Annual Fundraising Appeal Self-Test

I’ve offered you checklists, FAQs and e-guides with templates for writing donor-centric annual appeals. I stick by them as a place to begin. They offer an outline of all the elements an effective appeal should include.

In this blog post, I’m going to talk about how to evaluate those annual appeals before you publish them so you know you’re sending out the best possible ask. 

The fundamentals of a fundraising appeal

When you sit down to write an appeal, there are fundamentals you must consider and include. These fundamentals include:

  • Who you’re writing to. This is the specific donor you’re appealing to. 
  • Why you’re writing to them. There should be a reason beyond the fact that it’s the usual time when you send out annual appeals. 
  • How you want them to feel. You want to inspire them to take action and feel a certain way after they make their donation. 
  • What you want them to do. A good appeal includes a specific ask. 
  • When you want them to do it. In order to inspire the donor to take action, you need to create a sense of urgency around the ask.  

These fundamentals may seem obvious, but the lion’s share of appeals I receive don’t have them covered. After you sort out the fundamentals and draft your appeal, I suggest letting at least a day elapse before you revisit it so you can look at your appeal with fresh eyes.

Once you’re ready to look at your appeal again, you should evaluate it by asking the five questions below. Doing so will help you create the kind of annual appeal that your donor can’t refuse.

1. Have you written to one specific donor? 

You’re not writing to yourself, your program staff, or your board of directors. You’re writing to one donor. With that in mind, the focus should be on them, not on you or your organization. 

Take a good hard look at your letter. How often do you use “I,” “my,” “our,” “we,” or the name of your organization vs. “you” and “your”? 

Here’s a “you test” you can use from Bloomerang that also incorporates the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level reading test.

Here’s an example:

As you can see, the ratio of ego-centric to donor-centric pronouns is an astonishing 18:3. The donor doesn’t even appear in the letter until the last paragraph! 

If your appeal looks like this one, go back and rewrite it so that the donor is at the center.

2. Is your appeal easy to understand?

People are strapped for time. Their attention spans are short. If you make them work too hard to grasp your narrative, they’ll simply give up. So ask yourself: Have you made the appeal easy to understand? Does your donor know why you’re writing to them? 

This is why there are all sorts of readability tips you want to keep in mind, beginning with the Flesch-Kincaid Grade level test. Don’t worry about “talking down” to your donors; your job is to merely make your appeal easy to consume.

In order to make your appeal easy to understand, write colloquially (i.e., how you would talk). Once you’ve done that, read your letter out loud and take out anything that trips you or a listener up. Although you might chafe at the idea, it’s OK to do things like including contractions and beginning sentences with conjunctions. That’s what we do when we talk! 

Another thing that makes an appeal easy to read is the formatting. Break the appeal into short paragraphs, bold and italicize where you want extra emphasis, and maybe consider adding bullet points if you need to list items in a series or a set of information. 

Don’t overdo this, however. Remember, the key isn’t to overwhelm them! You want readers to easily find your most important points. For more on that, look into eye movement studies. Seeing where people’s eyes tend to move across a page is important; adjust your appeal accordingly.

Look at the example above. Here’s where it falls short: 

  • The paragraphs aren’t indented so the text is hard to read.
  • There are only two headlines which, if read alone, give the following message: Bar pass rate continues to climb. Our Incoming 1L class.”  This isn’t compelling as a fundraising appeal.
  • There’s nothing else to break up the text or draw attention to important points.
  • There are no images to tell a story explaining why they’re sending this appeal.

Bring it back to the action you want your donor to take: The most important thing you need to emphasize is your ask and how your donor can take action. 

If you’re sending a piece of direct mail, the response device should stand alone in making a strong case for support. It should also include a phone number and website URL, should the reader want to make a gift other than by check. 

If you’re sending an email appeal, include a link to your donation landing page. The form should be brief and easy to complete. 

3. Does the letter appeal to the reader’s emotions? 

How does your appeal make your donor feel? In order to motivate your donors to give to your organization, you’ll want your appeal to convince the reader that they’re participating in something bigger than themselves; you want to show how much impact they can have. That means including something that stirs their emotions. 

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann proved fear of loss weighs heavier than hope of gain so consider showing your prospective donor what they stand to lose if they choose not to give.

Let’s see how the example fares on this test:

  • There’s no clue what will be lost if the reader doesn’t give. It appears the incoming class looks swell and that bar pass rates are good. There’s nothing wrong with this picture; therefore, there’s no reason to donate. 
  • There’s no specific ask. There’s no mention of an amount that needs to be raised, let alone how the money will be used. 

As you can see, the letter inspires little to no emotional response, which means it fundamentally fails as an appeal. 

4. Does your appeal clearly show what action the donor should take?

Remember, a good appeal includes a specific ask. As you can see in the letter above, they didn’t include a specific amount they wanted to raise or a suggested donation amount. They also left out what the money would be used for.  

When writing your appeal, include those details. You want to make it as easy as possible for donors to give, which means giving them options and reasons to donate so they don’t have to do the work to figure out what to do next.  

5. Does your appeal create a sense of urgency?

Your donor needs a reason to give now and to give to your nonprofit rather than a different one. Put your appeal into a current context. What’s happening in the world that’s top of mind for your donors

Sprinkle the sense of urgency throughout your letter. Don’t wait until your final call to action to say “Please give today.” The reason for donating now should be included at the beginning of your appeal and then mentioned throughout the rest of it.

In addition, this is important because emotional giving is impulsive. When there’s an urgent need, people are less likely to deliberate over making a donation. They think fast, not slow, emotionally, not rationally. Help donors act on their impulse by offering a deadline or other rationale for giving immediately.

This could include:

  • The match ends at midnight.
  • People are vulnerable right now and their donation can offer immediate support.
  • Without your gift this week, a major timely opportunity will be lost.

The appeal above has no sense of urgency. The only timely element is a mention of students coming back to campus. There’s no mention of how this might relate to the timing of my gift.

If they had said “We need to put safety measures in place right away before students return!” that might have had some immediate resonance. Missing that, however, there’s no reason to donate now. 

Finally, include a note of gratitude.

Your appeal should make the reader feel great about themselves, whether they give or not after receiving your appeal. 

Let’s look at the example above:

  • The note of gratitude feels inauthentic. I’m thanked in the final paragraph for things I know I haven’t done.
  • The first time the appeal talks about changing the world is in the third paragraph, where it talks about the possibility the incoming students will do this. There’s no mention of anything good I may have done or can do.

If you don’t make your donors feel valued, they won’t feel connected to your mission or committed to supporting your nonprofit over another one. 

I’m a straight shooter and call things as I see them. I don’t share this letter to shame any nonprofits. I merely want to point out examples to help the broader social benefit sector. 

If you happen to work for the organization that wrote this letter and would like a personal coaching session, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Maybe you’ll tell me it raised a ton of money, which I would be happy (albeit curious) to hear more about. Fundraising, like anything else worth doing, is a process of continuous learning. Ask these questions and see what you learn from future appeals. 

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.