fundraising appeal

I receive a lot of questions about annual fundraising appeal best practices. You’ll find a lot of tips in this free, downloadable “Annual Appeal Checklist.” But today let’s look at some of the thornier questions I receive.

Q. What if your mailing list isn’t really that great?

A. There’s no time like the present to begin working on it.

  • Ask those closest to you for names/addresses of their friends and colleagues.
  • Include a prominent “Join our list” box on your website to collect emails.
  • Scour lists of donors to similar causes from annual reports, program listings, etc. Ask your volunteers to bring these lists to you. There are a number of services that will look up addresses for you.
  • Build your “House List” of folks affiliated to you in other ways.
  • Create contact information forms for folks who’d like to learn more about your services. Leave these forms in your reception area; bring them to events, etc. Consider having people drop their business cards in a bowl to enter a raffle.
  • Trade your email list with other nonprofits with related missions, or purchase lists from a direct mail broker for an acquisition campaign.

Q. I work for a policy research institution, which can point to definite accomplishments but cannot quantify individual contributions with specific results (since we don’t provide direct services).

A. Your services needn’t be direct to be compelling.

People give to cancer research. They give to environmental policy organizations. They give to education think tanks. What you need to do is tell an “explaining story” that illustrates the problems you work to address and the solutions you’re working on. Use details to which people relate, rather than statistics. Tell a story of the impact of your work on people’s lives – today and tomorrow.

Q. Our “story” is a little dry. What we do is help organizations work better and close up the gaps in services. How do we make that into a compelling story?

A. There is no such thing as a dry story!

Don’t get lost in process. Donors don’t care how you achieve results. The fact that you help organizations that then help people more directly is immaterial. Donors care that people were helped. Tell the stories of the folks your partners were able to help. How their lives were improved. Those are your stories too. They wouldn’t happen without you and your donors.

Q. We have multiple programs. Rather than telling just one story, can I tell different stories that might appeal to different donors?

A. There are a number of ways to skin the “we have multiple programs” cat.

My preference is to focus on one story in the appeal; then send a follow-up appeal that focuses on a second story. Or perhaps an email appeal series that each tells a story (e.g., one of a child, one of an adult, and one of a senior OR one of a cat and one of a dog). In each case, you can allude to the other area of focus towards the end of the appeal [e.g., “Your $100 gift gives children like Ali in our group home, as well as people like Manny in our day program, a reason to get up in the morning.”] In your remit piece, you can offer donors the opportunity to earmark their gift “where most needed” or for the area of greatest interest to them. You can also indicate how $100 can be spent in a number of different ways.

Q. Any suggestions on dealing with a for-profit hospital and a nonprofit foundation, where donors wonder why we need the money?

A. You need to make your compelling case for support.

What will you do with the money you raise? What would happen if you didn’t raise it? Folks won’t give when they think you don’t really need to fundraise. If that’s the perception you need to combat, do it! Figure out where the gap is between earned income and current services, and break out some compelling programs or services that would cease to exist absent fundraising. Who would be left out in the cold? Be sure it’s something your donors will find meaningful and relevant.

Q. Do you have suggestions for reaching out to others for giving to an arts organization?

A. What about telling the story from the perspective of a painting, symphony, opera, theater or dance performance that isn’t achieving its life-long dream of inspiring people and helping them get in touch with their passions?

Poor piece of art! What can help it overcome its challenges to reach people and have a positive impact on their lives? Go back to your mission. What’s your raison d’etre? Who cares about it? Why do they care? Were you to cease to exist, how might they feel? Try to step into your potential donors’ shoes and speak to what’s important to them.

Q.  Do multi-page letters work best or should you keep them to one page?

  A. I’m a firm believer in making your appeal as long as it needs to be to tell your story and include all the elements you need to make your offer irresistible. [See Annual Appeal Checklist.”]

In my experience acquisition letters must be longer while appeals to existing donors can be shorter. Many professionally written direct mail acquisition letters are four pages or more (Jeff Brooks, fundraising writing guru, says he’s seen letters as long as 12 pages work well!). What’s good about longer letters is you can make the case for support multiple times. Because you never know which part of your letter someone will read, and you’d hate to have them skim over the ask! Also, donors are triggered by different factors. Some give to fulfill a moral obligation; others to get a great deal. The longer your letter, the more motivating triggers you can include [See Annual Fundraising: Influence “Yes” Using Psychology and Neuroscience]

Don’t be dissuaded by insiders who say they hate long letters. They’re not your prospective donors. Long letters work! When writing to a current donor, however, you can often get your appeal onto one to two pages (front and back is preferred so you don’t squish your text into a too-small font size).

Q. Is it acceptable to send a holiday appeal in the form of a Christmas card, with images and main ask on front in one sentence, with a simple small paragraph or two inside the card, with the response card inserted?

A. I would give a qualified “yes,” as long as you’re able to include most of the elements of a compelling appeal. [See Annual Appeal Checklist.”]

And that’s a bit tricky. For example, it’s challenging to wrap a challenge gift into a greeting card. And urgency and a compelling story are difficult to achieve as well. Remember, specific asks for specific purposes work better than generic appeals to “give to support our cause.” The best of all possible worlds would be to separate your appeal from your greeting, as it’s nice to offer pure “gifts” that don’t make an ask.

Q. Should you let donors choose restricted giving, or is it better to go for unrestricted gifts?

A. I’m a huge proponent of offering donors choices.

When donors feel in control, and can visualize how their gift is helping, they become more invested. Plus it’s much easier to report back to them on their impact in a manner they’ll find relevant. It helps you get to know what floats your donor’s boat, and that’s always a good thing.

Beyond that, research from Donor Voice indicates that using a remit device that offers giving options may actually lift response (see You Raise More Money When You Listen to Donors’ Preferences).

Q. How is an online giving appeal different?

A. All of the content and asking triggers apply [See “Annual Appeal Checklist.”]; the appeal just must be much briefer to be readable.

This means your compelling story must be succinct, and your image plays an even more important role. Below you’ll see a great example. It’s a Thanksgiving e-appeal for the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. It’s to-the-point, all “above the scroll,” and it uses urgency and leverage brilliantly. What’s missing is an ask for a specific amount; that would improve the appeal significantly. Also, the P.S. is not used to maximum effect. But at least they have one! See my comments, below.

fundraising appeal

For answers to more frequently asked questions, see Fundraising Appeal Q & A: 6 Concrete Tips to Overcome Common Challenges.

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.