Supporters care that you understand their life experiences, not if you’re ‘creative’
Agent Provocateur – Fundraising magazine, March 2016.
Occasionally, I shudder to think of some of the things we used to come up with in the name of ‘being creative’ when I started out as an agency fundraising copywriter in my late 20s. Yes, often we did great stuff with our clients. Helping to shape the NSPCC Full Stop Campaign. The Amnesty pen pack, The Baby Box for Bosnia campaign that raised gazillions.
But sometimes, the happy young things we were came up with ideas that, on reflection, were perhaps about shining our creative spurs and appealing to our peers, nog about the often profound experiences that connect a supporter to a cause. We meant well. We just hadn’t experienced the bumps and bruises yet that take your skin off and make a cause suddenly your own. We didn’t know.
We didn’t miss the mark alone. We were often cheered on by charity fundraisers who, like us, were standing in their own shoes when judging creative, rather than in the shoes of someone who cared deeply, viscerally, about the cause because they’d felt the pain of losing someone to cancer or suicide or dementia.
But life catches up with you. Not in one go. It creeps. A bump here. A cut there. A terrifying moment. A gut-wrenching anxiety. Perhaps a child is born and their vulnerability glues you to a whole bunch of causes that had just been well intentioned wallpaper before. A parent dies. What do you do with that love now? Or with the dancing that nothing matters more than being connected to other human beings.
And now I see us, those happy young things, a bit more experienced in life, doing better work, now that we know more. We’re all donors and we’re more demanding. Asking hard questions, Wanting the truth. The facts. Not paint-by-numbers direct marketing twaddle. Or ‘ooh, that’s clever; communications. We want simple, truthful opportunities to help.
And we want to be treated properly. Not as angels or Bill Gates, or someone who’s saved the world by giving £5. We want to be treated like someone who is happy to give £10 a month or £50 here or there, or to pop a gift in their will. Because the cause means something important in the landscape of our lives.
When I started out in fundraising, Ken Burnett said to me something along the lines of: “Stand up and read out everything you write, and if you feel like an idiot because your saying something that makes you squirm, or doesn’t add up or is boring – don’t say it.
When copywriters and art directors come to see me for a job these days, I give them my own version of Ken’s advice: Imagine the person your asking for money from is sitting right in front of you. How would you open your case for their support? You’d look them in the eye. Smile. Shake their hand. You’d start with what matters to them in their life. Not yours. And you’d tread sensitively. Humanely. Truthfully. Naturally. Because if they’ve let you in, they have some connection to your cause. And that could mean they are a whole lot closer to it than you or I.
A friend told me about a telemarketing call she sat in on where a nice young telemarketer was flummoxed when the caller broke down in tears about losing her husband to a heart attack. It should have been anticipated – this is why people give to medical research charities – but it wasn’t. The script didn’t allow for real life only the target of securing a donation, I don’t write telemarketing scripts, but that could have been me once upon a time.
‘Creative’ must treat people properly and humanly. ‘Clever’ should be visible and behind-the-scenes insight. So that what you see is the ‘right’ creative that connects with the open-hearted truth at the core of most supporters’ reason for supporting a cause. Until creative does that, it shouldn’t get out of the door.