Six Messages or Less: Why the Best Fundraising Cases Fit on a Notecard

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The state of the world has made us want to connect with more of you, more often. For the rest of 2020, the Campbell & Company Communications team is sharing a new article every week that explores a topic in case development and fundraising communications, drawn from our work.

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If we needed a slogan for the Campbell & Company case development methodology, we might think about borrowing from the rich intellectual tradition of pizza delivery and promise clients a piping hot case for support in six messages or less.

(It’s 2020 and we need to take joy where we can, so I’m setting aside my usual “less” vs. “fewer” fussbudgetry.)

Of course we don’t always keep score in exactly this way, but after writing a bunch of these things over the years, we’re pretty well convinced: No matter how grand the mission or complex the campaign, the best fundraising cases can be distilled to a half dozen core messages. When your case is strong down to its fundamentals, the full version might fill a magisterial brochure or an in-depth presentation deck, but the heart of it—the stuff you want every donor to know and feel—should be so absolutely clear and crisply expressed that you could write it on a notecard.

Let’s talk about why this matters, why we struggle with it, and how to get there.

Why Focus on Core Messages?

When we refer to messages, we’re talking about a simple expression of an idea that is designed to move an audience. For our purposes, that means that it distills something essential about your case into a single sentence using simple, direct language.

In one of our city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, the challenge of hunger is much worse than most of our neighbors recognize.

This campaign is about all the learning that happens outside the classroom.

If you care about climate action in our region, this is the smartest way to make a difference.

You can imagine the supporting bullet points that would fall under each of these messages, but each message itself is crisp, simple, and self-sufficient. Most of us aren’t in the regular habit of thinking in such distilled terms, and our sector’s traditional vehicle for case development is a long narrative case statement that makes it all too easy to avoid committing to core messages. But when you build your case around simple core messages like these, some very useful things happen:

  1. They challenge you to speak directly to what really drives your donors. We work hard to write about our organizations in their full complexity and nuance, but when you ask donors why they give, they usually give simple answers full of heart. This is our cue to build cases and communications around those core motivations, and let the complexity follow as supporting points where needed.
  2. They give your fundraisers confidence. When you put a 12-page case statement in your board members’ hands, they feel intimidated at the prospect of communicating it in their own words. When you give them four to six key talking points you’d like them to weave in while speaking in their own voice, they think: I can do this.
  3. They equip you to communicate easily across a range of media. Sometimes having a beautifully rendered case statement in the traditional long-narrative format is like having a finely engineered luxury car…in your basement. Meanwhile, if you know the core messages you want to hit and you’ve got some supporting language around them, everything from writing speeches and planning social media to producing print pieces and presentations feels like running downhill.

This is why we’ve come to believe that strong, well-defined messages are the building blocks of a strong case.

Why do we struggle with this?

Ok, messages good, got it. If the case for a message-driven approach is such a slam dunk, then why aren’t we all already living the messaging good life?

  1. Writing short is universally difficult. How often do we owe the people in our professional lives some version of the apology attributed to Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” Never mind that he appears never to have actually written or said this. If our riverboating master of the pithy aphorism finds this taxing, it’s not going to be easy for the rest of us.
  2. We think major donor cases need the “thud” factor. True enough, you can’t usually secure a million-dollar gift on the strength of a tagline alone. (This is how general-purpose creative agencies sometimes get into trouble when they take on case work.) Any case with a major giving component needs a fair amount of substance and depth—but that doesn’t mean we have to write dense thickets of prose. Core messages bring structure to substance, making clear what is central vs. supporting, making longer documents easily skimmable, and giving audiences a way to connect emotionally first and then dig in further to the extent they wish.
  3. Sometimes our ideas aren’t clear enough to begin with. In the craft of distilling core messages, the thinking challenge precedes the writing challenge—and the exercise of trying to write crisp core messages may reveal that we actually aren’t all that clear on what we’re trying to say: What is our vision? Why now? Why us?

Though these challenges are real, you don’t need to be a master writer to get past them. Rather, they respond well to effort and focus.

Making Messages

If you’d like to dig into the craft of distilling messages for donors at all levels, we have a whole webinar on this subject with dozens of examples and more detailed writing tips. The crux of the guidance, though—our core messages about core messages—might be summarized as:

  1. Speak to values and identity. The more we learn about persuasion, the more we come to understand the role that values and identity play in driving any kind of behavior change, including giving. Your core messages are an opportunity to speak directly to how your prospective donors see themselves and their place in the world.

A proof point, not a message: Every dollar we invest in [education program] generates ten dollars of social benefit and economic impact.

Message speaking to values (fairness): No child should miss out on a great education for financial reasons.

Message speaking to identity (smart donor): This is the smartest investment we can make in our community’s future today.

  1. Start with the Six Elements of Your Case for Support. Though you might organize or recombine them in the way that best suits your case, the six elements are a good general-purpose starting point for figuring out what messages you need—and asking the right questions to get to a clear core idea for each of them. If you can figure out what your core message relative to each of the six elements is, you’re off to a great start.

To see a sample case distilled into core messages based on the six elements, check out this webinar.

  1. Use the simplest, most direct language possible. Your case messages need to work out loud in conversation, so this is the most important place to replace jargon with resonant human language. Express each core message as a single sentence (no cheating with a bunch of commas and clauses) that you could imagine someone remembering and repeating word-of-mouth.

Meandering and weak: Alongside our recent investments in capital and programs, we must also invest in our school endowment to ensure our strongest future.

Simple and direct: The endowment is the most important investment we can make in our school’s future right now.

As Twain apparently didn’t actually say, getting to the short version is hard work—and the perfectly distilled one-page case summary is usually the last piece we arrive at in a case development process after writing longer forms along the way. But it’s also the most useful and most satisfying. Begin the work today to get to the promised land: a powerful case that fits on a notecard.