8 Steps to Writing Successful Fundraising Letters | npENGAGE

8 Steps to Writing Successful Fundraising Letters

By on Nov 15, 2016


8 steps to writing fundraising letters that work

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.

Here are some tips to help you get ready for your fundraising letters. It’s not too early to begin designing the package!

8 steps to consider when writing your next fundraising letter:

1. Determine who your fundraising letters will come from:

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. Tell a story:

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 support, choose one story. Focus on that one person’s story—what’s their name? What’s their situation? Why is it so urgent to support them? It helps to imagine yourself having coffee with the one donor to whom you’re writing. What would you tell that donor? Put that on paper.

3. Make it scannable:

In his book on writing for fundraising, fundraising expert Jeff Brooks encourages you to take just enough time so that 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 quickly.

4. Include a postscript:

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. Test envelope techniques:

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. Include a reply device:

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. Be strategic when choosing your mailing list:

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. Create a specific landing page for the fundraising appeal:

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!

(Want more tips for writing fundraising letters that work? Download the step-by-step guide to raising more money from fundraising appeals!)

Tips for writing fundraising appeals and fundraising letters that work

This post has been updated from its original version to reflect the latest best practices and advice.


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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