Charities Need Copywriting that Converts, Too! Here's Where to Get It (Video Tutorial + Transcript)

Thrive Organics 4 Orphans Homepage.png

Is your charity struggling to communicate what you do persuasively? Do you need higher-impact copywriting? You’re not alone.

Messaging is difficult enough in business.

But the not-for-profit sector faces unique challenges. You have multiple stakeholders/audiences and the transactions aren’t straightforward. Value is created in less direct ways.

But to survive and use donation dollars effectively, your messaging needs to be dialled-in. The copy on your website, in emails and ads needs to be copy that converts casual visitors to donors and supporters.

Copy that converts enters the conversation already happening in the mind of your future supporters. It’s based on insight. And we get that insight from surveys, interviews and secondary research.

In this video tutorial (with transcript below), I’ll show you how to find higher-converting messages using a stakeholder survey.

But First, What Sort of Messages Are We Looking to Find for Your Charity?

Copy that converts is more methodical than you’d expect. Under the creative surface, it’s built on a foundation of theory and frameworks.

To drive more donations, you need to nail down highly-persuasive messages in each of these categories:

  • Who you say you’re for

  • The problem you solve

  • The Big Idea

  • The outcome or transformation you deliver

  • The brand USP, value proposition and position in the sector

  • The brand's "why"

  • The emotional and functional benefits of the solution

  • The features of the solution (what, how, where, when)

  • The cost/ROI

  • Calls to action

  • The risk of doing nothing/doing the wrong thing

  • Proofs/reasons to believe and your brand promise

You should have a messaging playbook including each of these. This post will explain why we go out and find these messages, rather than create them from scratch.

Voice of the Customer Research: Where Messages that Drive Donations Come From

When messages convert, they’re based firmly on VoC - hence the survey, interviews, etc.

VoC (or voice of the stakeholder) is simply what your donors and other stakeholders say when they talk about you and what you do - in their exact words.

In this video tutorial and the post, below, I’ll share why your stakeholders’ exact words matter so much.

If you’re struggling to find higher-impact messaging for your charity, you’ll find clarity here.

This is complicated terrain for not-for-profits. But when you learn the techniques of conversion copy, you can create messaging that fuels higher-impact.

Video Tutorial on Creating a Messaging Survey for Your Not-for-Profit

(Scroll down for the transcript)

Here’s what we asked - and why - in this not-for-profit messaging research survey.

To save you the trouble of reverse-engineering your survey from this video, I’ll break down what we asked here.

You can adapt my questions to write your own survey.

As you customize, remember the categories of information you need to elicit. Prioritize those and try to include questions that get at the information most important to your charity’s messaging. (E.g. how your audience defines the problem, the outcome, their triggers, barriers; important benefits and proofs).

Welcoming and Segmenting Survey Respondents

First, the Welcome screen and the question that segments respondents into monthly donors, past monthly donors, non-monthly donors and supporters who aren’t donors at this time.

If your email list is already cleanly segmented, you may not need to do this.

Survey Screen 1.png

As you can see, this first question sets up the skip logic. From here, I'll show you the categories of questions we asked based on the information we wanted.

Survey Questions to Define the Problem Your Charity Solves

Charities are usually founded based on a strong motivation to solve specific problems.

But sometimes the way we define that problem in not-for-profit communications misses the mark. We use words that matter to us inside the organization, rather than words that resonate with our audience. That’s why we ask stakeholders how they see the important problem we solve.

And we ask this question of every survey respondent - whether they’re financial or non-financial supporters.

Defining the problem your charity solves.jpg

Questions to Define the Triggers Behind Donations

The original conversion copywriter, Joanna Wiebe of Copyhackers, asks survey respondents to think back to the time they first decided to buy. She asks a variation on this question:

“What was going on in your life when you decided to ________?” (Fill in the blanks here with whatever purchasing decision they made.)

