Are you starting to worry about whether you’ll raise enough money this year to meet your goals? Are you concerned because last year’s appeal didn’t raise as much as you had hoped? Are you fresh out of ideas for what to put into an appeal to generate the giving response you need to sustain vital programs? Fear not! Help is on the way! Just use this 16-point checklist before you send anything to your printer.
Your Essential 16-Point Annual Appeal Checklist
- Have you outlined a compelling problem that connects with what your donor cares about?
Begin with a one sentence takeaway – the single most important thing you need to communicate. Something your donor can solve.
Homeless Mom with 2 small boys due to apartment fire. Need food. Please help.
This statement is very clear. It forces your prospective donor to decide: Help; not help.
You may think all the time of the problems your organization solves. Most people don’t. You’ve got to put it in front of them. Make them say “yes” or “no.” Spell it out. Speak in language folks can understand; that will resonate with what they care about. Help them visualize a concrete problem; not abstract ideals like health and hope. Use storytelling and images to really paint a picture for them. Lots of folks will say “no,” but at least you’ve got them thinking about the problem now. It’s on their radar for next time.
- Have you offered a simple, results-oriented solution?
Once you’ve persuaded folks there’s a problem, then you can start talking to them about the solution – and not one minute before. Don’t make the all too common mistake of asking folks to fund a teen pregnancy center without making the case as to why pregnant teens are a problem that needs a center as its solution. When you do offer a solution, make sure you connect the dots back to the problem. I understand how a meal ends hunger. I’m less clear how a new tractor does this.
- Have you described an attainable goal, including what it will cost?
Donors want to know exactly how much their gift is needed, and how much of an impact it will have. Don’t just say “We need money to help kids graduate from college.” Precisely what will the money be spent on – and how much money do you need?
- Have you packed in emotional triggers?
Your case must be capable of being felt on a visceral level, not an abstract one. Human beings are wired this way. Always keep in mind that heart trumps mind. This is why you hear so much talk these days about storytelling. Human beings are wired for stories, not data. One key statistic is fine; just don’t expect this to be your key motivating factor. You can prove your case all you want, but it won’t drive action. The best it will do is reinforce someone’s decision (made by emotion) to give. Talk about feeding people who are hungry; not about giving them hope. Better still, talk about feeding one hungry child and preventing her from starvation and death.
- Do you have an urgent deadline?
Why must your donor give now? The cold of winter is approaching? They don’t want to miss out on a tax deduction? A challenge grant means they can double their impact? Your program is about to shut down? Don’t let them put down your appeal without responding – you’ve just triggered their emotions; strike while the iron is hot!
- Are you speaking to the donor and using the magic word ‘you’?
Speak to your donors, not to your staff or board. 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 direct mail guru 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.” In fact, it is classed among the top 20 or so “power words” in advertising because of its magical ability to raise more money.
- Are you reminding donors of the rewards that come from giving?
Remind your donors of the many rewards that come from giving. Include some of these in your fundraising appeal:
- Tax benefits
- Feeling good about yourself
- Fulfilling a religious or moral obligation
- Giving back
- Doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you
- Assuring that help will be there should you ever need it
- Receiving something you value (e.g. a tote bag; preferred seating; membership in an elite society)
- Improving your community (making it more liveable, prestigious, beautiful, fun, etc.)
- Are you making a clear upfront ask?
Don’t bury the lead! Always remember the reason you are writing – and don’t waste a stamp by pussyfooting around the ask. Ask in the first few paragraphs; then ask again at the end.
- Are you coming from an attitude of gratitude?
People love to be flattered, and whatever you can do to put your reader in a positive mood is a good thing. Make your donor the hero. If they’ve given before, thank them. Assume they’re about to give, and thank them in advance. Neuroscientists have observed in the lab that making a gift to charity lights up a pleasure center in the human brain. A good fundraising offer “models” that act for the reader, repeatedly suggesting the good that will come from the gift and praising the giver. The reader begins to envision the gift, and in envisioning starts to feel the pleasure. It’s within your power to light up your donor’s ‘joy’ buttons or the ‘disappointment’ ones.
