Fundraising Silent Auctions: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, the Easy
|We Have Blast Off!|
What makes a fundraising appeal, well, appealing? Success is not that hard to achieve, provided you systematically consider all the key elements.
It’s not rocket science. Yet there is some science, and art, involved. Here’s what you have to do:
- Get it opened. You have about two seconds to get noticed. If you don’t get opened, it doesn’t matter what’s inside. I receive my mail in my garage. I stand over my recycling bin, trying to discern which pieces will go there immediately, and which will get carried upstairs into the house. What will get your reader to bring your letter inside? Think about which envelopes you open and which ones you toss. Study this for a week and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to do and not to do. Ask a number of folks on your staff to do this; then discuss. For starters:
|Looks inviting. I’ll open it!|
- Use a live stamp if you can. It looks less like junk mail.
- Choose an appealing envelope. Window envelopes are impersonal. Consider a colored envelope to catch folks’ attention. Or a plain envelope without your name/logo. If folks can’t tell what it is, then they can’t toss it. It might be a letter from a friend. [Of course, use common sense. If your donors adore you (perhaps you’re a school or hospital or arts organization they frequent), then they’ll open an envelope they know is from you].
- Consider a teaser that’s impossible to resist (3 cancer-preventing foods inside… special gift inside…double your money… ).
- Consider handwriting the address. If not feasible for everyone, do it for your best prospects. You can also hand write the name of the person from who the letter is being sent over the return address. And you must get the recipient’s name right (and do not include any deceased spouses); be like Santa and double check your mailing list print-out for accuracy before you do anything else.
- Entice people to read the important parts of the letter. Good direct mail is designed to be skimmed. Eye motion studies show most folks read in a particular pattern from upper right to the salutation… to the signature (which is why who signs the letter is important)… to the P.S…. then back up to any illustrations… then to the subheads… then to the bullets and underlines… then, if you’re lucky, to the entire letter. Every headline, subject line, sentence and paragraph has hot spots where the eye goes first. You want to put your most potent words in these hot spots (e.g., at the beginning or end of a sentence or paragraph), not buried somewhere in the middle.
|This is too hard to read. Forget it!|
- Use simple, legible fonts. Serif fonts are best for text (e.g., Courier or Times Roman); sans serif are best for headlines and sub-heads. It used to be 12 point minimum. Baby boomers are aging, and many are your major donors. This means you’ve got to increase your font to 14 point. Resist the temptation to eschew editing in favor of squishing your font down to 11 point so you can fit everything in. Less is definitely more here.
- Use black or dark blue on white paper. You want the letter to be easy on the eyes.
- Use “You” instead of “I”. The letter should be about the donor and what they will accomplish through their investment. It’s not about how wonderful you and your organization are. The donor must feel he/she is vitally important. (By the way, “We” is even worse than “I”; no one writes a letter as a group). If you make it sound like you’re just fabulous without them, they’ll go someplace else where they’re really needed. As veteran communicator Tom Ahern says: “And remember: “you” is glue. Every time you use it (especially in headlines) the reader pays slightly more attention…involuntarily. Readers can’t help it! They’re hard-wired to respond to “you”! It’s the best cheap trick I know.”
- Use conversational English. This means short sentences (no more than 10 words) and paragraphs (no more than four to seven lines), contractions, conjunctions at the beginning of sentences, prepositions at the end of sentences, action verbs, not too many adjectives and adverbs and fragments. Read your letter aloud. If it sounds stilted, rewrite. There’s something called the Flesh-Kincaid score (there’s a built-in tool in Microsoft Word)and it will tell you if your writing is above a 7th-grade level. You don’t want it to be. Sorry.
- Not use “organization–speak”, jargon or labels. Your donor doesn’t care about your ‘fiscal year,’ your ‘clients’ or your AFP affiliation. They care about their own tax year (or the school year or performing season year) and helping people; they’ve no idea what AFP is. Always think from the perspective of the reader.
