Writing Your Nonprofit Fundraising Letter
There are many avenues your nonprofit could use to make an appeal to your donors and to the public at large, but none as critical as your nonprofit fundraising letter. While direct mail may seem like it is being overshadowed by the ease of the internet where communications can be made with a swipe or by the click of a button, we assure you that “snail mail” has not sung its last song on the nonprofit stage. Despite the rise of online fundraising, fundraising letters are still considered to be one of the most lucrative ways to make appeals for nonprofits, so long as you’re writing the best letter and employing the best tactics you can, which we have detailed for you here.
Some preliminary details.
To start, let’s set some goals for your fundraising letter. The purpose of your letter is to get someone interested in your cause and to convince them, ultimately, to give. But before you can get to that point, before you can put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, consider asking yourself a few questions, advises The Fundraising Authority. Consider:
- What do you need donations for? Do you need funds to keep a program afloat or to launch a new program?
- How much do you need?
- How will use these donations?
- Will you offer donation options or tiers? How much will each giving option be?
- What impact will each tier make for your cause or project/program?
Answering these questions are key to forming the foundation of your letter and your appeal overall.
Next, who will write your letter? Your first instinct may be to have a staff member from your donations team or its team leader put together a letter. You’re on the right track, but don’t limit your appeal to just one kind of voice from within your nonprofit. Consider having a dedicated volunteer close to the program or even a long-time donor compose a letter. You can also get a board member to lend their voice to your letter by allowing them to write one as well, keeping them further engaged, a point we discuss further in our article on How To Keep Your Nonprofit Board Effective. By offering letters that come from different perspectives, the voices behind your nonprofit have an opportunity to be heard.
Who should we address the letter to?
The most obvious answer is that everyone should receive a letter if time and resources allow. But just because everyone will get a letter in the mail, however, does not mean that the letter each person receives should be the same. Be mindful of your audience, says Alan Sharpe of Fundraiser Help; avoid sending generalized letters to everyone. Sharpe suggests dividing up your database according to “individuals, foundations, and businesses” in order to send letters tailored to them. He takes things even further by dividing a typical nonprofit database into key groups, each different in how their letters should be approached.
- “Donors and Non-Donors”: Speak to current donors as partners, recognizing their last donation and the other ways they have contributed, if applicable. Remind them of what their donations have helped your nonprofit achieve. When addressing non-donors, speak to them like a friend you would like to get to know better, “avoid[ing] language that implies they currently support your organization.”
- “Active, lapsed, and Former Donors”: Recognize active donors for their continued support while encouraging them to move on to the next giving tier or to supplement their current donation through participation elsewhere, such as through volunteering. Approach lapsed donors by structuring your letter as an invitation back to your nonprofit along with reminders of who you are, what you do, and how they can help; all with a tone of enthusiasm at the prospect of possibly having them back on board. In the case of former donors, start at square one with them, approaching them as you would a non-donor.
- Annual and Monthly Donors: These are your most loyal and steady supporters. Treat them to their own separate letter, highlighting the specific programs and campaigns that were only made possible because of their exclusive help and donations with the encouragement to move on to the next level in giving.
- “Major and Non-Major Donors”: Because of the difference in levels of giving between these two groups, their letters need to make that distinction. Non-major donors are closer to active donors in that their approaches are similar with the encouragement to take things a step further and do more. Major donors, on the other hand, are the backbone of your nonprofit in the donations they make and demand the same amount of attention. Take into account what they have given in the past and ask for a major gift “that is within their means.”
Although it may seem cosmetic and superficial, the packaging of your letter, its physical appearance, is just as important as the words detailed in that letter. Joanne Fritz of About adds, “Write a package, not a letter.” This package, she continues, must contain three major components in addition to your letter: the outer envelope, reply envelope, and a reply device.
Beginning with the outer envelope, it needs to be designed attractively in order to compel the donor or potential donor to open it. It needs to make itself separate and distinct from all of the other pieces of mail that a donor might have spread out on his or her kitchen counter. npEngage’s Marc Pitman offers a few suggestions for making that outer envelope eye-catching and attention-grabbing such as putting “red letters (like a stamp) saying ‘Emergency Appeal’ or something similar to it,” keeping it simple by just putting the essentials on the outer envelope like the donor’s address and the return address of the nonprofit, or even putting a small statement or blurb on the outer envelope to entice donors to open the envelope in order to continue the story or to read more about it.
