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How to Harry Potterise your internet and direct mail appeals... and get donors giving when times are tough

What do high performing fundraising appeals and Harry Potter have in common?

And in both cases, what makes donors give and readers buy even when they’re going through a rough financial patch?

The answer? Reader-hooking commercial creative writing principles.

Harry Potterise your appeals by using the following commercial writing principles.


Imaginatively engage with your audience while you write

You often hear the old adage that you need to know your audience. But I would go even further. You need to actually think about and consider your audience while you write. In Relationship Fundraising Ken Burnett suggests visualising the donor as they pick up the envelope that’s been pushed through their mail slot. Try to imagine what they’re thinking and feeling as they open and read the headline or the first sentence.


Keep the structure simple and elegant

Try to fight the impulse to tell the reader everything your organisation does. Focus on one story or one aspect of your work; focus on one way your donor can change the world through you. I know this may seem a bit counterintuitive but if you cram an appeal with too much information, you’ll lose your reader’s interest.


Consider that one story, that one simple angle, a portal to your larger work. By keeping the structure of your appeal elegant and simple, you’re likely to arouse a natural curiosity within the reader. And then they’ll feel compelled to find out more about you by going to your website or finding you on Facebook.


Uncover the conflict and make the donor the protagonist

Here’s an excellent example from Alan Sharpe’s letter for Street Kids International:

“In Kazakhstan, in the city of Almaty, in a bustling neighborhood of that city, the locals don’t look to Ted Rogers or Bill Gates for their inspiration, but to a local lad called Jamshed. He’s a business hero, thanks to you.....”

The letter goes on to describe Jamshed’s struggle: his father abandoning the family, leaving him as the family’s sole-provider. The letter uses Jamshed’s own testimony to present the conflict. But the letter is also peppered with details about Jamshed’s triumph and phrases like “thanks to you” and “with your continued help.” Here, the donor is the protagonist, a major figure in a tale of empowerment.


Tap into elemental human emotions

In his book The Power of Personal Storytelling, Jack Maguire suggests that you ask yourself two questions repeatedly when doing any community-oriented storytelling:

  • What gifts do my personal tales have to offer: what joys, cares, values, interests, and special life experiences do they convey?
  • Where, how and why in my community might these gifts be needed or appreciated?

Answering these questions will help you approach your story with the emotional motivations appropriate to your audience. And you’ll be surprised by how that then comes out in your writing.


Most importantly >>> show! don’t tell!

This is probably the most important commercial writing principle. In fact, any creative writer worth his or her salt will have had this principle rammed down their throat, either through self-training or through more formal training.

And what does it mean? Well, rather than just telling your audience about an event, you show them what it actually looked like through imagery and detail.

Here’s what that looks like in a fundraising appeal example.

Telling: As a charity, we help the elderly overcome social isolation by organising outings and social events.

Showing: If you were to visit 80-year-old Bill in his small flat a week ago, most likely he would have been alone, watching television or sitting silently. In fact, Bill’s only visitors would have been his social worker and his visiting nurse. But that was only for an hour, perhaps once a day. But thanks to supporters like you, yesterday was the first day of a new life for Bill. A bus came to pick him up and when he emerged through the door, a chorus of “hello, Bill” from his peers greeted the lonely man. He went for a stroll on the beach and struck up a conversation with another man who was also a WWII veteran. Then, he companionably ate fish and chips, feeling the glow of being a part of .....


The difference is huge. Number one is fine for your elevator speech. But number two brings the donor directly into the experience of the beneficiary. And the beauty of this principle is that it can transform ALL your donor communications: direct-mail appeals, email appeals, newsletters, blog posts etc.

Further information

Inspiring examples

More help

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About the author

Nicole Schmidt is a fundraising copywriter, speaker and storyteller. With a background in literature and secondary education, she uses her creative writing and public speaking skills to help charities infuse their donor communications with passion and energy.

Follow her on Twitter @CopyPhilanthrop



Page last edited Jul 25, 2017 History

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