How one nonprofit private school revamped their annual fund letter and raised $25,000 more than the previous year - in just two months.
Annual funds and appeal letters go together like peanut butter and jelly. And like peanut butter and jelly, they are a staple in the fundraising world. In fact, solicitation letters make up about 7% of all fundraising revenue in the United States, and that doesn't include giving via email.
Appeal letters aren’t a silver bullet, however, and a lot of time organizations spend the time and money to send out fundraising letters only to be disappointed in the low return.
Often a few tweaks to your letter can have a big impact. Here’s an example of how one school increased their annual fund by $25,000 by changing how they wrote their appeal letter.
The Challenge of the Underperforming Letter
The Redwood Tree School (not its real name) had an annual fund that wasn’t meeting its goals. Their primary fundraising tool was their appeal letter which was sent to all parents in their community. However, the annual fund was stagnant and in 2015 they brought in $25,000 less than planned.
Improving The Fundraising Letter
The first change to make was to refresh the appeal letter, making sure it followed fundraising best practices and inspired donors to give.
Step one: talk directly to the donors
The original letter started “Dear Friends and Families of the Redwood Tree School…”
Right away that was something that could be improved. In 2016, each letter started with the name of the recipient. “Dear Joe and Jane,”
Step two: connecting with the reader’s emotions
in 2015, the Redwood Tree School started its letter with a call to action about the annual fund:
‘Tis the season for-our annual fund campaign! We hope the enclosed information about how the annual fund and other gifts make a difference in the lives of the students will inspire you to participate by making a donation. As an independent, not-for-profit school where economic diversity is valued and supported, your generous gift will directly support the things the students experience here every day”
There’s nothing wrong with this statement, but it’s not exciting. It just talks about why the school needs money. We refreshed it to immediately get the attention of donors and remind them why they loved the school.
When I was searching for a Kindergarten for my daughter Sally , I visited several other schools. They were all good schools, with good programs. But, then I found the Redwood Tree School
I sat in the fourth grade during a visitor morning, in awe. The students were inquisitive, devouring their lesson with eagerness and enthusiasm. Their classroom was a warm beautiful place filled with artwork. I was so moved that I teared up. I knew we had found the school for Sally.
A parent crying when they discovered a school for their child is a much more compelling letter than a list of reasons to give, and it set a theme for the letter (and the campaign): this school is special, and that’s why you are here, so why not invest in it?
Step three: an inspiring (and clear) request for money
Perhaps the most important part of any fundraising letter is the solicitation. It’s the chance to inspire donors to get out their checkbook and make a gift.
The original letter talked about why the school needed funds, and hinted at how students would benefit. They did a good job spelling out why they should give, and did have an explicit ask, but it was only once and the language overall was indirect:
Your gift helps to ensure that the school remains strong and continues to thrive in service to the children….by contributing to the annual fund you are part of something nourishing and healthy for individual children and for the future of all. Please take a moment now to make a donation or pledge. Last year we exceeded our goal within 30 days! This year our goal is $215,000 by November 6. 100% participation will say loud and clear that we are in this together.
The new letter took the same reasons to give, but put them in the hands of the parents and illustrated how their giving was transforming the community. There were also three direct asks that even told donors how they could give.
...Your gift last year made a tremendous impact that can be seen daily….Your gift this year will enrich our community even more….
...Support the Redwood Tree School and help make these projects a reality.
...I hope you will join me and make a gift today. With your help, we can raise $200,000 (or more!) from 100% of our parents, faculty, PTO and Board of Directors by November 30th. Make your gift via check, tuition deduction, or online, and join me in supporting a community that offers so much.
Step four: finding the right authors
The original letter was signed by the chair of the Development Committee and the Head of School. However, not every parent in the school had a connection to these two people, and the same letter was sent to everyone in the community.
This was the biggest change in the Redwood Tree School’s plan: instead of one letter written by the Head of School, they wrote six letters by different community members. They interviewed parents and then wrote up the interview, transforming it into a two-page letter. The letters were broken up by:
Middle School parents
High School parents
Alumni students (written by an alumnae)
Alumni parents and grandparents (written by an alumni parent and grandparent)
Overall, six people were interviewed and six unique letters were sent. These targeted letters were more personal and more exciting for the parent receiving them!
Step five: making the letter easy to read
The original letter was about a page long and a few dense paragraphs. To make it easier to read, the new letter:
Was two pages long to give donors a chance to read an emotionally-charged story;
Included pictures and pull-quotes;
Used bolded key phrases, bullet points, and a larger font size to make it easy for donors to skim;
Included a P.S. that reiterated the ask for funding and the importance of giving.
These small design changes made the letter not only more beautiful, it meant that donors only had to skim a few key phrases to understand what the letter was about.
Key Changes to the Fundraising Plan
The result of this new letter was a $25,000 boost in revenue in just one year! It wasn’t just the improved letter that helped raise that extra $25,000 though - a few key changes to the fundraising plan made sure the letter was a success.
Segmenting the mailing list: one parent said “the experiences of a new Kindergarten parent with a six year old is a lot different than a high school parent with an 18 year old!” Segmenting the mailing lists made the letters seem more personal.
While six letter were written, they weren’t dramatically different and all followed the same format, so writing six custom letters isn’t as intimidating as it sounds!
Interviewing parents: having parent authors rather than a staff member or Board member was another major change and one that was designed to make the fundraising letters more emotionally charged and more exciting to readers.
Again, while interviewing six people and writing up letters might seem time consuming, many of the interviews were conducted via email and over the phone so the results were well worth the time!
Writing a longer letter: In 2015, the Redwood Tree School’s letter was about a page long. In 2016, they expanded their letter to be two pages long. That meant they could share the stories of the parents they interviewed, get specific about where the money was going, and make the letter a larger font that was easier to read.
Expanding the mailing list: In 2015, the letter was only send to currently enrolled families, leaving out a large section of the school community. In 2017 alumni families and grandparents received a letter was well, bringing in more than $5,000 from those folks alone!
Ready to write your own appeal letter? Fantastic! Shoot me an email and let me know how it turns out! Keep in mind what worked for the Redwood School:
- An emotionally-charged letter;
- A compelling author;
- A segmented mailing list; and
- A larger list of donor prospects.
Want more information on how to write a great fundraising letter? Check out my blog post: "write a fundraising letter that raises money."