Jeff Brooks has been working on behalf of nonprofits for more than 20 years and passionately blogging about fundraising since 2005. He writes the Future Fundraising Now blog and is creative director at TrueSense Marketing. The interview was conducted by Don Akchin, a principal of Nonprofit Marketing 360 and a frequent contributor to the MKCREATIVE blog.
MKC: What do you consider to be the greatest challenge of being a good copywriter?
JEFF: What most people who are not professional copywriters get wrong is they don’t differentiate themselves from their audience. That’s why most fundraising is just bad. It doesn’t succeed the way it ought to because they say, I’m going to make this please me, and then it’ll please the others and then it’ll work. Well, that’s just wrong. That’s not how you create quality fundraising. You have to know your audience, and reach out to them, and 99 percent of the time, you’re going to hate it. You may say, I wouldn’t respond to this! And you’re absolutely correct, and it absolutely doesn’t matter.
Now If you want to talk about professional copywriters, I think what is difficult is taking dry, distilled- down-to-numbers program information and making it sing. Because that’s what you tend to get delivered: We fed this many people, and that’s up x percent from last year. That’s the kind of information you get and you have to say, how do I make somebody care? That’s the minute-by-minute challenge a copywriter faces.
MKC: I’ve been reading your blog for awhile and you’ve been preaching donor-centricity adamantly. Do you get the sense that anybody’s listening?
JEFF: Some people are. The thing is, the people who are reading my blog, or reading blogs at all, are the ones who are curious, who want to grow, and who are willing to change. The ones who need the help, who aren’t donor-centric, aren’t reading anybody’s blog. They’re not curious. So there’s sort of a preaching-to-the-choir quality to blogging.
In the fundraising industry, we are not donor-centric. We are navel gazers, and we expect our donors to gaze at our navels with us. I think that’s why direct mail response rates have been dropping for seven years in a row now. It’s because what we’re doing just doesn’t work like it used to. It’s wearing out. We’ve got a new audience of direct mail donors coming on board and they are more demanding. They want to be communicated with. In their commercial relationships with the companies they buy stuff from, they’re used to service and they’re used to being talked to as who they are. Most fundraising isn’t there. It’s saying, here’s your cancer bill. Pay it. That used to work, for a few reasons. One was, the older generation was more duty-driven: You give because you’re supposed to, you give because your church tells you to, you give because your family has always given. You didn’t have to be skillful at asking a person like that, they would just say, yeah, it’s my time to give. Not only that, but the competition in the mailbox has skyrocketed. There are probably 10 times as many appeals being sent out now as there were 20 years ago. So there’s that overwhelming noise, and the fact that younger donors, and I say younger meaning under 70, are a little more discerning. We actually see a behavior of larger gifts to fewer organizations. In the older donors, 70 and up, there’s just this behavior of sending 15 or 20 bucks to everything that comes across your door. Younger donors are saying, I need to be involved here, I need to know what’s going on, I need to care. So if we don’t get on board with talking to donors, instead of talking to ourselves, we’re in big trouble.
MKC: You also seem to have some strong feelings about nonprofit advertising. Would you like to talk about it?
JEFF: You’re talking about the “Stupid Nonprofit Ads” series. That is really about what I think is a huge scam perpetrated by ad agencies and other brand experts on the nonprofit sector. They bring commercial branding and advertising practices into the nonprofit realm and then misapply them. The reason it keeps happening again and again and again is it’s the glamour of the ad world: these are the big boys, this is where the real money is, they must know what they’re talking about, right? So they come in – and very often its pro bono so the nonprofit thinks, what the hell, I might as well do it, and they get these terrible ads that have no chance of making a dent in the problems of this world and motivating donors to do anything or care, much less give. So I kind of go after it, and I’m pretty mean about it, but it’s because I feel like it’s a big con, and we need it to stop. Plus I just like making fun of stupid stuff.
MKC: Is there anybody who does good advertising for nonprofits?
JEFF: Oh yeah, a lot of people do, and it will never win an award. No one’s ever going to show it anywhere, because it’s “bland,” it’s “ugly,” it’s “old-fashioned,” but it raises money.
MKC: Tom Ahern raves about the Domain Group formula for newsletters and he keeps saluting your role in it.
JEFF: We were doing mostly direct mail at Domain, and sometimes a client would say, could you do a newsletter for us? We don’t have anyone on staff to do it. When we did them, we made money. And at that time, the normal thing was for a newsletter to lose money. We started sharpening the techniques, we did some testing. We found that to be relentlessly donor-focused was critical, that to not be afraid to ask for money was good. I have a lot of clients where you can almost count on a newsletter being a more effective fundraiser than a direct mail appeal is. That’s not true across the board, but I have not lost money on a newsletter in decades. They are an effective fundraiser. The difference is, the old newsletter said, Look at us, aren’t we cool, look at all our great programs. The articles were long and boring, the headlines were dull. We found, just like in direct mail appeals, you had to get your eyes off yourself and on the audience. The reason they’re giving is they want to change the world, so you need to tell them, yes, you are changing the world, instead of, look at us, we’re changing the world. You still tell a story about their cool program, but you turn it a little bit, so it’s, ‘Look, donor, here’s what you made possible.’ You do that in subtle ways and direct, flat-out ways.
MKC: Has anyone attempted to convert the Domain Group formula to email newsletters?
JEFF: I’m trying to. I mean, we try to bring the techniques and the mindset. Email is a little different. I don’t think we’ve quite got it figured out. For now, email newsletters are nothing like as effective as print newsletters as fundraisers, and they’re less effective as fundraisers than e-appeals are.
MKC: You have been blogging since 2005. Have your goals for blogging changed?
JEFF: No, not really. The difference is, when I started, there were maybe three other bloggers in the fundraising space, and way fewer readers. Now I think there are over 100 fundraising-focused bloggers that I know about. I feel like I discover another one every week or so. And there’s just a larger audience. Thousands of people read these blogs now. That’s kind of cool. That means there’s an ongoing professional conversation happening. Before, the national conferences were the only place professional conversation happened, and most people weren’t going to those. So it was way less widespread than it is now. This is good. It means more people are able to get smarter.
Fundraising is a weird medium. A lot of things are counter-intuitive. Things work that you wouldn’t think would work, like longer letters work better than shorter letters. And there’s just a thousand little details like that. Some fundraisers seem to say, ‘We need to throw out everything we know, because it just seems so wrong to me.’ Then they watch their revenue go down the drain. This is very sad, because this isn’t just some stupid shampoo sales campaign. This matters. When you screw up, it matters that you screwed up. It means you can’t serve the way you’re called to serve. There’s a moral dimension to it.
You can follow Jeff on his Future Fundraising Now blog.
Guest blogger Don Akchin writes frequently about marketing and philanthropy at donakchin.com.
This interview series is produced with the generous support of the Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising Zone.