10 Mar Editing Appeal Letters
by David Allen, Development for Conservation
It’s time to dig out that appeal letter you wrote a couple of weeks ago (See Writing Appeal and Recruitment Letters). The best writing percolates for a few days or weeks before being edited, and the secret to all good writing is in the editing. This week, we’ll take a longer look at a specific editing process for appeal letters. Much of it is counter-intuitive, so close your eyes and trust the advice – at least this once – against all objections – and most especially your own.
Fundraiser’s Almanac: March
- Spring Appeal Planning
- Editing Appeal Letters
- Print the First Renewal Letters Now
- Foundation/Corporate Due Dates
- Donor Strategies: Good News, Save The Date
First, check the “ask” statement. The secret is in making it direct, obvious, and specific. Don’t make busy people have to guess what it is you are asking for. It seems pathetically obvious, but if you ask for $35, you’ll get $35 a lot. If you ask for $100, you’ll get $100 a lot – even from many of the same people! If you ask for “generosity,” or “inclusion,” then you won’t get nearly as much.
Strengthening this one paragraph will make the biggest difference in your returns. Here’s some language I like a lot:
Please consider a gift of $100 or more to accelerate the pace of conservation work close to home. If you are in a position to consider a significantly larger gift, please be as generous as possible. If $100 is not in the cards, please consider an amount that is more comfortable for you. No gift is too small to make a difference!
Second write a nice PS note. Make it clear from the PS note alone, what the whole letter is about, because there are some people who will read the PS note and nothing else. Don’t ask. I don’t know why. It must be like people who never read the National Geographic stories will read the captions under the pictures.
Next highlight every number in the letter. Be like Goldilocks here. Not too many, not too few. Just right. The bottom line is that people don’t give from their heads. They give from their hearts. Numbers don’t help the heart stuff. Stories do. Nobody really cares how many acres were saved, or how much below fair market value you paid, or how many members you have now, or how many cranes were in your field of vision. They care about one tree, one critter, one child discovering a waterfall, one family whose dreams of protecting their farm were realized, or one crane taking off from the roost at daybreak to search for food. Is your letter dependent on data points or on stories? You can fix this.
Now highlight every use of the pronouns we, us, and our. Does your use of we, us, and our include the reader, or exclude the reader? “If we do not actively protect the land we all love…” is good. “With your support, you let us know that you value our efforts to conserve…” could be strengthened.
Next test the readability of the letter. Good appeal letters are written at the 6th to 8th grade level. Most of us start out at the 10th to 12th grade level. The response I get most often when I suggest this is that “we are not writing for idiots. We are writing to educated people for whom we don’t need to ‘dumb things down.’” Stop it! You should write at an 8th grade level because smart people absorb 8th grade level writing VERY quickly, and you won’t get much time from them before they make a decision to give or not. (This blog is written at the 6th grade level – which I’m actually proud of! Does it seem “dumbed down?”) So how do you simplify? Look for sentences strung together with conjunctions, like “and” or “or.” Look for sentences with compound subjects or verbs. Eliminate (or nearly so) passive voice. Treat every introductory prepositional phrase as suspect. Avoid feeling compelled to always use complete sentences if incomplete sentences will add emphasis or effect. Keep testing. You’ll get better at this.
Last – pay attention to the formatting. Do you have good margins? Adequate space between the paragraphs? A nice serif font (like Times New Roman) printed in at least 12 pt type? Look at the page transitions. You DO want sentences and paragraphs to start on one page and end on another, but you don’t necessarily want single lines of text (widows and orphans) at the top or bottom of pages. Also, take a look at your stories. They should start on one page and end on another also. These are techniques that will help the reader stay with you through the letter.
What makes all this worth the hassle? You will raise more money! I spoke with a client last week who had written her fall appeal letter “according to David’s suggestions” over the objections of her board members who howled that they would never read such a letter. The results were that she raised $15,000! – $12,000 more than they had ever raised before.
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