Fundraising letters are a staple of non-profit development programs for one reason: they work. Annual appeal letters, year-end fundraising mailings, and other fundraising letters have raised significant revenue for non-profits over the years, and will continue to do so.
But not all mail appeals are created equal. If you want to send a letter that gets results, you need to make sure that you are writing a compelling appeal to your donor base.
In this article, I'm going to walk you through the five most important rules for writing successful solicitation letters, and then give you a sample fundraising letter you can use as a template for your non-profit.
Remember that the words you write (sometimes called your “copy”) are the most important part of your appeal letters, so that's what we'll be talking about in this article. Many non-profits are so focused on the design of the letter, the type of paper they use, or the inserts they place in the envelope that they forget the most important thing: the fundraising copy. Don't make this mistake. Follow the rules in this article and use the sample fundraising letter that is included at the end to help you craft the most successful appeal letter in the history of your non-profit.
The Five Rules of Great Fundraising Letters
In my experience, there are five key rules that every non-profit needs to follow in order to write strong fundraising appeals. You'll see each of these rules in action in the sample fundraising letter you can download at the end of this article:
#1: Remember Your Audience
As you sit down to write your letter, it is important to remember your audience. The sad truth is that most people won’t read the entirety of anything you send them. Most people will skim the letter on the way to the trash can. This means that your copy will need to be strong enough that in that short 10-second window, you draw enough people in to read the letter that the letter becomes profitable for your organization.You’ve only got a short amount of time to get people to read your letter. The only way to do that is by writing amazing copy.
There’s a maxim in direct mail writing that goes something like this:
The headlines you use are an advertisement for people to read the first sentence of your letter. Write great headlines and you “sell” people on reading that first sentence…
Your first sentence is an advertisement for people to read the entire first paragraph of your letter. Write a great first sentence and you “sell” people on reading the whole first paragraph of your letter.
The first paragraph of your letter is an advertisement for people to read the second paragraph of your letter. Write a great first paragraph and people will read the second paragraph of your letter. And so on…
Does this mean you should only focus on writing strong headlines and a strong first and second paragraph, but not worry about the nitty-gritty writing on page 4? Not at all! Remember… your most committed supporters and those most interested in the mission of your organization will be the ones who read all the way through. They will be interested in your headlines, interested in your first paragraph and interested in reading all the way to the P.S. So be sure to write a strong letter from beginning to end!
#2: Remember What People Read First
Studies have shown that when scanning your letter, people will read certain key items first, and use those items as an indicator as to whether or not they should read the rest of the letter. Those items are:
Bolded, underlined and italicized words
The pictures / picture captions
Pull-quotes in the letter
The P.S. (and P.S.S., etc.) at the bottom of your letter
The first paragraph of your letter
Headlines / sub-headlines (if you use them)
What does this mean for you, as you write the letter? It means that, first and foremost, you need to include these items in your letter – you may not normally write P.S.’s in your personal letters, but when you are writing a fundraising letter, you absolutely have to have one. The same goes for using bolded words, headlines, etc. Second, it means that these items – the ones people read first – need to be exceptionally strong. Remember – people are reading the headlines, the P.S., the captions, etc. to see if they want to read the rest of your letter. These items are, in a sense, “ads” for the rest of your letter. If you succeed in getting people interested they will read through more of the letter. If not, they will continue on with their day and your letter will end up in the trash can. This means that you should spend extra time to make sure that these items are exceptionally strong and well-written. Take a look at the sample fundraising letter you can download below to see some of these items in action.
#3: Get Emotional in Your Appeal Letters
Fundraising letters should be emotional. The best of them appeal to readers’ deepest feelings and desires, things like their faith, their worldview and beliefs about humanity, their hope for a better world for their children, their sense of justice and fairness, etc. People make the decision to donate with their hearts… only after they make that decision (based on feelings) do they try to back up those feelings with facts and figures. The best letters appeal to emotion without feeling sappy or contrived. Use stories. Use pictures, if appropriate. Show the concrete difference your organization is making in the world. Connect people with your mission and your results. Make them feel what you are saying, instead of just reading what you are saying. Does this mean you shouldn’t clearly explain the need or use facts, figures and statistics? No, not at all – use them to make your case. What it does mean, though, is that your letter should lean more towards the emotional side and less towards the clinical side. Read through the sample fundraising letter included at the end of this article to see how a letter should appeal to emotions, while also painting a clear picture of the need.
#4: Don't Write for Your High School English Teacher… Write for Your Readers
It may surprise you to learn that you don't need to use perfect grammar and punctuation in your fundraising letters. Your appeal letters don't need to be perfect, they just need to “work.” And fundraising letters that work are written in a conversational tone that is easily understood by the vast majority of people who are reading them. This means no high-brow language! No acronyms that people don’t understand. No sentences that start, “Our multi-disciplinary team-based approach to forensic interviewing…” Direct mail studies have shown that the best letters are written on about a sixth-grade level. Great letters feel conversational… they sound like someone is talking to you. Letters like this are easier to read. If people feel like your letter is difficult to read or understand, guess what? They’ll stop reading it! It’s ok to use sentence fragments or extra punctuation, and to start sentences with prepositions if doing these things makes your letter easier to read. Of course, your letter still needs to look like it was written by a professional, so typos are out, as is sloppy writing. You want your letter to be conversational, but not sloppy. As you read the sample fundraising letter below, take a look at how the language, punctuation, and spacing is used to make the letter look inviting and easy to read.
#5: Make a True Ask in Your Letter
Every good fundraising letter needs a concrete ask. Wishy-washy asks just don’t work. Whenever a non-profit shows me a letter that they want to send out and it says something like, “Please make a donation today!” or “Please give whatever you can to help us make this dream a reality!” I know the letter is destined to fail. People don’t give to generic, wishy-washy asks and when they do, they don’t give much.
Instead, ask for “$100, $50, $25, or whatever you can afford,” or “your most generous donation of $100, $500, or $1,000 today!” Ask for a concrete number, like we do in the sample fundraising letter below, and your donors will give… and give more than if you make a wishy-washy ask.