A Dozen Rules for Writing Better Fundraising Letters – Part 2

A Dozen Rules for Writing Better Fundraising Letters – Part 2


by David Allen, Development for Conservation


Last week I wrote the first half dozen rules for writing better fundraising letters this fall. I based it in part on an excellent book that Jeff Brooks wrote several years ago that I wish I had written: A Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications. This post has the second six.

You can find the first six here.

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

Rule #7 – Don’t Fall for the Myth of Too Much Mail

Fear of asking is one of the most significant reasons that fundraising efforts fail. Surprisingly that extends even to direct mail appeal letters in the sense that we are afraid of sending too much mail or an appeal too quickly following the last letter.

Certainly you will want to have database management capacity robust enough to suppress any donor who has asked not to be solicited. But inferring that no one should be solicited because one person made such a request is a serious mistake. Instead of being that great organization that doesn’t bombard us with too many solicitation requests, you will be the organization forgotten entirely.

Brooks claims that “typical donors” get 10 pieces of marketing mail each day, including nonprofit solicitations. That’s about 3,000. You could mail a solicitation every month and it would only amount to 0.4 percent of the total. Reducing the mail you send every year might not even get noticed at all.

By the way, the importance of “resting” donors is also a myth. The single most important indicator of whether donors will respond to a solicitation is how recently they made their last gift.

Rule #8 – Tailor Your Response Card to Your Audience Segment

In my 5 August post, I suggested one method of segmenting your donors: Segment (separate) the list into those who gave $100 or less last year, those who gave $101-250, and those who gave more than $250,

  • Ask in the letter for $100 from the first group,
  • Ask in the letter for $250 from the second, and
  • Ask for amounts tailored to each person in the third group.


The point is that each of these groups needs their own response card. In our zeal to be cost conscious, we create “one size fits all” response cards. For the majority of our donors, giving $100 and less, it works pretty well. But sending someone who has given $200 each of the last three years a card that starts at $35 is an invitation in the wrong direction.

In fact, I recommend simplifying the response cards considerably. Offer $100 and Other to the first group. Offer $250 and Other to the second group.

While I’m here, let me point out that the most effective internet “landing pages” (pages set up to receive on-line donations) operate under the same set of protocols, except even more so. When sending electronic fundraising letters, your “donate now” links should go to a donation page that is tailored for that donor’s giving level. If you’re sending a letter by regular mail and you reference the option of giving on-line, you should specify the URL for the donation page that is appropriate for that donor. You want to make it AS EASY AS POSSIBLE for someone to give on-line at or above their previous giving level. Having a one-size-fits-all landing page will suppress giving by offering larger donors the option to give less.

Rule #9 – Texture Matters

An important consideration in direct mail response is “Why would someone open this?” I would bet that most marketing mail that comes into your house leaves unopened as well. Provocative artwork, quips and quotes, and teasers about what they might find inside are all effective when measured against plain envelopes.

That said, some of my most effective letters have used texture. What does it feel like? Consider the texture of the paper used to make the envelope for example. I received a solicitation the other day where the envelope was made from wax paper. I’ve seen brown, grocery bag paper used, and several types of textured cardstock.

Also consider what you might be able to put inside the letter to give it some texture. Anything that has a different shape or size than the letter will work – a bookmark, a refrigerator magnet, even wildflower seeds (native!). One year I used maple leaves.

Be creative. Make it FUN!

Rule #10 – Send Your Renewal Letters First

A well-constructed and timely renewal sequence will return a 70-80% response rate. A well-constructed special appeal will return 30-40% – less than half. If your renewal mail will overlap your appeal mail, you should not necessarily send both, but which to suppress?

Send the renewals. Suppress the appeal letters.

Rule #11 – Write Your Letters to be Donor-Centric

What does that mean?

It means that the letter reminds the donor of all the reasons they love and support the work. Last week I suggested that you tell a story and make the donor the hero of the story.

This sounds boneheadedly easy. It’s not.

As an exercise, go back and reread the last few appeals you’ve written. Highlight all references to “we,” “us,” and “our.” Do these references include the donor, or exclude them?

  • We couldn’t do this without your support. (Excludes donor)
  • Together we can get it done again. (Includes donor)
  • Please help us protect XYZ Preserve. (Excludes donor)
  • All of us take great pride in protecting the XYZ Preserve; future generations will thank us for our effort here. (Ambiguous. Try adding: I hope you share that sense of pride and accomplishment.)


Now rewrite the letter.

Rule #12 – Follow-up

Don’t just send the letters out and cross your fingers. Follow-up.


The most obvious is a second letter. I’ve seen second letters be completely different in tone and style. Try writing the letter using first person from the perspective of one of the volunteers, or a land steward, or a land donor. Or maybe a turtle who comes home and tells Mom that he found people in his backyard. Or a pickup truck, sitting on a lot, waiting to get to work for the land trust that is busy raising money to buy it.

I’ve also seen follow-up letters which simply serve as reminders of the Annual Campaign – one I liked a lot was drafted on a regular sheet of paper that had been cut diagonally. “Just half a letter to remind you of our Annual Campaign.” Or use a postcard follow-up.

You can also get on the phone, of course. This is a great activity for board members. “Hi, I’m David from the Board. I just wanted to follow-up with you to make sure you received our Annual Fund letter.”


Got questions about your appeal letters? Your comments and questions are welcome here.


Photo credit: Aspen Forest, courtesy of Walt Kaesler.

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