Calling All Procrastinators: 7 Secrets to Raise More Money With Your Year-End Appeal
Did I ever tell you about the time I’d been hired as the grant writer for an organization serving women and children?
I was only two weeks into my new job and had been working furiously to complete my first government grant application (Gah!), a report and new grant proposal for one of our foundation supporters, and familiarize myself with both the organization and our supporters (the files were a mess!), when the agency’s development director came to me to tell me that the annual appeal was due the next week—and I would be responsible.
The resulting Mother’s Day appeal was mailed out, in-house, the following week to nearly 1,000 names.
I was insistent on personalized letters. But, because the agency had neglected to maintain its database, I was working with Excel records (Gah!). No time to segment. No time to review past giving history. Not much time to craft a truly compelling story. A direct-mail package? Forget about it! The end result was not one of my proudest moments.
You know that you should have a solid communications calendar in place, one that combines touches with direct asks throughout the year. But if your organization relies on its year-end direct-mail appeals to raise the majority of its funding, here are seven tips to get you headed in the right direction.
1. Segment your list.
In the book, “Tiny Essentials of Writing for Fundraising,” George Smith wrote of the five things that should be in the back of your mind whenever you write any fundraising communication. No. 1: “Who am I talking to?”
Simple Development Systems member Julia Wilson of OneJustice wrote that the biggest change the company is making in its year-end appeal this year is segmentation. “We used to send out just one blanket direct mail to everyone on our list,” she explained. “Been giving to us for 20 years? Well, sorry—you get the same letter as the law firm partner who just attended one of our trainings one month ago. Well, this is the year we are stopping that! We are heavily segmenting our list—so that we’ll actually be sending out six different variations on our direct-mail letter. If we know that you are interested in legal assistance for children and youth—and that is the fund that you gave to last year—well, we’re making sure that the letter you receive this year thanks you very specifically for that gift, reflects that interest and invites you to contribute again this year in order to help kids.”
I’ve personally worked with in-house databases of less than 500 ... and arrived at as many as eight different segments.
You want your letter to be read, don’t you? Part of being donor-centric means losing the jargon and writing at a fifth- or sixth-grade level.
As Jeff Brooks wrote in “The Fundraiser's Guide to Irresistible Communications”: “Think of low-level writing as a form of courtesy. It’s like enunciating clearly when you speak. Or using neat handwriting. Even the most intellectual Ph.D. will appreciate and respond to clear communication.”
3. Tell a story.
Your story is at the heart and center of all that you do (well, second to your donors). Statistics don’t sell. How do you go about finding your best stories? Renowned copywriter Indra Sinha said it best: “Don’t start by writing. Start by feeling. Feel, and feel passionately, and the emotion you feel will come through the spaces in between the words."
Remember that every single decision has its roots in emotion. Time and time again, it’s been proven that the brain’s wiring overwhelmingly relies on emotion over intellect in the decision-making process.
What will touch your donors’ and prospective donors’ hearts? You may roll your eyes at some of the television advertisements for the ASPCA or various children’s charities, but there’s a reason why you see them over and over and over again: They work.
Review your interviews and your organization’s stories. Is there a detail there—an emotional hook—something that might have made your eyes well up with tears or made you laugh out loud? It might not even be central to your story, but it will be something that will make your donor read on.
4. Write for older readers.
According to “The Next Generation of American Giving,” Blackbaud’s recent report on generational giving habits, “direct mail continues to be the workhorse.” In fact, “93 percent of individual donations still come through traditional offline channels.” And that’s not going to change overnight.
Older readers still respond best to direct mail. Make it easy to read with a proven serif font like Times New Roman ... and how about bumping it up to 13 or 14 point for the matures on your list?
5. Ask early, ask often!
You’d be surprised at how many letters come my way for review—letters that tell a heart-wrenching story, letters that speak directly to me, letters that follow every rule but one: They never get around to making the ask!
Ask early and ask often—and feature a very clear call to action.
6. Use the red pen.
I call it the “I, Me, Mine” test. The most important word in your letter is the word “you.” Take out your red pen and circle every instance of the word “you” in your letter. Now go back and circle the instances of “I, Me, Mine.” How’d you do?
7. Begin with the end in mind.
Here’s a trick that I’ve used for years, swiped from Stephen R. Covey and his “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.” Habit No. 2: Begin with the end in mind.
Before I do anything, I write my thank-you letter and think about what systems I have in place for making my donor feel like a valued friend. It sets the tone for what I’m looking to accomplish—and everything’s better with a mindset of gratitude.
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.