I always know it’s autumn because the most sensitive of the copywriters begin to whine louder than usual. Caught in the pressure cooker of working on year-end appeals and acquisition packages for the New Year, there’s only so much client and agency idiocy a copywriter can take.

Fortunately, I won my copywriter manumission some years ago — long before the horrors of today’s practices — a day when most fundraisers could read, but hardly any made the foolish claim they could write.

No more. Today’s copywriters — especially the most talented — are doomed to suffer the ignominy of being just a cog in an impersonal, hamster cage of production and project schedules, driven by the undiscerning and largely unknowing.

“We need the package Thursday; make it fit the budget.”

So much for creativity and collaboration.

Sadly, copywriters have become little more than migrant workers hired in to harvest the year-end crop or plant the seedlings in the winter’s acquisition field.

I know for certain the autumnal meltdown is once again underway when I receive yet another annual rant from master copywriter and fundraising strategist Bob Levy. Slowly, but surely, year upon year, Bob’s rants chronicle the melting of the creative ice cap.

In this case it’s not the polar bears, but the nonprofits that fail to hear the warnings of ‘creative climate change’ that will endanger fundraising.

Bob’s first rant arrived at The Agitator 5 years ago this month.  Words Count warned of the trend toward blindly focusing on the ‘magic’ of file segmentation, while mainly ignoring solid creative and messaging.

Since then, Bob has…

… in The Package Crush, railed against the beauty contests in much of our awards-driven industry, with the admonition that they almost always mask the ugly ducklings that ultimately turn into lovely swans.

… Blown the whistle on the faulty messaging in his More Than The Missionary Position, reminding us that even as we agonize over the next topic needed for the next fundraising appeal to meet that schedule, to meet the budget, to sustain an organization’s annual nut, “we might spend just a little time defining the core messages that drive home just what that organization stands for”.

So, in light of our current focus on retention and some of the factors that make for lousy donor loyalty, the arrival of Bob’s latest rant in my inbox is particularly apropos.

“Have you gotten your “Certificate of Appreciation” lately? Y’know, the one that has become an interchangeable staple of nonprofit mail. It’s just so warm and credible. The kind of thing your kid might get for ‘playing well with others’ in the third grade.

“Or there’s that very special ‘pen package’ – enticing you with a cheap ball point pen that you can use to sign a petition to Congress. Whoops, we forgot that maybe they’re out of session.

“Hey, what about that smart decision to determine the subject matter of the mail program for the coming year? Forget about that pesky national calamity that might get in the way of next September’s “Matching Gift Upgrade Appeal” – the one with a touching story and photo with absolutely no connection to what is happening in the world (or what the organization has currently accomplished).

“Let’s just press the ‘dumbing down’ App and hit our donors with techniques that were outdated twenty years ago. Maybe the Post Office should give me a Certificate of Appreciation when I buy stamps. That will prove they really need help.”

“Folks we are writing to thinking grown-ups in an increasingly complex world. Shouldn’t we try talking to them that way?”

Since retention is the only path to stability and growth, it follows that organizations need to pay serious and meaningful attention, not to techniques and gimmicks, but to true differentiation that comes from the creative and powerful message and stories that truly make an organization stand apart.

Sadly, that’s not happening and it’s not happening with increasing frequency. To put it in commercial terms — our sector, as a whole, is to the commercial sector what generic store brand laundry detergent is to Tide.

Instead of clear and unique messages and poignant stories about our individual organizations, we too often substitute tote bags, labels, calendars, T-Shirts and, yes, certificates of appreciation, believing that because the short-term response rates are better, we’re safer and more stable.

Donors see this phony array multiple times a week or month. And we wonder why acquisition and retention rates are down.


[Bob Levy has been a consultant and copywriter for social cause and charitable organizations for almost thirty years. You can reach him at rjlevyink@aol.com]

This article was posted in: Communications, Copywriting / creative, Donor retention / loyalty / commitment.
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