fundraising appeals

Where do you begin when you write letters or fundraising appeals?

Of course, you begin at the very beginning. A very good place to start!

And the beginning is not simply putting pen to paper and writing “Dear…”

That’s actually close to the end of your process.

I’m not kidding.

You’re not ready to begin until you know five essential things. I heartily advise you to outline all five of these essentials before you ever put pen to paper.

There are the five essentials:

  1. Know who you’re writing to.
  2. Know what you want to say.
  3. Know the tone/emotion you want to convey.
  4. Know what you want the recipient to think/feel/do after reading your letter.
  5. Know specifically what you’ll ask for

These may seem obvious to you, but… from my observation of a preponderance of fundraising appeals I receive, they seem to be well-kept secrets. I know that may sound harsh, but take a look at your most recent fundraising appeal. How many of these five boxes does it check? 

Be honest – this is all about improving your future fundraising appeals!

Start by Knowing Where You’re Going 

To paraphrase one of my favorite philosopher writers:

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.

— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Let’s begin with why you’re writing a fundraising letter at all in our digital age. If you think direct mail is dead, think again. Because folks receive so much email, and so little direct mail, recent studies show response rates to direct mail can be over 10 times higher than those of digital marketing. So in thinking about where you’re going, in general, with your fundraising strategies, think about writing and sending a letter through the mail. It may seem email is cheaper. It’s not. Not when you look at your return on investment.

Okay… on to our five SECRETS!

1. Know Who You’re Writing To

You are not writing to yourself, your board or your boss. 

What do your prospective donors care about? And – very important — if you have several different audiences, you may need several different versions of your appeal. Think, before you write, about the demographics of your audiences.

You are not writing to a crowd, but to one person. 

Do your donors skew to a particular demographic? Do you have a mix of two or more pronounced generational cohorts in your donor base? Once you know, consider creating donor personas or ‘customer avatars’ to help you with your appeal writing. Knowing you’re writing to ‘Grandma Sally’ vs. ‘Student Activist Stella’ can make a big difference in the way you frame your message. Think carefully about the person you’re writing to so you can make your letter direct, relevant and personal. 

If you’re unsure about the make-up of your database, for starters go with statistics about most likely donors. 

You can derive these from sources like the Global Trends in Giving Report, Nonprofits Source, Giving USA and the Qgiv Generational Giving Study. Did you know 72% of Boomers give to charity? And 49% of Gen Xers participate in monthly giving programs? Did you know Millennials contribute 11% of U.S. philanthropy? Or that members of the Silent Generation give, on average, 25% more of the time than donors in other groups? For the most part, Boomers and Gen Xers make up your most likely donor base and acquisition prospects. 

 “This is an important decade for fundraisers, because it is a peak time for the yold, — that is, the “young old,” as the Japanese call people between 65 and 75.”

— Jeff Brooks, Future Fundraising Now

 Charitable giving as a sustained lifestyle-type activity isn’t meaningfully found until around age 55. The behavior picks up steam in the following years, gets truly meaningful around 65, keeps growing, then starts to drop some time after 75.” 

– Tom Ahern, Making Money with Donor Newsletters

As a general rule, when it comes to responding to typical mailed fundraising appeals, the Baby Boom generation will continue to dominate until 2033, when Gen Xers (there are 7 million less Gen Xers than Boomers) start to outnumber them. Fundraising copywriter Tom Ahern says he thinks of his mother-in-law, in her late 80s, when he writes. What about Millennials? They’re giving more and more, but generally through different giving strategies such as crowd funding and peer-to-peer and social media. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Depending on what you do, and how much your cause resonates with particular age cohorts, your mileage may vary. You want to make your appeal letter work for the preponderance of folks to whom you’re writing.  

2. Know What You Want to Say

What’s the SMIT (Single Most Important Thing) you have to say? 

Say this. Say only this. Do not pass ‘Go.’ Do not collect $200. Okay… collect the money. But be sure to avoid complicating things. Remember where you’re going; don’t get sidetracked or lost in the weeds. People have a very short attention span.

Put your donor in the picture. 

If what you’re saying doesn’t seem relevant, people won’t read it. Think about what your donors value. Do you know? Write about that. Show them how to enter into the story you’re telling. As the hero! Here are some great donor-centric sentences you can borrow

You should have ONE desired action response. 

Don’t include a bunch of inserts (e.g., brochure, list of volunteer opportunities, lift notes, stickers, invitations, and so forth), or the reader will have difficulty focusing on the letter. If people are given multiple messages vying for their attention, they’ll get lost in uncertainty and give up. What do you most want to tell them? Tell them that. What do you most want them to do? Ask for that; people need, and deserve, to know what’s most important.

Don’t talk about past accomplishments.  