In this survey, we’re asking what inspired stakeholders to give - either to Thrive or to the other not-for-profits they’ve supported. My client’s priority was to be concise.

This question matters because we can’t make assumptions about why people give. The reasons are often surprising. Chances are, your donors aren’t doing an impact analysis. They’re usually giving for emotional reasons.

Now, after the fact are they going to be conscious of and able to articulate these emotional reasons?

Not always, which is why stakeholder interviews are so important. When you’re speaking with a stakeholder or donor live, you can probe for the deeper reasons.

Ok, here are our survey questions to elicit motivations or triggers behind charitable donations.

Motivations or triggers to give.jpg
Triggers behind donations survey question.jpg

Another Question to Understand Why People Donate

This next question is a multi-tasker, which I don’t love. But, we were cautious about making this survey too long. So, in this question we’re asking about the reasons people give to charities in general.

Now, this question may elicit three types of responses. Stakeholders may tell you about:

  • the benefits a charity delivers;

  • the features (what it does, how, even for whom);

  • or their own personal triggers.

They may even tell you about the proofs or ‘reasons to believe’ they need to see to feel confident giving.

features benefits and triggers to donating.jpg

Questions to Discover the Emotional Benefits of Donating to Your Charity

We want to know how donating makes people feel because emotions drive behaviour. People make financial decisions because they’re looking for emotional benefits like these:

  • Excitement

  • Optimism

  • Belonging

  • Acceptance

  • Pride

  • Comfort

  • Freedom

  • Control

  • A sense of efficacy or impact

Most brands instinctively focus messaging on features (what they deliver), but that’s a rookie copywriting error.

The emotional benefits your charity delivers are even more important to your donors than the specifics of what you do.

It’s frightening that we aren’t as rational as we’d hope. But knowing this, your charity can use emotional insights for good. And it’s your duty because unscrupulous marketers are preying on your audience’s emotions every day.

In your not-for-profit messaging surveys, you can push this question further and actually ask, “How does being a part of X make you feel?” In this case, we stepped it back and asked the following.

This version of the question is delivered to non-financial supporters.

This version of the question is delivered to non-financial supporters.

This version of the survey question is for donors only.

This version of the survey question is for donors only.

Questions to Define How You Message Your Charity’s Outcomes

The client and I went back and forth on this question. It seems amorphous, but it’s important.

In copywriting, it’s a cliche that we’re not selling products and services. We’re selling people better versions of themselves.

But charities, more importantly, are selling a better version of the world. And it’s important to know how to message that ideal future.

We can fall back on tired terms for defining our outcome. Or, we can fail in our messaging to convey a vision of the future at all, in which case we fail to inspire.

Every not-for-profit should have their outcome messaging nailed down.

In some cases, you’ll attach metrics to these outcomes, like the UN does with development goals. But we also need the inspirational language, and we hope to get it from this survey question.

Communicating outcomes for charities.jpg

Questions to Define the Most Persuasive Proofs for Your Not-for-Profit

You already know that your donors make financial decisions emotionally. But then they look for reasons to justify emotional decisions.

In the not-for-profit world, proofs or reasons to believe may be even more important than any other sector.

My client, Thrive, is big on measurement and proof. But we need to know which proofs are most persuasive to the audience.

Of course, what proofs matter depends on your audience. Corporate donors, philanthropists, partners, governments, individuals… they are each persuaded by different reasons to believe.

In stakeholder surveys and interviews you need to ask each audience questions like this:

Proofs or reasons to believe for donors.jpg

Finally, Questions to Get at Barriers Preventing Donations

There are reasons people land on your site and follow your charity but don’t donate. What are those reasons? What’s missing from your messaging or model?

When you know, you can write more persuasive copy.

Surveys are perfect for getting at barriers to giving because they’re anonymous. People can safely tell you why they choose not to donate.

Here are the variations on “barriers to giving” questions we used in this survey.

This version is delivered to past donors.