- Is the solution you suggest believable?
If you suggest to me that my $100 gift will end hunger, I won’t believe you. If you tell me it will by 300 meals for a hungry person, that’s something I can comprehend.
- Is the solution scalable so it can be attained by different donation levels?
If I can afford a $100 gift then I want to know what I can accomplish with that. If I can afford a $1,000 gift, I want to know what else can be accomplished. One size doesn’t fit all, so be sure you can break your goal down into chunks to suit the needs of different types of donors.
- Can the donor understand how their gift will be used as leverage?
People love a good ‘deal.’ There are different ways you can offer them one:
- Multiplier Effect: Can you get someone to offer a challenge or matching grant? If I know I can double my gift, I’m excited.
- Cost: Food banks are able to leverage your donation because much of their food is donated. So you can buy more food through them than you could at the grocery store. What can you do like this?
- Impact: Some gifts have impact far beyond the initial donation. If I pay for a well to be dug in Africa, an entire community will have drinkable water.
- Is your writing conversational?
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. Short sentences. Short words. Plus, people respond to warm and welcoming more than they do to technical and corporate. Since folks give from the heart, you’re well-served to wear your heart on your sleeve.
- Have you used simple legible fonts?
Serif fonts are best for text (e.g., Courier or Times Roman); sans serif are best for headlines and sub-heads. 14 is the new 12. It used to be accepted that 12 point text was readable by most people. No more. Baby boomers are aging, and many are your major donors. The new recommended standard is 14 points. Yes, that means you can’t fit as much on a page. Turn the paper over and write on the back. People will cheer you for saving a tree. 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.
- Have you given your readers’ eyes a rest?
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 a 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 lines and paragraphs short. The perfect line length is usually shy of 70 characters (with spaces) according to direct mail guru Tom Ahern. Use subheads, boldface, italics and underline to emphasize key points. Good direct mail is highly skimmable.
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. If they read only what’s underlined, they’ll get the gist. And so forth. Since you don’t really know which part of the letter your donor will actually read, repetition is essential. You’ve got to hedge your bets and put your key messaging and ask in multiple places.
- Have you eliminated buzz words and jargon?
You’re used to calling your organization by your acronym; your readers aren’t. Jargon is the opposite of constituent-centered writing. You use words like “clients” and “caseworkers”; your readers don’t. Maybe everyone who works where you work has a PhD and is a stickler for grammar. Your readers aren’t. Maybe you love learning a great big new word every day, then figuring out ways to use it. Your readers won’t.
It can be hard to avoid these words and phrases because they’re so ubiquitous within your culture. But no one will stick with your writing if you use phrases like “leveraging innovative content marketing tools to create cross-platform initiatives” or “providing preventive, educational, therapeutic and supportive services emphasizing inter-generational ties and community responsibility.” Huh?
I know that some of this advice may go against the grain. Trust me. You are not your reader. If you don’t believe me, listen to veteran fundraising writer Tom Ahern:
“Direct mail appeals are unlike any other writing on earth. … We write (and review) these letters at 1 mph. Readers, though, read at 100 mph. Things that are said just once tend to be overlooked. When you read direct mail at 1 mph (listen up, reviewers!), it can sound choppy. That choppiness disappears at 100 mph”
Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Want to hit your year-end fundraising appeal out of the park this year?
Join me next month for one of my most popular e-courses — Your Ultimate Guide to Successful Year-End Appeals. Learn how to make a fundraising offer your donor can’t refuse — and much, much more — in this upcoming, comprehensive 5-week E-Course. Typically nonprofits raise as much as 50 to 80% of their annual income at the end of the calendar year. Learn to take advantage of this time when donors are feeling most generous. Your annual appeal is a terrible thing to waste! Check out the curriculum here or grab the Early Bird deal and register here. Full satisfaction guaranteed — or your money back.
Image courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net