other donor communications, that you have done so.

Use testimonials. Was your organization cited as among the nation's top 100 charitable organizations? Or will a famous, well-thought-of person say something nice about you for attribution? Or can you include a newspaper article featuring your work? If a respectable third party has said something good about you, use it prominently in your direct mail to enhance your reputation as a well-managed and dynamic organization.

Find the fine line between looking cheap and wasteful. Graphics are vital in building or eroding your credibility. Your direct mail package should be neat, attractive, professionally produced, but avoid looking glamorous or slick.

You want to attract attention and look competent without looking like you're spending the donors' money on producing beautiful fundraising packages. Where this fine line falls will differ from organization to organization. A religious charity serving the poor can send out a really low-budget mailing with one-color printing on cheap paper. For a major art museum, the same look would convey sloppiness and incompetence.

Imagine your most skeptical readers and address their objections in your copy before your package goes into the mail. Get inside their heads and write with a deeper understanding of what motivates them to give or to throw the package away unopened. When we do these things, and when our organizations are good stewards of donors' funds, we'll write copy that conveys the credibility of our cause and raises more money.

Connie Clark is the founder of Clark Communications, Alexandria, VA. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

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