This version is delivered to past donors.

This version of the question goes to current donors.

This version of the question goes to current donors.

This version of the question goes to non-financial supporters. It’s a little indirect. You could be more blunt, if you choose, and ask, “What’s stopping you from becoming a donor?”

This version of the question goes to non-financial supporters. It’s a little indirect. You could be more blunt, if you choose, and ask, “What’s stopping you from becoming a donor?”

Ultimately, I decided to cut the questions asking if they give elsewhere and if not, why. I felt we could get at the same insight for copy simply by asking “When you donate” or “When you choose not to donate” questions.

In your surveys, every question should be justified so you don’t fatigue respondents!

We decided not to offer an incentive for taking this survey, so we had to be very careful with the length of the survey. Incentives can backfire - which is another topic entirely.

For now, let’s talk about next steps.

What to Do After You’ve Surveyed Your Charity’s Audience

Once the responses are in, what’s next?

This is a big question, and one I’ll have to address in detail in another tutorial.

But a few quick tips here:

  • Organize verbatim responses by category, as I have above (Problem, Triggers, Benefits, Proofs, Outcomes, Barriers, etc.)

  • Look for patterns and in each category

  • Develop hypotheses for what will convert based on these patterns (e.g. people need a stronger sense of community to give - that’s a hypothesis)

  • Use these hypotheses to craft messaging in each category - BUT - pull verbatim language into the messaging! This is important. Summarize as little as possible because summaries are weak, but copy pulled from actual voice of the customer is very persuasive.

Your goal is to “swipe” messaging directly from your charity’s stakeholders. Look for verbatim quotes that stand out as concise, emotional, high-impact or phrased in a unique, memorable way.

The same goes for your interview transcripts. But more on that in a future post, after we’ve run the interviews for Thrive.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at anna (at) I’d love to help your charity communicate the amazing things you do with higher impact!

In a Rush? Here’s a Transcript of the Video Tutorial on Surveying Your Charity’s Audience to Write Better Copy

00:00 Hello, hello. Today I am going to share with you my process for developing brand messaging for a not-for-profit. Because, not-for-profits need conversion copy as well. They are spending to reach audiences and they need to spend smart. So, the copy that they do have on their websites, in their emails, even in their ads, needs to be copy that converts. Copy that converts is copy that enters the conversation that's already happening in the mind of our audience.

00:31 It's not just smart ad agency type messaging that we dream up in a boardroom or sequestered away in our offices. Conversion copy is copy that is swiped directly from our audience. Because, copy that is swiped from our audience resonates and it has that mirroring effect where people feel heard. They feel like you get them and they're more likely to get on board with what you're saying.

01:04 To get that kind of insight, we do both primary research and secondary research. Primary research is surveying and interviewing. Secondary research is going out to the internet and finding out what people are already saying in forums, in reviews, in all the places that people chatter about what it is that you do.

01:28 But today, I'm going to show you my process for surveying a not-for-profit's audience. In this case, we are surveying the audience of Thrive for Good, formerly Organics 4 Orphans. It's an important time for Thrive to be doing this work because they have rebranded. They were Organics 4 Orphans for years. As Organics 4 Orphans, they had much more homespun kind of messaging, but they were busy doing work on the ground. They were developing the model. Now, they need to increase their reach. They're spending more time thinking about how they communicate, how they look, how they come across. It is a work in progress.

02:16 I'm going to show you a little bit of our project plan here. This is also interesting if you're planning on doing this yourself. To develop this kind of messaging ... I'll give you actually if I can just see all of my tabs here. All right. What we're moving towards is messaging like this. As you can see, it's complicated in not-for-profit because they have many different audiences: corporate donors, philanthropists, individual donors, partners.

02:53 Not to mention, we didn't even include in this project because we communicate in different ways with these people, but the people on the ground who are impacted by what Thrive does. We also have non-financial supporters.