The best story to tell is one about a current, pressing problem seeking a solution. Not a problem you’ve already solved. Your fundraising appeals aren’t about bragging about what you’ve already done. Save that for your thank you letter, newsletter, annual report, social media, blog and website. Otherwise the donor won’t feel needed. Focus your appeal message on what the donor can accomplish in the future.

3. Know the Tone/Emotion You Want to Convey

Speak to hearts, not heads. 

We’re wired to enter into stories. Conversely, we tend to put up our dukes to fight when confronted with facts. Don’t make readers stop to think by using a bunch of numbers and data. Instead, tell a heart-breaking emotional story about a specific problem with which your reader can help. The more the reader can identify with the protagonist of the story, the better. Just as the reader is becoming concerned and despairing, restore their hope. How? Show them the specific, heartfelt change they can make by giving. 

Use images to convey emotion. 

A photo plus a compelling caption may be all you really need to win your reader over. One reason is the emotional, intuitive right brain is less interested in details than the total picture. Before beginning to write, consider what images you have to depict the situation you want to describe and the attitude you want to express. If it’s sadness, for example, make sure you have a sad photo you can use. If not, you’ll either need to get one or use a different story. It’s true a picture can be worth 1,000 words.

Don’t be passive. 

Use the active voice and active verbs. Why? You want your reader to act! The active voice connects folks to the action. The passive voice disassociates them from what’s at the heart of your message. You’re trying to win hearts, not a writing contest. 

4. Know What You Want the Recipient to Think/Feel/Do 

Your letter isn’t conversational if all you talk about is yourself. 

Make the appeal about how wonderful your donor is. Think about what she cares about. Help her to visualize what she can accomplish by telling one story about a specific person, animal, place, thing or ideal in which she is apt to be interested. Don‘t simply brag about your accomplishments.

Make the solution seem reachable. 

You don’t want the reader to feel hopeless in the face of lots of data and numbers that seem overwhelming. This makes the donor feel their gift would be a mere drop in bucket. Stay focused on the point of your appeal: the one thing your donor can do, now, to help in a manner that enacts their values. It’s not about keeping your organization in business. That’s your perspective. It’s about realistically addressing a problem in an attainable way.

Keep your donor’s perspective at the forefront of your writing. 

People are busy. They don’t have lots of time, so many will skim your appeal. That being the case, your words should be powerful. Every single one of them. And your sentences should be short and forceful. Don’t add in adjectives and adverbs unless they absolutely add punch. Most don’t. Don’t use jargon, foreign words, acronyms or abbreviations. Anything that may stop the reader in their tracks is to be avoided. Make your prose flow so donors with competing demands for their attention can quickly grasp what they need to know.

5. Know Specifically What You’ll Ask For

Generic fundraising appeals are simply not as effective as specific ones. Don’t make the donor guess how much you want/need/expect them to give. You may believe phrases like “any amount will help” are humble and, therefore, appropriate. It’s really not appropriate to leave donors in the dark. No one wants to feel they may be underperforming (and hence you won’t love them) or over performing (and hence being a chump). Don’t be vague about either the amount or purpose of the donor’s gift – unless you want to leave money on the table.

And while we’re on the subject of making a specific ask, a good fundraising letter asks more than once. Remember, people skim. They may miss a single ask. Shoot for asking at least twice, and maybe a third time in the P.S. If it’s a 4-page letter, shoot for asking four or more times. Early in the appeal your ask may be ‘short and sweet’ (e.g., Will you lend your support?). Midway through your appeal your ask may be more direct (e.g. Please consider renewing your support this year with an increased gift). Get specific about dollar amounts towards the end (e.g., “Will you consider a gift of $500 to feed a family in your community for a month?”). When you ask only once, you’ve almost not asked at all.

Create a sense of urgency with your ask. You’ve hopefully worked your donor into a state of high emotion. Strike while the iron is hot! Add a deadline such as a matching grant, budget deadline, punishing weather approaching, or time within which your doors may need to close. This works especially well in a postscript (e.g. “Your $500 gift made before December 31st will be doubled – making it possible to feed TWO families for a month!”). Donors need a reason to act now.

Bonus Tip: Make it Readable

Once you’ve answered all the questions posed by the five essentials outlined above you’re ready to sit down and write.

Once you’ve written your draft, there are two essentials left to do:

  1. Make sure the letter reads like you talk. Read it out loud, and if it feels stilted, change it.  Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules.
  2. Make it easy on the eyes. Use a serif typeface, bump up the font size to 14 (Boomers are aging), use short paragraphs with no more than five lines and break them up with one liners, and make judicious use of subheads, boldface, italics, underline, subheads and bullets to emphasize key points. 
  3. Make it comprehensible for a 4th – 8th grader. You’re not writing a term paper or grant proposal. Fundraising letters should be readily accessible if you want the emotion to shine through. The Ahern Audit on Bloomerang is a great tool.

Now… go have a good, passionate, emotional conversation on paper with your donor!

annual fundraising appeal

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad