Why fundraisers need to forget most of what they learned in writing class

Have you heard of the Copy Optimizer? It’s a program that looks at fundraising copy for things the correlate with successful fundraising. It does this at a very granular level.

It’s described here at The Agitator: The World’s Greatest Fundraising Letter, Made Better. They took a famous direct mail fundraising appeal that was a long-time control for Covenant House — to see what it did well, and what it could have done better.

The thing that amazed me about the exercise was how poorly the Copy Optimizer would do in a standard college writing course. So many of the things it looks for are exactly things your English prof insisted that you do! (I know, because I used to teach those courses.)

Here are just a few things the Copy Optimizer approves of in fundraising. They would make your English teacher grab a red pen:

  • Has fewer nouns. Your English teacher said, “Write with nouns and verbs.”
  • Has fewer big words. Your English teacher may not have exactly told you to choose big words, but she probably did encourage high-toned discourse. Which encourages you to choose big words a lot.
  • Uses many amplifiers (like highly, very, totally). Your English teacher told you to get rid of those amplifiers. All of them!
  • Uses “because” clauses. Your English teacher probably would have frowned on your paper if it used more than one or two of these.
  • Uses plenty of contractions. Your English teacher quite likely advised you to stay away from contractions. (That’s not a rule, but a common convention in academic writing.)
  • Uses private verbs (like hoped, felt, thought, wanted). Your English teacher probably crossed these out in most genres of writing

The point is this: A lot of what you learned in writing courses in school can make you a terrible fundraising writer.

That’s not saying your English teacher was giving you bad information. Just that what you learned in school was writing for a particular purpose — academic writing — and you can’t bring those rules into fundraising.

Most of us learned how to write from teachers. If you want to write great fundraising, you need to move on from what they taught you.


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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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