03:11 Some of the messages that we're looking for are what is the problem? How do these audiences define the problem that Thrive solves? What does it look like living with that problem? If you've read copy that is highly persuasive, often it's very good at describing the problem. In the not-for-profit sector, for these audiences, the problem probably has to do with wanting to make an impact, but not feeling like they've achieved that impact yet. Or not getting the feels from their donations yet, the emotional benefits.

03:49 The moment of highest tension that's just the pivotal moment where all of that tension and pain comes together in very visceral way and you realize that something needs to be done. We don't have these ... Not every messaging book has these elements, but these are good elements for conversion copy.

04:16 The big idea, this is something that comes out of advertising. The big idea encapsulates something that's highly desirable, but also causes cognitive dissonance. It surprises you or shakes you out of your routine thinking. That can be very important for not-for-profits because a lot of it is, what do they call it? Like motherhood and apple pie. People become complacent and a little bit of a shift can be very helpful.

04:52 The promise or outcome. So what does this organization say that they're going to do for these audiences as well as the people they impact directly?

05:03 Who do we say we're for? This is hard for not-for-profits. They're for so many different people. That is the most challenging part.

05:13 The brand USP or value proposition. Just what makes it different and better. Why should people care? People will give you apparently three seconds once they land on your website to explain to them, to compel them to stay. They need to know why are you different and better than every other alternative that I can be visiting on the internet right now.

05:34 How the brand is positioned in the sector. It's related to the above. In the for profit world, this is often very straight forward. It's like we're the cheapest or we're the most premium or the fastest or the most innovative or we're the most popular. There are a number of different positions you can stake out. But, what about in the not-for-profit sector where it's a little bit gauche to knock other not-for-profits? That's not what we're here for. But, we have to let people know who we are relative to the other options.

06:12 The brand's ‘Why’. Now that is a piece of messaging for which charities have an advantage. They're better at the why than for-profits. People what to know why. They want to know why you do what you do.

06:29 The emotional benefits of the solution. That is to the audience, the emotional benefits to philanthropists, corporate donors, individual donors, to partners. People buy for the way it makes them feel.

06:45 Then the functional benefits. How's it going to save you time, money, headache? Those are a higher level than features. Features are basically what you get. This is also a little bit more difficult for a not-for-profit. We'll see what they get when we come out of this messaging project, but it might be every month you're going to get a story about the community that you helped impact. Or, you're going to get a badge. There's some kind of like… I'm a blood donor. You can work towards pins and different sorts of status levels. I guess those are the features for a not-for-profit. It's a little bit different than a couch or a piece of software. Quite a bit different.

07:36 The cost and return on investment. What are we asking people to give? What are their options for giving? What kind of an impact? In the not-for-profit sector, I think they talk a lot more about impact. The impact for their investment.

07:56 Calls to action. This is important because Organics 4 Orphans in the past, when I saw the old version of their website before they refreshed it, there were 20 different calls to action on the website. People don't really have the bandwidth for that. We need to narrow it down to a few different calls to action, the things that we're asking people to do.

08:21 The risk of doing nothing or doing the wrong thing. This is something else that you see in a lot of good copy. Not necessarily in mainstream copy, but say if you're looking at expensive online courses, they will tell you if you don't buy this, you're going to continue to flounder in obscurity or whatever. You're just going to keep hitting your head against the wall and more time will be wasted. So yeah, what is the risk of doing nothing? If they leave this page and don't join in some way, what are they missing out on?

08:58 Proofs and reasons to believe. This I think is extremely important in the not-for-profit sector where people wonder about the overhead, the administration. How much of an impact is really being made by their donation?

09:12 This is what we're looking to find from our survey. When I was drafting the survey, this is not a finished document, but I was looking for ... When I drafted my questions, I was thinking in terms of eliciting those answers.

