How I wrote it – Jules Brown talks about the Women’s Aid fundraising letter.
In this, the seventh of a series of interviews with leading fundraising writers, copywriter Jules Brown and Ask Direct director Damian O’Broin talk to Fergal Byrne about a fundraising appeal letter written in 2011 for Women’s Aid, a voluntary organisation working throughout the UK and the whole of Ireland, which helps women and children who are suffering physical, mental and emotional, and sexual abuse. Here, Jules tells Fergal about the thought process behind the letter and the elements that contributed to the letter’s success.
What’s the secret to a great fundraising letter?
Jules Brown believes it’s all about the case study. ‘A good case study demonstrates in an emotive and vivid way an individual’s experience and how the organisation has helped him or her,’ he says.
This is where he begins. ‘I immerse myself in the case study. For me, it forms the guts of what fundraising direct mail is all about. The stronger the case study, the more effective the letter. In my experience, you can write a very good letter without a case study, but it will never beat a good letter with a good case study.’
Jules believes that the Women’s Aid story is particularly powerful. ‘It’s very vivid. It’s full of details that make it real for the reader, like the till receipt with the Women’s Aid phone number. And it demonstrates firsthand how Women’s Aid has changed this woman’s life.’
Feelings and emotion are crucial. Although you have to have the basic tools and techniques to be able to draft a successful letter, Jules believes that you need to put those tools aside and let the case study talk for itself. ‘Because if it doesn’t, and you start writing a fundraising letter by numbers instead, then it won’t ring true, it won’t be honest and your donor won’t feel it’s worth reading.’
Indeed, Jules suspects that the campaign’s success is largely due to the quality of the case study, ‘I would like to think it’s because of the quality of my copywriting, but I think also it’s largely down to the quality of this case study.’
Jules aims to bring his case studies to life, to make the donor really feel moved by the story. ‘You want the donor to sit down afterwards and feel some kind of powerful emotion. It’s not about technique; it’s not about ticking the boxes and doing all the textbook things. It doesn’t come from talking about the organisation. It comes from talking about real human experience.’
As well as using a strong case study, a good fundraising letter has to flow. ‘It’s absolutely got to flow. It’s all about flow from one section to another without losing the reader. That’s the craft.’
Fundraising letters differ in one important way from conventional direct mail. With direct mail, the vendor has something tangible to sell and there is a transaction that takes place between him and the buyer. ‘But in fundraising, the donor gives you money but doesn’t receive anything tangible in return,’ says Jules. ‘What she has instead is the satisfaction of knowing that she’s done good, she’s helped somebody and improved someone’s life. But I also think it’s really important that the donor goes away feeling that she got something real and emotional out of the experience of reading your letter.
Who should sign the letter?
‘In general I think it should be the chairperson of the organisation,’ says Jules. ‘It’s important for the donor to feel that she has a relationship with the spokesperson of the charity that she is funding. This link will have a far greater effect than if the letter were signed by the fundraising manager, for example, or the legacy manager – somebody who could be gone tomorrow.’
The door drop
‘In this case, we thought a cold mailing would be problematic,’ explains Damian O’Broin. Sending a personalised letter about domestic violence to someone you have never met before when you don’t know his or her circumstances – that’s very risky. It’s overly intrusive. She may be experiencing personal violence herself. We thought unaddressed mail would work better.’
The Women’s Aid letter was delivered by hand to 50,000 houses in south county Dublin. Jules believes it’s important that a door drop, or indeed a newspaper insert, should look as much as possible like a letter. ‘You see an awful lot of door drops and inserts that are almost like magazines. But we believe that an unaddressed appeal should still look like a letter. The headline is effectively where an address would go, for example, to help it look just like an addressed letter.’
Who to write to?
Many fundraisers say that if your letter is targeted at everyone, it’s targeted at no one. Experienced writers usually write with a particular recipient in mind. Some write to a friend or relation. Veteran copywriter Drayton Bird (Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing, Kogan Page, London and Philadelphia, 2007) addressed one of his most successful fundraising letters to his mother. The late Bill Jayme, a great copywriter from the USA, wrote letters addressed to himself.
For this letter, Jules had a very clear picture of the donor. ‘In my mind she is a woman who lives in South Dublin. She has either experienced domestic violence herself or more than likely she knows somebody who has, possibly a relative. She feels connected, impassioned and angry. Those are the emotions I try to touch on when I’m writing for Women’s Aid.’
He adds, ‘You have to be able to think like the donor. I do my utmost to get inside the head of the donor before I sit down and actually write the letter. That’s the place where I think you have to get to before you can write an effective letter.’
‘The client had very limited resources,” says Damian. ‘We have experience working with limited budgets – but this might be one of the most basic campaigns we have done. Here, I think the budget constraint actually helped in terms of the creative. The envelope, for example, grew from the fact that there wasn’t any budget. This pared-back approach allows the story to shine through. There simply wasn’t the money for photographs – in any case difficult in a situation like this – or lift devices, or involvement devices.’
