The Story Behind “Story”

Photo credit: The Mark Twain House & Museum

Photo credit: The Mark Twain House & Museum

It seems like everywhere one looks theses days, somebody is talking about the value of “Story” in nonprofit fundraising, and deservedly so. Stories are a fundamental way humans can connect to ideas. We’re hard-wired to respond to a “good story well-told,” as Mark Twain described it.

Direct response fundraisers know that stories can be a compelling and sometimes overlooked mechanism for delivering nonprofit mission to market.

I am a big believer in using stories for fundraising, especially stories with an arc. Stories in which the protagonist experiences a change, bludgeoned by Evil in the opening (cancer, poverty, hunger, injustice, etc.), and ultimately saved by Good (donors who support the Charity of Salvation) at the end. Heck, I even wrote an article about the value of the Arc of the Fundraising Story several Continue reading

The Danger of Automatic Creativity

Creating direct response fundraising is often dangerously simple. Because direct response fundraisers, as a group, so often rely on tried-and-true campaign concepts, creative specialists can be lulled into “automatic creativity.”

We’ve even coined automatic descriptors for these tried-and-true concepts: the Matching Grant, the Year-End E-Appeal, the Follow-Up, the Card Package, etc. Campaigns designed to create predictable, incremental RFM upticks.

It’s easy, in the middle of crunch time, to fall into mechanical creative habits in order to get the project(s) out the door. Furthermore, the mantra of “best practice,” overlaid on building incremental improvements to successful tests, argues against rethinking the tried-and-true.

It should be no surprise, then, that we’ve created controls that exhibit only nominal performance improvements, if at all.

Still, we hang onto these ubiquitous solutions until they cease to solve much of anything anymore. That’s because we have created donors that have wearied of the very techniques we leaned on, in the first place, to acquire and retain them. And these days, in a wildly competitive nonprofit landscape, with a dizzying array of channels in which to receive messages, controls wear out at an alarming rate.

Familiarity breeds contempt, never more so than in direct response fundraising. It’s a multi-culprit failure in marketing groupthink, the responsibility for which shared by all on the development team.

One of the culprits is automatic creativity. Automatic creativity starts with a technique, not the donor. And that’s dangerous.

Here’s why.

When we write and design to meet page length and format requirement, we forget to write and design messaging that resonates with the donor. When the message we send must be wrapped around an organizational brand asset first, we de-emphasize the important role the donor has in the solution. When we focus on the action the donor must take, we necessarily understate the benefit the donor will receive, even when that benefit is simply the feeling of satisfaction that generosity brings to the human spirit.

Beware automatic creativity, even in the face of a tried-and-true technique and a pressing deadline. Successful fundraising always starts with the donor.

7 (Re)Marks of the Amateur, Made by Professionals

There are many innocent assumptions that folks outside the nonprofit fundraising community might make about fundraising that become egregious mistakes when made by direct response fundraising professionals.

What is surprising is how often the pros make them. Here are just a few that make me wince:

  1. “This appeal doesn’t come from the events side, it comes from the development side. It’s a completely different thing.”
    Think donors bother differentiating among voices, messages and offers coming from a single organization? Think again. It’s one organization, with one persona.
  2. “I would hate to get this in the mail.”
    Unless you are the precise statistical equivalent of the typical donor, your personal tastes and reactions are irrelevant.
  3. “The first mailing explained the program. The follow-up doesn’t have to.”
    This assumes the first effort was even read, much less absorbed and retained. To paraphrase Dale Carnegie: Tell them what you are going to ask them. Then ask them. Then tell them what you asked them. From component to component and campaign to campaign.
  4. “It doesn’t matter that all the variables are different. It’s a creative test.”
    So then, what will we learn if it is a success? Or a failure, for that matter? Although throwing entirely new creative treatments into a test mix may be tempting, some variables in the campaign must be controlled to understand what happened. Segment, offer, signer, ask? They can’t all be variable.
  5. Our average donor is a 70 years old and female. She doesn’t use (the computer) (email) (the internet) (a smart phone).” Don’t mistake unwillingness to provide credit card information online with proficiency in the digital world. Statistics confirm that seniors do engage in digital technology and communication.  Digital media may occupy different places in their lives, however.
  6. “Direct mail is a dying medium.”
    The role of direct mail is a changing, no doubt. But for the time being it still carries the disproportionate load of charitable transactions, and will continue to do so, albeit on a decreasing slope, until the youngest segments of Boomers (now in their late 40s) enter their prime giving years (60-80). See the excellent infographic from Blackbaud.
  7. “You can’t raise money with social media, so don’t bother testing.”
    It’s true, currently, that social media has not met with much real fundraising success. At least no one has yet to figure it out. But that could be because the population of social users for whom social media is most relevant is also the population with the least current means and propensity to give — donors under the age of 40. Wait until they accrue some wealth, raise their kids, and become able to start giving regularly. In the meantime, social is still an effective communication and engagement medium. Bottom line: we need to keep testing.

What have you heard within the industry that makes you wince just a little bit?

Welcome to Direct Creative Group

Admittedly, this blog voice is not new. While I was employed by others, I blogged under Direct Fundraising Creative 101. My aim was to reach creative professionals who were new to direct response fundraising.

Today I am happy to be launching the blog for my new independent consultancy, Direct Creative Group. DCG brings strategic creative consultation to nonprofits and those organizations that serve them. And in this case, by “strategic creative” I refer to data-driven, best practice-aware, channel-agnostic, collaborative, often inspired campaign solutions, which bring mission to market with messaging that resonates with donors, and motivates them to give.

To get there, I believe it incumbent on all direct response creative professionals to become direct marketing professionals first, always acknowledging and adapting the special skill sets they enjoy, but educating themselves in the intricacies of our unique discipline, across all aspects of the industry.

I have brought forward several of the more popular recent posts from the old blog. I look forward to adding my voice to the excellent chorus of thought leaders who continue to influence and inform me (and many others, I am sure) with their wisdom and insights. Some of those great thinkers and writers are featured in the reading list to the right.

John