09:35 Not all of these are going to make it into the survey because we need to make the survey somewhat concise or people just won't answer it. And, some of these are not survey questions. But, we're going to be asking people for example ... We're not going to ask them what the big idea is. That's for us to find out. But, we're going to ask them what important work they think Thrive does. We're going to ask them how it's rewarding to them personally. What are the emotional benefits. We're not going to ask them about the features because we can answer that. We're going to ask them about what kind of proofs they like to see when they donate. Things like that.

10:24 Knowing that I need this information, I put together this survey in Typeform. Typeform is cool. I think I like it better than Survey Monkey. I find it very intuitive and clean. I just finished this and we're testing it.

10:47 This is what it looks inside this survey when you open it up from your main Typeform page. It is just very much like what you see is what you get. There are these different types of fields you can add in. This first field is introductory text. We're just coaching people to be candid and just answer in their own words. That is what we want more than anything. We can make up the fancy words and talk about theory all day, but what we need is real resonant language.

11:22 All right. The first question. How would you describe yourself? This question has skip logic built into it. You do have to be careful with this, but it's pretty easy. All right. When someone answers question one, like how would you describe yourself is, I was a monthly donor in the past. They're going to skip to the appropriate next question. If they say they're one of the other things, they're going to skip to another set of questions. Really have to think about that skip logic.

12:02 All right. I started with these people who had stopped giving. I was a monthly donor in the past. When you first became a donor, what inspired you to give to Thrive slash Organics 4 Orphans? This we want to know because triggers are so important in copy. We need to know what triggers people to say yes. Just like we need to know what triggers them to say no or to stop saying yes.

12:28 Can we ask why you chose to stop being a monthly donor? Phrased very politely. We are Canadian, but as simple and direct as possible without being offensive.

12:42 Then, everyone else, whether they are a monthly donor or ... Sorry, I have to cough. It's all this talking. Whether they're a monthly donor or they give periodic donations or they're non-financial supporters, this last one here, they're going to get the next question. Which is, what important problems do you think Thrive solves? This is key because sometimes we're just too fancy or too convoluted in the way we describe the problem. That is because not-for-profits ... The problems not-for-profits or charities solve, are complicated, systemic issues.

13:29 But, sometimes, people from the outside have a lot more clarity on what those problems are or they can articulate it in a way that's higher impact because they're not bogged down in the complexity.

13:45 What is rewarding for you personally about being a part of the Thrive community? This is going specifically only to people who aren't donors right now. They're getting something out of being on the email list or following Thrive on social media. What is that? Because, often those emotional benefits are really important. Even if these people aren't giving, they're still, like giving financially, they're still incredibly important for spreading the word and more. We want to know how we can make sure that it continues to be rewarding for them and that we communicate those rewards in the copy.

14:25 What would you like to see us do better or differently? By asking this question, we might get a what's stopping them from giving. We'll see. In any case, it will give us some important insight, even if if it doesn't give us copy.

14:42 Number seven is actually the next question for people who are giving either monthly or periodic donations. Again, we're going to ask them to think back. Thinking back to when you first decided to give, what inspired you to become a donor? This is important. If possible, you should get them to imagine themselves in that scenario. I've seen Joanna Wiebe of Copy Hackers write her surveys this way, but the client wanted me to be very concise.

15:14 We need them to take themselves back to that point so that they can remember what triggered the yes. Sometimes if you think about an important purchase you made or an important gift you decided to give, the reason is often surprising. Yeah well, I won't get into the reasons I buy things. They're mostly not good. Most of us make decisions emotionally. Whether they're good decisions or bad, we need to get at those emotions.

15:41 All right. Did you have any reservations about giving to Thrive? If so, what were they? What almost stopped them? Incredibly important because our copy needs to overcome objections.

15:55 What important problems do you think Thrive solves? We've talked about that.

15:59 What's most rewarding to you personally? We've talked about that. We want to get at the emotional benefits.

