Have you ever written a fundraising letter? A fundraising letter you felt really proud about? One that presented your nonprofit in an amazing light. That showed how good you were working in your cause. One that was sure to convince donors to give to you?

I have too. And I bet your fundraising letter hardly raised any money.

Writing fundraising letters is hard

Editing fundraising letters is one of the services I provide for my coaching clients, so I’ve been doing a lot of editing this fall.

I know writing fundraising letters is hard. But I’m beginning to think that nonprofit professionals stop half-way through the process.

I ask clients for letters they’re ready to send. These typically have:

  • Long, run-on sentences
  • Lots of references to the nonprofit
  • success stories and
  • scant reference to the reader at all – until at the end when they ask the reader to give to support their work.

This is 100% typical. And 100% how to not write a fundraising letter.

Effective fundraising letters go further

I think this is the first half of the letter. Writing is hard. But editing is often harder. Here are 4 steps that should be included in the second round of editing:

  1. Cut the first four paragraphs: Bad fundraising letters start with a lot of “throat clearing.” “The weather’s getting cooler…” “The holidays are a time of…” “Looking around our community…” Pandemicsplaining – as though people need teaching on what a pandemic is and how it’s hurting people. This throat clearing often goes on for three or four paragraphs. So cut those. Even though these have wonderful phrases that you are particularly proud of. Save the phrases in some file if you want. But don’t send them to your donor.
  2. Give them a problem to solve: Bad fundraising letters showcase a success story. “We are so good, look at how well this person is doing.” But as Steven Screen says every Friday, you have to give donors a problem to solve. If donors read a success story, it sounds to them like you have everything under control. So you clearly don’t need their help. Successful fundraising letters cut out the success stories and save them for the thank you note and impact report you’ll send a donor after they give.
  3. Stop asking people to pay your bills: I get to work with amazing organizations. Organizations that are significantly impacting people, communities, animals, and the environment. But nearly all of them use some sort of phrasing like: “Will you help us do our work with your gift today?” Nearly all of them are saying, will you please pay our bills for us? No one wants to pay your bills. But lots of people would love to be part of the change you want to see in the world. Why not ask them “Will you care for a stray animal?” or “Will you preserve this piece of history?” or “Will you house this family?”
  4. Give your letter the red pen test: One way to make sure you’re not asking donors to pay your bills, is to remove all references of your nonprofit from your letter. Seriously. Donors aren’t dumb. They know who sent them the letter. They know who’ll get their gift. To do this, take a red pen and circle all “we’s” – we, our, us, and references to your nonprofit. Those words put your fundraising in the red. With a black pen, circle all “you’s” – you, your, yours, and references to the reader. Those words put your fundraising in the black. I call this the Red Pen Challenge. Super simple. Incredibly powerful. This one test alone can transform your fundraising letter from something people toss in the recycling bin to something they actually pay attention to.

Don’t stop your fundraising letter half way through the process

As you’re working hard on your fundraising letters, remember to not stop them halfway through the process. Write the first half. That’s like a potter throwing clay on a wheel. But don’t send that lump of clay to a donor.

Instead, go through the second half, shaping the clay into a beautiful work of art. Something that respects the reader enough to let them know that they are important. Something that is full of integrity because it shows that they are making change possible.

Those are the fundraising letters that donors will respond to.

And, honestly, those are the letters you’ll find more enjoyable to write. Because you’re no longer defending your work. Or “making a case.” You’re inviting the donor into something beautiful.

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