Appeal Letter Writing 101

 

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September is here and you know that means. Yes, it’s year-end appeal season – the time many nonprofits rely on to raise a good chunk of their revenue.

While your donors will be receiving a multitude of appeal letters, many organizations seem to go on autopilot and send a generic, boring appeal.

You can make yours stand out by giving some thought to it. Let’s get back to basics with a little appeal letter writing 101.

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 2017 Annual Appeal. Instead, say something like Learn how you can help the Stevens family find their own home.

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 story

Start your letter with a compelling story. Focus on a person or family and not your organization. Your donors want to hear about the people they’re helping. For example, you could tell a story about the Stevens family and their struggle to find affordable housing.

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.

Connect With Your Donors by Telling Stories

Get Noticed in an Instant with a Visual Story

Next, comes the 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 this year.

Phrase your ask like this – We’re so grateful for your previous gift of $50. Could you help us out a little more this time with a gift of $75?

If you’ve been doing a good job of engaging your donors throughout the year, 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

Don’t make your letter all about your organization. Show how you’re making a difference and how much you appreciate your donor’s role in that. Make your donors feel good about supporting your nonprofit.

Share your success

Highlight a few accomplishments from the year and show how you plan to continue your good work with your donor’s help. Remember to stay donor-centered!

Get personal

Send different letters to people who have donated before and thank them for supporting you. You can also tailor letters to other groups such as monthly donors, lapsed donors, people on your mailing list who haven’t donated yet, event attendees, volunteers, and friends of board members.

Your appeal will stand out if you can personalize it. Make every effort to do this, especially for people who have given before. Go the extra mile for your donors, so they’ll continue to support you.

Your letter should also have a personal salutation and not be addressed to Dear Friend, which is really more like Dear Anonymous Stranger.

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. Using Giving Levels to Drive Donations

Some donors may prefer to donate online. Direct them to a user-friendly donation page on your website. The Top 10 Most Effective Donation Form Optimizations You Can Make

Offer a monthly or recurring giving option

Monthly gifts can generate more revenue. Encourage your donors to give $10 or $20 a month. If they do, you’re getting gifts over $100 each! How to Create a Monthly Giving Program for Your Nonprofit

Your letter must be easy to read (or scan)

Use short paragraphs and bulleted lists, along with bold or color for key words, 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, but I wouldn’t go over four pages. 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

Please skip the formalities. Use a conversational tone and keep out jargon like at-risk youth and underserved communities. Be specific and use everyday language. Refer to your reader as you and use you a lot more than we. How to Perform the “You” Test for Donor-Centered Communications – Do You Pass?

Too many editors spoil the 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.

Besides weakening the content, involving more people takes extra time.

Final impressions matter, too

Repeat your ask at the end of the letter. 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 her for a previous donation or letting him know it was nice to see him at a recent event. Hand sign the letters in blue ink.

Are you ready?

Stand out with an appeal letter that will capture your donors’ attention and bring you the donations you need. Good luck!

Read on for more advice on writing a great appeal letter.

4 Ways to Spice Up Your Fall Fundraising Appeal

Fundraising Letter: How To Write A Compelling Appeal (+ Examples)

8 Steps to Writing Successful Fundraising Letters

8 Ways to Write a Better Fundraising Letter

Image by Howard Lake

 

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Connect With Your Donors by Telling Stories

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When your donors open your appeal letter or newsletter, do you bore them with a bunch of mind-numbing statistics, or do you share a story about how the Wilson family moved out of a shelter and into a home of their own?

If you’re making a difference, you have stories to tell

Donors love stories. Stories bring the work you do to life by using everyday language to create a scene. Here’s an example.

Diane woke up feeling good for the first time in awhile. After losing her job and being evicted from her apartment, she moved between her sister’s place, motels, and shelters. It was taking a toll on her family and her kids were falling behind in school.

That was about to change because thanks to donors like you, Diane and her family will be moving into a home of their own.

Can you tell a story like that? If you’re making a difference, you can. Stories should show your donors how they’re helping you making a difference for the people you serve.