WARNING: this is an unsolicited fundraising appeal from Women’s Aid. Please discard it immediately if you feel its presence may put you at risk.
‘Saying this is an unsolicited fundraising letter is kind of turning things on their head – normally you are trying to avoid saying it,’ says Damian. ‘This may indeed have dramatised it more than, say, a photo.’
CONTENT ADVICE: the enclosed leaflet contains a frank account of domestic violence. If you feel you may be upset or offended by this, or if you are under 18 years of age, please do not read it.
‘Domestic abuse is a very sensitive subject,’ says Damian. ‘With a door drop or insert, you can’t know who may read it, so it’s critical to be sensitive and discreet. The envelope is intentionally understated, without images or attention-grabbing headlines. Instead we use disclaimers, both on the envelope and the letterhead. They serve two purposes.
‘Firstly, the disclaimers on the envelope warn people about the potentially disturbing nature of the contents. Secondly, at the top of the letter, we’re being conscious of the fact that some people reading it may be victims of domestic violence themselves, or know someone who is. In a sense, our first priority is not to raise funds but to help people who are facing this situation.’
He adds, ‘The envelope warnings are not there to be salacious; for readers who don’t feel they may be upset or offended they make it extremely hard not to open the envelope.’
Your urgent Christmas gift of €85 will help a woman find the courage she needs to escape a life of cruelty and abuse...
A good headline is essential to really grab the reader’s attention. Jules spends a lot of time crafting an effective headline. ‘It sets the scene and engages the donor. Here the headline tells the donor why we’re writing this letter, what we’re talking about, how much we want and what it’s going to do. Everything else flows from there.’
Jules always tries to make an ‘ask’ straight away. ‘I have never heard a good reason not to. The important thing is that as soon as the donor opens the letter, she or he knows exactly what’s going on, how much you want, what you want it for and why, within a matter of seconds. If you don’t do that then you’ve wasted an awful lot of paper, because it just goes in the bin.’
Here Jules places the ‘ask’ in the conventional space an address would occupy.
Could you picture, for a moment, a woman on the brink of making the hardest decision of her life?
Jules believes that the opening page of a fundraising letter is the key to drawing in the reader. ‘For me, page one of the letter is what it’s all about. I think it was Jerry Huntsinger (http://www.sofii.org/showcase?id=17) who said that the sole object of the opening line of any direct mail letter is to make the reader read the second line. And the job of the second line is to make the reader read the third line and so on and so on. Everything is intended to make the reader read on.
‘The tone of the opening lines is the key. I try to draft an opening page that is emotive, which talks to the donor. I always try to start with a short paragraph. Ideally I like a one-line sentence with the word “you” in it.
‘The aim is to get the reader to engage immediately and emotionally with the subject. The best way to do this is by leading with your case study – as I did with the Women’s Aid letter. This is because it’s the best way to connect the donor with what Women’s Aid does and the people they help. It sets the scene, catches the reader’s attention and spurs her to read on. That’s why it’s so important to open with a short emotive sentence that talks directly to the donor.’
Jules continues, ‘It also engages the donor on an imaginative level. You’re not talking about facts, or figures, or the organisation, in the way that so many bad fundraising letters do. You’re actually asking the reader to engage her imagination and that’s important.’
A real person
Her name is Joanna. Yes, she’s real.
Jules firmly believes in using real case studies. ‘I think it is important to let the donor know that the person is real and not made up. In this case it emphasises the idea that a victim could be someone you know. There is a misconception that only a “certain type” of woman is a victim of domestic violence, when nothing could be further from the truth. It’s important for the reader to appreciate that it can happen to anybody.’
Jules believes that once the reader has reached the stage where she knows she’s going to get the full story she’s not going to put the letter down. ‘If she’s read this far she’s going to read on. If she wants to she can skip to the italicised section because she’ll have a good idea that that’s where the story is.’
But first I have to tell you about our urgent need for your support this Christmas. Because of the continuing climate of cutbacks in Ireland, Women’s Aid is under extreme financial pressure. We’ve just come through a really tough year and we’re expecting more difficult times ahead.
‘All the potential donor needs to know at this stage is that there is an urgent need for money. I don’t think she needs to be taken into the full financial details this early,’ warns Jules.
If you can send a Christmas donation of €85 before Friday the 17th of December, I promise you that your gift will make a real impact in the life of a woman trying to escape an abusive relationship.
Here is the second ask. Jules believes a fundraising package should have an ‘ask’ in the headline, an ‘ask’ in the PS and at least one per page. ‘Six “asks” is my standard for a four-page letter.’
I survived. That’s about the best I can say.
Joanna’s story starts directly and dramatically. Jules explains that Joanna’s original line read: ‘What can I say? I’ve survived! That’s about the best I can say right now but I do feel like I might be moving from surviving to actually living again and that’s a positive feeling.’
He reworked this sentence for greater impact. ‘I split the sentence using it to top and tail Joanna’s story. So she opens with: “I survived,” and finishes with the second half of the quote, leaving things on a positive note.
