Sunday, May 02, 2010

A Case Study in How To Write Different Kinds of Fundraising Materials' Content

This post explains general writing tips for all kinds of different fundraising writing such as grant writing, appeal letter composition, sponsor solicitation letters composition, and more.  The formats are different, as is the solicitation or request, but the need to describe what is needing funding and why is universal to each of these different types of funds solicitation letters.  So, the following applies to many different types of written solicitations.

I am asked so many questions through this blog that I thought it was a good idea to begin writing case studies.  The case studies, in this blog, will be hypothetical fake scenarios that exemplify real world nonprofit needs and the professional best practices that address them.  One such nonprofit need that must be met is writing fundraising solicitations, of all kinds; and this is what I am addressing today.  My intention in creating case studies is to set up the case study scenario, provide my recommendation, and also getting your take on the same scenario and if you would, comment, below this post.  I'd like to hear what my colleagues on the web have to say about this case study.

General Fundraising Writing Case Study:

Let's say that you and I work for a nonprofit called Nostalgic Television Fans for Pre-Digital Television Shows' Preservation (NTFPDTS).  You and I work together in the fundraising department and we have just been made aware of a new program that the board and head of our organization's programs have decided to begin, Conserve Campy Television.  Conserve Campy Television will begin next year but our task, as fundraisers, is to begin soliciting support for this new program, now.  We work with the executive director and also the Conserve Campy Television program manager and figure out how we are going to go about the fundraising, for this particular program, especially prior to and during its first year being offered.

You and I are responsible for the writing and submitting grant proposals (or applications) and also for writing an appeal letter to our donor base.  We decided to work together to develop the written content describing the new program, including the request for support, since each fundraising solicitation will require these.

The following are the facts:

Program description: Conserve Campy Television will both provide for the preservation of the specific television camp genre by providing from between fifteen to twenty-two, 17 to 21 year old, film students with hands on preservation education at no cost to them.  The students will come from public education, private education, and home school art programs. There will be no requirement of the students selected except that they are committed to the opportunities that the course content offers which they will be asked to indicate in an 100 word or less essay that will be required in order for them to be considered for the course.

The education will be provided by two experts from Columbia and Warner Brothers film studios, over the course of eight weeks, one night a week, for three hours, in our state of the art film lab (which is complete with all necessary equipment, per the industry's standards), located on bus lines, offering ample parking, and all expected disable persons' accesses to the film lab.

The course curriculum was created by our executive director, a professional film editor with thirty successful well regarded years in the industry and a well regarded and world renown art professor, from the University of California Los Angeles, who has specialized in film and film preservation her entire teaching career.  Students will preserve film reels and audio tapes, including all of the standard formats common from the professional pre-digital film age.  They will learn commonly accepted professional film skills and concepts, over the course, and be responsible for a final individual project which will involve the preservation of an actual, pre-digital era, camp genre, film short (generously offered for student use by FOX Searchlight, as their archives needing preservation, at the current time).  Students will be evaluated based on their individual attendance record, capacity for the skills and concepts taught, and the quality, care, and how complete their final individual project is.

At the end of the course, the students will each be asked to anonymously evaluate the two instructors, the course, and then they will also be asked to fill out an anonymous survey asking about their experience in the program, through our organization, asking about whether they learned what they hoped to learn, what they liked, what they'd change and why, and for their personal demographic information.  All of this information will be tabulated, compiled, analyzed by our programs director, respecting anonymity, and then the findings will be presented to the executive director, program manager, the two course educators, and the programs committee.  The information gathered from the surveys will be used to gauge whether the program (or course) is meeting pre-determined program goals as created by the professionals who created the course's curriculum, such as meeting the need for more professional preservationists coming up through the industry; to determine what is working and to address, improve, and implement improvements where changes are needed.  Evaluations will be conducted, compiled, analyzed, and reviewed after each time that the course or program is provided.

The facts, as I've called them above, are really important for anyone who is being asked to write any kind of fundraising solicitation to have.  If a fundraiser is writing a solicitation of any kind without having the real facts - their ability to raise support is already at a disadvantage.  Why?  Notice that we have some really well regarded and credentialed professionals who created the program and who will teach the course.  Notice, too, that there are intended outcomes and goals, and an evaluation method built into the program.  Also notice that the 'who (all), what, where, when, why, and how' is covered.  Having this information is crucial to any successful fundraising as this is the content necessary in order for the fundraisers to write (in this case) a compelling case inspiring those asked to give.  This kind of information instills support, clearly states what will happen and why, and also provides for real data (outcomes) to be gathered and tabulated to better the program, over time.  This is why again and again, in this blog, I state how important it is that prior to any fundraising (especially for brand new programs) that all program designing, planning, budgeting, and fundraising plans are finalized well in advance of the program's start date.  Work on being able to provide the program should begin well before the program actually starts.

