Have you ever gotten a letter from a nonprofit organization asking you for a donation?
Yep - me too. That’s because fundraising appeal letters are a staple of any fundraising campaign, from nonprofits with budgets of $25 million to volunteer-run grassroots organizations.
It’s easy to see why: a fundraising letter is a simple and effective way to raise money for your organization. With a great writer and a mailing list of donors, you can raise thousands of dollars. In fact, more than 7% of all charitable donations are made as a result of appeal letters!
A great appeal letter is a must-have fundraising tool, but it’s not a magic bullet.
Before you jump into writing a letter, keep in mind that to raise money you need a great letter — one that follows fundraising best practices and wows donors. Simply writing a letter and blasting it to your mailing list isn’t enough.
Write a great fundraising letter
Writing a great fundraising letter is about two key points: your work and your donor.
Start with a story
Appeal letters are about why your organization needs money, right?
No! An appeal letter is a story about the work you do and how your donors are making that work possible.
A great appeal letter does two things: it tells donors a compelling and emotional story about the work you are doing, and gives them the opportunity to be the “hero” and continue that work by making a gift. A mediocre appeal letter talks about the organization. A great appeal letter talks about the donor.
The right story is key. Your appeal letter should focus on the work that your organization has done. Like how this women empowerment organization jumps right into the story of one of the children they helped or how an animal rescue highlighted one dog to get great results.
Find a story about one great thing that happened at your organization and learn their story. Lay out the problem they faced, and how your organization provided a solution. Here’s an example I wrote for a community development organization in California:
Recently, we were fortunate enough to help Robert and his two young girls, recent immigrants from Sudan. Robert had been laid off and was living in his car with his daughters. The City of Glendale helped Robert find an apartment, but after paying rent he had nothing left to purchase furniture. When he and his girls moved into the apartment, they had to sleep on the floor. They didn’t have pots or pans, so they couldn’t cook. They couldn’t even take a shower, because they didn’t have towels.
With your support, we fully furnished Robert’s apartment. We donated three beds, full bedding, and pillows. We filled their bathroom with towels and toiletries, and stocked the kitchen with necessary cookware. In just one day we were able to give Robert and his girls the quality of life they deserved. I wish you could have seen the look on his daughters’ face when they realized they each had their own bed for the first time in months.
In about 150 words, we learn a compelling story about Robert and the problems he was facing, and also see how the organization helped him overcome significant obstacles.
Make your donor the hero
Put your donors at the heart of your fundraising and make them advocates and partners in your work, Make your donor the hero of your fundraising story. This is what gets them to give... not how great your organization is, but how much they can have an impact. Who doesn't want to be a hero?
This great appeal letter from the Humber River Hospital Foundation puts their donors right at the center of their success with the key line “You are the heart of the Humber River Hospital.” What a compelling way to acknowledge the donors investing in a hospital!
Ask for support
You’ve shared with your donors the work that your organization is doing, and how as donors they are the key to your success. Now it's time for the ask!
Make sure to clearly lay out in your letter that you need donors to make a donation. If they've given in the past, reference their past give and ask them to increase it (I like to ask for a 10% to 25% increase). If they've never given before, explicitly ask for a first-time gift. You want to make it as easy as possible for your reader to become a donor.
What's the magic number of how many times you should ask for money? There isn't one - but most fundraisers agree it should be more than once! Try including four to five clear solicitations in your next fundraising letter.
Don’t forget the P.S.
Imagine how your donors will be reading your letter: I sort my mail right when I get home from the work, standing over the kitchen table, so I quickly skim letters I receive to decide if they are destined for the recycling. How do you get my attention?
A letter that’s easy to skim, with the important parts highlighted in some way. Thus the power of the P.S! Use your postscript to reiterate key facts, make another ask, or share exciting news like a matching gift or upcoming event. Don’t forget to use the P.S.!
The details of your letter matter
You’ve now written a great letter that combines a compelling story, donor-centered language, and strong call to action. It’s time to make sure your donors actually read it. The design of your letter, who it goes to, and what it looks like is just as important as the letter itself.
Make it easy to read
Picture me, tired after a day at work, skimming your letter. It needs to be easy to read so I don’t just toss it in the recycling!
- Font: a good rule of thumb is to use a 13pt or 14 pt font to make your letter easy to read. Many designers also recommend a serif font such as Times New Roman or Cambria. Whatever you choose, it should be simple and easy to read.
- Bullet points, pull quotes, and more: use bullet points and quotes liberally. That’s where your reader’s eyes will go, so highlight the most important phrases in your letter.
Keep it simple: your letter should read at a sixth grade reading level - yes, sixth grade! Want to know if you hit the mark? Check its readability score in Word.
Write longer, not shorter, letters
It’s counter-intuitive: in nearly all tests, longer appeal letters outperform shorter ones. Tom Ahern, fundraiser extraordinaire says the perfect letter is four pages long. That gives you four pages to tell your story in detail!
However, keep in mind that a well written letter will always outperform a mediocre letter. So, don’t worry if your letter is one page as long as you think it’s great. Focus on quality and the rest will follow.
(Wondering why you should write a four page letter? Check out this great article on Guidstar about why longer letters tend to out-perform shorter ones.)
Be detail oriented
It might seem nitpicky to focus on font size and whether or not to include a P.S., but those details are what helps engage your donors!
Make sure your donor’s names are right! The quickest way to ruin all your hard work is by misspelling someone’s names. Check your mailing list and correct any errors.
Ensure any images you include (including your logo) are high quality and not pixelated. Nothing looks as unprofessional than a skewed, low-resolution image.
Make sure fonts, margins, and images are all consistent. These details make the letter look polished and professional.
Send your letter to the right people
One of the most powerful tools you have when it comes to direct-mail fundraising isn't your letter: it's who you send it to. Your mailing list is the key to your success. Ideally, you're sending your letter to donors who have made gifts in the past (renewal donors) who are the most likely to respond to your mailing. Fans of your organization who are familiar with your work (warm donors) are also good candidates. Cold prospects, such as the kind you might encounter if you purchase a mailing list, are unlikely to make a gift.
Rate of response to appeal letters or emails
What if you don't have a mailing list? Some people buy targeted mailing lists. I’ve never loved the idea (in large part because I hate getting unsolicited appeal letters and knowing my information has been sold.) Instead, consider ways to build your mailing list, [link to blog post] and start with what you have. Do you have Facebook fans you can collect information from? Family and friends who will spread the word? Volunteers? Get creative and start building your list from scratch. Ultimately you’ll get a higher return than simply buying a list.
Make it easy to give
Lastly, make it as easy as possible for a donor to make a gift. Make sure to include a well-designed and easy to read donation envelope that donors can return via mail, and include your website address in your email so donors can give online.
Nailing your next fundraising letter
You've got the roadmap to writing a killer fundraising letter - now it's time to put your inspiration into action. Think of one great story you can share with donors, start putting together a mailing list of people who might want to support your organization, and you're ready to create an appeal letter that will get results.
Want to know more?
If you want more help, contact me and we'll come up with a custom consultation package to help you create, send, and track the results of your next appeal letter!