What direct-marketers can learn from Sherlock

by guest blogger Andrew Rogers

Now in its fourth season, Sherlock, the modern-day retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, is one of the world’s most popular TV shows. There’s a great article over at Script magazine titled 7 Things You Can Learn from “Sherlock”. Let’s get out our magnifying glass and see what fundraisers can take from a few of these lessons.

  • Be Visual. When Sherlock thinks, we soar through his “mind palace” with him. When he reads the details of someone’s life by the clues on their bodies and clothes, we see the cataloguing as it happens. Jeff has written about the power of the “iconic image” in fundraising — the visual representation of the need your organization addresses. But we can help donors visualize need in any medium. What toll does it take on a young girl’s body when she has to walk five miles a day carrying heavy buckets of water for her family? What emotions assault a mother when she learns her baby has cancer? What confusion and terror must a dog feel when it’s trapped in a cage with four other animals? The opportunities to engage a donor’s heart and senses through powerful visual storytelling are almost endless.
  • Write Roles that Stars Will Love to Play. Our stars, of course, are your donors. They want to — and do! — play the role of superhero in your stories. They’re saving the world every time they respond to your call to action.
  • Great Villains Make Great Movies. “When you write your scripts’ villains,” Rabin advises, “make sure they are fascinating, scary, complex, original, and strong and worthy opponents for your hero.” With the exception of those of us working in politics, most direct marketers don’t have actual human beings as our “villains.” But that doesn’t mean we’re not confronting strong, scary, and complex evils. Here again, descriptive language is key. “Hunger” is a gut-punch in a way “food insecurity” can never be.
  • Think Ahead. “To write the first episode,” the article says, “you must already have a clear plan for how the plots and characters will develop in subsequent installments over a long period of time.” Our “plots and characters” boil down to offer: a clear, compelling statement of how the donor’s action solves a given problem.

Sherlock offers some great lessons — not just for screenwriters, but for all of us who work with words and images.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid Sherlock up to now, I encourage you to check out an episode or two.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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