A gifted fundraising consultant seeks to move into full-time copywriting: What do I recommend?

Dear Tom…

“Can I succeed as a copywriter?” she asked. My opinion and some book recommendations follow…

I’ve admired Tina Cincotti’s talents for a long time. That’s her in the photo, grassing with her best pal, Penny.

Recently Tina emailed me, excited and doubtful, her hopes spinning like a pinwheel:

“Can I do it, do you think? I’ve worked successfully as a fundraising consultant for 10 years. But do you really, really, REALLY think I can make my living as a fundraising copywriter? Because that’s the part I like the best!”

My answer to her, after looking through her impressive portfolio of direct mail, annual reports, case statements, newsletters:


You ARE a terrific writer. For example: this outbound renewal appeal envelope you created, with designer Wendy Brovold?

It’s smart. It’s fast. It’s involving. It dramatizes the stakes. It’s enviable (wish I’d thought of that!).

Most important (since, let’s get practical, we’re all in the FUNDRAISING business): it drew a strong response, pulling in a much-higher-than-average gift, from a far-above-normal percentage of renewing donors.

So, what’s not to like? Bravo!

YES! Of COURSE you can do fundraising copywriting … at a high level.

In fact, the market eagerly awaits

In my keyhole view? The fundraising world NEEDS you ASAP.

Pretty much every competent (and not too shy to promote themselves) fundraising creator I know (writer, designer, agency) is OVER-booked and turning away good clients.

Look: in the end, as we both know, it’s not magic nor your natural-born gifts that make you a success in this trade. It’s training, experience, perseverance and opportunity. (A balance of guts and neuroses, maybe? I’m not a psychologist, but I can dress like one….)

So, yeah, come on in. The water’s warm and welcoming.

Knowing when you’re ready to become a writer

I own (and have sort-of read) 500+ how-to books.

Some of the most useful, though, are NOT from the nonprofit world.

My modest back story: In 1990, I opened with two partners a small marketing agency. Our clients were mostly commercial: yachts, roof membranes, adult ed, a Top 10 zoo, disability insurance, 401(k)s. We did direct response stuff. Advertising. Public relations. Sales. Employee communications. And we kept the lights on, repeatedly winning major awards for complex projects and great results. We beat out Boeing one year. We beat out Disney another time. We studied our trade.

Looking back now, I realize….

Some of my BEST fundraising dance-floor moves were learned from experts outside the charity world.

“Tina, if you can only afford 6 books….” Assembling a basic copywriter’s tool box, including experts from OUTSIDE fundraising…

If I had just one urgent minute to throw an essential copywriter’s library into a box, here are 6 books I’d consider….

1. I’d start maybe with Joseph Sugarman…

Why? Because, what is fundraising at its root? Sales, by another name.

Sugarman made a fortune selling goods via direct response advertising. There is serious money to be made in the commercial world. Own-your-own-jet money. Palatial-houses-in-multiple-locations money. Sugarman in his prime I’m sure avoided the trauma of economy air travel.

If you wish to learn how to flat-out sell, devoid of niceties and romance, read this book.

2. Then move on to Murray…

Donald M. Murray (1924-2006) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for a major daily.

Murray’s big contribution to my career is Writing to Deadline. In this ultra-pragmatic book, Murray, a journalist with deadlines as pitiless as the guillotine, lays out every trick he’s learned of how to tell a fresh, captivating story. Pirates bury their treasure. Ethical and education-minded journalists like Mr. Murray tell you HOW to do what they did, to find fresh angles and satisfy enraptured audiences.

Sample entries from Mr. Murray’s table of contents:

Asking the Reader’s Five Questions
The Qualities of a Good Story
How to Write Without Writing
Tricks of the Writing Trade

3. Then Jerry Weissman, for case advice…

I found Jerry W. at a desperate moment in my career.

I was entangled in a half-billion-dollar fundraising campaign, a scale I’d never attempted. I needed to know what big-league success looked like.

Thank you, Amazon: you led me to Jerry.

He isn’t from deep inside the nonprofit world. He isn’t a hardcore direct-marketing guy. He’s Hollywood. He was a screenwriter. That’s his training: telling stories that sell tickets. Silicon Valley venture capitalists who take start-ups public recruited him to help improve their Wall Street pitches. Which he very lucratively did.

Jerry Weissman has likely never written a nonprofit case for support. Yet he is the best I know at figuring out how to complete that task … demi-god-ish, at a level with Jerry Panas.

4. And Tina? Seek out synthesizers like Mal…

If I could take just ONE book to a desert island, I’d toss into my salt-stained backpack Mal Warwick’s How to Write Successful Fundraising Appeals.

Berkeley (CA)-based Mal Warwick is one of Mother Earth’s most successful fundraisers, on a par with other pioneers like Jerry Huntsinger and Roger Craver. Mal’s book became an industry classic the day it was published. And it’s updated regularly.

Mal’s a seminal synthesizer. He wanders up all sorts of strange but relevant alleys.

No other book I know can teach a greenhorn fundraiser essential nuts-and-bolts techniques better. It’s one of the BEST, step-by-step how-to books I have ever encountered. And it now includes “best practices” for digital as well as print … with critical research from evergreen experts like Munich’s Dr. Siegfried Vögele.

5. For inspiring career advice, there’s Seth…

Seth Godin is my #1 guru. His wisdom bobs through my presentations like channel markers: GO THIS WAY.

The admirable Mr. Godin’s insights tend to be surprising, dead on, profound, life-changing and money-making. (Watch Amy Eisenstein’s riveting video interview of Seth from the recent AFP international conference in Baltimore, where he keynoted.)

The subtitle of The Icarus Deception says it all: “How high will you fly?” He wants all professionals to think of themselves as artists. No argument here.

6. For understanding the water we all swim in…

This may be the most illuminating, big-picture book I’ve read in 10 years: The Attention Merchants, by Tim Wu.

Tim Wu is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Harvard has named him one of its 100 most influential graduates. The National Law Review has named him among America’s 100 most influential lawyers. He’s a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. Fun fact: he coined the term “net neutrality,” as a specialist in that hotly debated issue.

The Attention Merchants never refers to nonprofits especially; they’re not the focus. This book is about the rise and permutations of commercial mass media, from the birth of newspapers on: through radio, television, cable, the internet, social media, blogs and whatever comes next.

This is the world nonprofit communications have to survive and thrive in. See that world for what it is.
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