15 things every fundraiser needs to know about writing powerful headlines

Headlines are some of the most important writing you’ll ever do. Advertising legend David Ogilvy put it this way:

On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

He said this in an age when one of the most important forms of advertising (and fundraising too) was on-page ads in newspapers and magazines. So he was very much talking about printed headlines at the top of an ad.

Which we don’t do so much any more.

But we still use headlines constantly, though in slightly different ways:

  • Email subject lines.
  • Teasers on direct mail envelopes.
  • Headlines in newsletters.

Any time we put large copy above smaller copy, that’s a headline, and Ogilvy’s 80¢ rule applies.

Things not to do in headlines

  • Don’t make them mere labels of what’s below, like “President’s Column” or “Health Update.” Make your headline a sentence, meaning it has noun(s) and verb(s).
  • Don’t use newspaper-style “headlinese,” which prefers fewer words over almost everything else, so it often has only implied verbs, and abbreviated ideas. Your headlines can be long in most situations!
  • Don’t use to be verbs (usually).
  • Don’t use passive voice.
  • Don’t use -ing verbs.

Things to do in headlines

  • Use concrete, specific nouns.
  • Use strong action verbs.
  • Use the word you.
  • Use your donor’s name where possible (subject lines or digitally printed pieces).
  • Emphasize relationships.
  • Describe conflict, not static situations (conflict is not always between people, but often between people and their challenges).
  • Use multiple headline elements where possible and appropriate (like subheads above or below the main headline).

For envelope teasers and email subject lines: Mystery is one of your best friends.

Finally, learn from the masters. The most reader-focused and powerful “headlines” are often found in these two places:

  1. The Tabloids. They’re still great. They live or die on impulse purchases, so they have to be good!
  2. Clickbait. Same thing. The interesting thing about these is that techniques come and go as they work so well they start to be over-used and then they stop working.


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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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