When it comes to the reply envelope and reply device, typically a second page or card is included with the letter, which donors are meant to send back after filling out. Determine what will be on that reply device, what kinds of questions or information you will be requesting, such as name, address, perhaps a poll question, giving options or tiers. Keep in mind, reminds Pitman, that “Neuroscience shows that people like 3-4 options…more than that (like adding planned giving options or an annual fund appeal) causes their minds to shut down,” so triage the kind of information you want to include in your reply device to keep it from joining the rest of the forgotten mail.
Lastly, create unity between all of these physical elements of your letter by using the same fonts throughout and by employing the same color scheme associated with your brand, including affixing your logo in the letterhead of the letter itself. As discussed in our article on Why Nonprofit Branding Is Important, it is imperative that you include these details in order to reassure your donors that it is you who is sending this letter and not another organization.
Communicating in a way that is easily accessible for your donor base is key to getting your appeal across the way you want to through your letter. As such, use “you,” “we,” and “our” throughout your letter, using “I” sparingly. By doing so, your letter becomes more than a piece of mail detailing a cause that you nonprofit cares about; it becomes an invitation to make your cause their cause.
Don’t give your donors the run around in your letter, speak plainly, using words that evoke emotion rather than “provoke analysis,” says Fritz. Use everyday language, not nonprofit jargon. By ditching the fancy words and elevated speech, Knowhow Nonprofit emphasizes, you are “ensuring that every one of your readers understands what you have to say and has the opportunity to respond.”
Ease of reading:
Ideally, we would like to believe that every donor that decides to open up your fundraising letter will read it in its entirety from beginning to end. However, the reality is that like the people within your nonprofit, your donors are busy people who may only have the time on hand to quickly scan your letter.
There are a couple of ways to structure and format your letter with the possibility of skimming in mind through “layout tools that guide the eye where you want to go,” states The Nonprofit Center at La Salle’s University School of Business. Create white space throughout your letter in order to give the eye a place to rest and move on to the another section by indenting your paragraphs, suggests Fritz. In addition, keep your paragraphs short and varied at less than seven lines long to avoid dense paragraphs.
Additionally, break up your paragraphs using subheads and by using bullets to list points or pertinent items as opposed to lumping them into one long sentence or string of sentences. Highlight the main points of your letter by “underlining, bold face, [or] italics,” adds The Nonprofit Center. Be smart in using these formatting techniques and be sure you don’t go overboard. The point of these techniques is to guide your donor’s eye in the event they just give your letter a quick glance over; that way they are able to access and understand the message of your letter. With luck, they will feel compelled to act or at the very least set it aside with the intent to read it more thoroughly later.
Along with the formatting points we have made so far, the length of your letter will also play a big part in the success of your appeal. The length of the various written materials nonprofits put out is always a subject of debate, especially in today’s technology heavy world. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to find that in a world structured around 15 second videos and status updates, lengthy fundraising letters are still considered to be productive and successful.
Jeff Brooks of GuideStar says, “the shorter message only does better about 10 percent of the time” and offers up his own theories as to why longer letters work better:
- “The Multiple Triggers Theory”: A lengthy letter will not only give you the room to hash out your cause, but according to this theory, it can give your more “trigger” opportunities as well. These “triggers” are meant to communicate urgency and provide emphasis, motivating your reader to take action.
- “The Aunt Ruth Theory”: This theory spotlights the very real possibility that a long fundraising letter works because the reader is genuinely interested in your nonprofit and its cause in a way beyond the superficial. They will actually want to read your letter from beginning to end, will sincerely want to stay connected with your nonprofit and its cause, and will want to keep giving.
- “The Hopscotch Theory”: In the context of this theory, give your first and last sentences the most attention. This theory addresses the topic of skimming, in which a donor will jump from section to section throughout your letter. Write your letter with than in mind with calls to action and key emotional phrases peppered throughout so that donors can approach your letter from different parts and still get the gist of it.
- “The Gravitas Theory”: Because a letter is long, many people (including your donors) will feel more inclined to feel that it’s important. It is different from a card or quick word about your nonprofit; it’s sheer length shows that the letter’s content has weight because the assumption is that it took time and thought to write and therefore should be given the appropriate time to be read.
Taking these theories into account, though, does not mean that your nonprofit can get away with sending out a letter as long as an essay or novel. Knowhow Nonprofit reminds us to be wary of our length as “Readers associate huge blocks of text with bills, band statements, and other kinds of mail.” Fritz advises that your nonprofit should “Write as a long a letter needed to make your case.” Keep the goals that you have set for your letter central as you write it. If you need to get a feel for how long your letter could be, start writing and stop when you have said all you need to say, suggests Knowhow Nonprofit, then work from there. That is what the editing and revisions process is for.
