A Dozen Rules for Writing Better Fundraising Letters – Part 1

A Dozen Rules for Writing Better Fundraising Letters – Part 1


by David Allen, Development for Conservation


Jeff Brooks wrote a book several years ago that I wish I had written: A Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications. If you haven’t read it, find a copy and read it before you draft this fall’s fundraising letters. The writing may not come any easier, but it will be more effective and you will raise more money.

(BTW – I do not know Mr. Brooks, and I do not benefit in any way if you buy his book.)

If you don’t want to buy his book, or if you don’t want to read it, I have a dozen rules to live by this fall. They are based on his information coupled with my own experience. Here are Rules 1-6. Check back next week for Rules 7-12!

Rule #1 – If you’re not testing, you’re not learning.

Got a better idea? Try it. Don’t believe the common wisdom? Prove it wrong. Think your membership base or community is different? Test it.

The one I always get pushback on is the letter length issue. “A four-page letter? No one would read a four-page letter!” Yet in every test I’ve ever witnessed, longer letters get more responses and raise more money. Go figure!

To do a test, you need to divide your list in some way that is statistically random, and you need to code your response envelopes. The classic test is the A/B test with half the audience getting one version and the other half getting the other version. Make sure the versions have only one difference, so you can learn from the results.

And commit yourself to using what you learn!

Rule #2 – People give money because they want to.

Good fundraising letters remind the donor why they love the organization. Why your mission is their mission. Why your organization is the best organization to get the work done. How their gift last year made a difference, and how their gift this year will make a difference.

We are not coming to our donors, tin cup in hand, seeking alms for the poor organization that is unable to feed itself. We come as partners, dedicated to a common vision and outcome, each ready to do our part to make this part of the world a better place.

Write your letter from the perspective that your organization is the best organization for the donor to use to get their work done.

Rule #3 – Don’t tell me, SHOW me.

Tell a story. In fact tell a couple of stories.

  • Stories convey emotion.
  • Stories stimulate the imagination
  • Stories move us to action

Make the story about one person, and tell it from the first person point of view.

Make the donor the hero of the story.

Rule #4 – Technique matters.

You’ve heard all this before. Perhaps you don’t believe it. Perhaps you just haven’t tried it yet. But it hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years since I’ve been in fundraising. These are all proven techniques:

  • Write your letter at the 8th grade level or simpler. You aren’t writing “down” to people. You are writing in such a manner that intelligent people can get the point very quickly.
  • Longer letters do better than shorter letters. Write four pages if you can.
  • Always include a PS note. People who read nothing else will often read the PS note.
  • Communicate urgency.
  • Tell a story, or several.
  • Ask for money on every page.
  • Be very specific about what you are asking for. I recommend that you ask for $100 (or OTHER).


Rule #5 – Design for older, female eyes.

What does that mean?

  • Choose a serif font and at least a 12 pt type size. 13 or even 14 pt type is OK and easier to read.
  • Leave lots of white space on the pages. Put extra space between lines and double-space between paragraphs. Try 1.25 inch margins, too.
  • High contrast between type and paper is easier to read. Black type on white paper, for example. And never print over graphics.


Rule #6 – Have a Call to Action. Make it urgent. Make it specific.

Put yourself in the position of the reader/donor, and ask yourself this question: Can I tell what the letter writer is asking me to do? If not, go back and be specific. Here’s some language I have used in the past that will illustrate what I mean:

“Please consider a special gift this year of $100. If you can do more, please be as generous as possible. If $100 is not possible, please choose an amount more comfortable for you. Every gift counts!”

More next week!


Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust.

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