Writing and Raising Money for 5 Universities and Colleges

Beginning in 2005, I’ve written annual fund appeals and other communications that have helped major universities and colleges raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. (See samples on Portfolio page, scrolling to “University Development.”)

1. Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Maryland). I worked with multiple people in the Annual Fund office to craft appeals for various colleges within Johns Hopkins, signers and audiences. I learned and honed a fundraising workhorse during this time. (See 5 Elements of a Magnetic Appeal.)

2. University of Delaware (Newark, Delaware). I did similar projects for University of Delaware, writing a range of appeals for multiple audiences, as well as writing for the university’s website. Here’s a letter from David Morris, senior associate director of Annual Giving, that tells how I helped increase giving by nearly 30%.

3. Roanoke College (Salem, Virginia). In my own backyard, I wrote many appeals for The Roanoke Fund during two annual fundraising cycles. “The Roanoke Fund is at its highest level since 2008,” the director said in an email, “and, once again, your letters helped make that happen.”

4. Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, Virginia). Also in my backyard, I’ve done advertising and fall solicitation projects for the University Development department at Virginia Tech.

5. Heritage University (Toppenish, Washington). When a longtime client became vice president of marketing and communications at Heritage University, he called on me to help with messaging for a new center.

+1: In the 2007 timeframe, I wrote a major brochure for Marshall University (Huntington, West Virginia) while working as a freelancer for Charles Ryan Associates based in Glen Allen, Virginia.

+2: University of North Carolina Greensboro (Greensboro, North Carolina).

+3: Cornell University Law School (Ithaca, New York).



Deflowering Copy

Today I got some feedback on two fundraising letters I wrote for a university client. My immediate clients apparently were satisfied with the letters, but their boss wanted some changes. The feedback: “Less flowery. More brief and should be toned down a little.”

Actually, it made sense as I thought about the audience, a board of trustees who, I imagine, is a conservative bunch. My copy was too peppy and, well, flowery. In a way, I was proud to receive that type of feedback. I can remember a time in my writing career when I was so straightforward and inhibited that I probably couldn’t be accused of writing flowery copy no matter how hard I tried. That’s changed.

So, how did I “deflower” the copy?

I’m still working on it, but two things I’ve done is cut the copy and remove modifiers. I’ve also removed or changed language that has a lofty ring. In addition, I’ve taken a more direct and businesslike route to the ask. My goal is for the copy to sound more like a business letter than a fundraising letter. Hopefully, that will do the trick.

Keep Your Eye on the Goal

Drew Brees and the Saints offense. (Ed Schipul/Flickr)

Forgive me, but I’m going to use a sports analogy. Football, to be specific. When quarterback Drew Brees and the rest of the offensive unit of the New Orleans Saints take the field, they have just one thing in mind: score. They are focused on moving the football down the field and crossing the goal line. That’s it. Nothing else matters.

This is the way it should be in marketing and fundraising pieces. There should be a clear goal or purpose. Get the prospect, customer, or audience to do something: visit a Web site, request information, make a donation, pat head and rub stomach, something.

Here’s another key: Ideally, there should be just one goal or purpose.

The last few days I’ve been working on a fundraising appeal that has too many elements. My client agrees, I think, but her internal client is asking for a lot: to direct the audience to a personal URL, to include a separate ask with three other ways to give, to include a bumper sticker in the mailing, and to incorporate a special message that doesn’t appear to relate to anything else.

I struggled with it because, like the Saints quarterback, I wanted to drive toward just one goal: get the audience to click their personal URL, for instance. Instead, it felt muddled, even though I did my best to write a cohesive appeal.

John Steinbeck and ‘East of Eden’

I have never read East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I have made feeble attempts. This time I think I’ll do it. I’m about 100 pages into it.

I picked up East of Eden this past weekend. It was sitting on the book shelf, one of my wife’s book club books. I’ve always been a Steinbeck fan. I read him in my youth—The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, The Winter of Our Discontent, to name a few.

I like his stories. But I also like to read Steinbeck for his writing. I believe there is something to be gleaned from reading good writing. I’m convinced that it helps my own writing in some way. Good writing is good writing, whether fiction, non-fiction, direct mail, a blog, a newsletter article, a fundraising letter, or an ad.

I like to read as widely as possible for my enrichment and enjoyment. Steinbeck is a welcome diversion.

The last book I read was Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson. And my next book (if I get through East of Eden) might be a biography about Amelia Earhart. My curiosity is piqued after seeing the Amelia film last Friday with my daughter.

Road Trip: Blue Jays, Golf History and Blue Hens

Last week I drove my daughter from our home in southwest Virginia to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to visit a friend. My plan was to visit some clients and writer/author friends during my daughter’s visit. Then I would pick her up on Friday and drive home.

My first stop was Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, known on the athletic field as the Blue Jays. I met with clients who work in the Annual Fund department, for which I write fundraising appeals and other development communications. They recently moved into a new facility on the western edge of campus. After a brief tour, we had lunch at a nearby commons area.

The following day I was in Far Hills, New Jersey, to tour the new Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History at the United States Golf Association (USGA). I met up with an author friend who lives in New York City. If you have more than a casual interest in golf, I highly recommend a stop at the USGA if you’re in the area.

That evening I had dinner with a friend who is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. He told me about some of the big stories he was working on, and then swore me to secrecy.

The Blue Hens are the mascot of the University of Delaware, where I paid a visit to the new annual fund director who was formerly at Johns Hopkins. She told me all about her new post and gave me a quick fundraising history of the university. I plan to return to meet one of her colleagues before the year is out.

The trip reminded me of the obvious: It’s always good to meet with clients and fellow professionals face to face, even if you need to log 1300 miles, my total mileage for the six days away from home. It may not be absolutely necessary in this day and age of e-mail and e-conferencing, but it’s invaluable for building and maintaining strong relationships.

The Power of First Person

If handled correctly, first person has an authenticity and power that’s often absent in today’s hyped-up communications.

Here’s the opening of a fundraising letter I wrote this week. The signer will be a grad school alum, and I strived to keep the message straightforward and dignified, which was how she struck me in the telephone interview:

This year marks my 50th anniversary as a graduate of the (prestigious university). The master’s degree I earned in 1958 launched my career as a junior high school counselor in the city schools, where I remained for 23 years until my retirement. My graduate degree had a lasting impact on me and those I counseled.

I have made a financial gift to the school each of the last 50 years. When asked why I am such a loyal supporter, I say I simply feel it is my place to give back …

And a paragraph later, the ask …

I ask that you please join me by making your next gift today.

I love first person. You transmit the thoughts and feelings of a real person as honestly as you can, with the right amount of persuasion thrown in.

Try it in B2B copywriting, blog posts, fundraising and other communications. It works.