Read time: Kind of a while, tbh, but there’s a shortcut!
Unless you are a very specific kind of nerd, you may not have ever heard of Wally Wood. That’s okay. If all you’re here for is a list of email ledes you can use for fundraising or advocacy messaging, you can go ahead and skip right to that part.
But Wally Wood inspired this post, and got me thinking about how we approach the task of content creation. And if you spend a couple minutes with Wally and me, I think it will be useful and interesting. It will give you some why to go along with the what.
Still reading? Good, nobody here now but us nerds. So first: Wally Wood. That catchy alliteration makes him sound like a comic book character, like Clark Kent or Lois Lane, Peter Parker or Bruce Banner. Which is fitting, because Wally Wood was an illustrator and innovator who drew sci-fi novel covers, pulp magazines, and, most importantly, comics from the 50s through the 70s.
Then, as now, drawing comics for a living was a stressful, physically taxing, creatively exhausting job. Day after day hunched over a drawing table, struggling to make the fantastic feel real, compelling, captivating. Pay was lousy, and there was constant pressure from publishers to produce more work in less time.
To make ends meet, artists would sometimes team up as a studio — helping each other come up with ideas, chipping in when someone was in danger of missing a deadline, teaching each other tips and tricks. And all that should sound more than a little familiar to anyone who has ever worked in nonprofit fundraising: a small team of talented and extremely dedicated people, putting their heart and soul into their work while scrambling to stay ahead of merciless timelines.
Here comes Wally Wood, and he sees himself and his colleagues trying to find new ways to solve the same problems over and over again. Striving to make storytelling work given the constraints of time, space, the boss’s demands, evolving trends, and how dang hard it is to draw horses.
So Wally came up with a tipsheet of sorts — a set of examples that an artist pressed for time could turn to in order not to reinvent the wheel. It’s been passed around, in one form or another, ever since. It looks like this:
None of this is perfect, or earth-shattering, or even particularly detailed — it’s not meant to be. These 22 panels are designed to “always work.” Always — as in, no matter the situation, context, or moment, these are templates you can rely on. And work — as in, they get the job done and keep the creative process moving forward.
These panels help narrow the artist’s focus from the endless world of possibilities to a defined set of discrete options. Of course, in any situation there are other ways to approach the task. Of course, you may want to try something else. Of course, there are times when inspiration strikes and a cheat sheet like this will only hold you back.
But not every piece of every project has to be capital-A Art — often, craft is what is needed. Sometimes you just need to get out of your own way.
The same thing applies to writing direct response email copy. You stare at a blank screen, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the infinite. You want this message to be a flawless gem, you want to capture the moment perfectly, you want to write something true and beautiful that has never been said quite like that before. You also need to get it done in the next 45 minutes so legal has time to vet it.
In those moments, it pays to think like Wally Wood. And so that’s what this is: 22 email ledes that always work. If you find yourself stuck on how to approach an advocacy alert, if you are writing the 12th appeal in your membership drive and starting to feel like you’ve already used every possible approach — pick one of these and just get writing.
In order to ground things a bit, we’re going to include an example of each type of lede from a hypothetical environmental organization sending a fundraising appeal on the topic of climate change.
pssst there’s a downloadable version of this list here!
- Right now…
The simplest way to establish timeliness — literally write the words “Right now” and explain to the reader what is happening in this moment.
Right now, the temperature in the Arctic Circle is 5 degrees higher than it should be at this time of year — and that spells serious trouble for polar bears, narwhals, and other wildlife.
- I am [emotion]
Whether it’s “gleeful,” “devastated,” or “mad as hell,” if you want your reader to feel something, it helps to get in touch with your own emotional state.
I am furious, <FirstName>. We are on the verge of passing the most significant climate legislation in history, and one single senator is blocking the way. We need your help to raise the alarm and push this historic bill over the finish line.
- Here in [place]
Add immediacy and authenticity by grounding your message in a specific place and time.
Here in the Everglades, the signs of climate change are unmistakable — and tragic. Water levels are rising. The heat is overwhelming. Migratory bird populations are plummeting. And we are bracing for yet another intense, potentially deadly hurricane season.
I’ve been a field biologist studying wildlife here for nearly 20 years, and I can tell you: it’s not supposed to be like this.
- TIME IS ALMOST UP!
Urgency is one of the essential elements of effective creative — and basically the entire ballgame here.
<FirstName>, there are just hours left until our midnight deadline — don’t wait to make your gift and help fuel the fight against climate change.
- I noticed you have not donated. What’s up with that?
A little guilt can go a long way.
Dear <FirstName>, With just hours to go before our midnight deadline, 4,236 committed supporters have already donated and DOUBLED their impact thanks to a special matching gift. We need everyone who cares about stopping climate change to chip in — but your name is still not on that list. Will you do your part by making a gift before it’s too late?
- Focus on one sense at a time
Conjure a specific time and place by focusing on ONE sense — sight, sound, smell, taste — and draw the reader in with an evocative physical description.
The sound of an orangutan mother calling out to her child is unmistakable. At dusk, it booms and trills through the darkening treetops, seeming to come from every direction at once. It’s lonely and beautiful and a little bit eerie, and sometimes it sends a little shiver up my spine.
It’s a sound that is being silenced all across the forests of Borneo, replaced by whining chainsaws and roaring bulldozers.
- I’m going to level with you
Straight talk and transparency bring the audience inside your circle of trust.
