“We’re creative. We’re gonna sit at our desks typing while the walls fall down around us. Because we’re the least important, most important thing there is.”

Those were Don Draper’s words during an uncharacteristically cynical moment in the hit series Mad Men. While his agency faced bankruptcy, Don spilled a career’s worth of professional frustration in a single unguarded moment.

My former boss experienced a similar moment during a particularly challenging round of internal approvals for a fundraising campaign. His words were, “Everyone thinks they’re a marketer.”

So what’s going here? As a writer I’ve seen all of the frustration that comes part and parcel with the copywriting process. I’ve seen it as a client after receiving work that wouldn’t pass a grade 10 English class. I’ve felt it while rewriting the work of paid professionals. And I’ve experienced it as a writer watching quality work wither under the weight of infinite edits because people valued having their say above the success of the final campaign.

Creative is indeed the least important, most important thing, and writing is the paragon of that dynamic. Writers too often forward copy that, quite simply, sucks. But equally there are many times when we can get caught up in our control needs and fail to let our creative people sing.

Most people can’t design a website or create compelling layout for a fundraising letter. But each and every one of us can put words to paper. So surely it’s our right and our coordinator’s, manager’s and director’s right to make sure those messages make us feel good. Right?

Not necessarily. It might be our right to feel good, but it’s our job to create winning campaigns. The good news is that there are ways to drive copy towards campaign success, and with a little luck that success should leave us all feeling better in the process. Ironically, this usually involves doing less instead of more.

Here are the three most important things for every fundraising campaign leader to do if they want to get their copy right and ultimately build fundraising success.

Concept is key

Most campaigners spend the bulk of time wrestling with approvals and making changes to creative copy, but the most successful ones do their work up front. Defining the concept at the very beginning is the single most important determinant of a campaign’s success. It’s the vision piece for everything that follows, and every successful concept answers the same two questions – what is your message, and what action do you need people to take?

Note the singular. The concept is about a single message, not messages. Copy is not the place for every person in the organization to have their say or have their favorite talking point included. It’s about creating a vehicle that will reach your audience and motivate that audience toward a specific action.

The message is the motivator. Response is the desired behavior. And in all of human endeavor, there is only one thing that motivates behavior – emotion.

Motivate with emotion

In copywriting there are two mistakes, or more playfully, two types of people, that sabotage emotion and cripple the written word – the rational and the rationalizer.

Let’s start with the rational. The nonprofit sector is filled with extremely intelligent, well educated, savvy professionals. We’re rational. We see problems and work towards solutions. The problems facing our political system, the environment, and human health are quantifiable and concrete, and our solutions need to be equally objective in order to create real results.

The rational expects our communication to take the same form, and this is precisely the mistake. People don’t communicate rationally except in highly specialized circumstances – scientific and legal processes, and various analytical or problem solving spheres. In every other context we communicate emotionally. Rationals are no different. You can tell by how angry scientists and lawyers get when they read emotional fundraising language.

The rational’s need for accuracy still needs to be honoured. Good writing is never dishonest or false, but edits done at this level need to remain strictly about the facts and not bend into issues of theme, story and mood.

The second type of person is the rationalizer. Their objections take the form of, “I don’t like the copy because it makes me feel X.” The rationalizer wants copy to make them feel good, and be consistent with their feelings about the world – whatever those feeling happen to be. This is a problem of perspective. The question isn’t about what the copy makes us feel as a campaigners. It’s about what feelings our audience will have, and whether those feelings will lead to a desired action, like signing a petition or giving a donation.

It’s important to care, but that care needs to centre on the goal of the campaign.

Of course the message needs to remain both accurate and sincere – but you already took care of that with the concept. If your writer has followed the concept, all that should be needed is a brief review and fact check. After that, the only thing left to do is…

Let it go

The single most difficult behavior in the world is to simply let go. This is why Buddhists devote thousands of pages and hours of practice to the problem. The best writers will tell you that letting go is also the key to every moment of true inspiration. The words arrive, and the writer types them out. It’s a moment in time that can’t be controlled.

That will sound a little airy-fairy to some, but ironically technology is proving the very same thing. The excellent minds at Capulet Communications recently shared their list of 6 Digital Trends for 2013, key among them is the increasingly ephemeral nature of online communications. Content will expire with greater and greater speed, often in mere minutes. In order to keep up, our creative processes can no longer rely on organization-wide buy-in, approvals that require weeks, and a desire to control the nuance of every word. Our communication increasingly needs to drive to the heart of what we mean to say and engage people spontaneously – in real time – about the things they care about most.

This is communication. This is conversation. And it is writing at its very best.

Writing is indeed the least important, most important thing precisely because it’s the hardest thing – to communicate with complete sincerity within each moment of time. It means doing our rational work up front, confronting feelings that can be painful or uncomfortable, and finally letting go and trusting the people around us and the hard work that’s already been done.

But it’s worth it. And it leads to a most unexpected place. A place where the most important thing is to let it all go, and actually do nothing at all.


This article first appeared over at Charity Village as part of our series on Deconstructing Philanthropy.

Banner image credit: Caleb Roenigk on Flickr via Creative Commons.