Nearly every non-profit uses fundraising letters to raise money. They do that for one simple reason: fundraising letters work. Whether you’re using a snail mail letter sent with a stamp or an e-mail sent with a “donate now!” link, chances are your non-profit is sending fundraising letters to your donors on a regular basis.
The truth is, though, that most fundraisers I know worry about writing those letters… they worry that there’s some secret sauce they’re not privy to, or that they need years of practice in order to write appeal letters that get results. I’m happy to tell you that this isn’t the case.
While it is true that practice will make you a better fundraising writer, and that there are lots of tricks that experienced copywriters know that will help you raise more money, the fact is that nearly anyone can write good fundraising letters. In fact, there are just 8 things you really need to focus on if you want to write better fundraising appeals that raise more money for your non-profit.
Here they are, in no particular order:
#1: Be Conversational
Good fundraising letters are conversational. This means that your letters should feel as if the person writing them is talking directly to you. That’s why your appeals should be person to person, meaning they come from just one person at the organization and feel as if that person is talking directly to you.
Likewise, your letters shouldn’t use lots of jargon or acronyms. They should be easily understandable, even by people who don’t know much about your non-profit. In fact, the general rule of thumb is that your appeal letters should be written at about a 6th grade reading level. That will make them easy to read for your entire donor universe.
#2: Be Emotional
The best fundraising letters are emotional in tone. While there is a temptation to stuff your appeal letters full of facts, figures, and statistics, these are rarely the things that truly move your donors to give. There’s a place for facts and figures… but the primary function of your letters should be to elicit your donors’ emotions.
There are lots of different ways to be emotional in your appeals. One of the best ways is to tell stories about your work: about the people you have already helped, and the people you want to help. Show the outcomes of your work and talk about the lives you’ve changed or saved. And of course, don’t be afraid to use emotionally charged language. It works!
#3: Include an Actual Ask
Your donors won’t give unless you ask. Far too many fundraising letters include wishy-washy asks. Making a statement like “We hope you will give to support our work” is not making an ask. Good asks are questions, and they include specific ask amounts.
Did you ever wonder why so many appeal letters say things like, “Will you give $100, $50, $25, or whatever you can afford to help us save lives today?” Fundraisers use lines like that (called “an ask string”) because the data has shown that those are effective asks: they are yes / no questions that ask donors to give one of three different amounts, while being open to another level gift.
One other tip: when asking for different amounts, the data shows you should always put the largest amount first, and the smallest amount last. Thus, you should ask for “$500, $250, $100, or whatever you can afford…” instead of “$100, $250, $500, or whatever you can afford…” When you put the largest amount first, it anchors that amount in people’s minds, and you’ll have a higher average donation from that letter.
#4: Make Your Fundraising Letters Look Easy to Read
All great fundraising letters should look easy to read. If your letters look hard to read, people won’t read them. Far too many non-profits send out fundraising letters the look like walls of 10-point text. That’s a huge mistake.
The best way to make sure your letters look easy to read is to make sure you include plenty of “white space.” This means including plenty of space on the paper where there isn’t text. You can do this by leaving a space between paragraphs, by including bullet points or pull quotes, and by making sure you have plenty of room in your margins, headers, and footers.
#5: Make Your Fundraising Letters “Skim-able”
Many of the people reading your letters – including your current donors – open their mail on the way from the mailbox to the trash can. This means they’ll open your letter and skim it as they quickly decide whether to keep it or to toss it in the trash. If you want them to choose to keep your letter so they can make a donation, you need to make your fundraising letters skim-able.
When people skim letters, they are only looking at a few things that stand out and catch their eye. Those things are usually the first line, all of the bolded or underlined words or sentences, the pull quotes and pictures, and the P.S.
Thus, you need to make sure you use enough bolding / highlighting / underlining to make sure people can get the gist of your letter (and your ask!) as the skim through your letter. Also be sure to always include a P.S. in your letter. The P.S. should include a 1-2 sentence summary of your letter and a 1 sentence ask string that matches the ask string you used earlier in the body of your letter.
#6: Be Concise… but Not Too Concise
When it comes to writing fundraising letters, you need to be concise… but not too concise.
Many non-profits say the same thing over and over again in their appeal letters. This is a mistake. You shouldn’t be padding your word count by making the same points two, three, or four times in the same letter. The only thing you should be repeating in your letter is the ask, which you can make 1-2 times in the body of the letter and then again in the P.S.
On the other side of the spectrum, some organizations impose an artificial length-limit on their letters. They insist that all of their appeals be 1 page, or no more than 2 pages. This is also a mistake. Sometimes writing a good, emotionally compelling letter takes more than 2 pages, and that’s ok. You should give yourself enough space to say everything you want to say, without saying the same things over and over again.
Be concise… but not too concise.
#7: Make Your Fundraising Letters Donor-Centered
All of your fundraising communications should be donor-centered… this includes your fundraising letters. Being donor-centered means taking time to talk about the donor in your letters, and to use language that represents the importance of your donor in your organization’s efforts.
That’s why you should use the word “you” so much in your fundraising appeals. Far too many non-profits are always talking about themselves… here’s what we’re doing, here’s why we are so great, here are all of the amazing plans we have for the future.
Whenever possible, frame things through the donor-centered lens. Here are all of the things YOU are doing by supporting our programs. Here’s why YOU should continue to be involved. YOU are amazing. YOU are an integral part of our team. Thank YOU for your commitment to the people and families we serve.
#8: Include a Reply Device
Recent data and testing show that you should include both a reply device and a reply envelope with your fundraising letters. This means including a reply card that is separate from the reply envelope – people can fill out the reply card and insert it, along with their check, into the reply envelope and send it back to your non-profit.
Many organizations like to use a reply envelope that has the reply card built in… or they use a tear-off portion at the bottom of the letter that can be inserted into the reply envelope. Studies have shown that when you include a separate reply card, your response rate will go up. So always include both a reply card and a reply envelope with your appeal letters (and no, you don’t need to use a pre-stamped or pre-paid reply envelope).
Remember – everyone can write great fundraising letters that get results. Implement these 8 rules for writing better letters, and you’ll be well on your way to writing successful mail appeals!