Breaking Into Fundraising

We recently sat down with direct-marketing expert and fundraising legend, Mal Warwick, Founder and Chairman of Mal Warwick & Associates, based in Berkeley, California.

Mal is an internationally recognized leader in direct-response fundraising. Collectively, Mal and his associates are responsible for raising at least half a billion dollars, most of them being small gifts from individuals, which is just amazing. He’s the author of 16 books including, How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters, Fundraising on the Internet, and Revolution in the Mailbox.


CI: Can you tell us a little bit about your own career path in fundraising?

MAL: I’ve been involved in one operation or another for more than 40 years, but I didn’t get so involved in fundraising until 1979. That’s when I started my company and began to raise money by mail, simply because there was no good alternative to doing so. Besides, I really didn’t like to ask people for money. So, I learned the hard way by just doing. I worked with a couple of freelance copywriters – including some very, very good ones – and learned their tricks. For about a year and a half, I worked as Marketing Director for an agency and learned more of the ropes there. But mostly I’ve learned by writing copy for my clients and, of course, the most useful experience has been in the marketplace … seeing what works and what doesn’t.

CI: When we asked you to participate in this interview, you gave us three specific areas you’d really like to talk about. Let’s start with the most basic of those – making it personal.

MAL: Well, Dr. Siegfried Vogele, who is a German direct-marketing expert, has been one of the founding visionaries of the direct-marketing field in Europe. He’s not very well-known, at least by name, in the United States, but he conducted years upon years of research using devices that he developed and subjecting hundreds and hundreds of people in focus groups and in other forms of direct-marketing research to learn exactly how they behaved when they receive an open direct-marketing package.

The basic device he developed was called an eye-motion camera, which was a very “science-fictiony” looking gizmo that looks a little bit like an overgrown miner’s helmet with a complex, very heavy looking camera sticking out of one’s forehead. You strap it around the top of your head, and there are lenses that point down toward your eyes. They then show the motion of your eyes as you peruse direct-marketing material. He did this with hundreds and hundreds of subjects learning exactly what provokes interest, what turns people off, what arrests the flow of reading, and what moves it along. As a result of all this research, he developed what he called the “dialogue method” of direct marketing.

Using other techniques supported by the eye-motion research, he concluded that everyone, when confronted with a piece of direct-marketing material (a letter that arrives in the mail, that crosses his desk), has his mind filled with a whole series of what he calls “unspoken reader’s questions.” These are questions that are just perfectly obvious, but are never, or are only rarely, void. Things like … Who’s writing to me? … What do they want? … What are they going to sell? … If they want my money, what are they going to do with my money? … What will I get in return? … and so on. Dozens of these questions flood through the mind, and as the reader then opens up the envelope trying to get answers, he will look over the material. If he finds the answers to the questions that are on his mind, he may go on reading because his interest is satisfied, his curiosity is satisfied, and he may eventually get to the point of taking the action that the writer desires.

CI: Can you elaborate on the dialogue? That personal conversation you’re having with that donor?

MAL: Well, Vogele looks on the dialogue as being in two forms. There is the major dialogue – our principal dialogue which is the whole series of reader’s questions that you, as a writer, seek to answer in writing the letter and the accompanying material. It gets into all the details, providing the precise information that the reader really wants to have if he is halfway serious about responding to your letter.

There’s the short dialogue that I described earlier – the questions that first come to mind and need to be answered very easily in the letter. What Dr. Vogele advises is that you attempt to use visual devices in the copy – through underlining, bold facing, italicizing, variations in the margin and so forth – to illustrate the most important point, to answer those most important questions in the short dialogue that the reader is engaging in. After all, direct-mail fundraising is like any form of direct marketing. It seeks to induce the reader to take action, and in our case it’s almost always to write and send a check or some other form of a donation. You can, in a larger sense, look on that act as part of a dialogue.

The response device, for example, will almost always begin with a statement of affirmation:

“Yes, I agree with you. It is important that we take action today to stop this terrible trend from spreading, and I’m enclosing my contribution in the amount of $X, $Y, $Z.”

