How to write powerful fundraising first lines — lessons from the giants

I just read an interesting book: Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve by Ben Blatt. It’s a writerly romp through the details about great literature. If you’re a word-nerd, you’ll really enjoy it.

One chapter especially got me thinking about fundraising messages. It’s about the opening sentences of great novels — those memorable and often arresting beginnings that propel you through hundreds of pages of words.

You know, like “Call me Ishmael.” Which opens Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

We often work hard to start direct mail or email message with a strong opening. So I wondered what I could learn from great opening lines in fiction.

Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve lists a lot of “best” opening lines, based on compiled lists by literary critics and others. I’m showing some of them here, because they can teach us something about opening lines in fundraising. (They’re also great moments in literature, and kind of fun to read!)

Openings that establish a situation

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want a wife.


Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

There was a boy called Eustace Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.


The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.


Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

All this happened, more or less.


Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

This can be a good way to open a fundraising message: Tell the reader exactly what’s going on. Something like this…

I’m writing to you today because a devastating landslide has buried part of the area where we work. Many families we know and love have lost their homes and livelihoods. Will you please rush an urgent donation to help them?

Or like this:

It was a tough winter here in New England, and our garden was badly damaged by snow and wind.

Here’s another approach great novels often take:

Openings that start in the middle of the action.

In literature, this is called in media res, Latin for “into the middle of things.” You just plunge right into your story, and get to explaining the background later.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.


Ulysses, James Joyce

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.


1984, George Orwell

A screaming comes across the sky.


Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

It’s a great way to start a book. And most great movies start this way.

But for fundraising messages, you have to be careful. Book-readers and moviegoers are consciously choosing to enter the world of the story. Not so with your fundraising audience. Almost always, you’re popping into their world, interrupting whatever they’re doing and thinking about. They are not agreeing to enter your story.

If your story is powerful enough, you might draw them in. And that’s how this approach can be great in fundraising.

But it’s a tall order!

Use this “start in the middle” approach rarely, and only when your story is truly unusual.

I should point out that opening lines in fundraising are less important than they are in literature. Because our readers don’t sit down with the intention of reading the whole thing, the way you do when you read a novel.

Our readers skim. There’s a good chance that your great opening line is hardly read at all. We know from research that the P.S. in a letter is the most-read part.

So work hard on making your opening strong.

But work harder on a call to action that’s compelling, easy, and well targeted to your donors!


Comments

8 responses to “How to write powerful fundraising first lines — lessons from the giants”

  1. Lisabeth Avatar

    Hi there,
    Thanks for this post, it’s an interesting read.
    One thing did catch my eye, that I think worth noting and was disappointed to not see addressed or redeemed.
    All the authors listed are white.
    All but one of the authors are men.
    I don’t believe any identify as (or are out and known as) a GLBTQ individual.
    This has implications in how the book itself was referenced, and also in continuing the silence of authors of color, of women, of GLBTQ writers. Of course, the diversity of humanity is much broader than race, gender, or sexuality, but these are some key identities that are widely subject to oppression and silencing – and others may prioritize differently, with addressing (dis)ability, class, or other experiences that broadly shape access and representation. In addition to the implications relevant to your offerings, and your readership’s education and representation, there are financial implications when different voices and lived experiences are not actively considered when connecting with supporters.
    I’d be glad to hear a response, and hope to see a follow up!
    Thank you,
    Lisabeth

  2. Lisabeth Avatar

    Hi there,
    Thanks for this post, it’s an interesting read.
    One thing did catch my eye, that I think worth noting and was disappointed to not see addressed or redeemed.
    All the authors listed are white.
    All but one of the authors are men.
    I don’t believe any identify as (or are out and known as) a GLBTQ individual.
    This has implications in how the book itself was referenced, and also in continuing the silence of authors of color, of women, of GLBTQ writers. Of course, the diversity of humanity is much broader than race, gender, or sexuality, but these are some key identities that are widely subject to oppression and silencing – and others may prioritize differently, with addressing (dis)ability, class, or other experiences that broadly shape access and representation. In addition to the implications relevant to your offerings, and your readership’s education and representation, there are financial implications when different voices and lived experiences are not actively considered when connecting with supporters.
    I’d be glad to hear a response, and hope to see a follow up!
    Thank you,
    Lisabeth

  3. Lisabeth,
    Wow. Would you invalidate the power of this language just because of the identity of the writer? I found this column to be one of the best I’ve read and its guiding principles to be really actionable (and I’ve been a professional fundraising writer for decades). And it was a reminder to be mindful of how I can construct a story or appeal.

  4. Lisabeth,
    Wow. Would you invalidate the power of this language just because of the identity of the writer? I found this column to be one of the best I’ve read and its guiding principles to be really actionable (and I’ve been a professional fundraising writer for decades). And it was a reminder to be mindful of how I can construct a story or appeal.

  5. Lisabeth Avatar

    Hello Lisa,
    Nope, that’s not at all what I said. What I did say, though, was that the limited representation (and lack of acknowledgement of that representation) has multiple effects, and that I would hope that this would be considered and ideally addressed. Being inclusive of additional voices does not negate but rather enriches.
    Lisabeth

  6. Lisabeth Avatar

    Hello Lisa,
    Nope, that’s not at all what I said. What I did say, though, was that the limited representation (and lack of acknowledgement of that representation) has multiple effects, and that I would hope that this would be considered and ideally addressed. Being inclusive of additional voices does not negate but rather enriches.
    Lisabeth

  7. Lisabeth Avatar

    Whoops, sorry for that weird typos, Fern.

  8. Lisabeth Avatar

    Whoops, sorry for that weird typos, Fern.

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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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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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