Create a culture of storytelling

If you create a storytelling culture in your organization, you can make storytelling the norm instead of the exception.

Creating stories takes a little more work, but they will help you connect with your donors. When you put together a story, ask.

  • Why would your donors be interested in this story?
  • Why is this important?
  • Are you using clear, everyday language (no jargon) to make sure your donors understand your story?
  • Who are you helping?
  • How are your donors helping you make a difference?

Client or program recipient stories are best. You’ll need to work together with your program staff to get these stories. Everyone needs to understand how important this is. Share stories at staff meetings and/or set up regular meetings with program staff to gather stories.

Another way to find stories is to put a Share Your Story page on your website. Share-Your-Story Page | an addition to the fundraiser’s arsenal of tools

You can also share profiles of volunteers, board members, and donors. Many organizations profile new board members in their newsletters. That’s okay, but instead of emphasizing their professional background, concentrate on what drew them to your organization. Perhaps she benefited from having a tutor when she was in school or he’s passionate about human rights.

Create a story bank to help you organize all your stories. Take advantage of slower times of the year to gather stories. You want to use stories often. Use them in your appeal letters, thank you letters, newsletters, annual reports, website, blog, and other types of social media. You can use the same stories in different channels.

Give your stories the personal touch

Use people’s names to make your stories more personal. I realize you might run into confidentiality issues, but you can change names to protect someone’s privacy. You could also do a composite story, but don’t make up anything. Fundraising with Names Have Been Changed Disclaimers

Your stories aren’t about your organization

Let your donors know how with their help, Janet doesn’t have to choose between buying groceries and paying the heating bill. Your organization stays in the background. And remember, Your Mission Statement is NOT Your Story

Connect with your donors by telling them a story. In my next post, I’ll write about sharing visual stories.

Resources to help you tell your stories

The Storytelling Nonprofit

INFOGRAPHIC: A Nonprofit Storytelling How-To

NON-PROFIT STORYTELLING: HOW TO STAND OUT IN A CROWD

Do You Need an Appeal Letter Refresher Course?

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You may have noticed an influx of appeal letters over the last few weeks. Some organizations do their main fundraising drive in the spring, especially if their fiscal year ends on June 30. Others do theirs at the end of the year and some do more than one.

That’s all fine. What’s not fine is the mediocre letters I see. Some of these organizations need a refresher course in appeal letter writing.

Whether you’re planning a spring campaign or one later in the year, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Don’t call it an annual appeal

Okay, you can use the term annual appeal around the office, but not in your appeal letter. That also goes for 2017 annual fund drive, 2017 Massachusetts Drive, or spring fund drive.

Some of the letters I received opened by saying their annual fund drive is underway. Others state it in a header or a teaser on the outer envelope.

The fact that your annual appeal is underway means nothing to your donors and is not a compelling way to open your appeal. The same goes for the end of your fiscal year.

Given how some people feel about fundraising, an envelope teaser that says “Spring Appeal Enclosed” could end up in the recycle bin. If you want to use a teaser, try something like “What if you awoke each day crying from hunger, but you had nothing to eat?

That organization opened their appeal with a story about Kevin, a six-month-old baby in Haiti who’s suffering from malnutrition. That’s what you need to do – open your appeal with an engaging story.

It should be obvious you’re sending an appeal unless you bury your ask. Your ask should come after the story.

Why should I give to your organization?

Most of the appeals I’ve received have come from organizations I don’t already support. I need a good reason to give to your organization and I’m not seeing that.

It’s clear these letters are one size fits all and most likely my name is on a list they purchased or exchanged. Even so, give me some indication that you know me as a person. If I already support hunger-relief organizations, emphasize how you’re making a difference because you know that’s important to me.

Another gift so soon?

I do most of my giving in December so if you’re sending me another appeal now, you need to convince me why I should give again so soon. In many cases, you never acknowledge that I’ve given before. It’s the same old boring stuff.

Of course, you can make more than one ask a year, but first I need to be thanked, and thanked well, and hear from you regularly.

