9 Tips on Writing Copy for Worthy Causes

by Lorraine Thompson

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When you write copy for non-profit organizations, there’s no doubt your work is worthy: Your copy supports services that feed starving children, lower maternal death rates, end factory farming and do so many other good works.

You care passionately about your mission. So writing effective copy should be pretty easy, right? All you have to do is explain your cause and delineate how its services change lives and make the world a better place.

How can your audience not take action once they understand your organization’s mission?

But here’s the thing…

Your audience doesn’t care about your cause.

Shocking isn’t it? But it’s true. People are self-interested—because they’re human beings. They’re busy. They’re preoccupied. They have their own concerns, distractions and pressing needs.

Whether it’s work, family or pure ambition, they have a mission of their own. And it’s unrealistic to expect your audience to adopt yours.

That’s why, in the hierarchy of audience attention, organization-centric copy—materials that focus on your work, your organization and your mission—gets little result.

Start thinking like a marketer

But there’s good news. You don’t need to convert people to your worldview to get them to support your cause.

Instead, you need to start thinking like a marketer. Good marketing copywriters focus less on their product and more on product benefits. Their copy promises the product will save customers time. Make customers feel more competent. Improve social and family relationships. And add fun, pleasure, fulfillment and meaning to life.

Your non-profit copy needs to do the same.

When drafting non-profit copy, you need to stop flogging your “product”—your organization and its work. Instead put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Write copy that speaks to their needs and desires. Ask them to take actions that support your cause—but also benefit them.

Yes, it feels counter-intuitive. And, for most of us, it requires radical rethinking and rewriting.

The following suggestions can help.

9 tips for writing audience-focused, worthy-cause copy

Good non-profit copywriters use the same persuasive copy basics as marketing copywriters. Your content needs to…

  1. Target your audience. Clients. Donors. Colleagues. Choose one. Effective communications and development copy is targeted. Generic, one-size-fits-all copy casts a wide net and hooks few readers. Instead of creating one capabilities brochure, you may need to customize several—or include cover letters tailored to different readers. Your website needs to use copy and navigational paths that speak to a variety of visitors and their needs.
  2. Choose a copy goal. Before you put a finger on the keyboard, ask yourself what you want readers to do. What action do you want them to take after reading your copy? Non-profit marketers often make the mistake of choosing fuzzy goals like “to educate” “to introduce” “to raise awareness.” Steer clear of these vagaries and choose an active goal. “We want rural Malawi women to ask the clinic midwife about our safe birth kits.” “We want the reader to visit our website.” “We want the visitor to sign up for our email newsletter.”
  3. Keep the spotlight on your reader. Tempting as it is to talk about you, keep turning your thoughts to your reader. Try using this marketing trick to weigh the relevance of your copy: After you write a copy block, read it through slowly then ask, “So what?” Ask yourself how the information benefits your reader. How is your fact, figure or other content relevant to her? How does it resonate emotionally? Keep asking until you get an answer. You’ll see you may need to rewrite your copy.
  4. Grab their hearts. Customers make buying decisions for emotional, rather than rational, reasons. The person reading your non-profit copy does the same. She may need facts and figures to solidify her decision to take action—to come to your clinic, make a donation, spread the word—but the decision itself is made for emotional reasons: Your client may make a choice to stay healthy to care for her children. A donor may give to memorialize a loved one, feel a rush of power, gain recognition or make a difference in the world.
  5. Tell stories. Humans share a universal love of storytelling. We’re naturally sucked in to narratives about people, places and things. We can be hypnotically pulled into copy that starts with a story or includes narrative bits or personal profiles. When approaching copy, always ask yourself if, how and where you can use storytelling elements.
  6. Use numbers judiciously. Numbers have tremendous power. They add credibility: Ninety-seven percent of your donation goes directly to our programs. They shock—in a good way: One thousand women die in childbirth every single day. Numbers strengthen your copy and bolster readers’ resolve to take action. But they need to be used thoughtfully. Don’t pile up paragraphs with multiple figures. Pick and choose numbers with an ear to their place in your story. And, when possible, try to present numbers pictorially, e.g., instead of “fifty six percent” try “more than half.”
  7. Think small. Your readers may feel overwhelmed—and helpless—in the face of “ending hunger in Haiti” or “providing an education for every Nicaraguan child.” Empower them by making calls-to-action vivid and doable: “Your $50 donation gives Francoise a hot breakfast every morning.” “Twenty dollars buys Ignacio a pair of shoes that allow him to walk to school.”
  8. Make copy easy on the eye. On a practical note, audience-centric copy should be easy to read, skim and scan. Even the most devoted donor’s heart sinks when confronted with a wall of text. So use the same easy-to-read formatting that marketers use: Short words, sentences and paragraphs. Succinct synopsized subheads. Bullet points. Numbered lists. White space. Alliteration and rhythm.
  9. Don’t love ‘em and leave ‘em. Good non-profit copywriting works as part of a long-term strategy. Don’t expect to score with one tool alone—the fundraising equivalent of a first date. Aim for long-term, meaningful relationships. In our digital age, this includes engaging, two-way conversations. It means providing useful, valuable and reader-relevant content over a period of time—with the expectation of sending out multiple communications before getting a response.

Want to learn more?

Need more ideas on how to “think like a marketer?” Take a look at my list of 25 Must-Read Best Copywriting and Marketing Books. Start with Robin Hood Marketing by Katya Andresen—a book that should be on every non-profit marketer’s shelf.

Follow MarketCopywriter to India

Okay, I “talk the talk” about worthy cause copywriting in this post. But maybe you wonder if I “walk the walk” and follow my own rules when drafting copy for non-profit organizations. You can find out in the next few weeks.

As Ashoka’s correspondent for the Global Maternal Health Conference 2010 in India, I will be live blogging from New Delhi.

Instead of my regular weekly posts, over the next few weeks you’ll find links to posts at Ashoka Changemakers blog.

Live blog posts from New Delhi will report on the conference. Additional human-interest posts will introduce you to an inspiring group of Young Champions for Maternal Health. Here’s a post about one of my favorite Young Champions.

I’m aiming to write engaging posts for a readership keen on public health and challenges faced in developing countries. And hopefully you. Let me know what you think!

Photo courtesy of babasteve

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Hassing August 24, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Hi Lorraine! I was once particularly taken by an Amnesty International headline that said something like: ‘A lot of people want you to bin this letter’.

‘Those people’ were child abductors, rapists, torturers etc. in various dictatorships. You can believe I opened THAT letter.

Good luck in your mighty quest. I’ll be watching and reading with interest. Best regards, P. :)

Lorraine Thompson August 25, 2010 at 8:17 am

@Paul. Thanks for your comment. Yes, I’ve read some killer donor appeals as well. In the 80s, when I was a starving actress, NYC’s Covenant House, a-non-profit for homeless teens, could get me to give my last dollar.

As with all marketing content, the key is tailoring message to the audience to make it relevant and useful to them. From what I can gather–hope to learn more once I’m at the conference–Ashoka’s audience seems to be made up of public health and development professionals. Their posts requires a different angle than to-consumers appeals. Kind of like B2B marketing. Will keep you posted. Literally. : >

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