6 Ways to Improve Your Annual Fundraising Appeal
The end of the year will be here before you know it! Are you working on your year-end appeal? Around this time of year, it’s common for me to hear one or more of the following—not just from newbies to the profession, but also from seasoned pros:
- "I’m struggling with copy. Last year’s appeal didn’t do as well as I had hoped."
- "I think our copy is OK, but wish it could be more inspiring."
- "I wish I knew some tricks to get more folks to open our envelope (or email)."
- "I’d like to leverage our appeal with some email and social media, but don’t know where to start."
- "I’m flying by the seat of my pants! Wish I knew what to do and when to do it better."
If these statements sound familiar, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Crafting fundraising appeals and end-of-year campaigns is not rocket science, but you do have to adhere to certain guidelines if you want to achieve blastoff. So, here come some guidelines!
I put these in order, with the most important first. There are plenty more tips where these came from, however, since I only have selected six, you can consider all of these critically important to your success.
1. Mailing list, mailing list, mailing list
You can have the best copy in the world, but without the right group of people to send it to, you won’t raise much money. I can’t overemphasize this. I’ve seen too many fundraising campaigns fail for want of the proper list. When it comes to assuring fundraising success, apply the Pareto Rule. Spend 80 percent of your time building your list, and 20 percent writing copy and designing your package. This holds true for both your email and snail-mail lists.
Action tip: To build a good list, begin with folks closest to you:
- Current donors
- Past donors
- Board and committee members and staff
- Event attendees
- Folks connected to you in other ways (e.g., volunteers, parents of students, alumni, families of patients, purchasers of programs, friends of board members and volunteers, subscribers to your newsletter, etc.)
2. Get it opened
Your letter is no good if the envelope gets tossed right away. I receive my mail in my garage. I stand over my recycling bin, trying to discern which pieces will go there immediately, and which will get carried upstairs into the house. What will get your reader to bring your letter inside?
I often read my email on my phone, in those stolen moments while I’m waiting for something else to happen. I hover over the delete button, trying to decide if it’s really worth saving this email for later when I’ll have more time or be at my desk. What will get your reader to hit “open”?
Action tips: Consider the following:
Plain envelope. I’m a huge fan of the plain white envelope with nothing on it. No logo. Not even your name. Just a return address (and a place where a volunteer who is adding personal notes can handwrite his or her own name). It’s hard for folks to simply toss a mysterious plain envelope. (Note: The post office won’t allow this unless you’re using a first-class stamp, so it’s for renewal and warm prospecting letters more than for direct-mail acquisition.)
Colored envelope. This is something to test. I’ve had great success with brightly colored envelopes that don’t even match the design of the enclosed appeal. They simply stand out in the mail box and do their job of getting opened.
Oversized envelope. This is another trick to get folks to take notice. An oversized envelope stands out in the mail. Of course, it requires extra postage, and this can backfire, making folks think you’re using money for the wrong purposes. It works best for event invitations rather than annual appeals.
Envelope teaser. Direct mail fundraising guru Mal Warwick described a range of things that can be accomplished with a teaser, ranging from describing what’s inside to asking a question to starting a story, in his book. He also said, “Often the best teaser is no teaser at all. Fundraising letters are almost always crafted to mimic personal letters, so teasers may well cheapen or undermine the effect the writer wants to achieve.” Use some judgment. And ask folks outside your office if the teaser would turn them on or off. Begin your own collection at home, noting which teasers get you to open the envelopes and which you’d be inclined to toss.
Subject line teaser. The subject line is like the outer envelope for direct mail. It’s the window into your message. Make it intriguing, urgent, exciting, compelling, emotional, shocking or funny. The more useful and specific it is the better. Here's more on some great year-end email subject lines.
3. Begin with the P.S.
I don’t seem to be able to say this enough! I’m astounded by how many nonprofits ignore this valuable piece of real estate. Folks, please listen up: it’s the Boardwalk and Park Place of your letter! Ninety percent read the P.S. first.
Action tip: Write your letter; then take a good look at it and pull out your most important message and move it to the P.S. to assure it’s seen.
4. Make it readable
The main point is to not hurt your readers’ eyes or get their brains twisted in knots. They don’t have time to bother with that, so they won’t have time to bother with you. All your brilliant copywriting will go to waste.
- Use a serif font. It’s more readable.
- Bump up the size of your font. The suggestion used to be use a minimum 12 point. Due to the aging of baby boomers, today it’s 14. Resist the temptation to eschew editing in favor of squishing your font down to 11 point so you can fit everything in. Less is definitely more here.
- Indent paragraphs. Not only is this a friendlier style (something I learned in middle school typing class), it also invites the readers into your copy and gives their eyes another little rest. Our brains use indents in “pattern recognition.” Pattern recognition is important to keep reading speedy. And, remember, your reader has no time.
- Keep paragraphs short. Aim for no more than five lines. Break them up with one-liners.
- Use subheads, boldface, italics and underlining to emphasize key points. Don’t overdo it, of course. I like to consider my letters several letters within one letter. If the reader reads only the subheads, they’ll get the gist. If they read only the boldface, they’ll get the gist. And so forth. You don’t really know which part of the letter your donor will actually read, so repetition is essential.
5. Make it reader-centric
Never forget your job: to invite the reader to join you in something amazing, essential, critical and inspiring. Don’t make it about you. Make it about his or her experience.
Action tips: Use “"you" rather than "I," "we" or the name of your nonprofit. Also, cross out all the egocentric stuff and rewrite it.
As veteran communicator Tom Ahern said:
"'You' is glue. Every time you use it (especially in headlines) the reader pays slightly more attention … involuntarily. It’s the best cheap trick I know.”
6. Write like you—and your readers—talk
- Read it out loud. Every place you’re tempted to put in a contraction, do so. If you want to begin a sentence with "and" or "but," go right ahead. If you want to have a one-word sentence, that’s just fine. If your spell check tells you you’ve got a sentence fragment, you should "consider revising" or ignore it.
- Go back to middle school. There’s something called the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test, a built-in tool in Microsoft Word that will tell you if your writing is above a seventh-grade level. You don’t want it to be. Jeff Brooks, in "The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications," suggested you’re better off in the fourth- to sixth-grade range. Short sentences. Short words. Help Jane run. Give Dick food. Save a tree. Build a well.
- Avoid jargon. It’s the opposite of donor-centered writing. This includes words you use in your trade like "client" and "caseworker." Lay people don’t use these words, or like to think of themselves as "clients" and their predicaments as "cases." The same holds true for such ubiquitously overused words, such as "underserved" and acronyms.
Use these tips to give your year-end fundraising a shot in the arm! For more tips, check out the Year-End Fundraising Solution Kit.
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.