Always thank donors for a previous gift. Let them know why you need an additional donation now. Perhaps you’re losing funding because of budget cuts or you want to launch a new program.

This is also a good opportunity to upgrade your current donors to monthly giving. And you can always try to woo back some of your lapsed donors with a personalized letter.

Enough with the mailing labels

Please don’t send me mailing labels, notepads, calendars, etc. It’s not going to help convince me to donate to your organization. One organization I’ve never supported just sent me a calendar. They opened their letter with “Because you’re someone who cares deeply for nature….” Okay, they tried to make a connection, but if I’m someone who cares about nature why would I want you to waste paper by sending me calendar I don’t need?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds your swag to be wasteful. Instead, invest your print budget in creating thank you cards and donor-centered updates.

Make your appeal shine

It’s never easy to raise money, but you’ll have a better chance if you send a donor-centered appeal that shows how you’re making a difference. Here’s more information on creating a great appeal.

Stand Out With an Amazing Appeal Letter

6 Ways to Improve Your Annual Fundraising Appeal

11 Top Fundraising Consultants Weigh In on Donation Request Letters

Your Audience Isn’t Everyone

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The board chair at a place where I used to work would often say, “We need more people to know about us.” Does that sound familiar? It’s tempting to cast a wide net so as many people as possible can find out about your organization, but that’s not a good strategy.

Not everyone is interested in your organization and that’s okay. The key is to find people who are interested in what you do and keep them interested.

Who is your audience?

You already have a core group of donors and other supporters, but how well do you know them?  You could send them a short survey asking them why they donate, what issues are important to them, and how they like to communicate (by mail, email, or both). Another idea is to put a poll in your e-newsletter to find out their favorite article.

While surveys are a great way to connect, not everyone is going to respond to them. Another tactic to try is to create donor personas. You can use your database to figure out vital information and/or interview a few donors.

Your database also comes in handy because you want to segment your donors  – first-time donors, long-term donors, monthly donors, etc –  so you can personalize their communication as much as possible.

You can also create personas to help you recruit volunteers.

What does your audience like?

Now that you’ve gotten to know your audience, think about what they would like. Each time you write an appeal letter, thank you letter, newsletter article, etc, keep your donor/audience in mind. What are their interests? What will capture their attention, make them read more, and take action?  Remember, you are not your donor/audience. The worst mistake you can make in fundraising

If you’ve surveyed your donors about your newsletter, you’ll probably find they like success stories about the people/community you serve and are not so interested in board member profiles.They don’t need to hear you brag about your organization, but they do want to know how their donations are helping you make a difference.

Your donors/audience are busy. They’re not going to have time to weed through a bunch of long-winded messages. Make your point clearly and concisely and leave out the jargon. Make sure people understand what you’re trying to say.

Pay attention to what your audience is doing.

Is your audience paying attention to you?  Are they making donations, opening your email messages, or responding to your social media posts?   

If they’re not paying attention you, it may be because you’re communicating with the wrong audience, your messages don’t interest them, they’re busy, or you’re using the wrong channels.

These are things you can fix. Send the right messages to the right audience using the right channels.

Expanding your reach.

Of course, you’ll want to find new donors and other supporters, but reach out to people who already have a connection with you. New donors could be volunteers, event attendees, newsletter subscribers, social media followers, or friends of board members and other donors. Putting up a billboard on a highway or ad on a subway train won’t get you a lot of new supporters.

The answer to the question How do I ask strangers for money? is you find a connection first. And, keep in mind – your audience isn’t everyone.

Let Go and Freshen Up: Spring Cleaning for Your Nonprofit

The Great Clean-Up

One thing I’ve noticed now that it’s officially spring is the number of articles about spring cleaning and decluttering. For many of us, these types of projects can be overwhelming, especially if we’ve ignored that mutating pile of paperwork or our closets are overflowing with so much stuff we can barely open the door.

As much as I dislike cleaning and organizing, I’m happy once it gets done. Often getting started is the hardest part.

Your nonprofit organization should also do its own version of spring cleaning and decluttering. If you’re feeling reluctant about taking on these so-called cumbersome tasks, just think how happy you’ll be once they get done.

