8 Steps to Writing Successful Fundraising Letters
by Mal Warwick
Assume, for the sake of argument, that you've been assigned the task of writing a simple, straightforward special appeal to the active donors of a charity called "Hope Is Alive!" Here are the eight steps I suggest you follow as you go about the job.
Step #1: Marketing Concept
Write a complete Marketing Concept, so you'll know the offer you'll be making in the letter. Writing this down will force you to decide how much money to ask for, who will sign your letter, and whether you'll include a donor involvement device (such as a survey), a premium, or a deadline – in short, all the things you're writing the letter about.
In this case, let's say you've determined that the Marketing Concept runs as follows:
As Executive Director of Hope Is Alive!, I've written you many times in the past about the terrible challenges faced by homeless people in our city. Now I'm writing you, as one of our most loyal and generous supporters, to tell you about a challenge that's a wonderful opportunity: two members of the Board of Trustees have volunteered to match your gift on a dollar-for-dollar basis if we receive it before January 15 - up to a total of $10,000. The money raised in this Challenge of Hope will be used to outfit our new shelter, so that 30 more homeless families can find a warm and secure place to sleep in the difficult weeks still to go before winter ends.
Now you're almost ready to start writing the appeal itself.
Step #2: Contents of package
But what – exactly – are you going to write? A long letter . . . or a short one? A window envelope with text (a "teaser") on the outside . . . or a businesslike, closed-face (no window) envelope with no printing except the name Hope Is Alive! and the return address? In other words, it's time to determine how your Marketing Concept will be implemented as a fundraising package. What will the appeal consist of? For example, in preparing this particular appeal, you might decide the following components are adequate to the task
- Number 10 closed-face outer envelope
- Two- or three-page letter, with page one laser-personalized and subsequent pages printed to match but not personalized
- Reply device with name, address, and Ask amounts laser-personalized
- Business Reply Envelope
I suggest you write all this information down on a sheet of paper. Label it something like "Contents of Package." And take the time necessary to describe in some detail the dimensions, paper stock, ink colors, and other specifications for each of the items you've decided to include in the package.
These aren't casual choices. If you were writing to acquire new members rather than solicit support from proven donors, you might feel the need for a longer letter, a bigger reply device (to accommodate a full listing of membership benefits, perhaps), plus a brochure or other insert, and maybe a premium such as name-stickers as well. You might also find laser-personalization is impractical in such a member-acquisition package (because it's unlikely to be cost-effective). Before you actually write a letter, you need to know such things.
Even what might seem like inconsequential details can make a big difference in the way you go about writing a letter. For example, the choice of laser-personalization on the reply device and on the first page of the letter but not on subsequent pages means you can only include specific Ask amounts on page one, and not repeat them on the final page (as is customary and advisable). If the final page of the letter is to be reproduced on an offset printing press rather than a laser printer, the Ask amounts will all be identical.
But now your choices have been made. You know what you're writing. Now you can start.
Step #3: Reply device
Begin by drafting the response device. This may take no more than a minute or two, since you've already written a Marketing Concept. But writing the response device may force you to flesh out the Marketing Concept.
For instance, if there are to be several different Ask levels (or segments) in your appeal for Hope Is Alive!, now's the time to think through the implications. A gift of $500 might require a dramatically different reason than one of $25. Waiting until later to figure that out might oblige you to do a lot of rewriting – and if you're anything like me and dislike writing, you probably despise rewriting!
But this appeal, we've said, is simple and straightforward. So let's assume different versions of the letter aren't needed for different segments. The language on the reply device, then, will read somewhat as follows:
Yes, I'll help meet the Challenge of Hope, so that 30 more homeless families can find a safe, warm place to sleep in the difficult weeks remaining before winter ends. To beat the January 15 deadline – so my gift is matched dollar-for-dollar by the Trustees – I'm sending my special tax-deductible contribution in the amount of:
$(Lastgift + 50%)
$(Lastgift + 25%)
Step #5: The lead
Here's another of those points where I'm likely to stop dead in my tracks. Because research shows the lead of the letter has higher readership than any other element except the outer envelope copy and the P.S., I've been known to clutch on an opening paragraph.