By checking off one of those boxes, by returning the reply device with a check, I am engaging in dialogue, and the dialogue has to continue through a donor acknowledgement and through other communication from the organization in order to successfully build the kind of relationship with the respondent that will lead to a long-term philanthropic relationship.

CI: Many of our readers have already studied direct-response copywriting as it pertains to sales of products and services. Can you tell us a little bit about how donor motivation differs from consumer motivation?

MAL: Most of the direct-marketing copywriters that I know rely on the mantra that consumers respond to one of five or variously seven different basic emotions, including such things as greed and fear and guilt and so forth. And there’s no question that many people in the direct-response fundraising field will approach their writing in that way. But I feel that the positive emotion tends to provide a more solid base for the long-term relationship that we seek to build in fundraising. I believe that hope will, in the long run, build a stronger relationship than fear. I believe that guilt, while it might be able to elicit an immediate small gift, will not be a sound basis for continuing contributions over a period of time.

I think people run from those negative emotions after a time. To illustrate that point, we can look to the experience the right-wing political organizations had as soon as Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980. They had raised maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars by mail with fear mongering tactics. Fear and guilt were their stock in trade in the 70s, and as soon as Reagan was elected, their arguments went away and they were no longer able to successfully solicit funds from their donors. They’d weaned them on fear and guilt, and now that they needed to turn positive, there was no response.

I would also suggest that some of the biggest issues in fundraising are about so-called renewal rates. How often does the customer come back? What proportion of your first-time customers will buy again, to put it into the broader terms of marketing. I think that these negative emotions that are emphasized heavily will reduce the renewal rate, will keep them to a minimum … and as competition grows in the charity market, that becomes a bigger and bigger problem.

CI: AWAI members are familiar with the “big idea” of a sales letter. Is it different with fundraising letters?

MAL: It’s really very much the same. It is the big promise. There are many ways to describe this. The old-fashioned term is “unique selling proposition.” Some people refer to the “value proposition.” But however you term it, I believe that it is a concept that encompasses the who, the what, the when, the where and the how of the request for funds – or more broadly, whatever it is that you’re asking.

And the marketing concept in its most fundamental sense needs to answer some of the most basic of those readers’ unspoken questions, like who’s writing for me, how much money do they want, why do they want it, why should I care about that, what would they do with my money, what will I get in return, why should I give them money right now? Now I suggest that if you develop the skills through practice that you can write a paragraph which will answer all of those questions and will by doing so constitute a unique concept of the big promise spelled out in specific terms.

CI: With regards to the development of a relationship, can you please explain the four I’s you cover in your book, Revolution in the Mailbox?

MAL: Nowadays, we talk about customer relationship management in fundraising – the term of ours is “relationship fundraising,” and you need to look on the whole phenomenon of sell and profit giving through the mail as a part of a long-term relationship building process that goes through various stages. Now, for starters, you have to recognize that not everybody goes through all those stages. It may be that, in fact if you’re lucky, only half of the people who give you a first time gift will give a second one, but we try to move people through all of these stages and all of our art and all of our science is positive for doing those.

The four stages are: identification, involvement, information and investment.

Now, the identification stage refers to both players in the dialogue. The organization identifies prospective contributors, and prospective contributors identify themselves through the process of responding to donor or member acquisition mailing. They stand up and say, waving their hands, “Yes, I’m interested. Here’s 25 bucks, tell me more, let me know what you’re up to and why I should really take you seriously.”

The second stage I call involvement, because at that point you need to do something more than simply thank the donor for the gift and ask for more. You need to find a way to persuade that donor to become involved in the work of your organization. For example, to take an easy example, if your organization is involved in grass roots lobbying, you’d give the person the opportunity to send a message to his member of Congress, for example. You make it easy to do that so that he understands that he is more to you than simply a source of money; he is a part of your organization, or if you’re a volunteer-driven organization, or can at least accommodate volunteers, then you offer him a volunteer opportunity. Even if he doesn’t take them, he understands that he could be playing that role. He’s not in the organization just as a source of money. So you involve him, you persuade him to give another gift or other gift in order to nurture that relationship and to advance it further.