Let’s get started!

Clean up your mailing lists and database

Did you have an influx of address changes, returned mail, and bounced emails after you sent your year-end appeal? This is a good time to clean up and update both your direct mail and email mailing lists.

Don’t wait until right before your next mailing to clean up your donor data. Even though it’s tedious, have someone who’s familiar with your donors (your development director?) go through your mailing lists and database to see if you need to make any additions, changes, and deletions.

Be meticulous. No donor wants to see her name misspelled, be addressed as Mrs. when she prefers Ms., or receive three mailings because you have duplicate records.

Your donor database is an important tool and it needs to be up-to-date and filled with accurate information about your donors.

Letting go

As you clean up your donor database, pay particular attention to your lapsed donors. It may be time to take some of them out of your active donor file. Who are these people?  If they’ve donated in the past, is it likely they’ll donate again? For example, the mother of a former staff member who left five years ago is a good candidate for your inactive file.

Send one more targeted mailing to people who haven’t donated for at least four years. Let them know you miss them and want them back. If you don’t hear anything, let them go. 4 Tips: When to Remove a Lapsed Donor from Your Database

Do the same thing with your email list. It doesn’t make sense to send email to people who don’t respond to it. Give these people a chance to re-engage, and if they’re not even opening your emails, move them to an inactive file. Why Deleting People from Your Email List is a Good Thing

But wait you say, we want as many people in our database and email lists as possible, don’t we?  No, you want people who are still interested your organization. Quality wins over quantity.

You can save money by not mailing to people who aren’t going to support you and aren’t paying attention to you.

Freshen up your messages

Now that you’ve pared down your mailing lists to active donors and supporters, they deserve something good the next time you communicate with them. Will they get that?

Take a good look at your appeal letters, thank you letters, and other content. Have you been using the same stale, old templates for years?  Are your letters all about how great your organization is and filled with jargon?  Are your newsletter articles mind-numbingly boring?

Freshen them up with some donor-centered content. Can Your Organization Pass the Donor-Centered Test?

Don’t put it off too long

Your clutter and dust at home won’t disappear on their own. The longer you ignore it, the worse it gets. The same is true for your nonprofit.

Take on your cleaning and organization projects as soon as you can. You’ll be happy once they’re done.

Enough With the Jargon

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Nonprofits love their jargon, don’t they?  You see appeal letters, thank you letters, and newsletter articles laced with terms like at-risk youth, underserved communities, leverage, and impactful.

I think people use jargon because it’s an insider language and it makes them feel like they’re “in the know” in their professional world. It’s easy to slip into jargon-mode around the office. But the danger comes when jargon creeps outside of your insular community and into your donor communication.

People need to understand you to connect with you

We can get lazy and use jargon when we can’t think of anything fresh and original. And that’s the problem because jargon is boring and your donors may not understand what you’re trying to say. Your donors don’t use these terms and neither should you.

Jargon fixes

Sometimes you need to give a little more information. For example, instead of just using the term food insecurity, describe a situation where a single mother has to choose between buying groceries and paying the heating bill.

Let’s look at a few more of these problem terms and what you can say instead. You may use some of these terms internally and they might be in your mission statement, but try to limit them when you communicate with donors.

  • At-risk means there’s a possibility something bad will happen. Instead of just saying at-risk students or youth, tell a story or give specific examples of something bad that could happen. Our tutoring program works with high school students who are more likely to fail, be held back, and drop out of school.   
  • Underserved means not receiving adequate help or services. Instead of saying we work with underserved communities, explain what types of services these residents don’t receive. Maybe it’s healthcare, affordable housing, or decent preschool. Tell a story or give a specific example. Linda can’t send her daughter Kyra to a good preschool because there isn’t an affordable one nearby.
  • Impact means having an effect on someone or something. How are you doing that, and why is it important?  Again, give a specific example. Thanks to donors like you, we’ve helped families find affordable housing so they don’t have to live in a shelter, a motel, or their car. Now they have a place to call home. And, let’s please all agree to stop using the word impactful.

