September is here. It’s my favorite month and the more moderate temperatures and lower humidity are a nice respite from all the uncertainty going on in the world.
Fall is the busiest time of the year for nonprofit organizations, especially if you’re doing a year-end appeal. The current climate (pandemic, economic downturn, heightened awareness of systemic racism, having to cope with all of this, etc) will require you to create a new, more relevant appeal, although many of the components will be the same.
Even if you’re not planning on launching your campaign until later in the fall, you should get started on your appeal now. You need to create an appeal that will stand out and resonate with your donors.
A couple of things. You must address the current climate in your appeal. Instead of the usual boring, generic letter, you need to specifically address what’s been going on since the pandemic started.
Also, your appeal needs to be personal – both for your donors and when you write about your clients/community. Be sure to check in with your donors and wish them well.
Here are some ways to create a better, more relevant appeal.
Make a good first impression
First, you need to get your donors to open your letter. If you can’t get them to do that, then all your hard work has gone to waste.
Perhaps you’d like to include a teaser on the outer envelope. That doesn’t mean one that says 2020 Annual Appeal. That’s not inspiring, especially now. Instead, say something like – Find out how you can help local families put food on the table.
An oversized or colored envelope can also capture your donor’s attention.
You want to be both personal and professional. If hand addressing the envelopes isn’t feasible, make sure your mailing labels look clean, are error-free, and aren’t crooked. Use stamps if you can.
Create an inviting piece of mail.
Share a compelling story
A good appeal letter should open with a compelling story. Focus on a person or family and not your organization. Your donors want to hear about the people they’ll be helping and it needs to be relevant to the current climate.
Here’s an example – Sarah, a single mother with three kids, was laid off earlier this year and had trouble finding enough money to buy groceries for her family. But thanks to generous donors like you, she was able to get boxes of healthy food at the Northside Community Food Bank. Sarah was embarrassed that she said to rely on a food bank to feed her family, but she is treated with respect and dignity each time she visits.
You could also share a first-person story from a client/program recipient.
Include a photo
Include an engaging color photo in your letter or on your pledge form. Photos can tell a story in an instant.
Here’s more information on creating stories and photos.
Make a prominent ask
Ask for a donation at the beginning of the next paragraph (after the story). Make sure it’s prominent and clear. Also, ask your current donors if they can give a little more right now. I know we’re in an economic downturn, but don’t be afraid to ask your donors to upgrade their gift. People want to help if they can.
Phrase your ask like this – We’re so grateful for your previous gift of $50. We’re serving three times the number of people at the food bank right now. Would you be able to help us out a little more this time with a gift of $75?
Your donors know times are tough. Also, if you’ve been doing a good job of engaging your donors throughout the year (this is so important now), they shouldn’t mind if you ask for a larger gift. Including the amount of your donor’s previous gift is helpful since people often don’t remember what they gave before.
Be donor-centered, as well as community-centered
There’s some dichotomy right now between being donor-centered and being community-centered, but I think you can be both. What you don’t want is to be organization-centered.
Show your donors how they can help you make a difference for your clients/community and how much you appreciate their role in that. Make your donors feel good about supporting your nonprofit.
At the same time, respect your clients/community by not undermining them by using terms like at-risk youth or underserved communities. They are people, after all.
Share your success and challenges
I’m sure this has been a challenging year for you. Maybe you’ve had to do things differently, but how you had to make changes to your food bank is less important than why you had to do it. You need to continue providing healthy food to families, while doing it safely.
Highlight some of your accomplishments, but you can share challenges, too. A theatre where I’m a subscriber had to shut down in March and won’t be able to open again until sometime next year. Understandably, this created a budget shortfall and they’re trying to raise $100,000 by December 31.
Show how you plan to continue your work with your donor’s help. Remember to stay donor-centered! You need your donors right now.
Personalization is more important than ever
Don’t send everyone the same appeal. Try to send different letters to current donors, monthly donors, lapsed donors, people on your mailing list who haven’t donated yet, event attendees, volunteers, and friends of board members.
The more you can segment, the better, but at the very least, you must do these two things.
Send a personalized appeal to current donors. They’re your best bet for getting donations now. Let them know how much you appreciate their support. If a donor contributed to an emergency campaign earlier in the year, be sure to thank them for that. These donors are committed to helping you through this difficult time.
Also, send a specific appeal tailored to monthly donors, giving them the recognition they deserve. You can ask them to upgrade or give an additional year-end gift.
This is not the time to send a generic, one-size-fits-all appeal letter. Go the extra mile for your donors, so they’ll continue to support you.
Your appeal letter should also have a personal salutation and not be addressed to Dear Friend or Dear Valued Donor. How much do you value this relationship if you can’t even use a person’s name?
This may sound like a lot of work, but if you give yourself enough time, it should be doable. Personalizing your letters can also help you raise more money.
Make it easy for your donors
Include a return envelope with amounts to check off or an envelope and a pledge form. Show what each amount will fund. Do this on your donation page, too.
Some donors will prefer to donate online. Direct them to a user-friendly donation page on your website.
Offer a monthly or recurring giving option
Monthly gifts can generate more revenue, give you a steady source of income throughout the year, and improve donor retention. Encourage your donors to give $5, $10, or even $20 a month. This may be a more viable option for some of them.
Be careful and don’t send an appeal to your current monthly donors that invites them to become monthly donors. That’s one reason why they need their own appeal.
Your letter must be easy to read (or scan)
Use short paragraphs and bulleted lists, along with bold or color for keywords, but keep it tasteful. Make it easy to read and scan. Most people won’t read your letter word for word. Use a simple font and 14-point type.
It’s fine to go over a page, especially if you’re breaking up the text with a photo and short paragraphs. I know longer letters can perform better, but donors have a lot going on, so if you’re going to write a longer letter, make every word count. You can also add a quote or short testimonial. These can be powerful and it helps break up the narrative.
Think of your letter as a conversation with a friend
You can create a better appeal if you think of your letter as a conversation with a friend. That means not using jargon like at-risk youth and underserved communities. Be specific and use everyday language. Your goal should be for your reader to understand you.
Refer to your reader as you and use you a lot more than we.
Too many editors spoil the appeal
Your entire staff doesn’t need to be involved in writing your appeal. Generally, the more people you involve in writing your letter, the worse it becomes. Fundraising Consultant Tom Ahern refers to this as letter writing by committee.
Your best writer should craft it and then turn it over to your best editor. Whoever signs the letter (your Executive Director?) can take a quick look at it, but don’t send it to a committee.
If you don’t have someone on your staff who can write a good fundraising appeal, then hire a freelancer or consultant to do it.
Besides weakening the content, involving more people takes extra time.
Make a good lasting impression, too
Repeat your ask at the end of your appeal. Don’t forget to say please and thank you.
Be sure to add a PS. People often gravitate to the PS as they scan the letter, so include something that will capture their attention. Here you could emphasize monthly giving, ask if their company provides matching gifts, or thank them for being a donor.
Get your pens out
Include a short handwritten note, if you can. Make it relevant to each donor, such as thanking someone for a previous donation or hoping a potential donor will support you. Hand sign the letters in blue ink.
This could be a tough fundraising season. That’s why you need to spend some time writing a better, more relevant appeal letter that will resonate with your donors and help bring you the donations you need. Good luck!
Read on for more advice and resources on writing a better fundraising appeal for the current climate.
Image by Howard Lake