Appeal approval processes should be structured to minimize the damage wreaked by executive editing.
Here’s a situation that plays out every week in nonprofit offices across the land, and it needs to stop. A fundraising appeal is written and ready for prospective donors’ mailboxes, but first it needs to go to the signer for approval.
And this signer—the president, CEO, AVP, whoever—proceeds to splatter said appeal with red ink. “This doesn’t sound like my voice,” they say. “This sounds simplistic and corny,” they opine. “Why don’t we say it this way instead . . .”
They need to cut it out. There are several reasons for this, which I will explain below. But the bottom line is this: When your C-suite letter signer line edits your letter, what they’re really doing is pulling out a gun and shooting themselves (and your organization) in the foot. That red ink is blood: the blood of all the dollars you now will not raise.
Because the appeal that now pleases your leadership is most likely a mangled, anodyne letter that no longer hits the beats that a successful fundraising appeal needs to hit. Now, you probably know that. But it’s probably not something you can say to your signer’s face. So, it’s incumbent upon you as a fundraiser to structure your approval process to minimize the damage wreaked by executive editing . . . and it’s up to your letter signer to gain perspective on what their role in a successful appeal actually is.
So let’s whip up two points for them, the signer, and two points for you, the fundraiser.
“Your voice” doesn’t matter.
Other than Cormac McCarthy (RIP) and Jack Fowler, almost no one has much of a distinctive voice in writing. And even if you do, from a fundraising perspective it doesn’t really matter.
People don’t give because a letter does or does not “sound like you.” They give because it’s a compelling appeal. And a compelling appeal depends on the following ingredients: urgent problem, effective solution, clear sense of how my gift will make a difference and why I should give today. That’s it. No “voice” about it.
Any element you introduce that muddies the water surrounding those key elements is going to depress your returns. That’s why good fundraising writers use short sentences and short paragraphs—they allow the reader to see those main elements right away. Those throat-clearing parentheticals, nuanced language, and minute details you want to include are just going to make the appeal less effective.
You wouldn’t copyedit legalese or computer code for style, so don’t do it for fundraising appeals either.
Speaking as one who writes fundraising appeals, let me let you in on a little secret: Fundraising writing is formulaic writing. There are patterns to what works, and we know those patterns work because people have been cranking out appeals and testing every single element for over a hundred years. It’s not a genre for creative expression or individuality.
As long as I’m delivering hard truths, here’s another one: That stuff that rubs you the wrong way? The “corny” stuff with the multiple asks . . . the highlighting and bolding . . . the sentence fragments . . . the PS’s and PPS’s . . . it’s all there because that’s what works.
Now, how and why it works isn’t necessarily something you need to trouble yourself with. It’s tangential to your job, and it’s not what you’re paid to do. What you need to understand is that the best thing you can do is just sign the letter. Hold your nose if you need to, but leave it alone. When you edit out all that “corniness,” you’ve made a letter that may be more pleasing to you or me, but that will invariably raise less money for your organization.
You may say: Yes, all that is well and good. I recognize the truth of what you say in general (i.e., for others). But in my case, it’s just that . . .
Stop. We all think our cases are exceptional. Odds are, they’re not.
How to avoid executive over-editing
The problem with this article is that I may well be preaching to the choir. If you work in development, you’re probably nodding along because you’re well-acquainted with this problem. But the real problem is, how do you actually wrest editorial control back from leadership when it comes to messaging copy?
That’s a tricky question. You know your organization better than I do. But here are two initial ideas that might help.
First: Lay the foundation by having a conversation about the form and function of fundraising appeals.
The first step towards overcoming objections is admitting them, right? “The appeal we’re going to share with you is going to look kind of corny. It has a big headline and ask on page one. But we want to try it out because studies have shown . . . etc.” Grant the concerns before the signer even sees the letter, as a way to reintroduce them to the basics principles of fundraising writing. “Let’s just try it and see . . .”
This probably won’t be a panacea. But repeated reminders that fundraising writing is not like other kinds of writing, and must be respected as such, can only help.
Second: Establish very clear review processes which minimize and delegate executive editorial oversight.
“Your time is too valuable to spend getting bogged down in the minutiae of editing these appeals.” It’s an argument that’s going to sound like flattery but is, in fact, true. Your letter signer almost certainly has far bigger fish to fry. Encourage them to delegate to someone they trust, and then work closely with that person to establish clear protocols on what fundraising appeals should look like, what language should be used, and who’s going to approve them.
Time is typically of the essence, and too many cooks spoil letters just as much as broth.
You’re not writing the Declaration of Independence here. It’s a fundraising letter. Get it in shape, get it approved, and get it out the door. Just try to get everyone on the same page about that first.