3 Tips for Effective Fundraising Letters

Picture of a mailbox Tips on Writing Fundraising LettersEvery other Tuesday, I send out my free email newsletter. I'm amazed that next year will be it's tenth year in publication! I bet that makes it one of the oldest email newsletters in the industry. (10 years ago we called them "Ezines" so this is still called The Extreme Fundraising Ezine!)

Looking over this past year, I've sent out articles like:

I've even written about what Katy Perry and the Black Eyed Peas taught me about fundraising! But I haven't sent one specifically on writing fundraising letters!

Fundraising letters are a basic staple of fundraising. And even with social media getting all the press, fundraising letters are what is still faithfully bringing in money for nonprofits.

With fall upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere, it's time to make sure your nonprofit is in people's mailboxes. Hopefully 2-3 times.

Here are 3 tips for fundraising letters:

  1. Mail multiple times

    You should mail 3-4 times a year. I've heard of nonprofits having success with a 13 letter-per-year system, but that was always beyond my ability to consider managing!

    But 3-4 times a year will help increase the odds that your letter reaches donors while they're in a "giving mood." And, more practically, in our mobile society mailing that frequently will help you keep up with address changes!

    Make sure two of them happen between now and December 31st. This is a very generous time of the year, be sure to use that to your nonprofit's advantage.

  2. Write from one person to another

    Studies show that a letter signed by a "committee" or even by two people don't perform as well as letters sent by one person. So why reinvent the wheel. Just picture your ideal donor and write a letter to her. Be conversational. Use emotion. Talk about the donor, not about the nonprofit.

    If you don't believe that, check out Tom Ahern's video on how refocusing a newsletter from the organization to donors helped a nonprofit raise 1000% more: http://bit.ly/501videosTomAhern

  3. Don't write literature. Write something that could be read at 60 mph

    In his book Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, Steve Krug says that web designers try to write literature when they should be writing billboards that could be read by a reader driving by at 60 miles per hour.

    The same is true for fundraising letters.

    Your donors are busy and distracted. Their world does not orbit around your nonprofit. So make your communications easy for them to digest.

    • Use bold headings
    • Align text to the left, don't justify it
    • Use bullet points

    Do what ever you can to break up the text so that even a skimmer will "get" your call to action.

  4. Use a PS

    This is so basic. Eye studies have shown for decades that people first glance to see if their name is at the top of the letter and then look at the postscript.

    The most read message in your fundraising letter is the PS!

    So make it good. Tell them what you're asking them to give for what purpose by what time. Keep it short, one or two lines max. And always include a deadline even if it's "by the end of the month" or "before December 31st." We respond well to deadlines. They help us sort out what needs to be done now and what can wait.

    If your funding is needed now, be sure to let donors know. Otherwise it will end up in the "it can wait" pile (aka the trash can).

Whoops. That was four. I'm sure there could be a dozen more. What would you add?

UPDATE: I've created a free 4-week email course on writing effective fundraising letters. The form to sign up is in the middle of the page at http://fundraisingcoach.com/fundraising-letters/

About Marc A. Pitman

Marc A. Pitman is the author of Ask Without Fear!, director of The Nonprofit Academy, and founder of FundraisingCoach.com. A coach to leaders around the world, Marc's expertise and enthusiasm engages audiences and has caught the attention of media organizations as diverse as Al Jazeera and Fox News. Marc’s experience also includes pastoring a Vineyard church, managing a gubernatorial campaign, and teaching internet marketing and fundraising at colleges and universities. He is the husband to his best friend and the father of three amazing kids. And if you drive by him on the road, he’ll be singing 80’s tunes loud enough to embarrass his family!

Follow him on Google+, on Twitter @marcapitman, and like "Ask Without Fear!" on Facebook.

Comments

  1. Good tips. Can I follow with a question–what works better, a slick, glossy, color piece that looks more commercial, or the simple, traditional, letter-style appeal? Why?