It may seem counter-intuitive but we suggest beginning your fundraising letter with the end, the postscript. “Decades of eye motion studies show that it is the first part of the fundraising letter a donor reads after their name,” according to Pitman further stating, “You’re not ready to write a fundraising appeal until you’re reading to write a compelling P.S.” The purpose of your P.S. is to summarize your entire letter in two to three sentences addressing your cause and the call to action. Think of it as the thesis to your letter, the condensing of your message, that leads you into the letter as a whole.
Your introduction and opening.
As a gentle reminder, the salutation of your letter must be personalized, just like the rest of your letter. Address your donor directly in your greeting as you open up your letter, the importance of which we have discussed in our article on Best Practices For A Donor-Centric Thank You Letter. Following your greeting, you will only have “five seconds to grab the attention of your donor,” says Sharpe. Use these five seconds to grip your reader through these ideas by Sumac and Fundraiser Help:
- a striking statement or question
- a thought provoking quote
- an astonishing statistic or fact.
Or through a dramatic opening to a story from your organization’s experiences, which we explore further next.
Your fundraising letter is a prime opportunity for your nonprofit to do some storytelling. Telling a story is one of the strongest methods of creating a viable connection between your donors and your nonprofit’s cause. Your message will be humanized through storytelling and be made real for your donors and other readers through a mix of statistics and facts as well. There are a number of approaches and various stories your nonprofit can tell in its fundraising letter, though there are two specifically that we believe will leave the most lasting impression on your readers: the Focus Story and the Impact Story.
Your Focus Story is a solid place to showcase the values behind your nonprofit and how they are applied to the work your nonprofit does for your cause. This story is meant to separate your from other nonprofits in that it will show the motivation behind the work you do and the groups that make up your nonprofit’s mission, those you want to help. A fundraising letter will show how your nonprofit contributes to the communities it serves and how it addresses the cause and moves it forward through education and awareness in a way that goes beyond other organizations.
Your Impact Story, alternatively, illustrates the outcome of the work your do as a nonprofit. A fundraising letter employing this story will explain the before, the process of your nonprofit taking action for the cause, and then the aftermath. This should include a testimonial or story told from a group or specific person within that group who has benefited from the work your nonprofit does.
Your fundraising letter is not limited to these two story templates. In fact, we address other templates in our article on 7 Kinds of Stories Your Nonprofit Should Tell, discussing the Focus and Impact stories, among others, more in-depth. The point of the matter is to communicate an urgent need, create invested emotion in that need, and offer readers a way they can contribute, which comes next.
The ask - your call to action:
“Your letter should be full of asks,” says Tom Ahern via Gail Perry of FiredUp Fundraising. Throughout your letter, injected within your stories, your nonprofit should be making its ask. Ahern points out three types of asks that should be present within your fundraising letter and even makes your job a little easier by including a few phrases you can use to differentiate between and make those asks:
- Soft Ask: “Please join…”
- Implied Ask: “I need you. Xxx needs you.” Or “We can’t do it without you.”
- Hard Ask: “Take part with these two steps…” Or “Make your gift right now.”
Ask and ask often. You have to be sure to emphasize that it is vital that your nonprofit continues to fulfill its mission by working for its cause and what can happen if you are unable to do so. Be specific in the amount you need and what impact the amount will make, what it will allow your nonprofit to do for your cause. Make things easier for your donor by reminding them to contribute, how much they should contribute, and what those contributions will translate to. But don’t just leave it at that, show your donors and readers the “tangible and intangible” ways that they are also benefitting from giving to your cause, like the good feeling that comes from donating and the opportunity to join a community of like-minded individuals who also want to help.
Wrap up your letter with one last call to action, instructs Lisa McQuerrey of Chron, reinforcing the part they play in your cause. Inform them of when they should expect a follow-up from you whether or not they decide to use the reply device to donate. If you have included other informational or supplementary materials like pamphlet, a postcard from one of your nonprofit sites, or a photograph of those being helped by your nonprofit, for example, let your donor know. Point them in the direction of those materials as another chance to see what your nonprofit is about, to put faces to the people asking for their help.
Thank them in advance for their support and thank them for reading your letter as well. Although the letter may not stir them to action immediately, showing your gratitude that they at least took the time to read your letter is still a simple, and potentially powerful, gesture that only takes a few words to achieve.
P.S. (We mean it this time.)
One last thing and then we’re done; let’s return to the postscript. Every nonprofit and every fundraising letter serves a different purpose, and we understand if you saved this part for last, as it normally is. Remember that this is the summary of your letter as a whole; take the opportunity to craft one that is loaded with clarity and emphasis, leaving your readers and donors with a distinct impression of your nonprofit and the part they can play in your cause.