The Dos and Don’ts of Copywriting for Nonprofits

Marketing and Social Media

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When you hear the word “copywriting”, do you think of clever campaigns churned out by people like Don Draper in fancy New York advertising agencies?

That world can sometimes feel as distant as the moon for nonprofits who are just scraping by — but you might have more in common with them than you think.

That’s because copywriting is more than just magazine ads or television commercials. Learning a few copy writing techniques can make a big difference when you’re putting together web content, email campaigns, and other types of writing projects for your nonprofit.

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. That means your prospects have lots of choices when it comes to charitable giving or membership opportunities, so you need to do everything you can to capture their attention and persuade them to join your cause.

Think of copywriting as persuasive writing, because creating effective copy is all about persuading your potential member, donor, or volunteer to take action — just like Don Draper would do when preparing an ad.

However, copywriting isn’t about manipulation or taking advantage of people. It’s just a tool used for maximizing the donation amounts and volunteers you collect using your website, email list, or postal mail outreach.

Need some quick dos and don’ts for more improving persuasive writing in your organization?

Here’s my list of guidelines for nonprofit copywriting.

Two women writing together in an office building.

Nonprofit Copywriting DOs

Here are three things you should keep in mind when you’re first starting to write a blog post, an email, or a donation letter — any piece of content that aims to persuade.

1. DO create an emotional connection with your reader.

This is the #1 rule of copywriting for any business, and it absolutely applies to nonprofits, too.

Always ask yourself, “What are my potential donors or volunteers thinking about right now? What can I do to create an emotional connection with them and give them what they need to make a decision?”

Once you’ve put yourself in your prospect’s shoes, your job is to connect with that person.

One way of creating an emotional connection with a reader is to describe the problem you’re trying to solve with your nonprofit. Stories are a great way to connect with someone in this way.

Make your stories as personal and specific as possible, so the prospect can picture how they’ll be helping if they give time and/or money to your cause.

If there are major objections or roadblocks that come up in your prospect’s minds that stop them from donating or joining, address them too.

When it doubt, always ask yourself, “What would my potential donor or member think if they read this copy? Would he or she be excited, or turned off?”

2. DO create attention-getting headlines.

Boring headlines are the kiss of death for copywriting.

If you can’t convince a prospect to begin reading your landing page, website page, blog post, or email, you’ve lost the battle before it’s even begun.

When you’re surfing the web, pay attention to headlines on websites, blogs, and social media. What headlines get your attention and make you want to read further? Which ones make you want to click away? Notice what great headlines look like, and take notes.

For your next copywriting project (whether it’s a landing page, event registration page, sales page, or email message), take 10 minutes and write out 10 to 20 headlines for that copy.

Once you’ve written out a bunch of possibilities, pick the best option. Don’t get discouraged if some of your headlines aren’t a good fit – there will be great possibilities on your list, too!

The important part is getting practice writing out a bunch of headlines, to get your creative juices flowing.

3. DO focus on being clear.

When it comes to nonprofit copywriting, it’s more important to be clear than clever.

Your prospects should never have to pause and think to themselves, “Huh? I’m not sure what they’re trying to say here…”

A confused person will never become a member or donate to your organization – but a clear, focused person will.

Instead of trying to be brainy or brilliant in your writing, focus on telling stories that connect, then clearly explaining what the prospect’s next step should be (whether that’s registering for an event, becoming a member, or signing up to become a volunteer).

The clarity of your writing directly affects how much money and support you’ll receive as a nonprofit, so always be as coherent as you can.

If you’re in doubt about whether or not your copywriting is clear, ask a friend outside your organization to read your copy and explain back to you exactly what she read. If she has questions or doesn’t feel compelled to act, you need to revise your copy.

Nonprofit Copywriting DON’Ts

There are also a few things you should never do when creating nonprofit copy… if you want your reader to support you, that is.

I’ve outlined three of these rules below.

1. DON’T leave people hanging.

One of the biggest nonprofit copywriting mistakes is leaving people hanging at the end of a piece of copy.

Once someone has finished reading your email, blog post, etc, you should have given them a clear next step that they can follow.

Always include a strong call to action in your copywriting. A “call to action” is simply a phrase or sentence that asks the prospect to take action.

If you’ve created a strong emotional connect with a prospect, it’s okay to ask that person to take action at the end of your copy. It’s expected.

You could ask your prospect to do things like donate to your organization, fill out a form, or sign up for a free report.

Typical call to action phrases begin with verbs like:

  • Sign up
  • Register
  • Subscribe
  • Donate
  • Buy
  • Download
  • Share

2. DON’T use more words than you need.

Great copywriters are also top-notch editors. If you’re going to persuade people to take action to support your nonprofit, you must learn to edit ruthlessly.

Make your copy more clear and emotional by cutting out unnecessary words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.

Once you’ve completed your first draft of a piece of copy, set it aside for a day. Then pick it up again and edit out anything that’s not absolutely necessary.

If you have time, set the project aside for another day, and edit the piece again. You’ll find more words and phrases to cut, and each draft will make your copy stronger.

3. DON’T forget to test.

No matter how much research you’ve done, or how well you think you understand your prospects, sometimes you just won’t know if a piece of copy is going to work unless you test it.

The best fundraisers and nonprofit marketers know it’s always a good idea to test two versions of copy again each other, to see which one performs better.

This could mean two different versions of a donation page, a sales letter, an event registration page, or even an email message. You can test anything!

It’s also a good idea to make small changes when you’re testing copy instead of creating two completely different versions of a page or email. For example, test two headlines against each other, or try two different versions of button text for your “Donate” button. You may be surprised what a difference tiny copy changes can make!

Plus, many email service providers and landing page creation tools make it easy to test copy by providing simple A/B testing options. Check with your website developer or marketing consultant to ask about your potential options for testing.

I hope that these copywriting dos and don’ts can help you out next time you’re writing something. What are some great examples of persuasive nonprofit writing you’ve seen?

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About the guest author

Tatiana Morand is the Content and SEO Manager at Wild Apricot. When she’s not preparing content to help small membership organizations with big dreams, she likes to explore Toronto’s brunch and café scene.

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