The job of the smart fundraiser is inspiring passionate philanthropy to make people’s lives better.
I know you’re smart, because you’re reading this article!
But none of us is born with a fundraising gene.
And no one ever really teaches us how to write a smart fundraising appeal. We copy from our predecessors. Or maybe read an article or two online or attend a webinar on the subject. Sadly, there’s a lot of bad advice out there.
The truth is writing a compelling fundraising appeal can be tricky. It’s not the same kind of writing as a brochure, annual report or grant proposal. But it’s not rocket science – it’s something you can easily learn.
Alas, I see too many nonprofits getting this wrong year after year.
A serviceable appeal is something that will raise first-time and habitual gifts at moderate levels. Better than nothing. But… not the best you can do.
Don’t you want to do your best work and invoke the generosity that will move your mission forward with full strength and confidence?
Don’t you want to stop leaving money on the table?
A serviceable appeal won’t inspire passionate, loyal, sustainable philanthropy so your mission can really thrive.
Here are My Top 10 Tips to Passionate Appeal Writing
I hope you’ll use these as an outline as you write your appeal. Or as a checklist if you’ve already completed one.
You can use these tips for all fundraising appeal messaging, not just direct mail. So look also at email, social media, texts, newsletters and website campaign and donation landing page copy.
1. Begin with drama and get right to the point.
Start the letter with one simple attention-grabbing sentence.
- “I can’t stop thinking about an 11-year-old girl who nearly killed herself.”
- “Isaac is 9 months old and lives on the streets.”
- “This dried-up riverbed used to provide water for the entire state.”
- “When the ocean dies, we all die.”
2. Lead with easy to read, understandable copy and design.
Readability is directly related to fundraising results. Don’t let your designer get in the way of your fundraising purpose. Donors scan, they don’t read. In fact, famous eye movement studies show where people’s eyes tend to move across a page.
- 90% read the P.S. first.
- Then they look at the salutation, the top right corner (good place for a photo), and the signature.
- Then they look at headlines and sub-heads.
- In an email they’ll look at the subject line, preview pane and sender.
Make sure all of your most valuable pieces of real estate are used and optimized.
- Begin with a compelling photo + caption that immediately conveys a story.
- Don’t use white type on a busy photo or background.
- Use black text, not blue, brown, grey or whatever your corporate color is (unless it’s to emphasize a point, like a headline or subhead or testimonial).
- Highlight important points through headlines, subheads, boldface, underline and italic. Read through the letter looking at each of these elements independently. Do you get the appeal’s gist just through the headings? The boldface? The underlines? The italics? You never really know where your reader’s eyes and attention will focus. Consider you have mini-appeals within your larger appeal. Just in case.
Break copy in the middle of a sentence or paragraph so the reader has a reason to flip the page.
Always, always, always include a P.S.; it’s copywriting malpractice not to do so. They’re one of the most read parts of any letter. As noted above, all the eye-tracking studies show this. And, remember, it’s a “fundraising P.S.” so should be a repetition of the offer – i.e., the specific fundraising call to action with which you began. And the urgency (e.g. what will happen to the beneficiaries if you don’t give right away). You can also include a campaign deadline; just know that’s not as emotionally compelling as a reason related to something bad that will happen to the person, animal, place or thing the donor wants to help.
PRO TIP: Repeat what you’ve put in the P.S. on your reply card or donation landing form. It’s the most critical information you need to convey, and it’s what will seal the deal. (1) Call to action. (2) Specific amount. (3) Urgency. (4) Reflection back to donor about how awesome they’ll be when they give.
3. Use a conversational tone; understand donors are asking questions right off the bat.
Remember the reader is constantly wondering “What are you asking me to do today?” If you take too long to get there, they’ll give up reading before they find out. Every time you write a sentence, imagine you’re talking to the donor in person. What question might they ask you next? Be sure you answer it in your next sentence. Otherwise, they’ll get lost in their own musings. And you’ll lose them.
