8 Things You Should Never Do in a Fundraising Letter

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It's never too early to analyze your last fundraising campaign and get ready for the next. Do you know how effective your direct mail appeal was during last year's holiday campaign?

How many of your appeals went into the trash? How many resulted in a donation? Have you been afraid to even to look at your response rate? 

Now, writing and packaging a fundraising appeal is hard work. So it's a shame when it falls flat.

If you could ask your donors why they barely looked at your fundraising letter, here's what they might say.

1. You didn't use my name, or you got it wrong.

I still see a lot of "Dear Friend" letters. That usually signifies that the appeal is from a smaller charity with limited resources. However, it's pretty easy now to personalize letters and not that expensive. A decent donor management system can do it and make all of your fundraising tasks so much easier.

If my name is wrong, the letter may be from a big charity. That seems counterintuitive, but with huge mailing lists, some purchased, it's easier to make an error and for that mistake to escape notice for a long time. For years, I've been getting mailings from a large nonprofit that misspells my name. 

2. You made your mailing too complicated.

When there are reams of inserts in the package, I can't even focus on the letter. I get confused, lost in indecision and end up dumping the whole thing.
The best letters I've received recently included one from the ALS Association, which was very simple, even plain, with one small insert. I wrote about that letter here.
The other letter was from a small theater company in my city. The Executive Director wrote a beautiful, simple, heartfelt letter that got to me immediately. You can read that letter here.

3. You talked about you, instead of the person (or animal) that my donation will help.

I respond best to a story about one individual rather than a crowd of individuals. I am quickly overwhelmed by vast numbers and feel helpless in the face of them.
Tell me about just one person and how I can help. Tell me a story about that individual or dog or cat. Tug on my heart and make me want to make things better for that one person or animal. One chimp rescue organization writes backstories for all of their animals. Each chimp has a name and a profile. That way, each one becomes known and loved by donors.

I also don't care about your organization's accomplishments, the award you got, or where your president last spoke.

Stick to the point. And the point is to help someone, not keep your organization in business.

4. You tried to impress me with your vocabulary.

I'm perfectly capable of reading hard stuff. I do it when I have to. But, I'm not going to take the time to wade through optional reading like your fundraising appeal if it's too hard.

Give me short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Get to the point quickly! I don't have the time to decode your message.

Jeff Brooks suggests that fundraising letters should be somewhere between 4th and 6th-grade reading level. There are tools to help you check your message for how easy it is to read. Please use them.

5. You didn't tell me that I need to donate now.

I respond better if you are urgent. Tell me why I need to give today. Tell me what will happen if I don't. How many more people will go hungry, or how one person will not survive unless I give today.

Match that urgency with an image of the person or animal you want me to help. Tell me that he or she needs that surgery now, or a place to sleep now, or to play safely now.
Remind me that you will match my gift if I give right now. I respond to urgent needs, not ones that I can easily ignore until your next appeal.

6. You weren't specific about what you want.

I respond better when I can see the effect of a specific amount of money on a problem. Tell me that my $25 donation will buy four backpacks for needy kids. Or that $50 will feed Fluffy the cat for three months.

Also, tell me what you want. Do you need $2500 to finish the nursery? Or $5000 for the new playground? Suggest how much I could donate toward that goal. If you know my giving history you likely understand about what I'm capable of giving. So be specific.
Do tell me what you want several times in the letter. I might be reading quickly and miss the first time you mention what you need. Don't be afraid of repetition. It's the heart of all good communication.

7. You were more concerned about pretty design than making your letter easy for me to read.

Did you know that reverse type (white type on black background) makes my eyes hurt? Are you trying to cram more words on the page by using a small font size? Look, I'm probably older. I wear bifocals. Design means nothing if I can't read your letter.

You will want to get over your fear of "tacky" too. Help me pick out the essential parts of your message by underlining key words and phrases, or even highlighting them or using bold text. I won't mind at all. I like to skim your letter. Help me do it.

Don't write a novel. Although there's no conclusive evidence about the effectiveness of a long letter versus a short one, Write as much as you need. If that's a short letter, that is fine. I will likely appreciate it.

8. You didn't appreciate me.

First, you didn't acknowledge that I've been giving to you for the last two years. Second, you never said how kind and caring I am, and that's why you know I'll want to make this gift too.
Yes, flatter me. Tell me that you know I care and that's why you are writing to me. Make me the hero by focusing on my generosity and giving history.

There are other reasons I might trash your fundraising letter, but these are the things I hate the most.