Your communications and development teams are brainstorming approaches to your next fundraising campaign. Fueled by collaboration and multicolored markers, they’re excitedly filling big Post-It wall pads with phrases and sketches, reconfigured and brand-new ideas. Then someone (usually in development) chimes in with, “Why don’t we ask one of our clients to write the appeal this year? I know the perfect person to do it!”
You feel the room almost physically divide as co-workers retreat into their departmental territories.
To development staff, the idea makes a lot of sense: People become donors to help solve a problem. What could be better than hearing directly from someone whose life they helped change?
Meanwhile, communications is tense. They thought development was finally getting it: credibility, consistent messaging and all the rest of the principles they build their outreach on. Instead, they’re about to watch all that go out the window.
I couldn’t agree more with the development staff: Nothing’s better than hearing from someone whose life a donor helped change.
I couldn’t disagree more with your co-worker’s suggestion for executing this idea.
Here are my three most important reasons why a copywriter, not a client or donor or board member, should tell a client’s story in your nonprofit’s appeal:
1. MOST PEOPLE ARE NOT STRONG ENOUGH WRITERS.
By asking someone to write a coherent, cohesive story about a crucial event, you’re asking them to use a skill most won’t possess. What do you do when their story needs significant editing at best or, at worst, is unusable? Do you grit your teeth and go forward because you can’t afford to offend the writer?
2. THEY KNOW THEIR STORY, BUT NOT YOUR MESSAGE.
A woman who escaped years of abuse with the help of a nonprofit shared her story with me in a two-hour phone interview. If she’d written the appeal, the message would have been lost in the details of what happened to her. My job as a copywriter was to share her story (her real, authentic story) in a way that also showed how donors help improve the lives of women just like her.
3. YOU LOSE ADVANTAGES INHERENT IN AN INTERVIEW.
When you’re actively listening to someone, you can guide the direction of the story with your questions. You can gently move them along if they get off track, ask for details about a particular aspect to make it more vivid, or explore a comment they gloss over but you know could drive the point home. As the writer, you know what you need to end up with – so you can make sure you get there.
One argument I hear often is this: “But we have videos of our clients talking about what happened to them, and people love them!”
Yes, videos can be powerful motivators. However, the most effective ones are planned and/or edited.
A talented copywriter can take the best of a client’s story and put it into context: This story is possible because you helped, and we can create more stories again with your support. The end result will be a powerfully persuasive appeal designed to elicit audience behaviors that will move your organization toward its goals.