The Hidden Fact That Will Change the Way You Write Appeal Letters

The Hidden Fact That Will Change the Way You Write Appeal Letters


by David Allen, Development for Conservation


If you’re smart, you won’t wait until November to write your end-of-year appeal. If you’re really smart, you will have already written it.

OK so most of us aren’t that smart.

But the fact still remains that it’s not too early to get a good start on it for 2017.



It’s fall!

Time to give.

So, here’s my general advice for approaching the task of getting to that first draft of the appeal letter:

  • Start with a story. Return to the story at several points in the letter.
  • List your board members down the left-hand side of the first page.
  • Use 1.25” margins, 13pt type, and double space between paragraphs.
  • Run the letter to four pages.
  • Use graphics ONLY to draw attention to specific points in the text.
  • Don’t use photos and if you ignore this advice, never type words over them.
  • Always include a PS note and use the PS to reiterate the urgency in the letter.
  • Ask for a specific amount of money.
  • Ask on every page.


I get asked all the time to explain why this stuff works, and I usually make something up that sounds vaguely reasonable. The truth is that I’ve never found research that attempted to answer WHY, at least not that I’ve believed. The research that’s out there generally is looking at WHAT works.

But here’s one hidden fact that should change the way you look at this data and should change the way to approach writing fundraising letters:

It’s not a letter and no one will read it in the same way you wrote it.




When most people sit down to write a letter, they write it so that it works linearly – from some starting point to the finish. Each paragraph is written intentionally to follow the one before, using an internal logic that people work hard on, with careful attention to transitions, and ending with a firm and triumphant (ta dah!) conclusion – the “ask” paragraph.

But that’s not how people read it. They read the first sentence. They skip to the end and read the PS note. Then they backtrack, keying in on specific passages that catch their eye. They read just enough to “get it,” and then they put it down, usually having already decided to make a gift or not.

That decision is not based on logic and especially not on the internal logic you used to construct the letter. It’s based on how that person feels with the letter in their hand.

Do they feel

Curious? Needed? Urgent? Loyal? Committed?

Or perhaps

Indifferent? Hopeless? Unnecessary?

So, when we know all this up front, it changes the way we approach writing the letters. We pay additional attention to the opening sentence and paragraph. We use story and metaphor to illustrate the main points, instead of data. We make sure that all the way through the backtracking, the major points are covered several times, so no matter where the reader’s eye happens to land, we still get the message across. And we use graphics and graphic elements (like bold, italics, underlining, and TYPE FACE) to draw the eye to these repeated messages.

It’s fall!

Time to give.

Writing and editing fundraising letters is better thought of as an exercise in technical writing, than as writing actual letters. There are techniques, rules, and form to the exercise that, if followed closely, will help you raise more money. Many of these techniques are counter-intuitive. But they are accepted because when they are tested against a control, they outperform the control.

It’s fall!

Time to give.

I’m going to be on vacation these next two weeks. So next week, I’ll give you a list of opening lines for appeal letters that I have actually received and several that I wrote myself.

And the week after, I’ll do the same with PS notes. Perhaps you can find something in there to inspire you.

Got something you’re proud of? Send it to me, and I’ll include it in the posts.





Related Posts

Fall Appeal Planning

Writing Appeal and Recruitment Letters

A Dozen Rules for Writing Better Fundraising Letters



Photo by Alexandr Baranets courtesy of

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