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Downes Murray International News

Will good grammar save us?

A subscriber sweetly wrote to ask: “Do you think the nonprofit world needs a grammar book all of its own?”

She wondered because she was discouraged. All across our massive and very verbal industry, she’d tripped over grammar crimes and misdemeanours. Were fundraisers a bit illiterate and in need of a remedy?

To make her point personal for me, she served up some sales copy written about one of my own workshops. “Cringe-worthy,” she deemed it.

True, the sales copy had a couple of problems; a misplaced apostrophe or such. “Of course,” she hastened to add, “I know you didn’t write it.” Ah. Ummmmmm “In fact,” I replied, “I did write it. Yet I’m not cringing. “That particular workshop oversold, I’m relieved to say. Not only was every chair taken . . . all the leaning wall-space was taken . . . and the entire carpet was taken. We just prayed the fire marshal wouldn’t wander in.

“Which means my nay-grammatical words did the job they were hired to do: sell.”

Look, here’s the financial bottom line, fundraisers (and grammar police): accurate, school-room-calibre, academy-approved writing will add almost, virtually, infinitesimally nothing to your sales. Perfect grammar contributes the least to making money for your mission. Odd behaviour, isn’t it? For the one-thousandth time: Fundraising, that glorious profession you devote your energies
to is . . . just . . . sales.

And . . . as in any other form of sales . . . your job, fundraiser, is to move me (your puzzled prospect) from my native, warm, pleasant, untroubled inertia into the bold, troubling act of making a gift of my hard-earned money on behalf of your mission.

Given the never-ending and savage competition for resources that Darwin described in the natural world, it is pretty bizarre behaviour to give away money to strangers.

And yet . . . we do so freely, repeatedly, bewitched by sadness and hope and love and wonder and a chance to do something for someone else. Donors are buying a story they can write themselves into, as Seth Godin points out. 

Pleasure and power
They’re experiencing first hand the pleasure and power of giving away their assets in an attempt to help others, as neuroscience points out.

They are sacrificing... and sacrificing feels wonderful!

Of course, admittedly it’s more of an inconvenience than a real sacrifice. “Nobody gives away their lunch money,” as a veteran Miami fundraiser once whispered in my ear.

What he meant was: if I give you R1 million, it’s because I can easily afford it. A R50 gift from a compassionate pensioner scraping by is far more sacrificial than my casual R250 gift to a new charity that has momentarily intrigued me.

To repeat: Fundraising is sales. Donors are customers. Embrace it. Get over it. Ditch your delusions. Whatever.

If a couple of lonely grammar hawks spot a split infinitive racing across the open ground of your prose, who cares? Grammar purity will NOT affect (not “effect”) sales.

In conclusion: So... does the fundraising industry need a grammar book all of its own, dear subscriber? Heavens, no. 

In fact, stiff and learned grammar can be the enemy. All donor communications should sound like conversation, the late (and extraordinarily successful UK-based copywriter) George Smith advised. He rested his opinion on years of proof.

And you and me talking? Nothing grammatical about that. Know what I mean, jellybean? 

Fast starts equals more readers
How long should the first paragraph be in a direct mail appeal? A single line long? Two-to- four lines long? Any length will do; it all depends on the appeal. Answer: A single line long.

Brains aren’t warmed up when they first look at an appeal letter.

The fastest way to discourage the reader from going any deeper is to insist they bushwhack through a dense opening paragraph. Much preferred: a single vibrating sentence surrounded by white space. Something so simple and clean it enters the brain without any extra effort.

Consider these teensy openings from four successful appeals:

  • This Memorial Day, you and I will share some thing special...
  • Will you join this important celebration? 
  • You can hear the wicked glee in their voices.
  • Welcome . . . I hope.

Expect resistance from the untrained
Simone Joyaux watched a fundraiser proudly hand her proposed new direct mail appeal to a board member, hoping for approval.

The appeal began with a pointed one-word paragraph: “Help . . .”

The board member hastily handed the letter back, her lips curled down. “Is this how we plan to represent our organisation,” she said with disdain, “as the ‘grammatically incorrect’ organisation?”

Was this board member right to worry?

Absolutely not. She was applying rules from a world she knew well – the classroom – to a world she didn’t know at all: fundraising through the mail.

Her objection was well-intentioned, of course. But it was based on utter ignorance.

With acknowledgement to Tom Ahern visit

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