Putting the Appeal Back in Fundraising Appeals: a primer on how to craft fundraising letters

Written by
Candice Peelman

Putting the Appeal Back in Fundraising Appeals: a primer on how to craft fundraising letters

187.8 million. That's the number of pieces of direct mail the United States Postal Service process and delivers in a single day. With the sheer amount of direct mail and letters the average person receives, from bills to magazines to coupons and catalogs, how can you make sure that your fundraising appeal letter doesn't wind up in the recycling bin? It all comes down to a few key components and some strategic thoughtfulness.

To start, make the letter appeal to the donor. Whether you're a multimillion-dollar organization planning your annual gala fundraiser, a local school group kicking off a fundraising campaign to buy new playground equipment, or a college sorority planning a fundraising event to fund an upcoming service-learning trip, the ingredients for crafting your fundraising letter are all the same.

Define Your Audience for the Appeal Letter

Many nonprofit organizations or groups don't do themselves any favors with their appeal letters. Fundraising letters can be cumbersome to read if there is too much text full of irrelevant information, or conversely, a story that's sparse on details. However, if before you begin writing your letter you first define your audience, your fundraising appeal letter is more likely to be counted. Being attentive to who the fundraising letter will be read by goes a long way in beginning to craft the fundraising letter.

First, get more specific on who the letter will be read by, and who you are hoping will consider donating. Nonprofits and school groups often fall short in this regard by not personalizing the letter with a name, and also not being specific in who the target audience is before they sign, seal, deliver.

Take for example, Dear Sir or Madam. While respectful, letters addressed as such are likely to get recycled before getting any real consideration. Dear Sir or Madam shows that you didn't do any research on who you are asking for money before you sent your fundraising appeal letter. Or, it demonstrates to the reader that you don't have a personal connection or relationship with them, to begin with. Why should they care about your cause or your organization and give any amount of money if you don't know their name?

However, Dear Mr. Friedman, while still respectful, might catch the attention of the intended recipient, enough to get them to open the fundraising letter envelope! 

But, Dear Mr. Friedman may be too formal in your appeal letter if Mr. Friedman is, in fact, your grandfather, old college roommate, or your Dad!

The same logic applies to the business world. When making a sponsorship or donation request from local businesses, if you are unsure of the best contact person to address in your salutation, look up their company website. Businesses often list key employees on their website and can give a hint of who the decision-makers of a company are. If a company website doesn't name anyone specific to address your fundraising appeal letter, take the extra step of using Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn to investigate further

In short, craft your letter for each audience you intend to ask for support from. While this may mean a bit more work on the front end, personalization can ultimately make the difference between a donation received and your letter ending up in the recycling bin.

Content - Tell The Story, But Get to the Point

You've defined who you want to ask, but what exactly are you telling them? Why should a potential donor care about your cause? As you are considering drafting what it is you want to tell your audience, remember that a delicate balance is needed in fundraising letters. You want the reader to feel compelled to give (that is the whole point of the letter, of course!) This usually comes from a powerful story, perhaps a bit of impactful data, and a compelling photo. However, too much information and organization-specific jargon immediately turn people off. It's best to include short bits of information that get to the point.

Here are two examples of a fundraising letter appeal from an animal shelter.

Example 1:

"At Tender Paws International, your gift of $250 will allow us to vaccinate 25 dogs this month. This means 25 dogs that will be protected against disease and wagging their tails as we help them find a forever home. Last year, Fluffy found his forever home with the Smith family because of donations from people like you who visited our online donation page and made a gift..."

Example 2:

"At Tender Paws International, your gift of $250 will allow us to vaccinate 25 dogs this month. This means, 25 dogs will be protected against canine parvovirus, canine hepatitis, rabies, Bordetella bronchiseptica, Borrelia burgdorferi, distemper, and Leptospira bacteria and wagging their tails as we help them find a forever home. Last year, Fluffy found his forever home with the Smith family because of donations from people like you who visited our online donation page and made a gift..."

Which do you find more compelling?

While Example 2 is factually correct in terms of what a $250 donation will go to, it's way too much information for the average non-veterinary trained donor to take in. Unless a donor specifically asks for a deep dive into programmatic details, it should be kept off your fundraising appeal letter.

Instead, tell the reader why they should care, and why their donation is important. Example 1 does just that - with a $250 donation, 25 dogs will be vaccinated this month and be ready for adoption, just like Fluffy.

To flesh out the story more, and help the donor visualize the impact they can make, Tender Paws might include a picture of a Fluffy and some basic statistics on the total number of animals they treated in 2019. Diving too deep into programmatic details (like the variety of canine virus and diseases that exist)- will turn individual donors off, and in turn, send their donations elsewhere.

What's the Ask? 

The biggest mistake a fundraiser can make is failing to ask for money, and yet, it happens all the time. With your fundraising letter, you should keep this in mind throughout the entire letter. Raising money can be difficult, but don't make it harder on yourself by not being direct in your donation request letter. The reader should understand the organization, its story and impact, and the reason why a donation is needed. But don't forget to ask for the donation! Burying your ask at the bottom of your fundraising letter with a tiny online donation link won't get great results. Effective fundraising letters ask the reader to consider donating, and ask more than once, for a donation. 

Free donation platforms such as Givebutter can help by providing a place for donors to give in seconds online, with a wide range of useful features, such as QR code scanning,  Text-to-Donateautomated receipts, and much more. Givebutter also integrates with 1,000+ third-party applications, including payment methods like Venmo and PayPal, making it easier than ever to maximize the ROI of your fundraising appeals.

Before you begin, don't go it alone. Whether your letter is for a year-end donation requestticketed eventcapital campaign, or anything else, there are lots of templates and tips that can be helpful as you start to craft your fundraising letter. 

The Follow Up

You've sent your letters. Now what? Sending your fundraising letter is half the battle. Don't forget, without timely follow up, you may be waiting and waiting for a donation that isn't going to arrive. 

Before you send your fundraising appeal letters, don't forget to make a plan for following up. Whether via email or social media next week, dialing a donor's phone number a month later, or even in following up in person, follow up is a must if you hope to meet your fundraising goal. Givebutter can help send automated email reminders, track/manage online and offline donations, and of course, deliver the all-important thank you letter, too.

Remember, 187.8 million pieces of mail are delivered a day. Raising money is hard work, and you put the effort, time, and thoughtfulness into your fundraising efforts. Help secure the donation and meet your fundraising goal by following up with donors personally and reminding them why they should give to your cause.

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Written By

Written by
Candice Peelman
Candice is a nonprofit professional with over a decade of experience in fundraising, civic engagement, staff and volunteer management, writing, and project coordination.