4. Ask directly two to three times.
Assure if the donor reads only part of the letter, they’ll still see the call to action. Plus repetition works well on the human brain. It makes people think “Hmmn… I guess this is really important.” Repetition creates long term memory by eliciting or enacting strong chemical interactions at the synapse of your neuron (where neurons connect to other neurons). Repetition creates the strongest learning; most learning, both implicit (like tying your shoes) and explicit (like multiplication tables), relies on repetition. In fact, next time you have a boss or board member complain about your 4-page direct mail acquisition letter being too repetitive, tell them there’s real method behind this seeming madness!
5. Avoid jargon like the plague.
Jargon is wasted prose to which donors simply won’t relate. It’s language we use when we want to sound smart, or be somewhat general or imprecise, or simply use a shortcut. Use only powerful words and phrases that enable the reader to visualize a tangible outcome.
- “He had no self-esteem” is not as good as “She was terrified he’d end up in prison.”
- “Your gift restores her hope” is not as good as “Your gift gives her job skills.”
- “Your gift gives her a chance” is not as good as “Your gift teaches her to read.”
Things like “hope” and “chance” and “self-esteem” are relatively meaningless. They can’t be visualized by the reader. As a result, they don’t know what their donation will purchase or whether it will really have a demonstrable, positive impact. You’ll never see a homeless person with a placard reading “Need Hope.”
6. Talk about outcomes, not processes.
You know this, but I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts you’re still not doing this effectively. That is, unless you’re hiring an outside copywriter who isn’t “inside” living and breathing your internal jargon and marketing lingo. It’s just too tempting to talk about programs, services and processes of which you’re understandably proud. But here’s the truth:
- The food bank donor doesn’t care how you distribute the food, so much as the fact hungry people get fed. ”Give so people like Jimmy never have to go to bed hungry.”
- The human services donor doesn’t care your staff all have MFCCs, MSWs, and Ph.Ds., so much as the fact people are helped with kindness, efficiency, immediacy and direct aid. “Give so people like Jane get a night of safety.”
- The theater donor doesn’t care you shot your virtual show with cutting-edge three camera technology, so much as the fact you kept actors employed and delivered uplifting live performances. “Give so the performers who uplift us throughout the season continue to receive paychecks and benefits.”
- The social justice donor doesn’t need the details of every strategy you employed to fix the myriad problems they care about, so much as the basic issues your gift addressed. “Yes your one gift can do all of that.”
7. Give a compelling reason to give today.
Talk about the problems that need immediate solutions; that’s why you’re writing today. If you lead with what happened in the past they may read no further. Even if you’re writing to a past donor, don’t talk so much about what past giving accomplished (put that in a thank you letter or newsletter). Otherwise it appears their help is no longer urgently needed.
8. Flatter the donor; assume the best.
When writing to non-donors, applaud them for being affiliated with you in other ways, or simply for being caring people and/or community leaders. If you assume the best, you’ll often get the best. For example, a P.S. like this implies the reader already cares: “If every caring person like you gives $100 we’ll raise the $10,000 needed to buy a new van to take seniors on special outings.” Note this is different than saying ” “your gift is making a difference” in the appeal. Sadly, I receive letters like this all the time — even when I haven’t given. — making the appeal seem less than genuine.
If you’re looking for a renewal or upgrade it’s a great idea to sprinkle in some gratitude later in the letter to remind folks they’ve already decided to support you in the past. Robert Cialdini’s groundbreaking work in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion shows people are wired to be consistent, so jogging their memory of their past giving serves as a decision-making shortcut for them today. They don’t have to decide whether to give; just how much.
9. Make the donor feel the appeal is about them.
The thrust and tone of the letter should be what the donor cares about, and how they can like themselves better after making the gift. People yearn to be their best selves, and to like who they see when they look in the mirror. Don’t just talk about your organization’s accomplishments, your clients’ worthiness, and all your needs, needs and more needs. Instead, talk about the donor’s good character and needs.What will make the experience of giving a successful one for them? Research using MRI technology shows donors receive a warm glow shot of dopamine when they even contemplate making a gift. An appeal offer should be all about the donor’s opportunity to experience the joy of giving. If you give to others, they’ll give to you.