  2. Hey Marc,

    Love this article. Writing fundraising letters is my stock in trade so this was right up my street. Your point 2 was my favorite. Especially when you say:

    “Just picture your ideal donor and write a letter to her. Be conversational. Use emotion. Talk about the donor, not about the nonprofit.”

    I’ve been doing literally this ever since I’ve been writing fundraising letters. I imagine one single donor sitting at my desk with me as I write. I even have a name for her – Joan. It’s very hard to write organisation focused copy when you have an imaginary donor looking over your shoulder going “boring!”

    This discipline keeps my work totally donor focused and has been a major contributor to the success I’ve had with a diverse range of clients. So successful that I’m putting together a blog website dedicated to the single task of showing small non-profits how to write better, properly donor focused direct mail letters.

    I’ve called it Dear Joan after my imaginary donor!

    It’s still under construction at the moment, but I’ve begun blogging – and I think my next post will be on your article above.

    Love getting your newsletter by the way!

    If I was to add a 5th point – it would actually be in response to Amber’s question about : “glossy & commercial vs simple & traditional.

    I’d go for the latter every time (although not without doing you’re own testing first). In my experience, what works best is a straightforward, plain four page letter that looks like a letter should (and is set in a serif font NOT sans serif), plus a separate personalized, A4 color form (must be well laid out, with large boxes, pre-printed name and address and large type).

    Just thought of a 6th point too! Always try to use a Johnson Box. A three to four line expression of your core proposition and ask (plus a deadline is you can put one in) underlined right above the opening of your letter and centred on the page.

    This should work in tandem with your PS. They serve as top and tail mini-letters that tell your donors exactly what you’re asking for and what their gift will achieve – but obviously each has to be phrased/expressed in a different way.

    I should probably stop rambling now! Anyway, great post Marc, and I hope I’ve been able to add something constructive.

    Jules

    Jules

  3. Amber: great question!

    The most accurate answer is: you’ll need to test it.

    Acquisition mailings tend to be more expensive. Mailing to repeat donors, those already in the “family,” can often be simpler letters.

    I’ve never worked for a nonprofit that did glossy appeals.

    One thing I keep seeing in Mal Warwick’s books: brochures included with a fundraising letter suppresses response. People give more when it’s just a letter and a return form (and envelope).

    I think the brochure encourages more attention so it slows down the actual gift giving.

  4. Jules: Thanks for your kind words and great advise.

    I’d totally forgotten about the Johnson box. Does that go on the letter or the buck slip?

  5. Marc, thanks for the timely post with great tips.
    One of the things I learned from my days in political fundraising is to make the ask 3 times. The first time right away in the first or 2nd paragragh, then somewhere else in the body of the letter but convey a sense of urgency and finally either at the close or in the P.S.

    I agree, the P.S. is powerful and an often overlooked part of the appeal.

    I will be quoting YOU and this post today, Sept. 15, on my webinar at 11 am Central: Year-end fundraising appeals that deliver.
    http://www.lorijacobwith.com/CustomContentRetrieve.aspx?ID=4023215

  6. Hi Marc,

    I use what they used to call a Johnson Box (but I tend to refer to myself as a Standfirst, being an ex-journalist) just before the salutation of the actual letter.

    For asks, my rule of thumb is 1 in the standfirst, 1 in the PS, plus 1 per page minimum.

  7. I have over 2,000 donors in our data base that have never given. They receive our newsletters and appeals but it hasn’t resulted in a gift. What should my next step be with these consituents?

Trackbacks

  1. […] most!), donors and constituents who receive your mail do the same. As my good friend Marc Pitman explains, donors glance at two things: the greeting line to see if it says their name, and the P.S. […]

  2. […] 3 Tips for Effective Fundraising Letters by Fundraising Coach: Marc A. Pitman, September 13, 2011 […]

  3. […] 3 Tips for Effective Fundraising Letters by Fundraising Coach: Marc A. Pitman, September 13, 2011 […]

What would you add?