- Include sub-heads, bullets, bold face, italics, underlining and indented paragraphs to break up copy and call attention to key points (just take care not to overdo this; too much, and nothing will stand out). Every paragraph must stand on its own in case it’s the only paragraph that’s read. So it’s okay (it’s actually essential) to be redundant! Whatever you want folks to do, tell them again and again. Because most people don’t start at the beginning and read straight through to the end.
|Please save me|
- Take advantage of a compelling photo or photos.
- Take advantage of the P.S. 90% read the P.S. first according to oft-quoted research from Professor Siegfried Vogel’s eye-tracking studies. It’s a good place to summarize a key point in the letter. It could be the reason why you’re asking for a gift now. It could be the specific amount/project for which you’re asking. It should be specific and compelling and speak to why a donor would want to invest with you.
- Be personal. This begins with calling people by their correct name. Don’t use Charles if the donor goes by Chuck. Don’t automate such much that you end up with something nutty like “Dear Mrs. Charles (Chuck) Lucy Brown.” If the donor gave previously, thank them. Let them know you know they’re already a supporter. Tell them what you did with their last gift. If they volunteer… if they have a student in the school… if they’re a former patient… if they attended an event… acknowledge as many of their past associations with you as you can. If you can hand address the envelope, or add a personal note to the letter, do so. And, in the 21st century, err on the side of the informal.
- Be relevant and meaningful. Talk to the reader like you would talk to a friend, or even a compatible stranger. If you were stuck at an airport due to a storm, you might strike up a meaningful conversation with folks you’d never met before about your common predicament. Assume a common predicament; one that your reader understands. Your tone should convey a sense of being in this together and sharing similar values.
- Be clear what problem you’re addressing. Don’t assume the prospect knows what you do. Even if they’ve been giving for a number of years, they may just have a vague notion of your mission. Be clear and compelling about the depth and breadth of what you do and the scope of the project at hand. You may just get them to stop and think. Your goal should be to turn a habitual pro forma gift into a thoughtful passionate gift.
- Be clear what solution you’re offering, and why you’re uniquely suited to do so. Lots of people help the poor and instill hope. Lots of folks make a difference. Lots of organizations create a caring community. What does your organization do differently, and especially well? If you fight cancer, how do you do it that differs from how another organization does it? If you feed the hungry, how might I decide to invest with you rather than another organization that provides food and meals? If you provide after-school programs for youth, why are your programs more worthy of investment than another organization’s programs? Think of it as a job interview. I can only hire one candidate. Persuade me to choose you.
- Be emotional. Your readers don’t care about information; they care about drama. Help them to feel something that will motivate them to act. Tell a compelling story.
- Instill trust. You can do this by including testimonials from clients or supporters. Or sometimes simply listing the board on your letterhead can accomplish this. And if you have any accreditations or awards (such as a Guidestar 4-star rating) it’s great to subtly include this on the letterhead. Finally, letting readers know how many people you helped last year is a good idea. Just don’t overdo it on the numbers and statistics; they should simply supplement the story or stories you tell about individual people. You want to demonstrate to the reader that you’ll be a good investment.
- Include a clear, compelling call to action. What exactly do you want your donor to do? How much does it cost to do this? Ask! That’s the purpose of your letter, so don’t be shy about it. Just remember: you aren’t asking for money because you want money. You’re asking for a specific amount to implement a specific solution. Help the reader understand the scope of the dollars required to implement the solution. If they give $100, what will that accomplish? What happens if they give $1,000? Relatively few donors today give because it’s the right thing to do. Most donors give to achieve results.
- Create a sense of urgency. Did another funder pull out? Has the need increased significantly for some reason? Do you have a challenge grant? Why must the donor give NOW?
- Add a hand-written note. I’ve found this to boost returns from as little as 2% to 20% with current donors. Ask board members, volunteers and staff to review your lists and agree to take on assignments.
P.S. You didn’t think I’d miss this opportunity to remind you of the most important reasons you’re trying to keep your fundraising appeal out of the trash, did you? You want a gift! So, seriously call for the action. Don’t beat around the bush. And don’t be namby-pamby with stuff like “every little bit helps.” You’ve got people relying on you – which means you’ve got goals that must be met!
This was updated from an article that first appeared on Clairification August 19, 2012.