Fundraising copywriting expert Julie Cooper discusses how to write for your donors

Episode aired June 10, 2020: Writing For Donors

Julie Cooper is an expert fundraising copywriter. She understands that for your donor material to be successful, it has to be written with the donor- and only the donor- in mind. In this episode, Julie discusses 

  • moving donors from ordinary person to hero
  • 3 things every piece of donor material MUST include
  • the importance of an email welcome series for new subscribers
  • why writing is a conversation with the donor and
  • embracing the concept that fundraising is meant for you to grow, not to preserve what you have.

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.


Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us the wonderfully talented Julie Cooper. Julie how you doing today? 

Julie: I’m great. How are you Ephraim?

Ephraim: I’m doing great, thanks. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers. Julie is a copywriter specializing in direct response fundraising writing. She teams with nonprofit clients to write and consult on their donor communication, so they can stop worrying about fundraising and focus on their good work. Having held various positions in organizations, including president of a foundation and board chairperson, Julie knows the fundraising challenges nonprofits face. Julie’s passion is to help nonprofits stabilize, optimize and expand their revenue sources so they can thrive. She is principal of JP Cooper LLC and you can learn more about her at

Copywriting Mistake

In today’s episode we’re gonna discuss fundraising copywriting. Let’s dive right in. Julie, what’s the biggest mistake nonprofits make in their copywriting when talking to or addressing donors?

Julie: Yeah, so thanks for having me.

I think the biggest mistake they make when addressing donors is they write at the donor, not for the donor. They don’t necessarily realize that the message should be all about how the donor can make a difference with their gift today. And unfortunately nonprofits somehow forget to include the donor in the conversation. It’s all one-sided,  very organization-centric instead of donor focused.

It’s kind of like this: Have you ever had, you know, coffee or lunch with someone and then at the end of your time together, you seem to know everything about that person because they talked and talked and talked and talked about themselves, but they know very little about you because they didn’t like include you in the conversation? When that happens that’s just disappointing and you feel like unimportant. It’s like that.

In our fundraising messages we need to include the donor and their interest from the very beginning, because fundraising writing is a conversation with the donor, telling the donor the great things that they will do when they make a gift. Your fundraising writing isn’t aimed to please internal organizations, internal audiences at your organization. You’re not there to please your boss or the board or the program staff. No, your job is aimed to get the donor and nobody else to understand the problem clearly and act right away. So instead of telling the donor all about your processes and your programs, you know, trying to wow them with all of the good things you do and all the work you do… we, we, we. Instead of doing that, you want to jump into the conversation that your donor is already having in their mind about their desire to do more good in the world. So your fundraising message essentially is how the donor goes from like ordinary guy to hero guy with their gift to your organization.

So I think really talking at the donor instead of for the donor and including them in the conversation is probably the biggest mistake I see.

What Every Piece Of Donor Material Has To Contain

Ephraim: Nonprofit pros take note, that’s a big one. Today’s actionable item: Please share with us three elements every piece of material we send donors must contain in order to build the case for support?

Julie: Okay great. Three elements that are absolutely crucial in your fundraising communications are: the problem, the offer and the activation. So first you want to show your donor a problem that is focused, it’s urgent and it’s solvable. And then you need to affirm to them that they are the solution to the problem. Only they can make this wrong right

Then second you want to propose an offer. You explain to the donor how they will solve the problem and the offer needs to be specific, it needs to show impact, it needs to be expressed with a cost if possible and show that it’s a good value. I mean we all like a good deal right and so do our donors. And what we want the donor to know most of all is that the value that comes out of their donation is greater than the cost of it to them. So essentially the offer is irresistible.

And then the third element that’s included is the activation part. You want to mobilize your donor to act. You tell them what to do next and how to do it. You make it super super easy for the donor to act at once. In fundraising writing we never assume that the donor knows what to do next. In fact we never allow the donor to finish our thoughts. We always complete our thoughts with crystal clear language.

So what do I mean by that? We must call them to action. We tell them to click the link or we tell them to complete the reply form in the envelope. We tell them what their donation will immediately go to work helping to solve. And we remind them that their action is urgent and we ask for the gift again. So basically to sum up those three: We present a problem that the donor can solve. And then we make the donor an irresistible offer that shows their soon to be impact in action. Then finally we call them to action. We tell them exactly how to make that gift and how to make that gift right now.

