When it comes to fundraising, what do you need to know?

First, abandon the idea of a single "annual appeal." Asking for money is no longer a once-a-year activity. In fact, donors expect you to ask more often (and they respond when you do!), so don't wait until this time next year to ask again.

Second, consider these numbers from Roger Craver, author of the book Retention Fundraising. According to Craver, the average nonprofit has:

  • a 60-70% chance of obtaining additional contributions from existing donors
  • only a 20-40% chance of securing a gift from a recently lapsed donor
  • less than a 2% chance of receiving a gift from a prospect

So, the primary focus of your appeal should be to keep your current donors as opposed to getting new ones.

With that in mind, think about your appeal this way. You want it to do one of three things:

  1. RETAIN donors: Encourage your donors to give again, even if their giving stays flat.
  2. UPGRADE donors: Ask for the next level up. (e.g. if they gave $100 last year, ask for a little bit more this year)
  3. CONVERT donors: Ask for a monthly gift instead of an annual gift. (e.g. if they gave $100 last year, ask for $10/month this year.)

Lastly, remember that while all appeals have the same overarching goals, letters (direct mail) and email asks require slightly different approaches.

All appeals should...

  1. Be personalized.
    No "Dear Friend" letters. Address the donor by name. Bonus points if you refer to their previous gift amount, since this is a powerful reminder of their past support.
  2. Speak directly to a donor, as opposed to writing for the general public.
    Nonprofit authors and fundraising gurus say the best appeals are written with a single donor in mind. For Jeff Brooks, it's his Aunt Ruth. For Tom Ahern, it's his mother-in-law, Jane. When you know who your donors are, you can picture them, then write to them.
  3. Be donor-centric.
    Try Tom Ahern's "You" test. Grab your letter and a green and red marker. Circle the words "you," "your" or the donor's name in green. Circle the words "we," "our" or your organization's name in red. You want twice as many (or more) green circles as red ones.
  4. Include emotional triggers, including conflict and a believable solution.
    Tell more stories, show less data. Remember, donors don't care that you have a need - they care that you fill a need. When you tell your story, introduce conflict and the way your donor can help. For instance, $100 isn't going to end hunger. However, it's a different story when you tell me, "Winter is coming, and your $100 gift will provide 150 hot meals for the homeless."
  5. Be easy to scan.
    Here's the truth: most readers scan, especially web readers. (Yep, even those of you reading this post.) Use bold, underscore, bullets and other writing devices to make your appeal easy to scan.
  6. Be easy to read.
    For those who do read your appeal, you want it to be easy for them to read. Ideally, you should write at a 6th grade level, which makes it easier for your reader to process the information. How? Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.

    Also be sure to eliminate jargon, buzzwords and insider talk. Remember, most donors don't speak nonprofits' language...so be sure you're talking so donors understand.

    Did you know? Microsoft Word has a built-in tool that will tell you your readability statistics.

  7. Have a specific call-to-action.
    In a year-end appeal, you're most likely making a call for donations. Be sure to ask for a specific amount within the appeal. Avoid vague requests like "Please send your gift of any amount." And don't bury the lead! Ask early, and ask again at the end of your letter.

Sending a letter appeal? (direct mail)

  1. Use a serif font (like Times New Roman or Georgia).
  2. Increase your font size. Donors are aging, and 14 is the new 12.
  3. Include plenty of white space. Increase line spacing. Use paragraph indents. And never adjust the font size or margins to make it all fit on one page.
  4. Longer is better. Really, long letters outperform short ones.
  5. Add a handwritten P.S. or note (bonus points if this is written by someone who knows the donor).
  6. Include a self-addressed return envelope.
  7. Include a link directly to your online donation page.

Sending an email appeal?

  1. Write a compelling subject line that makes your donors want to open it.
  2. Use a sans serif font (like Arial or Calibri).
  3. Shorter is better.
  4. Incorporate compelling images.
  5. Use photo captions to help tell your story.
  6. Include a clearly marked "Give Now" button, and link directly to your online donation page.
  7. Always test on multiple email clients AND mobile devices.

How does your last appeal compare to this checklist? Send me a message and let me know what you'll do differently next time. And remember, when you do things differently, you'll achieve different results.

Here's to your fundraising success!


Wondering about ways to write a better appeal? Check out these resources.

5 Writing Rules All Nonprofits Should Break

"What's the most important component of a donation request letter?"

Third Sector Consulting helps nonprofits find more funders, win more grants and raise more money.

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