I sit down to write a first draft and having the above facts, now, I consider what approach with the letter recipient do I want to take, in the content, in order to really raise as much support as possible.  I could hit them in the heart strings.  Marketers often say that the best way to reach the public is through emotional reaction to content.  This may be true in marketing but (and some will disagree with me here) I do not believe that the same tact provides for successful fundraising.  Hitting potential donors in the heart may raise some money but I submit that it does not create committed donors who give now, but also again and again, as well as does the method I'm about to outline.

You and I review my first draft and it says "Nostalgic Television Fans for Pre-Digital Television Shows' Preservation (NTFPDTS) requests your contribution, now, for our new program.  If you do not give generously now, for this new program, Conserve Campy Television, tens of original television show video reels will fall into obliteration; and potential professional film preservationists will not be exposed to a potential career choice.  This would be disastrous culturally and historically."

After you read it you scrunch up your nose.  I nod, getting it, and we decide that you should write a second draft.  Let me also say that this was a first stab at taking a tact or 'tone' in this solicitation.  This is not the extent of any one of the documents we'll ultimately write.

You wisely suggest the following tact: "To ensure that original camp genre television show reels are accessible today and tomorrow, Nostalgic Television Fans for Pre-Digital Television Shows' Preservation (NTFPDTS) invites you to partner with us and assist in providing a new program, Conserve Campy Television, by contributing to this new program's fund, now.  Your contribution will allow NTFPDTS to provide fifteen to twenty-two 17 to 21 year old film students with hands on preservation education at no cost to them.  The goal of this new program is to both expose students to this invaluable skill and to also ensure that young people, today, will be exposed to this much needed profession; as each television and movie studio, today, retains archives awaiting professional preservation.  Our hope is that a few of our students will enjoy this preservation work so much, that they pursue the profession through further professional experience or advance education, afterward.  The camp genre is being used as it is a fun genre, for instance television shows such as The Munsters or H.R. Puff N Stuff are cultural icons and also entertaining, still today, as they will likely remain, over time.  The course was designed by our executive director, Phil Schmill, a professional film editor with thirty successful well regarded years in the industry; and a well regarded and world renown art professor, Shirley Whirley, PhD from the University of California Los Angeles, who has specialized in film and film preservation her entire teaching career.  After the course, we will ask the students to anonymously give us feedback and their impression of the educators and the course.  We will ultimately want to know whether we have truthfully accommodated their goals and hopes or why they took the course.  All survey findings will be fully reviewed by all of the organization's pertinent staff and volunteers to both understand all findings and then determine what improvements can be implemented, as needed, and that the improvements are implemented in a timely manner.  As is always the case with any new program, we anticipate the need to make some improvements (as found through feedback) but we also anticipate success (as our organization's programs' success rate remain at 90% of all participants of each of our organizations' programs expectations and more have been met over the past three years).  Please give to NTFPDTS' new program, Conserve Campy Television to both enable a young person's goal to become a  professional film preservationist thereby ensuring thousands of endangered original television film reels will be professionally preserved for now and the future.  Thank you."

Even though, this is not extant and is only meant to demonstrate the point, here, we read your draft and decide that yours' is much better.  Why?  You make a case in your version of the solicitation that demonstrates why the donor's contributing to this new program is not just an investment in television, preservation, education, and young people; it also demonstrates that our organization is working with very talented experts, has built feedback mechanisms into our program to ensure that we both find out what needs improving and that improvements will be implemented; and we indicate the extremely impressive success rate typical of our organization, across all of the programs that we offer.  In other words, if the recipient of the solicitation is concerned with film preservation and wants to give to an organization that is really going to make a positive improvement in the industry, in this work, this is a pretty sound way for the donor to give to make sure that happens.  This solicitation content is honest, compelling, and inclusive.  We don't ask for the money saying 'if you don't give thousands of film reels disintegrate so give' and we don't ask for the money saying 'our organization will provide this program with your support or without it'.  We make it clear that there is a real need, why our organization is a good resource to provide this training, what the intended goals are, and how we'll know whether we are doing, in the community, what we hope we're doing.  We're also clear that we're open to finding out what our program really winds up doing (from the participant's experience of it) and we're also going to listen to their feedback.  In fact, we'll use their feedback to help us know what needs improvement (and what new program doesn't need improvement).  A donor can feel confident about giving rather than feeling that they've been hit over the head with a threat ('give or thousands of original television reels disintegrate').

Marketing is a valid profession, of course.  It's just not fundraising, necessarily.  I will say that emotion has its place in fundraising, but it's not how to fundraise effectively.  Once a donor has given, they should be thanked.  After they are thanked, whenever it is eventually possible, the donors that enabled the organization's various successes should be made aware of the successes, as donors give in order to help cause improvements in our communities.  Let the donor know where their money was spent, what it did, and what the outcomes are of the program that they supported (and how your organization knows the outcome, such as through participants' surveys' findings).  If donors are informed about what their contribution did (and the success it enabled) they can see what their contribution did, explicitly, in the community.  This is one of the most compelling ways to ensure that donors will give to your organization again and again.  This is called donor retention.  There connection to an organization's mission success is where a donor's emotional connection comes into fundraising.

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