8 Proven Steps to Writing Successful Fundraising Appeals | npENGAGE

8 Steps to Writing Successful Fundraising Appeals



No matter how digitally savvy you are, if you want to be successful in fundraising you need to come to grips with the fact that direct mail fundraising letters (aka fundraising appeals) still work.

At this point in the year, you should already have all your direct mail appeals at the mail house. (You do, don’t you?) Here are some tips to help you get ready for next year’s fundraising letters. It’s not too early to begin designing the package!

Here are 8 questions to consider when writing your next fundraising appeal.

1. What will your fundraising letter say?

Fundraising works best when it’s one person writing to another person. So who is the one person that will be writing this letter? The Director of Development? The Executive Director or CEO? The Chair of the Board?

2. Whose story will you tell in your fundraising letter?

Studies show that statistics kill fundraising results. Engaging the part of the brain that pours over figures and pie charts actually suppresses the part of the brain that makes donation decisions. Rather than talking about all the animals you save or all the kids you help or all the people you help get through cancer, choose one. Tell that one person’s story. It helps to imagine yourself having coffee with the one donor you’re writing to. What would you tell that donor? Put that on paper.

3. You’re not writing for a Pulitzer prize, you’re writing for action.

Don’t try to write in complete sentences or in grammatically correct English. In his book on writing for fundraising, fundraising expert Jeff Brooks encourages you to take just enough time so the letter doesn’t look perfect. It’s important to make your fundraising appeal skimmable. Something people can scan and get the gist of in seconds. So judiciously use bold and italic and even underlines to help get the message across.

4. Start with the P.S.

One of the biggest mistakes nonprofits make is letting English majors write their letters. An even bigger one is writing the type of fundraising appeal you’d like to receive. Chances are very good that you aren’t your perfect donor. This is especially important when it comes to writing a P.S. So many nonprofit leaders resist using them. They say it’s “sloppy” or “unprofessional.” But decades of eye motion studies show that it is the first part of the fundraising letter a donor reads after their name. So sum up your entire message — the ask, the deadline, and the compelling call to action — in the 2 to 3 sentences of a post script. You’re not ready to write a fundraising appeal until you’re ready to write a compelling P.S.

5. What will the envelope look like?

The envelope is an important part of the fundraising letter and overall fundraising package. After all, you need to design it in a way that gets the donor to actually open it. So you need to consider: Will you use a teaser from the story on it? Will you have red letters (like a stamp) saying “Emergency Appeal” or something similar on it? Or will you leave the envelope blank except for addresses? All these techniques have worked successfully. You need to test them out for yourself to see which is most effective for your donor prospects.

6. What will the buck slip (the reply device) look like?

Sending a fundraising letter without a reply device is a waste of money. So think about how you’ll craft this. Most nonprofits tend to use a slip of paper or card stock with options on it.

  • How many options will you give?
  • Will you use the same stamp or teaser you used on the envelope to visually tie this all together?
  • Will you make them write in their name? Or will you fill their name and address for them?

When it comes to options, less is more. Neuroscience shows that people like 3-4 options. But more than that (like adding planned giving options on an annual fund appeal) causes their mind to shut down.

7. What list will you send this to?

If you have a good database person on staff, creating a list to send to can be a frustrating request. She’ll ask things like, “Who do you want this to go to? All donors? All donors and never-givers? Only people that have not given this year? Or people that have given this year?”If she asks these types of questions, swallow your pride, answer the questions, and then give her a raise. For what it’s worth, direct mail studies show your best gift prospects are the people that most recently gave. Pulling people from mailings simply because they made a gift this calendar year can be detrimental to your fundraising effort. Counterintuitive but true. Make sure to put some good thought into the list you’ll be sending your fundraising appeal to.

8. What landing page on your website will you use?

A simple, special page dedicated solely to collecting money from this fundraising appeal is best. Having one general online donation form is a bad idea. It’s pretty simple to create a page that has the look and feel of the direct mail fundraising letter. So do it. Design it to have a visual tie-in with the buck slip from the letter but to also be able to stand alone if people are responding from links in social media or email. Don’t leave out the online giving form as part of your direct mail process. Recent studies indicate that one of the best ways to drive online giving is to send a letter!

Start drafting those letters for next year now. Or for this year-end. Over 30% of donations are given in December. It’s not too late to get in front of donors!


What have you found to be helpful in writing for fundraising?

These 8-steps are a great place to start. But all great fundraising comes as a result of testing. What have you found to work well with your donors?


Concord Leadership founder Marc A. Pitman is the author of “Ask Without Fear!,” the executive director of TheNonprofitAcademy.com, and an Advisory Panel member of Rogare, a prestigious international fundraising think tank.

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