Information – obviously there is information that needs to be provided at every stage along the way, but I believe that once a donor becomes involved, then he or she is much more likely to really be interested in the information we provide. You could send a newsletter six times a year, or even monthly, and have it just go to the circular file without any delay in most cases. But once a donor is more involved, then it’s more likely that he’ll take a close look at that newsletter, at least glance at it, look at a couple of the headlines and the captions on the way to the circular file.

The ultimate gift in fundraising and the final stage in this four-stage process is investment. This is legacy giving. We know through all sorts of research data that a small percentage of donors, specifically including small donors who may give gifts of only $10 or $20 at a time through the mail, will give a much more substantial gift through bequests, through Codicils written into their Wills. The average bequest in the United States is $35,000, and if you could get one out of every thousand or so of your $10 donors to give a bequest, you can see that you are dramatically increasing the value, not just of that individual donor, but of a direct-mail fundraising program as a whole.

CI: What do you think the impact of the Internet has been on the need for writers?

MAL: Well I know for a fact that it is increasing the opportunities for freelance writers, and it’s putting more of a burden on most companies and on non-profit organizations to produce a lot of work. Obviously with the unlimited capacity of the web to accommodate words, the potential of it seems almost unlimited.

That’s only one side of the equation, however. The other question is what has been the impact on, in this case, the non-profit organizations themselves. And there I think it’s been more psychological than practical.

The last year for which we have any numbers is 2002, and there was an estimated $241 billion given by Americans to non-profit organizations. $241 billion in philanthropy – 85% of it or so came from individuals, and only a small portion came from foundations and corporations. Of all of that money, it would be an exaggeration to say that more than half a billion dollars was contributed online. In fact, I would be very hard pressed to define data supporting even that large a figure. It could easily be a quarter of a billion dollars contributed online. So if you compare – let’s just say it’s a half billion. You’re talking about less than one half of 1% of philanthropic giving in the United States. Now it’s going up at a rapid rate, but it is going to take quite a number of years before even a 50% per year increase (which is probably close to accurate) will have a significant impact on the overall giving pattern, and more importantly on overall giving habits of America.

CI: How do writers need to adjust their copy for the web, emails, and e-newsletters?

MAL: The conventional wisdom is that copy online needs to be skewed toward a younger, hipper audience. I mean that’s based on the supposition that people online are not old farts like me, but are people who are generally more tech savvy and are much more likely to be culturally comfortable with a kind of breezy, casual, fun approach. Well, in fact, whatever the reason, though the demographic pattern is by no means that clear anymore, the breezy, casual, fun copy really does seem to work better on the web. You’ve probably heard that from Madeline Stanionis or others. So there is a question of style in the first instance.

The second point, however, is that writing for the web encompasses two very, very different fields of work. One is actually writing copy for a website, and there the style won’t necessarily need to be so abbreviated and punchy as it needs to be in emails. Now the most productive use of the Internet for non-profit organizations, and I gather for business as well, is email. It is the so-called killer application. In email, though, the rules about breezy style and brevity, I believe, hold. I know from my own experience (I practically live online with email) that the longer my message is, the longer it’s going to take for me to get responses, and the fewer responses I get.

CI: What’s your opinion of today’s market and the future for copywriters?

MAL: I think that people who are adept wordsmiths will always be able to find work if they’re persistent and clever and, I hate to say it, patient as well. The truth is our educational system does not do even a halfway good job of teaching people to express themselves in writing, and those people who really do have the skill will always find ways to sell it, not necessarily as full-time copywriters but perhaps in jobs, such as fundraising where writing is a core competency that is absolutely necessary.

I would say that for somebody who is a very good, resourceful, persistent marketer, somebody who makes a good presentation, somebody who’s strong on the telephone and with email messages and so forth, has a good website, that freelance copywriting in fundraising may find reasonably good opportunities.

