Fundraising letters still work. The Internet, e-mail, social media and scores of other new fundraising tactics have emerged over the past few decades, and many of them work well… but despite what you may have heard, direct mail fundraising, annual appeal letters, and other fundraising mailings are still raising millions of dollars for non-profits year in and year out.
Today, let’s take a look at 5 of the most important principles for writing successful fundraising letters – mailings that get results and raise dollars for your organization:
#1 – Write for Your Readers, not Your High School English Teacher
This may seem surprising, but great direct mail fundraising letters needn’t be perfect, they just need to “work.” 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…” (I’m looking at you, Children’s Advocacy Centers!)
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.
#2 – Let Your Letter be as Long as it Needs to Be
Don’t set artificial rules about how long your letters can be. Don’t decide that letters from your organization can only be 2 pages (or… gasp! 1 page) long. Take the time to state your case. Take the space you need to write a great letter and make a great ask.
Most non-profit fundraising letters are at least 3 pages long. Many are longer. I’ve seen organizations successfully use 7 and even 10 page letters in the past. Whatever the length of your letter, just make sure you design your letter for success.
Of course, you don’t want to make your letters longer than they need to be. If it really takes you 8 pages to state your case well, do it. But it you could tighten it up to just 4 or 5 pages, do that instead. Readers can and will get mad and stop reading if you try to get them to read 8 pages but repeat yourself and use circuitous language along the way.
One other consideration is postage: use your postage meter (or one at the local post office) to see how many pages you can include in a letter (using the envelopes and paper you are planning to use) for the price of one stamp (or one postal unit). Be extra careful about adding a piece of paper beyond that limit.
For example, if you can send 3 pages in an envelope with a reply envelope for $.45, and your letter is 3 ½ pages long, ask yourself if you can trim off that extra ½ page of copy to save the extra postage charges. Of course, if your letter is 6 pages long, that’s a different story, and you’re likely going to need to pay the extra postage no matter how much editing you do, assuming your letter was fairly well-written to begin with.
#3 – Appeal to Your Reader’s Emotions
Direct mail 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 give when you touch their soul. Sound over the top? It’s not… it’s what works. 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.
#4 – Build to a Crescendo
Great direct mail fundraising letters are like great movies – they have a strong story arc that draws the reader deeper and deeper into the letter. They have a crescendo or climax, a point where the emotion and sense of purpose of the letter come together… then they have the ask, which immediately follows the crescendo.
For example, let’s say you are writing a fundraising letter for an abused woman’s shelter. You start the letter with a mention of a particular client named Maria (name changed, obviously) who came to the shelter after being abused by her husband. That story is compelling, and initially draws people into the letter.
Then, you talk about what a problem spousal abuse is in your area… readers see a bigger picture, and they get concerned.
After that, your letter talks about the shortage of shelters for abused women in your area, which triggers alarm in your readers. You then talk about the danger for women who are abused and then have to return to their homes because of a lack of shelter beds… this raises further alarm and compassion in your readers.
Then you tie the problem back into Maria, the story you led with… you talk about the problems she would face if she were forced to leave your shelter, and how you can only guarantee a space for each client for 3 nights, because of a lack of space. Readers are hooked, and wondering how they can help you change this by providing more beds / rooms.
You briefly present your plan to open a new wing and talk about how that wing will help save dozens of women like Maria…
Then, you make your ask….
#5 – Use “You” A Lot
Your letters should be written from a first person perspective, meaning you talk about “I” and “we” instead of “the organization,” or “the charity.” But – and this is super important for writing successful letters – mostly what you should be saying is “you,” meaning “you, the donor.” Your letters should focus on your work, yes, but really should focus on the donor you are writing to.
This means talking about “your past support,” “your concern for the poor,” “your assistance with this project,” “the difference you can make.”
“You” is one of the most important words in a direct mail fundraiser’s lexicon!
Photo Credits: R. Nial Bradshaw and Roger H. Goun