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[ASK AN EXPERT] What Are The Most Important Elements For A Year-End Appeal?

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants advice how to create an effective year-end fundraising appeal:

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’m planning ahead to prepare this year’s annual fundraising appeal, and could use a little help getting started. Can you tell me what elements are most important to include, especially so the appeal seems more personal and less like a sales pitch? I sometimes feel like I’m a little kid writing to my parents, and asking them to “please send money.” They love me, but I’m not sure our donors feel quite the same way.

— How to Be Loveable

Dear How to Be Loveable,

Actually, you’d be surprised how many of your donors do love your organization! They want to give. That being said, you’re correct: they need a better reason than just the fact that you exist.

Key Appeal Elements

Luckily, it’s not at all difficult to provide the information donors need. In a nutshell, you need three things:

  1. The problem you’re addressing – make it seem real and relevant to the prospective donor.
  2. The solution you’re proposing to address the problem – with your donor’s help.
  3. Specifically, how they can help – the purpose and amount of the gift you’re requesting.

Stick with this three-part formula and your appeal will almost write itself. Almost.


You’ve rightly suggested you want this appeal to be personal. The simplest trick I know is use of the word “you.” This makes it about the donor. It becomes personal. Much better than “we do this” and “our organization does that.” Any place you’re tempted to say “our” or “name of organization” or “we” (unless it’s “we, together”), don’t. Make your appeal be all about what your donor has accomplished, and will accomplish, with their generosity and caring.

And don’t forget to address them by their first name, being sure you spell it correctly! It’s a good idea to run a report from your database that prints out all your personalization fields so you can eyeball it for errors. For example, if William goes by Bill, that’s the name you want. Stay away from impersonal “Dear Friend” salutations. Also, we live in a mostly informal world. Only use a formal salutation in the following circumstances: (1) Donor asked you to; (2) Donor is a member of the clergy; (3) Donor is an elected representative or judge; (4) Donor is a member of the military.


The other important thing, of course, is to write to donors about what they most care about. If you are able to segment your donor database by area of interest (e.g., Mary always gives to children’s services vs. Sam gives to senior services; Joe gives to scholarships vs. Edna gives to teacher salaries; Cierra loves cats vs. Marshall loves dogs), this can help your appeal seem relevant to the recipient. In other words, plan ahead to send several variations of your appeal targeted to donors who identify in different ways.

Even if you have very little information about donor preferences, you can still segment your appeal by folks’ affiliation with you. If someone has given to you in the past, it’s important to acknowledge this and thank them. If they’re on your board, a direct service volunteer, a parent, subscriber, patient, alum, or you-name-it, if you can acknowledge that connection in your appeal you should.

Also segment by donation amount. Someone who’s given you less than $100 should receive a slightly different appeal than someone who gives you $500 or more. In the case of smaller donors, you may ask them to repeat their giving by suggesting a string of amounts that will be reflected in your remit piece or donation landing page. For larger donors, you may ask for a specific amount that matches (for first-time donors) or is greater than (for repeat donors) what they gave previously. And you’ll want to use a higher-end response device.


You want people to send money now. Plenty of studies show most giving is done at the end of the calendar year, and you don’t want to miss out! However, saying “give to our campaign before December 31st” is pretty meaningless (except to you), so come up with some other reasons to prompt people to act. Depending on your cause, you could mention how difficult it is to be alone during the holidays, or to be on the street during the cold weather, or to survive in the face of climate change, natural disaster, social upheaval, financial downturn, job loss, chronic illness, death of a loved one, and so forth. And my favorite way to add urgency is to consider a matching challenge grant. Donors love to leverage their money and, in my experience, knowing their gift will be doubled has powerful persuasive impact.


Finally, be genuine and sincere and get to the point. Too many letters meander. Look at your first draft and you’ll find you can likely cut the first two to three paragraphs. Begin with a strong opening line that suggests both the problem and solution; then cut to the chase with a tangible, realistic goal that can be reached by an amount the donor can reasonably consider. Right this minute.

Tonight, Jimmy will go to bed with an empty tummy.

Will you consider a gift to give him and his family a hot, nutritious meal?

If you’d like more tips on critical elements to consider, I cover them all in my Anatomy of a Fundraising Appeal Letter

Now, go be loveable!

— Charity Clairity

What phrases have worked well in your successful year-end appeals? We’d love to hear from you!

Have a question for our Fundraising Coach?
Please submit your question here. Remember, there are no stupid questions! If you need an answer, it’s likely someone else does too. So help your colleagues by asking away. Please use a pseudonym, like “How to Be Loveable” did, if you prefer to be anonymous.

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