You won't clutch, however. You know exactly how you're going to lead off your letter for Hope Is Alive! You'll begin with a brief, inspiring story about a six-year-old client of the agency who personifies everything that's best about its work. Something like this:
Jennifer just knew things were going to get better. Molly told her so.
Jennifer was only six years old, and she'd spent most of those years on the streets. Drifting from town to town with a dad who could never find work that lasted. No school. No friends, really. No pretty clothes like the other girls she saw sometimes.
But one day Jennifer and her dad showed up at our Front Street shelter. Molly D'Alessandro was on duty and greeted the new arrivals. You might say it was love at first sight.
While you're engaged in writing this lead, you might find it convenient to write the close of the letter as well. Just as the lead must almost always be directly connected to the outer envelope teaser, the close should relate to the lead. If you began by asking a question, answer it now. If you started by challenging the reader, refer to the challenge again - and note how the offer you've made will enable the reader to respond in a meaningful way. Complete the circle; round out your letter with a satisfying close. In this case, you'll want to be sure that Jennifer and her dad and Molly D'Alessandro all figure in the way you wind up the letter.
Step #6: The P.S.
After a lot of thought, you've decided to use the P.S. to emphasize the deadline for receipt of matching gifts in the Trustees' challenge grant campaign. The postscript, then, would go something like this:
P.S. Your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar – but only if we receive your check by January 15. In this difficult winter, please help us outfit the new shelter and take 30 homeless families off the streets!
In this way, you've conveyed three of the strongest elements of the appeal - the deadline, the dollar-for-dollar match, and the 30 families who will benefit – at just the place in the letter that's bound to have the highest readership of all.
Now you're ready to move along to the body of the letter itself.
Step #7: Subheads and underlining
Let's assume you've decided that subheads are inappropriate for the appeal you're writing for Hope Is Alive! There's still an easy way for you to accent the benefits offered in your appeal, answer readers' unspoken questions, and make your letter easier to read: by underlining. Do it sparingly. Choose only a few key words and phrases. But, if possible, choose them before you write the body of the letter!
In this case, you'd be likely to decide that among the points requiring underlining are the following:
If you respond by January 15, your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar.
With your generous support, Hope Is Alive! will be able to open the new shelter on time - and 30 homeless families will be off the streets for the rest of the winter.
One way to determine which points warrant underlining (or subheads) is to outline the letter before you write it. If you construct your outline paying particular attention to the benefits you're offering, the appropriate words and phrases may come jumping off the page.
Keep this in mind: the items to underline – or to feature in subheads - aren't necessarily the ones you think will break up the text at the most convenient intervals or help convey your tone of voice. Rather, subheads and underlining must appeal directly to the reader. For example, instead of emphasizing Hope Is Alive!'s $10,000 budget to outfit the new shelter, you've wisely chosen to stress the homeless families who will have a warm place to sleep. Readers will care much more about Jennifer and her dad than about an agency budget!
Step #8: At last! The text
This is the easy part.
You've already written the reply device; you've developed the lead, the close, and the P.S. You've drafted the subheads and principal underlined points. What else is there to do? A game of fill-in-the-blank!
Take care, though: it's all too easy to stumble off-course in the stretch. Tell the story you started about Jennifer and Molly - but don't turn it into a novelette. Make sure the story shows the benefits the reader will receive if she accepts your offer. (Jennifer now has hope for a better life. So will dozens of other good people trapped in terrible circumstances.) Stick to the points you selected for the subheads and underlining. You picked those points because they answer the unspoken questions you know your reader will have – and because they emphasize the benefits that will motivate the reader to send a gift without delay. If you stay on this course, Hope Is Alive! will raise its $10,000 and more, those 30 families will be off the streets, and you, the author, will be a hero.
Adapted from How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters (Strathmoor Press, 1994) by Mal Warwick.
Copyright ©) 2007 by Mal Warwick. Reprinted by permission from www.malwarwick.com.
Mal Warwick is a consultant, author, and public speaker. He has been involved in the not-for-profit sector for more than 40 years. He has written and edited numerous books of interest to nonprofit managers, including the classics Revolution in the Mailbox and How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters. More about Mal Warwick.
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