‘The writer needs to decide exactly how much detail he or she should go into and needs to balance the details of the story with a call for action. The reader knows that the climax will come towards the end of the story, so it’s important to get in and say what you have to say before then.’
Even though rape in a marriage was made illegal in Ireland twenty years ago, only one man has been convicted of it, and he had to be found guilty twice.
This letter tackles the subject of rape in marriage – this is addressed most powerfully on page three of the letter. ‘This is a key paragraph,’ says Jules. ‘It was something I found through research. I felt it went to the heart of what this campaign was about.
‘This is where the anger comes out,’ says Jules, who believes it’s important to boldly confront the fundamental issue of the campaign. ‘It was very important that it was brought home to people that this is about rape within marriage. That it’s incredibly difficult for women to talk about. And incredibly difficult for them to get any kind of justice.’
Jules makes the point that Joanna’s voice is quite matter of fact. She doesn’t show any anger or outrage herself. But it’s vitally important that a proper sense of outrage is conveyed to the reader. And it’s proper that the CEO, Margaret Martin, should be the one to convey it.
Margaret is saying, ‘We need to be outraged about this. Sorry if it’s distressing but this is the way it is. We speak to women just like Joanna all the time. We speak to women who have suffered worse. I’m angry. And you’re right to feel angry too.’
Jules also wanted to highlight that even though rape within marriage is illegal it still happens, ‘This could be your next door neighbour. It could be somebody in your local shop, or somebody you work with. It could be anybody.’
And this is one of many reasons why our confidential Helpline is so important, because it provides a safe, supportive space for women to share their experiences – on their own terms.
‘One point that cannot be stressed enough is that abused women have an incredibly hard time talking about their experiences. Women’s Aid tries to raise awareness of the helpline and uses Joanna as an example of its effectiveness,’ explains Jules.
I ended up like someone drunk in the gutter.
‘Every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end,’ says Jules. ‘At this point in the story, Women’s Aid enters, subtly, through a supermarket till receipt – something that ends up making the greatest change in Joanna’s life. The point is also not lost on the reader that this change has come about through donations.’
I hope you feel as moved by Joanna’s words as I was.
It would be hard not to be moved by Joanna’s story, but the point needs to be reinforced to keep the reader’s attention. This is done through the words of Margaret Martin. Jules says, ‘Whenever there’s an emotive case study, whenever you feel moved to rage or tears or some such powerful emotion, I think it’s important that the signatory actually says to the donor, you know, this choked me up. I’m sure it’s choked you up too. It’s made me angry. I hope you feel as angry as I did.’
Fortunately, though there is good news.
Jules keeps up the pace by ending each page with a page-turning statement. ‘I always try to end with something that will make readers want to turn the page.’ In this example, Jules shows that every day, because of the donor’s help, abused women are getting the help they need. He underlines and emphasises the benefits of donating, rather than just rolling off a string of facts and figures.
Please do all that you can to help us keep running our essential services for women trapped in cruel and abusive relationships, by making a generous gift of €85 before the 17th of December.
‘Not all clients like to use deadlines for donations, but it’s a proven technique. In this instance, Women’s Aid were agreeable to stating a deadline date.’
‘I could go on for some time about the importance of the PS. But, keeping it brief, I believe there are five things every PS should try to say:
1. Say how much money you want your donor to give.
2. Say why you’re asking.
3. Say what it will do for your beneficiaries.
4. Say it in a way that’s different to any other headlines, subheads, or call-out.
5. Say thank you.
The handwritten note on the reply form
‘Handwritten notes are very useful,’ says Jules. ‘They are a good place to add any unsaid but important details. Details that will help propel someone into making an immediate donation. This one on the reply form reminds the reader of the time of year, which has the potential for abuse because of the increased pressure a family can have from being under the same roof for an extended period. This is something that I originally wanted to say within the context of the letter, but I could not find a way to work it in without upsetting the letter’s flow.’
The handwritten piece is also used as a reminder to get people to include their name and address, ‘so we can thank you for your gift’. It gives the donor an incentive to include these details.
The ask levels
The starting ask was €85 – the average donation in the previous campaign. And the maximum figure was €250 – the threshold for tax efficient giving. The midpoint gift was €125 – edging the donation up and driving strongly towards the €250 point.
Fifty thousand pieces were delivered by hand in the areas of Dublin that had historically done well in previous campaigns. The package was a success, recruiting almost 200 new donors – 36 per cent up on the previous year and 30 per cent ahead of target – with an average gift of €141, an increase of 67 per cent on 2009. Even better, the net cost per acquisition was 0 – which was very important for Women’s Aid.
‘This was not a mass mailing,’ says Damian. ‘Women’s Aid wanted and needed quality donations – they would need fairly high average donations to make it work. In our experience, Women’s Aid has narrow appeal, but those who do support them give generously.
This campaign was the winner of best acquisition and best overall copywriting at Ireland’s An Post direct marketing awards in 2011.