Working on your year-end appeal? Flying by the seat of your pants? Struggling with your copy? Think your copy is okay, but not super inspiring? Worried that folks may not even open your envelope? Crafting fundraising appeals is not rocket science, but you do have to adhere to certain guidelines if you want to achieve blast-off. So… here come some guidelines!
I’m putting these in order, with the most important at the top. Since I’ve only selected 6 tips, however, you can consider all of these critically important to your success.
1. Mailing list, mailing list, mailing list.
You can have the best copy in the world, but without the right group of people to send it to you won’t raise much money. I cannot overemphasize this. I’ve seen too many fundraising campaigns fail for want of the proper list. When it comes to assuring fundraising success, apply the Pareto Rule. Spend 80% of your time building your list; 20% writing copy and designing your package. This holds true for both your email and your snail mail lists.
How do you build a good list? That’s the subject for a different article. But begin with (1) current donors; (2) past donors; (3) event attendees; (4) folks connected to you in other ways (e.g., volunteers, parents of students, families of patients, purchasers of programs, friends of board members and volunteers; subscribers to your newsletter etc.).
2. Get it opened.
Your letter is no good if the envelope gets tossed right away. 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? Consider the following:
- Plain envelope. I’m a huge fan of the plain white envelope with nothing. No logo. Not even your name. Just a return address (and a place where a volunteer who is adding personal notes can hand write their own name). It’s hard for folks to simply toss a mysterious plain envelope. Note: the post office won’t allow this unless you’re using a first-class stamp, so it’s for renewal and warm prospecting letters more than for direct mail acquisition.
- Colored envelope. This is something to test. I’ve had great success with brightly colored envelopes that don’t even match the design of the enclosed appeal. They simply stand out in the mail box and do their job of getting opened.
- Oversized envelope. This is another trick to get folks to take notice. An oversized envelope stands out in the mail. Of course, it requires extra postage and this can backfire, making folks think you’re using money for the wrong purposes. It works best for event invitations rather than annual appeals.
- Envelope teaser. Direct mail fundraising guru Mal Warwick describes a range of needs that can be accomplished with a teaser, ranging from describing what’s inside to asking a question to starting a story. He also says “Often the best teaser is no teaser at all. Fundraising letters are almost always crafted to mimic personal letters, so teasers may well cheapen or undermine the effect the writer wants to achieve.” Use some judgment. And ask folks outside your office if the teaser would turn them on or off. And begin your own collection at home, noting which teasers get you to open the envelopes and which you’d be inclined to toss.
3. Begin with the P.S.
I don’t seem to be able to say this enough! I’m astounded by how many nonprofits ignore this valuable piece of real estate. Folks, please listen up: it’s the ‘Board Walk’ and ‘Park Place’ of your letter! 90% read the P.S. first. One tip is to write your letter; then take a good look at it and pull out your most important message and move it to the P.S. to assure it’s seen.
4. Make it readable.
There are a host of tips subsumed within this one, but the main point is this: don’t hurt your readers’ eyes or get their brains twisted in a knot! They don’t have time to bother with that, so they won’t have time to bother with you. All your brilliant copywriting will go to waste.
- Use a serif font. It’s more readable.
- Bump up the size of your font. It used to be 12 point minimum. Due to the aging of baby boomers, today it’s 14. 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.
- Indent paragraphs. Not only is this a more friendly style (something I learned in middle school typing class), it also invites the readers into your copy and gives their eyes another little rest. Our brains use indents in “pattern recognition.” Pattern recognition is important to keep reading speedy. And, remember, your reader has no time.
- Keep paragraphs short. Aim for no more than five lines. Break them up with one-liners.
- Use subheads, boldface, italics and underline to emphasize key points. Don’t overdo it, of course. I like to consider my letters several letters within one letter. If the reader reads only the subheads, they’ll get the gist. If they read only the boldface, they’ll get the gist. And so forth. You don’t really know which part of the letter your donor will actually read, so repetition is essential.
5. Make it reader-centric.
Never forget your job: to invite the reader to join you in something amazing… essential… critical… inspiring. Don’t make it about you. Make it about their experience. Use “you” rather than “I” or “we.” Cross out all the ego-centric stuff and rewrite. As veteran communicator Tom Ahern says: “you” is glue. Every time you use it (especially in headlines) the reader pays slightly more attention…involuntarily. It’s the best cheap trick I know.”
6. Write like you — and your readers — talk.
Do two things:
- Read it out loud. Every place you’re tempted to put in a contraction, do so. If you want to begin a sentence with “and” or “but” go right ahead. If you want to have a one-word sentence, that’s just fine. If your spell check tells you you’ve got a sentence fragment you should ‘consider revising” ignore it.
- Go back to middle school. There’s something called the Flesh-Kincaid score ( a built-in tool in Microsoft Word will tell you if your writing is above a 7th-grade level. You don’t want it to be. Jeff Brooks, in The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications, suggests you’re better off in the 4th – 6th grade range. Short sentences. Short words. Help Jane run.
Now… a few more bonus tips and peeks:
- Consider a Johnson Box. See what nonprofit communications expert Lisa Sargent has to say about how they entice folks to read the whole thing. You’ve seen them. The story snippet above your salutation… she couldn’t sleep at night because she was so cold and scared… Whoa! Don’t you want to read a bit more to find out how you can help her?
- Keep it simple and to the point. Don’t include fancy inserts or newsletters. They actually depress response. Say what you have to say; then call for the action. Don’t beat around the bush.
- Ask more than once. Repetition is a good thing. Find both “soft” and “hard” ways to get to the point, and sprinkle them throughout your appeal. “Please join me…” “Can’t do it without you…” “Take this step…” “Make your gift right now.”
Photo: Flickr, Robert Gusick
Thanks for this very timely reminder and tips, Claire! We’re working on finalizing our renewals letters to existing donors today – and this was the perfect checklist to help us take a step back and look at the letter and collateral as a whole packet. Very practical and helpful – as always! Thank goodness for your blog!
I aim to please! So glad someone from One Justice is taking The Power of Appealing Year-End Appeals E-Course. Would appreciate your feedback. Honest!
THIS ARE GREAT TIPS I HAVE JUST JOINED THE COMMUNITY I HOPE TO LEARN MORE INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT FUNDRAISING THANK YOU SO MUCH
This are great tips, i have just joined the community, i hope to learn more interesting things about fundraising . Thank you so much.
Great article. Maybe if you are struggling to get the letter opened, a postcard might be another viable option. Love your suggestions though. Thanks.
That works well for an event save-the-date, but not as well for a fundraising appeal. What have other readers found? Will your donors go online to make a gift? Or do more still send in checks in a reply envelope?