<FirstName>, let me put it plainly: if we don’t reach our fundraising goal by midnight tonight, we may have to cut back on key programs in the coming months. We need your help to make sure we have the resources to stand up to Big Oil.
- One word that sums it up
Give your one-word reaction to or description of this moment — then, explain why.
Devastation. That’s the reality on the ground, as communities on the Gulf Coast try to recover from another hurricane. And with climate change creating more frequent, intense storms, it’s only going to get worse.
- ICYMI: Here’s basically the same thing we said last time
Most of your audience won’t have read or remembered your last message. Give them another chance.
Did you see my message from yesterday? This is an incredibly important moment for our movement, <FirstName>, and I hope you’re ready to step up.
- UPDATE: Here’s what has happened since the last email we sent you
Just like #9, except now something has changed that gives us a new focus.
Quick update on my last message: in just the last four hours, hundreds of supporters like you have stepped up to help reach our $1 million goal. Now, we have until midnight to make it to the finish line — will you chip in now to help get us there?
- Report back from colleagues
Your organization is full of people with inside info — field staff, development officers, policy experts. Pass along an update from one of them.
I just received a report from [our staff on the ground in Borneo/our head of fundraising/Capitol Hill], and what I am hearing is downright alarming.
- “Quote out of context” — now here’s the context
An out-of-context quote gives your reader a reason to keep reading in order to understand, and a quick way to dive into storytelling.
“This is my home. I grew up here, my mother grew up here, my grandmother. But there’s no future here for my children.”
That’s what Maria, a farmworker in Zunil, Guatemala, told me when I asked her about how climate change is affecting her region. And she’s not the only one who is worried.
- [Person] is a person whose story I am going to tell you now
A powerful way to communicate authenticity is to tell a true story about a real person and provide real details about the way your reader’s action will have an impact.
Maria thought that the worst dangers of climate change were still years away. She thought there would be time to find solutions, ways to protect her small farm and her family’s livelihood.
Then came a year of drought and record heat. Followed by a year of drought and record heat. As crops withered in the field, Maria knew that the future had arrived. The time to act is now.
- Have you ever heard of rhetorical questions?
An open question invites the reader in, creating a tension that can’t be resolved until they read on to find the answer.
What will the coastline in southern Florida look like in 10 years? 20? 50?
Climate change will create devastating changes in vulnerable areas like this. We know that. The real question is what we’re willing to do now to mitigate the damage and avoid the most catastrophic outcomes.
- In medias res
Start your story in the middle, without providing context or background, to draw your reader quickly into your narrative.
It was cold in the Senate hearing room, but I was sweating. After hours of waiting, days of preparing testimony, decades of leading researching — I was finally getting my chance to lay out exactly how serious the climate threat truly is. I don’t mind telling you I was nervous.
- Click here to put your call to action in the very first sentence
Be direct. Ask for what you need up front.
Today is the deadline — click here to make your last-minute gift and help reach our $500,000 fundraising goal to fuel the fight against climate change.
- Today is National [Topic] Day, which is a good time to address [Topic]
Every day is National Something Day, so that gives you lots of opportunities to reiterate your message from a variety of perspectives.
Today is National Endangered Species Day. So let’s talk about the plants and animals that are on the brink. Let’s confront the harsh reality that threatens the survival of polar bears, Hawksbill turtles, and Amur leopards. Let’s talk about the dangers they face — and then let’s do something about it.
- This is my core belief:
Start with a fundamental value, and offer your reader a chance to agree.
<FirstName>, we have a responsibility to preserve the beauty and wonder of this planet for our children and the generations to come. We owe them clean air and water, vibrant wilderness, and the hope of a thriving future.
I’m not about to let that legacy be destroyed in the name of corporate profits.
- Rip from the headlines
The news is urgent, tangible, and real. And by quoting an outside validator, you add an extra voice of authority to support your own message.
U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds, Citing Heat and Floods
That’s the headline on today’s New York Times front page. But for anyone on the front lines of the fight against climate change, it isn’t news at all.
- Let an image do the talking
They say an image is worth a thousand words, which is nice because writing is hard sometimes.
This photo was taken just yesterday. It shows just one small part of the wildfires devastating the Blue Mountains of Oregon. It’s also a horrifying preview of the disasters that will become increasingly common if we don’t confront the climate crisis.
- I know we’re on the same page
You get it, I get, we all get it — now, let’s do something about it.
You don’t need me to tell you that this year’s midterm election will be among the most important of our lives. The stakes for our climate, our planet, and people all over the world could not be higher. And that’s why we need you to step up right now, <FirstName>.
- Tease mysterious or inside information, and promise to explain more
Everybody wants access to hidden knowledge. Bait your hook with just a hint of what’s to come, and hope your reader feels compelled to read the whole thing.
Unless you have read the latest U.N. climate report cover to cover, you might have missed something important: hope, hiding there in the details and data.
We have a chance right now to confront the climate crisis in a focused, powerful way — but only if we are bold enough to seize this moment. Are you ready to be a part of this groundbreaking effort?
What are your go-to ledes? Let us know @MRCampaigns! And of course, download our list for the next time you’re stuck!
Will Valverde is a senior creative director at M+R and co-writer of The M+R Guide to Effective and Ethical Direct Response Creative. Over the past 18 years, Will has written thousands and thousands of email messages for nonprofits of all types, and there’s nothing he loves more than talking about direct response creative and/or comics. He is a very specific kind of nerd.