Give us the money or the kid gets it!

4 minute read

Today I received a long copywriting letter which made me want to wash my head in a bucket of water.

It was formulaic and rambling, pushing emotional buttons left-right and centre, dragging out the tragic story of a family whose child was born with extreme health issues over four sides of A4 paper. As a rule of thumb, you can get about 500 words onto one side of A4, so we’re talking 2000 words, with entire paragraphs highlighted in bold and underlines. Each page had at least one request for hard cash (in the three-figure range).

But the bottom line is this: apparently they need 5 figures by Christmas, which only begs the question of why they’ve left the fundraising so late?

But what do I know?

Maybe I’m overthinking this. Perhaps 4 sides of A4 actually gets the dosh?

On the other hand, if people have my immediate reaction (which was to tip it in the recycling), the only money goes to the copywriting agency which makes it a net loss to the organisation.

The problems are…

Here’s what I see are the problems of any charity organization:

  1. They are utterly reliant upon donors to fund their operations.
  2. They don’t (necessarily) have demographics on their donors…
  3. So they hire a copywriting company to whack out some generic tripe that guilt-trips people into donating (in my case, well beyond my means), because Think of the Children!

Here’s some solutions

I’ve worked as a writer in IT for 20 years, and the web for 12 of them. So my attitude is coloured by those experiences, which in this case I’ll sum up as:

  • Avoid hard sell;
  • Don’t waste people’s time;
  • Know your audience.

Avoid hard sell, emotional manipulation and especially the guilt

The letter I received was basically saying this:

Give us the cash or the kid gets it

And that’s blackmail.

I’ve seen this kind of writing for decades, it doesn’t matter if it’s a nature conservation society, save the pink salt miners of the Himalayas or Protect The CEOs, they always lay on the guilt at the slightest possibility.


Seriously. Just stop. Laying guilt on people creates an anxiety reaction and makes people vulnerable. Emotional manipulation is the mainstay of advertising and it’s used ruthlessly; make it sexy, make it desirable, drop the price, raise the price, create a shortage, create exclusivity, and the list goes on and on.

Human emotions are easy to manipulate. That’s why Fake News has become such a problem, and how Facebook and Twitter keep you on their sites, diving through endless mounds of semi-interesting crap.

But how about leading with truth?

Speaking truth means you’re worthy of trust. You’re not manipulating, you’re laying it on the line.

Thank you for your ongoing support. Your $NN has really helped us this year.

However, we have a problem.

Covid-19 has left us with a shortfall and we’re hoping you can help.

Specificity is the soul of all good communication.

That’s a quote from The Middleman, a short-lived TV series, and comic.

There’s other pithy aphorisms to say the same thing, but going on about them would make me a hypocrite.

See what I did there?

I got to the point. I didn’t beat about the bush, I didn’t go into heavy detail, I respected your time as much as I respect mine.

Back to the letter.

I’m going to assume the 5-figure shortfall is because of Covid-19. The organization runs several events during the year, and these wouldn’t have been viable in the current environment.

By now we would have run our FUNDRAISING EVENT, and FUNDRAISING EVENT, but these were cancelled so we can keep staff, volunteers and families safe.

However, this has left our organisation and those families we help in great need.

Know your audience

This shortfall was predictable. For much of the world the Covid-19 pandemic began in February and isn’t going away.

In addition, the economy is in trouble, people have lost their jobs and there is widespread unemployment. Businesses have closed, some are limping forwards, but there are widespread problems.

Even in the best of times, asking people to drop $100 to $200 is pushing your luck. In the current environment it’s frankly rude.

And what’s so bizarre is this drive has dropped 3 weeks before Christmas.


This message should have gone out mid-year when lockdowns were happening, and there was time to address it in a sustainable manner.

Imagine if in June, the organization said this:

Things are hard for all of us. People are losing their jobs and hospitals are being stretched to breaking point.

It looks increasingly unlikely we will be able to run our usual FUNDRAISING DRIVE and FUNDRAISING DRIVE which give us [insert proportion] of our annual income.

So we’d like to ask if you can help by donating an extra $2 - $5 a month.

This is an unusual request, and you should only donate if you have the means. But it is our hope that enough of you can help so we can keep running programmes that help families through the toughest times of their lives.

That’s sustainable. That’s doable. It’s less than a cup of coffee. But for god’s sake, don’t say that because it’s predictable, trite and patronising, another example of guilt in the pantheon of Hard Sell.

What if there’s still a shortfall?

Then you’re in the same position as the rest of us.

But there’s alternatives to long-guilt-ridden copywriting. Charity drives can occur on any medium, but I’ll suggest online. Get some personalities involved. Create a GoFundMe page for specific, extreme cases. Remember the ALS ice-bucket challenge? Anything’s possible.

Just don’t send out letters like this.