For the most part, though, copywriting in fundraising tends to be done either by agencies like mine or much more frequently in-house at non-profit organizations. Larger organizations will traditionally have on staff one or more copywriters. Many agencies have creative departments with copywriters on staff, and it’s probably not a big growth industry, but I would think that if you look around carefully enough you could probably find something.

Pretty much every college or university has, if not a need for one or more people who do copywriting in their annual fund or the alumni association, they’ll have a marketing department where there are lots of opportunities for writings and designers and I would think the same is true of a larger hospital. Most of the hospitals will have people who are engaged in creative work marketing the hospital in general and also in doing some fundraising. The largest of them might have a hospital foundation that has a copywriter on staff, though frequently they will work with freelancers. Universities and hospitals are the biggest single markets in fundraising.

CI: Do you have any unique or unusual techniques for finding the best voice for a piece or the best style?

MAL: Well, 20 years ago and more, when I was doing almost all of the copywriting for the agency, the technique I developed was to interview the signer of the letter, sometimes the celebrity, more often the Chief Executive or the Board Chair of the organization, and I would spend an hour or two hours usually on the telephone with the signer trying to get the cadence or his or her speech down, trying to copy down some terms of phrase. I took voluminous notes, sometimes 10-12 pages of notes in each conversation, and I pressed them for personal anecdotes. I wanted to find out what they really felt about the issues or the programs that they were appealing for. I wanted to get some history. I wanted to find ways that there might be elements of common experience between them and the people that they were writing to. That, in perspective, I think is the most useful technique that I’ve ever developed.

CI: How do you tighten copy after you have a draft completed?

MAL: Well, the single most useful method of tightening the copy is to read it aloud. It really will help you pick up the awkwardness, the transitions that don’t work, the unnecessary words and so forth.

CI: For copywriters who have really honed their skills with their smaller clients, and would like to start working with the bigger clients – how do you suggest they go about moving up to those larger markets?

MAL: Well, if you’re referring specifically to fundraising, there are two ways to go. One is to go to the agencies like mine and see whether there are openings for freelance copy. Many agencies do regularly use services of freelance copywriters, and you have to find the agencies that have the biggest organizations. You get that by networking. You go to the gatherings of the direct marketing association, non-profit federation. There are three major conferences a year, held by that organization, and you meet people and you find out who’s doing what, and maybe you score.

The other way is to go directly to the larger non-profit organization, and inquire in the development department or the membership department or direct-marketing department (whatever it might be called), whether there are openings for either freelance writing or staff positions.

CI: What makes one copywriter stand out above the rest?

MAL: There are big things that they do, and I think it can all be summed up in a phrase. They have a marketing imagination. They bring a level of creativity in crafting a marketing concept that is lacking in most writers. Most writers in fundraising, and in just about any other field, are primarily wordsmiths. Wordsmithing is an important part of the business. But more important in any kind of marketing or writing for results (which encompasses marketing of all sorts, including fundraising) is to develop that creative concept or marketing concept or big promise (or whatever you call it) … and those writers (and I think it’s relatively few who can do that) are the ones that stand out. They’re the ones who end up making the big bucks.

CI: If you had one piece of golden advice that you could hand out and pass on to any new copywriter looking to break into the fundraising market, what that would be?

MAL: For me, the key to writing strong copy has been to believe in what I’m writing. In fact, the rule at this agency is … we won’t work for anyone who we disagree with. We support non-profit organizations that represent the values that my colleagues and I here share. And that stands us in very good stead when we’re writing, because the words come more freely, more naturally … and we come to the table with some prior understanding. It’s only a visceral understanding of the issues that we’re writing about, so I would advise beginners in the field – even if you intend to write for anyone and everything later on – to begin by doing some volunteer work or work at a very low rate for some organization, some cause, some institution that you really passionately believe in. It will make the job a whole lot easier.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: June 20, 2007

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