Email Welcome Series

Ephraim: That is a perfect three-point plan, excellent. On your website,, you have an email welcome series ebook. What’s a welcome series and why is it so important to retaining email subscribers over time?

Julie: Yeah I love that question, thank you. So an email welcome series is an automated series of emails that people receive after taking an initial action on a website and typically that action is subscribing to an email newsletter. The purpose of this series is to welcome, to build trust and to encourage the subscriber to take the natural next steps with your nonprofit. So it’s really the getting-to-know-you phase of the relationship and it should end with a small first donation.

So basically the subscriber signs up and the subscriber thinks that they might possibly, sort of, maybe, perhaps like you but they’re not sure. They took that first step in the relationship, by opting in to your email list and receive your newsletters. Now you need to woo them, so the ball is in your court. And what I like to say is: A welcome series is like a first date. On the first date, you would never think of you know asking your date to marry you, because that action is out of order and creepy. You know the marriage proposal comes much later. But during that date, that first date, you might tell a story about your childhood or describe what you do in your job, you know, like get to know each other, see if you share the same values.

The same is true with an email welcome series. So asking a new subscriber to donate right away or to do anything significant right away is like asking them to marry you on the first date. That’s why each email in the welcome series serves to nurture that relationship between you and the new subscriber, one step at a time.

What You Need To Get Started

Ephraim: Excellent. What do you need materials wise from your nonprofit clients before you can sit down and begin writing copy for them?

Julie: So we need to complete a creative brief. So either the client will provide me one or I would work with them to complete it. So basically a creative brief is a project plan. It’s the compass that everyone who’s working on a project needs to navigate all of the pieces and you make sure that everyone is on the same page. This takes some time at the beginning but it certainly saves time at the end. And sometimes creative briefs are only a few pages and then other times like a project I was doing last week, it was 12 pages long and it included many links to articles that I needed to read and familiarize myself with. So a lot of work goes into the behind the scenes research, before the writing even starts.

Inside the creative brief there’s information like: project objectives and goals and deadlines. Also important elements like what will be the exact deliverables and in what forms and you know, is it direct mail only or will it be integrated into an email campaign? And what about social media? Then what’s really important too is the audience. You need to know who you’re speaking to, what are their demographics, what are their psychographics, what keeps them up at night, what are their interests, what do they do in their free time? All of this helps me get into the mind of the donors and write better. And the creative brief also details what kind of segmentations we’ll do, if any. Major donors, mass donors, what are those segmentations.

And then you know another important part, something that we talked about a couple questions ago was: What is the problem that we’re asking the donor to solve? We gotta make sure we identify that very clearly and what will the offer be and what’s the call-to-action? So it’s a very detailed document but definitely a much needed one.

Ephraim: Planning in advance creates success.

Julie: For sure.

What’s Fun To Write

Ephraim: You’re a very talented copywriter. Is there one type of fundraising collateral you enjoy writing more than others?

Julie: Thank you, that’s nice of you to say. I think my favorite part is taking a long piece of copy that I’ve written and then adapting it. For example, into like an email series or a donation landing page or copy for Facebook posts. Sometimes getting that long initial form copy is… can be emotionally draining. So taking that big rock piece and then breaking it down and adapting it into other… you know, shapes and sizes is really fun and rewarding. And then I also love choosing the photos and getting the design elements just right.

Ephraim: Excellent. I like taking long content and breaking it down into what I called bite-sized pieces.

Julie: Yes, for sure.

Let’s Learn More About Julie

Ephraim: So let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about Julie. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Julie: So years ago I was just kind of looking for more community connection and really just kind of more meaning in my life. And so I decided to help out a local nonprofit with their marketing and that’s kind of where it all started. I just completely fell head-over-heels for the marketing and the fundraising side of a nonprofits work. Yeah, that’s where it all began for me.

Ephraim: Excellent. If there’s one thing in the nonprofit world you could shake up, what would it be?

Julie: I would like more people to fully embrace the concept that fundraising is about growing money and not preserving it. And you have to strategically spend money on fundraising in order to make more money, so that you can spend more money on the great programs and do more good. It’s definitely an important mind shift for organizations if they want to grow.

Ephraim: Spend a buck to make a buck. What’s favorite book or story from your childhood?

