Within seconds of beginning our interview, it became clear nonprofit consultant Amanda Cowart is truly in love with her work. She is jazzed – yes, this is the word she uses – about working with nonprofit clients. Their energy, their passion for making the world a better place, and getting to promote and participate in their missions are what drove Cowart to move from working for nonprofits to working with nonprofits.
Inspired by passionate nonprofit professionals, Cowart started her own company, Lemon Zest Copywriting, which specializes in direct response fundraising. And it is Cowart’s varied background in education, the natural sciences and fundraising that has moulded her into a successful fundraising copywriting guru.
The winding path to fundraising copywriter
For Cowart a variety of work/life experiences led her to the nonprofit world. A communications major in college, Cowart found her education too broad to truly apply to one area. After graduation, she served in AmeriCorps for a year, which is similar to a domestic version of the Peace Corps but lasts for one year instead of two. There, her work focused on natural science and environmental education. She and her team worked with more than 5,000 students, from whom she caught the teaching bug. A love for both teaching and the outdoors led Cowart towards grad school for natural science teaching – a degree that provided the opportunity to teach at private or independent schools across the US.
Cowart taught in a variety of settings from 2006-2017. At that point, Cowart hit an existential moment where parenting two small children and her kindergarten teaching job got to be too much. This is when she found copywriting. Circling back to her communication days, Cowart volunteered, and was soon hired, at her son’s school in a marketing and events role. Within a couple months, Cowart was supporting the fundraising team on all fundraising levels including appeals, email templates, and events communications.
During Cowart’s first year with the fundraising team at Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, the concept of Giving Tuesday 2018 was largely ignored. An email haphazardly went out to a mailing list, and the school received a little over $2,000 in donations.
The following year for Giving Tuesday 2019, the team went all in with a true campaign; multiple emails and social posts starting a week before, updates throughout the day itself, personal outreach to families who worked at big companies, parent ambassadors and more. Cowart and her team raised over $90,000 in their first true year of strategic fundraising, which allowed them to invest in a Give Day software program. This investment continues to support events for Caitlin Gabel School throughout the year. Giving Tuesday 2019 was a REAL learning opportunity to strike while the iron is hot and leverage matching gift opportunities.
Common copywrite fails Cowart sees from nonprofits
Understanding the psychology and rationale behind donor giving has become the source of intense research. Almost 10 years ago, Scientific American released an article showing that the act of giving was more important to individuals than the act of receiving. 88% of respondents to a study conducted by StatsCan decided to give because their contribution was going to a cause they personally believed in. And donor engagement tips released by Global Giving indicates that donors are more likely to respond to a charitable ask that highlights a single person in need as opposed to a group.
As a nonprofit copywrite consultant, Cowart has unique insight into the mistakes nonprofits are making during their fundraising asks. Frequently, the first mistake is a lack of clear messaging. What is your mission, and how are you explaining it? This is the starting point for all the rest of your communications, emails and newsletters with current and potential donors. There should be no mission confusion.
Cowart often sees donors toss or delete messages that are too “beige”. Where’s the life? Who is the donor helping? If the message doesn’t inspire a connection to the cause at hand, you’re more likely to get a “meh” response, and no donation. Cowart believes connection inspires care, and that connection is critical because if donors don’t care, then they aren’t going to make a gift. This same concept applies to recruiting volunteers. Your message needs to not only tug at the heart strings, but also it needs to be actionable and concise to inspire donors to donate their money, time and energy.
Taking your fundraising message to the next level
When asked how she stands out as a consultant, Cowart knows where she shines. A long-time teacher to small children and with 3 of her own at home, Cowart has honed the art of deep listening. Her goal is to take a nonprofit’s mission and campaign message and put them on to a plate that is easily digestible for donors. Fundraising copywrite is successful in Cowart’s experience by using very clear and actionable writing, a strong Call-To-Action and answering the question of “who cares?” for the reader.
And if creating inspiring fundraising copy feels overwhelming for your nonprofit, Cowart has 3 critical skills she would suggest you search for when hiring a nonprofit copywrite consultant.
- A Someone who knows enough about tracking communications data that they can keep an eye on the numbers and identify the trends of your campaigns.
- An excellent listener. Your copywriter should be able to meet with your team and synthesize your message to create a fundraising journey for your donors.
- A straight shooter. Consultants should be upfront about expectations, whether they be financial or time-based. The process shouldn’t be uncomfortable, and it should eliminate misinterpretations and unmet expectations.
Incoming changes to the nonprofit ecosystem
Living and breathing fundraising for the last 4 years has given Cowart the opportunity to survey the quickly changing landscape of nonprofit work. She sees a dramatic change in nonprofit grant writing with an increased view to ethical fundraising, where money goes to areas of higher need, and with less continued governance. This excellent resource podcast with Vu Le suggests that grants should perhaps be eliminated altogether.
Covid continues to disrupt basically every aspect of our lives, and Cowart can see the rethinking of charitable giving occurring in real-time. Charitable giving has moved from “I’ve been giving to this nonprofit for 50 years so I’ll give for another 50 years,” towards, “My family has been giving to this charity for 50 years, but why? I think we’ll support a different nonprofit that aligns more with our family values and what we like to do now.” This changes the donation message many nonprofits have to use with long-time donors and requires a sustained engagement surrounding new programs, goals and the nonprofit mission. The rise in hybrid events during covid and online auctions has also disrupted much of the “gala-style”, big fundraising events of the past. Cowart sees a move towards donors wanting a less fancy meal but instead being engaged with in a more educational, “teach me something”, capacity.
And lastly Cowart has noted a substantial shift in generational charitable giving. As mentioned above the desire among long-standing family and corporate foundations is changing as the foundation changes hands to a younger generation. As the Gen X and Millennials take their place at the head of family corporations, they are looking to support in different ways. Giving is still generous but looks different. It is not just automatic. The younger generation wants to know why your cause is worth giving to – they value action, sustainability and justice. Nonprofits will need to work to build relationships all over again with this new generation of supporters or risk losing them.
In takeaway from our interview we asked Cowart what her top 3 strategies nonprofits should implement in their nonprofit copywriting.
- A clear mission and purpose that everyone (staff, board, volunteers, members, donors) easily understands. It is hard to fundraise on the premise, “Donate to us so we can help people.” Rather something like, “Help end child marriages by sponsoring young girls’ education, their ticket out of poverty.”
- Have at least one champion or advocate on your board who understands the big picture goals of the nonprofit as well as staff needs. Find someone who knows how to talk about the nonprofit, can recruit volunteers and pitch in when needed. Every nonprofit should have at least a person or two who knows it, lives it, loves it and promotes it.
- Invest in a CRM for keeping track of donors and volunteers. Tracking the success of your fundraising copywrite, who can help you strategize where your next ask should be directed, will add to your fundraising success in the long term. (Our team would love to support your nonprofit!)