How to Write a Better Fundraising Letter
Make Your Letter Personable, Specific and Easy-to-Read
Just like copywriting, writing great fundraising letters is not for amateurs. While businesses can often afford to pay the big bucks for great copywriting, nonprofits often depend on in-house staff to write that important letter and to put together a direct mail package. Don't despair. You can do it even if you're no more than a one-person shop. Here to help are the cardinal rules of writing a fundraising letter, adapted from Mal Warwick's immensely useful "How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters". We've also included examples from real letters to illustrate each point.
Use "I" and "You", but Mostly "You"
Forget what you've learned about writing a press release or a brochure and think of how you would write a letter to another person, like your aunt or next door neighbor. Add human interest and emphasize the personal touch by using " I" and "You." Those two words could keep your letter out of the trash bin. Take this sample from a letter from the Save the Chimps organization:
"You are helping us provide lifelong care for our chimpanzee residents — and your dedication makes all the difference."
Talk About Benefits, Not Needs
Donors give to get something in return, like the good feelings that come from helping others, or an opportunity to enjoy a great experience. They are not interested in your budget deficit. Intangible benefits are the lives saved or human dignity restored.
A great example is this moving sentence from Operation Smile:
"...for as little as $240, you can help pay for a surgery for a child who's waiting now. That's one life changed, entirely because of you."
Tangible benefits could be tickets to an exclusive performance of your ballet company or early admission to a special exhibit at your museum. Tell your donors what they will get out of their donation, both tangible and intangible.
Ask for Money, Not for Support
Be specific when asking for money. Asking for "support" is too general and abstract. Even if you don't ask for a particular amount of money, such as $100, do request a commitment. For instance, a local food bank asked for a pledge to cover the three months of summer to help feed children while they were out of school. Here's how they worded it:
"Join us this summer with a special three-month commitment that will go a long way in helping people get through this trying time. You can send a gift today and pledge to do the same in July and August or make a single gift that stretches across the entire summer. Better yet, sign up for monthly giving and make a difference all year long!"
Be clear and repeat some variation of your call to action throughout the letter. Don't be shy and don't be vague.
Write a Package, Not a Letter
The letter is the most important item in your package, but it is only a part of a multi-piece unit that must all work together.
At the very least, your package should contain an outer envelope with a teaser, a reply envelope, and a reply device, as well as the letter. Think about how each of these items can persuade donors to take action now. Use a unifying theme, symbols, colors, and typefaces, so the package is both memorable and accessible.
One charity that does this beautifully is Best Friends Animal Society. One fundraising package was designed around a puppy named Mila and her experience with puppy school. The package focused on Mila, with cute photos and even a copy of a graduation certificate. Here's how the letter began:
Graduation means starting a new chapter in life. Or fun times tearing your diploma to shreds! At least, that's what Mila got out of the ceremony.
Focusing on the story of one dog's experience was a winning strategy for this charity.
Use Simple, Straight Forward Words
Your words should be powerful and your sentences short and punchy. Use emotional words rather than those that need analysis. Avoid foreign phrases and big words. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, and avoid abbreviations or acronyms. Spell out names. Repeat and even underline key words and phrases. Readers skim, so make it easy to find the meat of your message without reading the entire letter. Here's an example of simple, to-the-heart writing from one charity:
"When six-year-old Alec came to TROT one year ago, he didn’t talk to his parents or friends, and his father feared he never would. Thanks to you, today Alec talks all the time – and it’s music to his father’s ears."
Make Your Letter Easy to Read
The eye needs to rest, so leave plenty of white space around your copy.
- Indent each paragraph.
- Avoid paragraphs that are more than seven lines long. But do vary their length.
- Use bullets to add oomph to your points.
- Use subheads. If the letter is long, try centering and underlining the subheads.
- Underline sparingly but consistently to call attention to keywords and phrases.
An excellent example of short, punchy sentences and paragraphs are these from the ALS Association:
"It can start with twitching and weakness in your arm or leg.
You might think it’s nothing. That it will pass.
But the weakness in your muscles progresses until you lose your ability to move…to talk..to swallow…or even to breathe…."
Give Readers a Reason to Send Money Now
Create a sense of urgency with a deadline for a matching donation, or mention a budget period or a particular holiday. Repeat your argument for urgency in the text of the letter, in your P.S. and on your reply device. Be careful about using actual dates if you are using bulk mail. The letter might arrive after the date mentioned. Here's what Big Cat Rescue included in a year-end fundraising appeal:
"We are so very grateful for your support of our sanctuary and cats! This year, thanks to The SHARE Foundation, Fields Galley Private Foundation and an anonymous donor, your gift will be matched dollar for dollar for the first $38,000 in donations, so it will go twice as far for the cats!"
Write as Much as You Need to Make Your Case
Many people will read every word of your letter while others may just scan it. Write to both groups with a reasonably long letter that is easy to scan.
Don't worry about annoying your longtime supporters. Research shows that even the most active donors may remember little about your organization, so don't worry about repeating yourself. Think of your letter as yet another opportunity to educate your donor about what your organization does and why that is important.