Julie: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’ve always been upbeat even as a child. But I do remember loving and memorizing the book, maybe you’re familiar with it, Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst. And I loved that book! And this was back in like the early nineteen eighties when there was nothing good on TV on Sunday afternoon. So I just remember memorizing picture books and this one in particular I just loved.

Ephraim: I totally remember that book. Tell me about a mentor and how they helped move your career forward?

Julie: Well right after college I went to work for my parents company and it was a sales agency in the industrial tools market. And my dad really taught me a lot about how to sell, how to go to market, how to treat customers, he taught me how to close the deal. It’s not exactly apples to apples, sales to fundraising, of course. But much of it does transfer well over into my work and how I view donors. So I guess I’d say my dear old dad really helped me move my career forward.

Ephraim: That’s awesome. Favorite city or country to visit and tour?

Julie: I love Tucson, Arizona. My husband and I just have our eye on it for possibly moving there in the future eventually. I love the desert, I love the saguaros, the animals, the people, the culture, the sunsets, everything. Even the heat’s okay.

Ephraim: Yes, it does get pretty hot down in of the country. Let’s turn the table. You ask me a surprise question I have no idea what’s coming. Go ahead.

Julie: Okay, awesome. So I do have a question, I have it written down. So you have been sending out a daily newsletter for quite some time now and which by the way, it’s always amazing, it’s so informative, it gives me a chuckle or two every day. I just love it. And then now of course you do this podcast. So you do a lot of outreach to nonprofits. So tell me something that you’ve learned from doing either the daily newsletter or this podcast, that you can teach a nonprofit about acquiring or engaging donors better, so that they can do more good?

Ephraim: Consistency. I think there’s a lot of things I’ve learned over the last year plus- and thank you for mentioning both the podcast and the newsletter. There’s a lot of things I’ve learned from doing the newsletter. It’s four times a week and it was an idea that was brewing in my head for three plus years before I started it. Then I have to do it every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and it has to go out. And I have to find four articles and there’s an opening article which has nothing necessarily to do with the nonprofit world and that chuckle at the bottom.

There’s a sense of consistency and when I talk to nonprofits, if you have an email marketing program, sending it out once every now and then- some of them tell me we send it out now and then- I go: Why would your donor or subscriber be expecting it? It’s gonna come out of the blue, they’re not gonna be expecting it, they have a full overflowing inbox. You have to be consistent. If it’s every month, then it’s every month. It’s every week, every two weeks, whatever it is but coming up with a sense of consistency so they are anticipating it. I know now, based on the feedback I’ve gotten certainly on the newsletter, people are anticipating it in the morning. And I’ve gotten the feedback of “it’s the first thing I read in the morning because I know it’s gonna be there when I wake up.” So that sense of consistency means that your subscribers know what’s coming and then they… this is the big challenge and you know this from copywriting, is the challenge of having to rise to the challenge of good copy and making it interesting, something they want to open on a consistent basis. So it’s not just that it’s gonna show up in their inbox but now you really have to bring your A-game every single day- I do four times a week- is to bring your A-game and that’s also tough. But it’s something to learn, that nonprofits can learn that if you’re gonna be sending out your email once a month, once a week, whatever it is, you better bring your A-game and have it all mapped out and ready to go, so your subscribers can read and then as you said, there’s an activation. Click on something, do this, subscribe, donate, whatever you want them to do but make sure you have it mapped out in advance. I think that’s what I’ve learned so far.

Julie: I love that. That’s a great answer. Thank you cause I learned from that too. Thanks. Yeah, I need to be more consistent so thank you.

Ephraim: I think that’s the toughest part of it is knowing…but I’ve kind of put it into everyday I know, tomorrow there’s a newsletter and so you know get it done, because if I miss a day I will hear from subscribers, hey where is it?

Julie: Isn’t that great?  

Ephraim: Yes it is actually. Now that I’ve gotten to that point…

Julie: They miss you.

Ephraim:  They do.  

Julie: They miss you if you’re gone.

Ephraim: That’s a nice thing to know. They don’t miss me, they miss the newsletter. Let’s be honest. It’s good to know. Thank you so much Julie for appearing on the podcast today. I really really appreciate it. You can learn more about Julie at where she shares her smarts via ebooks you can download and then you can go implement her methods at your organization today. Again thank you very much. Have a wonderful day.

Julie: Thank you, thank you for having me.

Ephraim: An absolute pleasure. Have a good day.

Julie: You too.

Ephraim: Okay bye.