Tell a story

This is why stories are so important. You can get beyond that vague, impersonal jargon and let your donors see firsthand how they’re helping you make a difference for the people/community you serve.

What would Aunt Shirley think?

Imagine you’re at a family gathering and you’re explaining what your organization does to Aunt Shirley. Does she look confused and uninterested when you spew out words like underserved and at-risk, or does she want you to tell her more when you mention kids in your tutoring program are doing much better in school?

Let’s stop using jargon when we can use clear, conversational language instead. Here are more examples of cringe-worthy jargon. I’d love to hear some of your pet peeves, as well.

21 irritating jargon phrases, and new clichés you should replace them with

Nonprofit Jargon: 22 Phrases We Love to Hate

24 Words and Phrases It’s Time for Nonprofits to Stop Using

Photo by Wes Schaeffer

Is Your Newsletter Boring?

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There’s a good chance the answer to this question is yes. Many nonprofit organizations use a newsletter as a way to engage their donors, but the opposite is happening. That’s because most donor newsletters can be used as a cure for insomnia. They’re too long and filled with articles that brag about how wonderful the organization is.

Don’t worry. You can create an engaging newsletter your donors will want to read. Here’s how.

Think about what your donors want

You may opt not to do a print newsletter because it’s expensive and takes too much time, but you’re making a mistake if many of your donors prefer print.

I think you’ll have more success if you can do both print and electronic newsletters. I recommend a short e-newsletter once or twice a month and one to four print newsletters a year. But ask your donors what they like, and listen to what they say. If a majority of them prefer one over the other, then doing both may not make sense.

You also want to include content that will interest your donors. Do you think they would rather read an article about your CEO receiving an award or one about Jacob acing his math test after his weekly tutoring sessions? The answer should be obvious.

Your donors want to hear how they’re helping you make a difference.

Share stories

Each newsletter needs to begin with a compelling story. Client stories are best, but you could also do profiles of volunteers, board members, and donors. Focus on what drew them to your mission.

Create a story bank that includes at least three client success stories to use every year.

Write to your donors

Write your newsletter in the second person, emphasizing you much more than we. Be personal and conversational. Say – You helped Jacob improve his math skills or Because of donors like you, X number of students are now reading at their grade level or above.

Ditch the jargon and other language your donors won’t understand. Write as if you’re having a conversation with a friend.

I’m not a fan of the letter from the CEO because those tend to be organization-centered instead of donor-centered.  

Say thank you

Never miss an opportunity to thank your donors. Every one of your newsletters needs to show gratitude and emphasize how much you appreciate your donors.

Make it easy to read (and scan)

Most of your donors aren’t going to read your newsletter word for word, especially your e-newsletter. Include enticing headlines and email subject lines, at least a 12-point font, and lots of white space so your donors can easily scan your newsletter.

Stick to black type on a white background as much as possible. Colors are pretty, but not if it’s hindering your donor’s ability to read your newsletter. Photos can be a great way to add color, as well as tell a story in an instant.

Use the inverted pyramid and put the most important story first, keeping in mind your donors may not get to all the articles.

Very important –  make sure your donors can read your e-newsletter on a mobile device.

Short and sweet

Your print newsletter should be no more than four pages. Limit your monthly e-newsletter to four articles. Some organizations send an e-newsletter twice a month. Those should be even shorter – two or three articles.

You may find you have more success with shorter, more frequent email updates.

Send it to the right audience

Fundraising guru Tom Ahern recommends sending your print newsletter only to donors. This can help you keep it donor-centered, as well as cut down on mailing costs.

Send e-newsletters only to people who have signed up for it. They may or may not be donors, but an e-newsletter can also be a good cultivation tool.

Let’s put an end to boring newsletters. Create one your donors will want to read.

Read on for more information about donor newsletters.

Shhh! Secret Formula for Donor Newsletters That Delight

3 Pitfalls of Nonprofit Newsletters and How to Avoid Them

HOW TO CREATE A BETTER NON-PROFIT NEWSLETTER

How to Format Your Nonprofit Newsletter

Photo by Dwight Sipler