How To Write a Better Fundraising Letter

Make your letter personable, specific, and easy-to-read

Young woman writes letter
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F. J. Jimenez / Getty Images

While direct mail is still a viable fundraising strategy for nonprofits, it now has more effectiveness as part of a multichannel approach. In fact, based on a "Response Rate" report from the Association of National Advertisers/Data & Marketing Association, nonprofit direct mail typically yields a response rate of 5%-9%. But when combined with digital outreach including email and ads, that rate goes up to 28%.

Many donors may respond to a letter in the mailbox but then donate online. Also, online fundraising and direct mail fundraising reinforce one another.

In its "40 Fundraising Trends for 2021," NonProfitPro says that our collective experiences since 2020 created the need for more direct services by nonprofits when it comes to fundraising. In-person events will be slow to recover, so there must be more emphasis on mail and online outreach to donors.

Writing great fundraising letters, however, takes skill. While businesses can often afford to pay well for great copywriting, nonprofits often depend on in-house staff to write that important letter and put together a direct mail package.

Don't despair, though. You can do it even if you're just a one-person shop. Here are the most common rules of writing a direct mail fundraising letter or package.

Use Personal Pronouns like "I" and "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 personal pronouns. For instance, "you" and "I' humanize your letter.

In psychology, using "you" and "I" is called "I language." Using personal pronouns encourages empathy, lowers resistance, and establishes intimacy. A fundraising letter, in turn, can be an intimate conversation with a donor.

Addressing a person by name also builds a connection, according to research. If possible, use the donor's first name in the salutation and a couple of times in the body of the letter.

Mostly, however, use "you." Many organizations talk about themselves far too much. Make the donor the center of your conversational fundraising letter.

In this example, here's how using "you" might work in a letter from a food bank:

"Last year, you made a commitment to help stop hunger in our community. Will you help us do that again this year? You and your neighbors have helped to provide fruit, vegetables, and shelf-stable groceries that helped families make it through the season."

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 or where your CEO last appeared on TV.

While buyers of a product want to know how they will become happier, more efficient, or achieve higher status, donor-relevant benefits are the lives saved, human dignity restored, or alleviation of another's pain.

Here's how that might sound in a fundraising letter:

"At our equine center for disabled children, 8-year-old Sally has achieved many goals that her parents could only dream of. Sally, almost completely silent a year ago, is now talking. In fact, she has entire conversations with her favorite horse and her helpers. The result is a young girl who is much more self-confident and happy."

Be Specific, Not Vague

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, instead of asking for a specific amount as a one-time gift, invite the donor to give monthly or pledge over a specific period of time.

Be clear and repeat some variation of your call to action throughout the letter. Don't be shy, and don't be vague.

Here's what being specific might look like in a fundraising letter:

"Join us this summer with a special three-month commitment that will go a long way in helping a young person, who could not participate otherwise, go to Pine Bluff camp. You can send a gift today and pledge to do the same in July and August or make a single gift that covers the entire summer. Better yet, sign up for monthly giving and make a difference all year long."

Write a Package, Not a Letter

While it is often appropriate for a fundraising letter to be one or two pages, a package might be worth the investment for a more ambitious campaign.

The letter is still 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 memorable and accessible.

For example, tell a story about a specific individual or animal with your package that moves the donor emotionally. People respond better to one individual than a group because they can relate to that individual more easily.

Here are some important storytelling tips:

  • Spend a lot of time on that story.
  • Use emotional, descriptive words.
  • Don't be afraid to make the reader uncomfortable, scared, or overwhelmed.
  • Explain how the donor can help change that frightening story into one of relief, gratitude, and triumph.

Charities that do this well include Best Friends Animal Sanctuary with stories about individual animals and Operation Smile with stories about children getting their smiles restored.

Write Simply and Ensure Readability

In general, your words should be powerful and your sentences short and punchy. Of course, all of this will depend on your audience. A university, for instance, might require writing at a higher level than another charity. You can easily determine the grade level of your writing with the Gunning Fog Index readability formula. Here are some keys to ensure readability:

  • Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.
  • Avoid abbreviations or acronyms.
  • Spell out names.
  • Repeat and even underline keywords and phrases.

Readers skim, so make it easy to find the meat of your message without reading the entire letter.

Also, donors are very different. Some are intuitive and may respond to emotional language, while others are more rational and want facts and numbers.

Often, a donor will incorporate all of this at the same time, so write your letter in consideration of these different modes of thinking. Include both emotive language and rational language to satisfy as many of your donors as possible.

Make Your Letter Easy to Read

Blackbaud, a marketing consultant to nonprofits, finds that the average age of a donor is 64. Although older donors love to read, they need special consideration to help them do that.

Here are some tips for older readers that also hold for all readers:

  • Indent each paragraph.
  • Avoid paragraphs that are more than seven lines long, but do vary their length.
  • Use bullets to make your points dynamic.
  • Use subheads. If the letter is long, try centering and underlining the subheads.
  • Underline sparingly but consistently to call attention to keywords and phrases.
  • Leave plenty of white space, use an easy-to-read font slightly larger, and create contrast with dark type on light paper.

Add a Sense of Urgency

Create a sense of urgency by setting a deadline for a matching donation, which could perhaps be the end of your fiscal year, 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 such as deadlines for a matching gift or an event in your letter if you use bulk mail. The letter might arrive after the date mentioned.

Here's a fictitious example of using urgency in a fundraising letter:

"We are so very grateful for your support of our museum. This year, the Howard Banks Foundation and an anonymous donor will match your gift up to $40,000 for the next two weeks so that it will go twice as far for our new exhibit space."

Make Your Fundraising Appeal Long or Short

There have been many strong opinions about long versus short fundraising letters. Many people will read every word of your letter while others may just scan it. Do try to go a bit longer but make sure that the reader can still quickly scan the letter.

You may think that you're repeating yourself, but many donors need to be reminded of your mission, what you're trying to accomplish, and even that they are supporters.

Some research has indicated that some donors don't come back to a charity because they may not remember that they once supported it.

Think of your letter as yet another opportunity to educate your donor about what your organization does and why that is still important. The reader will likely be grateful for the information rather than irritated or confused by it.