When Doing Something for Nothing Can Make You a Lot of Money

As newly trained copywriters, my wife and I didn’t have a portfolio that would demonstrate our skills to potential clients. Intrigued by a discussion on our local NPR station with a provider of services to homeless youth, we immediately thought they could use a well-written direct-response letter to help with their fundraising.

We also thought about similar local organizations that could use similar letters.

Doing some Internet research, we made a list of local organizations and their directors. We phoned to gauge their interest. We then sent a letter of introduction, explained how direct-response copywriting could help with their fundraising, and offered to write something for them on spec.

What happened next will probably surprise you.

National non-profits are well familiar with the process of direct-response fundraising and are likely to have in-house writers. Local organizations may not know anything about direct-response writing … but 2 out of 8 expressed interest in our proposal.

One group that serves the homeless requested an immediate meeting to discuss how we could work together. We agreed upon a spec rate of 10% of their gross proceeds from the mailing. We would consult on the mailing list, timing, and fulfillment of their offer, as well as methods of receiving donations. We signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding who was responsible for what, and got to work.

We read everything about fundraising copy in The Golden Thread, consulted Bly and Makepeace, looked up previous fundraising letters in Monthly Copywriting Genius, and crafted what we thought was a well-written, guaranteed-to-generate-income, blockbuster letter.

Only one problem. The organization was so weak financially that they never mailed the letter, and recently reported they had to fold up their tent and quit providing services.

The second organization that expressed interest (the one on the NPR broadcast) was much more substantial. They had a professional website, an audited balance sheet that was publicly available online, had used direct mail to raise funds at least once in the past, and had an impressive list of corporate supporters.

We presented essentially the same proposal for a spec letter to the Director.

What did she say?

She said she’d be happy to have us compose a direct-mail appeal for her organization … but that she wouldn’t pay us anything for it. No upfront payment, no percentage of income generated, no royalties. NOTHING. NADA.

“Why would we do this?” we asked her. Well, she said that they have important supporters in the community. If we produced an excellent letter, she would share it with her board and other supporters, and that might generate real income for us.

When we wrote the letter, we used the principles we learned in the AWAI copywriting program. We examined our headline for the “Four U’s,” polished the lead, used all the strategies we could find … and presented the Director with our letter. She was impressed, and said thanks.

A few days later, she called and said the board had a grant they wanted to pursue. The grant required a fundraising plan for the organization’s capital campaign. She said she didn’t know how to write a plan … could we write it for her? SHE WOULD PAY US FOR IT.

We negotiated a price and agreed on $10,000 to write the plan.

Nothing for something had turned into something for something after all.

What have we learned from all of this?

  • Be careful who you agree to write for on spec. Do your research. Do they have the ability to complete their part of the direct-mail process? Can they afford to send the letter?
  • In the beginning, a substantial client may be more important than a paying client.
  • Everyone brings talents they developed previously to their copywriting. We knew about the grant process from previous experience with non-profits and were prepared to take advantage when the opportunity to write a fundraising plan popped up.

What industry/industries have you worked for or do you work for now? How could effective copy benefit them? Do they send out newsletters, direct mail, or catalogs? Knowledge you already have gives you insight on how to write for them.

It’s one of your strongest selling points!

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: October 30, 2006

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