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Jerry Grimes

The Power to Confuse




“What do you think?” Those four little words could insure that your organization’s efforts to raise money through direct mail are dead in the water.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for “group think.” As a trained facilitator, I often begin meetings with the phrase: “None of us is as smart as all of us.” Brainstorming is definitely essential to moving any organization forward. But when it comes to writing fundraising letters, you have to know when to use a group’s thoughts and when you should not. You have to remember the fundraising letter cardinal rule: “Write one to one.”

A good fundraising letter is personal. When you read it, you feel that its author is speaking directly to you. It is written dialogically. The writer is a singular, clear, articulate voice in your head carrying on an imaginary conversation with just you. It is best written from an “I” to “you” perspective, not from “we” to “them.” In a good fundraising letter, the conversation leads you to the inevitable conclusion that you must act in support of the organization being represented.

A good fundraising letter is also about one, clearly focused premise. We must assume the reader has little time or will generally not read every word we write, so that means the premise must repeated several times. Therefore, the premise must be simple, clear and easy to grasp. Bad fundraising letters have a laundry list of reasons why someone should give that cloud the premise and make it almost impossible for a conversation to form in the reader’s brain.

Introduced too late in the process, group think produces these laundry lists and a political expectation that everyone’s ideas will be somehow woven by the writer into the copy. As a writer, my stomach always turns sour when I hear that someone wants to send my copy through a “committee.” Clearly, I believe my work can always be improved. I edit, edit, edit ruthlessly and even still, often wish I’d had another chance at something I write after it’s published. All good writers are that way.

Far too often in my experience, committees have harmed the creative process and forced me to compromise my work. When this happens, simplicity and clarity are sacrificed in the name of making sure everyone’s ideas are incorporated. You know the old saw about a camel being a horse that was built by a committee? Well, I’ve written lots of copy that started out life as a sleek thoroughbred only to be morphed into a slouching camel through the group think process. Horses move swiftly and with purpose, camels may get you across a desert, but they tend to amble along and spit a lot along the way.
Please don’t “camelize” the work of whomever is writing your fundraising letters. If that’s you, don’t subject yourself to a committee end up drowning in camel spit. The truth? It’s the writer’s job to come up with a great letter that talks to just one person about one idea, not to be “politically correct” and salve everyone’s egos by including several different thoughts in one letter.

Yet, I must tell you that there definitely room for more than one opinion when it comes to creating good fundraising copy. It’s just a matter of timing. Don’t include the group after a writer has come up with a well-written, one-to-one letter based on a solid, singular premise. Do include the group before he or she ever sets fingers to the keyboard to write.

The proper place for group think is in brainstorming for the premise of your fundraising letter. Your writer will love you for giving them the benefit of everyone’s ideas as well as their own from which to choose. Ask your group: “What’s the one best reason we are writing to ask for a donation?”
The best answers are going to be tied to your mission. “To help more people like ....” is often a very good premise for a letter. “So we can….” followed by a clearly stated goal for the organization can be another . A letter’s premise is that one idea or need to which most of your donors will respond.

Let your board, your staff, your boss’s wife and her Canasta club, the regulars at your neighborhood Starbuck’s or whomever challenge you with as many possibilities as they want. You will end up with one but you can start with many.

Take the best ideas from your group and write a couple of candidate letters, then float those by your group for input on which you should use. Ask them which idea held up the best when written into letter form? Along the way, if someone helps the writer say something more succinctly, clearly or dramatically, allow the writer consider that input, as well. But no writer should be forced to veer off the premise they have chosen to include someone’s pet thought or idea when it doesn’t fit. That’s when a thoroughbred’s spine begins to curve into a hump! Don’t let that happen.


Jerry has been involved in the media for over 30 years with experience that spans television, radio and print. His growing passion over the past decade has become development for non-profit organizations.  Before joining Advocace, he served as a development consultant for another firm, and as General Manager for one of the top Christian music stations in the country, and as Donor Marketing Director for WAY-FM Media Group. Currently also Director of Development for the University Of South Carolina School Of Law, as well as an active speaker, writer and facilitator.