8 Copywriting Tips For Better Donor Engagement

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Think creatively with these 8 copywriting tips for better donor engagement.

Let’s say you’ve been asked to write the year-end appeal for your organization. Now you’re staring at that proverbial blank sheet of paper or, more likely, the new (and wordless) document you’ve opened on your computer.  You feel the pressure mounting …

What to do?  Consider the following step-by-step tips.

Tip #1 — Don’t try to be creative.  Relax.  You have a passion for the cause, right?  (If not, then don’t even bother with tips 2-8.)  So I repeat: You have a passion for the cause.  That’s essential.  But if you think your job at this moment is to be creative, you’ll focus on “you,” the copywriter — and that’s not where your head needs to be.  Ironically, the key to thinking creatively is to stop obsessing about creativity!  Which leads us to …

Tip #2 — Focus on the donor.  This is key to your goal of enhancing donor engagement.  But you say, “I’m writing to 10,000 donors.  Each one is unique, so how can I possibly focus on ‘the donor?’”  Excellent question.  And my advice for this stage of the creative process is to simply settle on one individual whom you know to be generous.  Two options:

•   Option 1: A known donor to your organization (preferably not a board member or someone in the inner circle).  It could be a donor you talked with on the phone when she called with a question, or perhaps a donor you observed participating in a focus group.  (Focus groups, by the way, can provide helpful insights to the key drivers that motivate donors to engage with you.)

•   Option 2: If you really don’t know any donors to your organization, then think of someone in your personal network who is generous and who logically could be a donor to your cause.  Please don’t pick your mom for this exercise.  It’s okay to choose your next-door neighbor, aunt, uncle, cousin ... just avoid immediate family members.

Tip #3 — Before you do anything else, write that person’s name at the top of your screen or page.  “Dear Betty” … “Dear Karl” … “Dear Linda” …

Tip #4Pour over the resource material you collected for this assignment and fall in love (again) with your cause.  Use a checklist to make sure you’ve pulled everything together.  When crafting appeals, you’ll want to be clear on how the donor’s gift will be applied to make an impact and how you might quantify impact (eg., $50 fills a hungry child’s backpack with food to last the weekend).  Understand what the situation was like before your organization began to address a particular need and how things have changed.  Do you have a compelling story and photos or video that illustrate transformational impact of donors’ gifts?  Do you have direct quotes that help bring the story to life?  Do you know how many individuals are still waiting for help?  Do you have a specific revenue goal for this appeal?

Tip #5Let your mind wander.  Now that you’ve poured over your resource from top to bottom, take a break.  Don’t even try to work on your project.  Instead, do anything else you might normally do.  Take a walk.  Exercise.  Pull weeds.  Pay some bills.  Be sure to schedule “down time” — including at least one night of sleep — before you return to your writing assignment.  Something inexplicable happens during the pause.  Your mind begins to make interesting connections, and you begin to form creative ideas of how to engage your donor.  This happens subliminally, but only if you pause.

Tip #6 — Write fast.  After you’ve taken time to let your mind wander, you’re ready.  You may not feel ready, but you are.  So start writing.  Kick yourself into gear and don’t worry too much about the first pass.  Just write with passion, and be sure you’re writing to “Betty,” or “Karl,” or “Linda” — your donor.  This is the key to developing language that conveys what I think of as the big three R’s:




It also ensures that your copy rings true.  It’s authentic, conversational, easy-to-understand.  When your first draft is essentially complete, read it through from top to bottom.  If you find that you’ve bored yourself to tears, it’s a sign you should start over.  But that’s unlikely.  The combination of a solid offer, a great story, mindfulness of the donor’s generosity, and your own passion for the cause should put your copy on the right path.  Still, you’re not finished yet.

Tip #7 — Edit slow.  What I mean is that you need to allow time to polish your work.  I recommend another full day pause at this stage so you can review your work from a fresh perspective.  The following is not a complete list, but here are a few things you’ll want to consider when writing appeals: 

Is your leading sentence donor-focused? 

Does copy flow in such a way as to hold interest from start to finish?

Have you used storytelling effectively to “put a face” on the need? 

Are you using “active voice” verbs to paint a picture and move the story along? 

When you read your work out loud, does it sound natural, conversational? 

Have you asked for the gift?  Do you have a clear call to action?

Have you effectively positioned photos and video (if email) to reinforce the appeal?

What variable copy establishes relevance for lapsed donors vs. active donors … or new donors vs. long-time donors?

Tip #8 — Final review.  When everything’s in place, review one last time, bearing in mind that your overarching goal is long-term donor engagement.  As we strive to raise more net revenue for our organizations, let’s keep our eyes on the donors who will make that happen … and treat them with the respect they so deserve.  If you’ve applied your creativity to that end, you’ve got a winner!

Bonnie O. Meyer, CFRE

Executive VP & Chief Creative Officer

Meyer Partners, LLC

John Payne