16:03 Now, everyone ends up at this section whether they are a current donor, a supporter but not financially, or whether they're a past donor. We'd like to ask you about giving to charities in general, not just to Thrive. We want to know a little bit about the landscape as well. This is important because Thrive ... People don't decide to give to Thrive in a vacuum. There's this ecosystem of which we are a part.

16:32 We only ask this question, do you currently donate to other charities, so that we can ask people who say yes the follow up questions. What are the top reasons you donate to charitable organizations? Again, we're trying to get at those motivations.

16:50 When you decide not to donate to a charity, what are your reasons. Again, motivations. I might actually, now that I see this again, I'm debating whether or not I even need these, but we are trying to make this as concise as possible. If they've already answered some questions about why they donate and why they don't, then we'll see.

17:17 Okay. What do you need to see or know to feel confident that your gifts are well spent and have a lasting impact? Again, this is getting at the proofs or the results that we have to show in the copy. We don't know what proofs are persuasive to people unless we ask.

17:38 Okay, now, this is just text. This isn't a question, just a screen they'll see. Okay, now just one big picture question. Let's talk about outcomes. Everyone is getting this whether they donate to charities or not. If we could collectively solve the world's most critical problems, how would you describe the ideal future?

18:00 I had to debate this question with the client because it does seem a little out there. But, what we're trying to get at is that transformation, the big outcome that people are looking for. I mean it's hard. It's hard in the for profit sector. It's hard in the not-for-profit sector because people are a little bit cynical or a bit more jaded.

18:23 We don't always allow ourselves to believe in this transformation, but we want to believe in the transformation. Sometimes the transformation is possible. Of course it's possible for the people who Thrive supports through their work on the ground in developing countries, but is that transformation also possible for the people who give and support? Maybe. Maybe there's something big that they want to be a part of.

18:55 We want to ask them some kind of a big picture question. We also want to find the right language to talk about the results that we're working towards. We can talk about ending poverty. We can talk about equity. We can talk about sustainability. But what are the words that our audience uses?

19:20 Okay. Now we're going to wrap up after just two quick questions. This question number 16 where we ask them just to tell us something, anything about you. I shied away from asking them anything about their demographics because I think it's rude in this instance. These are people who are giving and not taking. With identity politics, it seems unnecessary especially when the most important thing is to understand their psychographics, not their demographics.

19:55 Their psychographics are how they think, feel, what they believe, what they do. Just knowing their age or gender or where they live has limited value for copy. Might have value for ad targeting, but not for copy.

20:11 Then in the final question here, we just invite them to leave their contact information if they'd like to speak to us directly about these questions. That's a very cool way to get to an interview. We're doing interviews a little bit differently in parallel. We've segmented off some of the audiences, corporate donors and partners, and some key philanthropists to invite at the same time as we issue this survey to have an interview. Those questions will be a little bit different, a little bit bigger, more open ended, a lot of probing for why, why, why. Interviews are going to be key to getting the copy we need.

20:50 Then the next bit is just submit and then they'll see a thank you screen. That's important. Thank them. Remind them to submit.

21:00 Yes, so this is the draft survey. This is what it looks like ... Sorry, I'm still here. All right, so this is what it looks like. When they click enter, they see the next ones. I need to make that a mandatory question. Check this over many, many times yourself because I just realized the one mandatory question has to be this. The one mandatory to answer, otherwise they're going to experience a crazy survey.

21:37 All right. That's it. Contact me if you have any questions about message finding or conversion copywriting for your not-for-profit or your for- profit. I do this work for both. And, how you can find those messages that convert. Thank you.

Postscript: Surveying Audiences Not Currently Connected with Your Charity

About two weeks after sending out this survey to Thrive’s email list, we decided that wasn’t enough. We also needed to survey people outside the email list to better understand the broader audience of North Americans who give to not-for-profits.

In this follow-up video, I walk through a survey you can use to get insight for messaging from those not currently connected with your charity.