10. Tell the donor specifically what it costs to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.
Don’t bury the lead; donors are looking for defined problems, simple solutions and reasonable price points. Imagine if your kid tells you upfront they need $500; you’re going to sit up and pay attention to what they have to say next. But if they lead with a long-winded tale of how expensive it is to live wherever they live, why they’re not accomplishing more than they’re accomplishing, and a bunch of different ways they think they could do better, you’re going to get ticked off before they get to the point. And you’re probably going to start thinking about where you think they should put $500 to the best use, which may not be what they want at all.
- It’s better to go deep with one story and one call to action than to offer a range of choices that can lead to analysis paralysis. “$25 buys groceries for 8 families; $50 buys hot meals for 12 seniors; $100 buys nutrition counseling for 25 single mothers” is not as good as “Every $25 buys food for 10 hungry people.” When you offer multiple giving options for different proposed purposes, people begin to get judgmental. Especially if $50 provides what the donor cares about, and $100 provides what she cares less about. If she was thinking about making a $100 gift, you don’t want her to give less! Instead, offer one thing to be accomplished.
- You’ll get greater response volume when the solution seems within reach, and folks who can do more will often give multiples of what you’re asking. “$40 will do XYZ” works better than “$120 will do XYZ.” With the larger ask, the donor who can’t give $120 may not give at all; they don’t want to be a drop in the bucket. With the smaller ask, the donor who can afford $120 has the opportunity to be a real big shot.
BONUS TIP: Think about your newsletter from a fundraising perspective too.
Newsletters can raise a lot of money; don’t abdicate responsibility for adding more than your two cents to their copy and design. Marketing and fundraising must work together seamlessly or you’ll find yourself constantly shooting yourself in the foot. You may still be able to hop around, but you’ll certainly not be putting your best foot forward.
Here are some newsletter writing tips to help you stop leaving money on the table:
- Remember people skim; think of every article from the perspective of “in a nutshell.” In other words, cover the basics briefly. Make a long story short. This should hold true for every single feature, section or element of your newsletter. It’s not a term paper. Stick with the highlights.
- Lead with a compelling cover photo that’s a physical manifestation of the donor’s gift. Happy is good here. Always include a caption to complete the story. Captions should be about the donor’s role in what’s happening in the photo. “This is Jane and Joe in their new home” is not as good as “Thanks to your generosity, Jane and Joe are safely ensconced in their new home.” The reader doesn’t really need to see anything else. In fact, if this is an e-newsletter, you can link to the completion of the story – or maybe even a video – on your website.
- Don’t lead with a letter from the E.D. or Board President. If you want to use such a letter, make it a dedicated email instead. And make sure your VIP writer has something important to say. Donors don’t sit by their computers waiting for these features. But they’re more than happy to read something from you that’s a real piece of “news.”
- When you use donor spotlights, make them about the reader. The donor highlighted is “just like you.” “This is possible because of this donor – and donors like you.” The goal is to make the donor reading the spotlight feel “I could do something like that too – and then they’d be really grateful to me too.”
- When you talk about impact of any kind, always lead with the donor. “Your Impact” rather than “What We Accomplished.” The newsletter should be a report back to the donor about what their powerful gift did. It’s not about what you, your staff or your organization did. Or about the donor helping your staff. People like to see themselves as forceful agents of change — actors, heroes, rescuers, visionaries… not helpmates, subordinates or assistants.
Want More Help with Fundraising Appeal Writing?
You can get more tips for writing your most compelling annual appeal here: Anatomy of a Fundraising Appeal + Sample Template. This is a simple, incredibly thorough, 62-page step-by-step guide to crafting a killer fundraising offer — one your recipients won’t be able to refuse. Learn to think about all the elements that make a fundraising message successful. Not just sentences and images, but the whole who, what, when, where and why.
- Who cares about what you do, and is this who you’re sending this appeal to?
- What do they care most about, and is this where you’re focusing?
- When are they most receptive, and are you making it easy for them to respond?
- Where are they best reached?
- Why would they give to you rather than someone else? And why right now?
That’s where this nifty e-Guide comes in! Plus if you’re not happy for any reason, you have my 30-day 100% refund guarantee. So… nothing to lose. Why not raise more money this year?!