Lessons I’ve Learned from Writing Fundraising Appeals

I have a confession to make: I write direct mail. Not of the “let us cover your house with our great vinyl siding!” variety, but something a bit more respectable. Rather, I write fundraising appeals on behalf of nonprofit hospitals and charitable organizations.

So, yeah, you’ve probably tossed one of the letters I wrote into the recycling bin or trash can. I don’t take it personally. After all, the conversion rate for the typical direct-mail campaign is ridiculously small. For every person who sends in a $50 check, dozens more keep their wallets ensconced safely in their pockets.

I kind of fell into fundraising work by accident, but it’s grown to become a big part of my work. And I’ve found this form of writing nicely reinforces some important practices that apply to other writing I do every day at The Hired Pens.

Here are five practices that stand out:

1. Know your audience.

An obvious rule, and one that’s absolutely critical when asking people to part with their money. Is it an acquisition appeal (i.e. trying to get recipients to give for the first time)? Then you need to introduce the organization and discuss its mission. Is it a donor renewal appeal? Then you can’t waste their time on the basics; instead, focus on timely developments and achievements.

2. Start off strong.

Once someone opens a letter, how many seconds do you have to capture their attention? I’m not sure, but the lead paragraph better damn well be compelling. I find myself reverting back to my journalism days, carefully writing and rewriting the opener to make sure I’m giving the reader a good reason to stay with me.

3. Tell a story.

In order to connect with the recipient on an emotional level, you can’t just cite statistics. You have to tell a story. For instance, I often interview former hospital patients (or parents of young patients) and then write the letter in the first person. “My three-year-old daughter sustained life-threatening injuries in a car accident. Thanks to her care team at Hospital X, she survived.” The tone is personal and conversational, as if it were written by a genuine person rather than an over-edited CEO.

4. Keep it short.

It depends on the client and the situation, but I usually keep appeals to one side of one page (and the font size has to be pretty big, too). That translates to somewhere between 300 and 400 words, which isn’t always much real estate to tell your story. More than with any other form of writing, I find myself repeatedly trimming sentences and paragraphs. Economy of writing is a good thing, though, so it’s a useful exercise.

5. Always be closing.

The legendary mantra of Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross applies here too, though the execution must be more subtle. There’s a real art to strategically weaving in the “ask” without being obnoxious. And it has to come multiple times — often near the top, always just before the author’s signature and always in the P.S. at the bottom.

Share your thoughts: If you have experience writing fundraising appeals, what lessons have you learned?

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