What Matters Most
I remember the first direct-mail appeal letter I ever wrote. It was 1978. A massive flood had ravaged a village in the lowlands of Bangladesh, and I was assigned to write an appeal to current donors.
Twenty-eight years — and many appeal packages — later, I want to share what I’ve learned. You might find these thoughts helpful as you prepare for your next appeal.
The most important element of a successful appeal is the fundraising offer: a short, absolutely clear statement of what we’re asking donors to accomplish with their gifts. Example: “Give $28 today to provide 14 hot, nutritious meals for the homeless living at our shelter.” Or, “Your special year-end gift, combined with the gifts from other special friends, will help close our $280,000 budget shortfall.” Or, “When you give a gift of $140 or more to support our expansion project, we’ll send you our full-color pictorial review of the museum’s current special collection.”
Craft your fundraising offer in clear language that’s easy to understand. Make sure your offer language includes exactly what the donor’s gift will achieve. Remember, too, that your donors share your beliefs and values. That’s why they chose to support you in the first place. Write from your heart, and don’t be afraid to base your appeal on the values that shape your work.
Unless you have a compelling and time-sensitive fundraising offer, you might as well forget the rest of the package. Get the offer wrong, and you’re in big trouble. Get it right, and you’re on your way to, ahem, fundraising success.
A workable structure
There are various ways to format a fundraising letter. I’ve found this five-point structure works best:
1. Start with your reason for writing. The headline on the outer envelope is the first place to announce your purpose. Using the museum example above, it might read “Urgent: 2006 Photography Expansion Fund — Details for Members Only Inside” on the outer envelope. This headline announces the purpose and creates credibility and intrigue. The museum member is compelled to open this envelope to find out how this “members only” letter applies to her.
The lead paragraph of the letter is the next place you should announce your reason for writing. “I’m writing to give you an update on our 2006 Photography Expansion Fund.” Briefly explain the fund, why it’s important to the member and how it satisfies the member’s desire for involvement with the museum.
2. Next, ask and proclaim. Tell the donor what action you want her to take; get specific with your ask language. This is your first full proclamation of the fundraising offer. Use stories, facts and other details to buttress your need. Remember, above all else, people give to help people. Explain your need emotionally.
3. Give instructions. Tell the donor exactly how to respond. Get very specific and detailed. “Mail your check today, along with the special Photography Expansion Fund reply coupon, in the envelope provided.” Or, “Go to our special Photography Expansion Fund Web site and make your gift via credit card.” (Be certain to set up a dedicated Web site — with a look and feel to match your mail package — that can track responses triggered by the printed mail appeal.)
4. Then, ask and proclaim again. Repeat your fundraising offer and proclaim your need. Cite new reasons why the donor’s gift is important to achieving the project’s goals. Give a deadline for response so the donor has a reason to act right away.
5. Finally, repeat your instructions. Tell donors, yet again, specifically how to respond to your appeal.
Headlines, postscripts and other attention-grabbing elements can make or break an appeal package. Use subheads throughout your letter to pull the reader through. Your postscript should be no more than two sentences long and should provide an urgent restatement of your entire case for support. u
Timothy Burgess is co-founder and senior strategist at direct-response fundraising firm Merkle/Domain. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.