How to write an effective fundraising appeal letter

Your fundraising strategy should focus on engaging contributors, and a great way to do that is with an effective appeal letter.

This annual message is typically sent out to all of the benefactors and volunteers in your database and can really set the tone for how successful your organization will be during the year.

Writing a compelling appeal letter can bring in tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars for your cause. Whether you plan to deliver it via snail mail or through a mass email, follow these guidelines to make sure that your appeal letter works to your benefit:

Write to the right people
You'll be writing to either strangers who've never donated before or acquaintances that have contributed to your organization in the past.

According to Tom Ahern, one of the leading authorities in donor communication, appealing to new donors yields a 0.5 percent response rate. On the other hand, directing your requests to past supporters brings in a response rate of 40 to 70 percent.

Remember, appeal letters aren't necessarily one-size-fits-all.

Writing to former contributors takes some back-tracking. You need to explain how their past gifts have helped your organization, and show appreciation for their support. Though you should introduce or reintroduce yourself to both audiences, you need to provide additional information in an acquisition strategy. When using your appeal letter in this way, thoroughly explain your nonprofit, its cause, the solution and why you stand out against other organizations.

Send the right letter
Different fundraising needs call for different types of fundraising letters

If you're looking for in-kind donations for your charity auction, your letter will read differently than a letter asking for a year-end donation.

Don't assume that one letter template will cut it for all of the many fundraising letters that you have to write during the year.

Make the letter personal
It's no secret that a conversation is more captivating than a lecture, so make sure that's how you approach your fundraising appeal letter. In fact, Clairification blogger Claire Axelrad suggests writers read the message out loud before sending off the final draft to make sure that it's written how you would speak.

Use first and second person pronouns while keeping it entertaining. Additionally, put the attention on the hero donor rather than your organization. While you should definitely summarize your cause-related achievements over the year, tilt the focus toward how the reader helped you get there. If you're worried you've made the piece too focused on your organization, look it over and ensure the number of times you said "I" doesn't exceed the amount of "yous" in the letter.

Throw in a specific story about how your programs benefited the people you're aiming to serve, or share an experience about a truly memorable volunteer or donor. Though you don't want to be overly dramatic and emotional - many readers will roll their eyes at exaggerations - you need to give something for your audience with which to identify.

Ask the question
Even if it's not phrased in an interrogative statement, the letter should include a call to action at some point. Make sure this is a strong, clear request. Fired Up Fundraising blogger Gail Perry recommends charities use words that evoke a sense of urgency, such as "today," "now" and "immediately." Of course, you don't want to be too pushy with benefactors, but giving a specific timeline can make the fundraising process more effective.

While the call to action serves as your major, to-the-point appeal, you should reiterate it at least three more times in the letter and space those questions out evenly. Don't wait until the end of the letter to ask for a donation or for the reader to attend your major fundraising event. Providing purpose throughout the message will engage your audience and keep them reading.

Make it easy to contribute
Not only should your fundraising appeal letter include a call to action, but it should also be easy for the benefactor to complete the request. If you're sending out an email, include a direct link to your online donation form. For letters going through the postal service, enclose a return envelope and form that the recipient can fill out to manually send in a contribution.

Include a post script
According to Axelrad, the majority of your audience will read the postscript first. Don't forget to include this part in your appeal letter, and make sure it contains important, compelling information that focuses on how the contributor can make a difference

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