As Jeff Brooks says in The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications:
“The important thing is this: You can’t judge [fundraising letters] by what you’d like in your own mailbox. You can’t even base it on what donors tell you they want. You have to watch actual donor behavior as it plays out in the form of response to your messages.”
Resist the urge to sabotage your fundraising success based on your own preferences, your fear of what your high school English teacher might say, or what a couple donors say. You, your boss, and your board members aren’t reading the letters like the majority of people. To be effective, fundraising letters need to be written for people distracted by other things.
Base your fundraising strategy by testing industry best practices with your donors and seeing how they give money.
As a way of review, here are 101 things to remember when writing fundraising letters.
- Put a picture of your ideal donor on your computer monitor.
- Determine who will be signing the letter. One person.
- Write to that donor as though you were sitting down to talk with her over a cup of tea.
- Write the P.S. first.
- Make it two or three sentences long.
- Does it clearly sum up the reason for making a gift?
- Does it ask for a gift of money—directly and boldly?
- Does it give a deadline by when the gift is needed?
- Do you have a story you’re telling?
- Does it clearly state a problem that donor funding and your nonprofit’s work can fix?
- Is it about a detailed example? Specific enough for a reader to Is there real conflict?
- Is the appeal urgent? Is it compelling people to take action today?
- Is your donor the hero? Is it about the donor’s impact on your cause rather than about your nonprofit or staff?
- Is the action you’re asking them to take crystal clear?
- Is there only one thing you’re asking the donor to do?
- Can they picture that action as clearly as them seeing a movie at a cinema?
- Use the prospect’s name in the salutation. “Dear Joe” not “Dear Supporter.”
- Use a big font, at least 12 point.
- Use seraph font for most of the text.
- Use sans seraph font for the headlines and sub-headlines.
- Use black ink for all the text (and white paper).
- Avoid reverse type (white font on black bars).
- Left justify the text (leaving a jagged right side).
- Set top and bottom margins at a minimum of 1″.
- Set left and right margins to 1¼”.
- Use short paragraphs, most only 2 to 3 sentences.
- Use short sentences.
- Use short phrases? For emphasis.
- Bold some words.
- Italicize others.
- Underline main points (but not entire sentences).
- Use bullet points if at all possible.
- Give extra indentation to quotes. The white space will draw people to read it.
- Use contractions. It’s the best way to sound conversational. Try it, and I bet you’ll agree.
- Does the formatting make the main message of the letter understandable by a reader who’s only skimming?
- If you use photos or images, do they focus on faces? We’re hard–wired neurologically to look at faces.
- If you use photos or images, can you make them focus on one person rather than a group?
- If you use photos or images, do they work with the story, or do they contradict it? (Typically, happy stories shouldn’t have sad looking people in pictures.)
- Make the response device obvious. Include a dotted line in addition to a perforation. Or make it a separate form inserted in the envelope (often called a “buck slip”).
- Include the donor’s name and contact information on the response form. You already used it in the letter. Why make them fill it out again?
- Include a line that welcomes donors to update their contact information if they’d like.
- Ask for a maximum of three gift levels. A fourth “other” place is acceptable. (Even this can be personalized. You can group donors and merge these gift level options with the address and salutation information.)
- Ask for only the one action you requested in the letter.
Final Editing and Proofing
- Has someone outside of fundraising/development read the letter? (But not someone in advertising or graphic design. Their art is different from yours as a fundraising letter writer. Best to have a “normal” person—i.e. neither you nor a marketer/designer—read it.)
- If you used a photo or image, has someone outside of your organization looked at it to see if it “fits” their expectation of the appeal?
- If you use a photo or image and the person outside of your organization found it confusing, did you change it?
- Did you remove the “The fall air is crisp and the leaves are falling” type warm-up phrases? Some fundraising letter experts suggest writing your letter and deleting the first three paragraphs before you send it!
- Have you removed the big words?
- Did you repeat the important point multiple times? (A minimum should be in the P.S., in the headlines and bolded or italicizedwords, and in the actual body of the text.)
- Do a “you” count. Are there more “you’s” than “we” or “us”?
- Do a statistics check. Are there any % symbols? Rewrite without them.
- Did you include awards your organization has received or ratings it’s earned? Consider cutting those or including them in a sidebar instead of the main body.
- Do a jargon check. Get rid of acronyms and insider professional/technical language.
- Do a pun or word-play check. Remove any, no matter how cute you think they are.
- Do an employee check: are you celebrating employees? Consider cutting that part and using it for an internal employee memo.
- On the response form, remove any checkboxes or information requests not related to the one monetary donation you asked for in the letter.
- After you’ve done all this, read the letter out loud. Does it sound like someone interesting is speaking? Or does it sound like a corporate robot is dictating? Make sure it sounds like an interesting conversation.
- Have someone check the details: grammar, punctuation, spelling, dates, etc.
- Do a Flesch-Kincaid readability test. Is it in the sweet-spot of between 4th to 6th grade? (This is built into Microsoft Windows. More information at http://homeworktips.about.com/od/homeworkhelp/a/readinglevel.htm)
Additional Things to Test
- Test four-page letters for donor acquisition (they often work better).
- Test one-page, invoice-like appeals for repeat gifts.
- Test sending letters more frequently, even once a month. Don’t listen to individual donor responses; look at fundraising results.
- Test mailing to donors even if they’ve given a gift already this year.
Put your major gift prospects back in the regular direct mail appeal. Or make darn sure you’re communicating to them as regularly as you were when they were getting those letters.
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