How to Get the Most From Your Project Appeals

How to Get the Most From Your Project Appeals


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


As I reported in my study of five-year values, (see 5Yr Value: The Metric that Tells You the Most About Your Fundraising), organizations with a higher-than median five-year value (2014 donors) tended to be actively engaged in raising money (from individuals) for projects – including capital campaigns. Raising money for some specific project seemed to have a positive effect on:

  • Bringing new donors to the table;
  • Increasing the average entry-level gift of those new donors;
  • Increasing the renewal rate generally;
  • Increasing the average gift generally; and
  • Bringing back members whose involvement as donors had lapsed.


In northern Colorado, there’s an off-the-beaten-path TNC preserve called Phantom Canyon. As the Conservancy’s Colorado Field Office got close to making the deal – some 30 years ago now –  they prepared and mailed a prospect recruitment package, reasoning that the project would have broad appeal and might attract new members.

And they were right. The mailing did spectacularly well, even drawing a respectable response from a list of state bar association members that no one expected to yield much. The news spread throughout the Conservancy, and before long many others in the Conservancy network were finding projects to use for recruitment mail. My project was called Clear Lake Ridge in eastern Oregon.

And we all crashed at the same time, too.

The problem was that as exciting as the Phantom Canyon project was, the Conservancy did not have a plan in place to help donors make the connection from the project to the organization. Donors were giving money to create the Phantom Canyon Preserve, but they didn’t necessarily make the leap from there to giving money to TNC.

Project appeals are really effective in raising money for that specific project, but the “renewal rate” is pretty low in general. If the first renewal rate standard is about 45% (see The 45% Percent Solution and Other Ideas for Improvement), project appeals routinely get less than half that.

Donors feel like they were asked to support a specific project. They did so. End of story.

We’ve learned a lot in 30 years, and though there are no magic pills, there are some things you can do to boost this first-year rate and hang onto project donors beyond the end of the project itself.

Here’s my list. Can you add to it?

  • Avoid embedding a full 12-month membership in the project support you are requesting. If you consider project donors as members at all, make it a three- or four-month “trial” membership instead of twelve. That way, you are “renewing” their support four months later.
  • When you do send a renewal notice, reference the project they supported in the request letter.
  • Send another appeal letter right away – certainly within four months, but maybe even after just two. The most predictive factor for someone’s gift is how recently they have given. Don’t give them time to forget you exist.
  • Thank donors profusely and multiple times. Make sure the Thank You message does not come across as simply pro-forma, but specifically connects back to the project that captured their interest.
  • Share results as they happen. Send out information about when the project closes, when the signs are posted, when the parking lot is completed, cool photos (like from a drone), scheduled visits, volunteer opportunities, and so on.
  • Invite donors to get involved on other channels – they responded to mail. How about sending them a link to a video of the property, inviting them to follow the project on Facebook or some other social media platform, or asking them to volunteer?
  • Host a closing party, ribbon-cutting ceremony, or similar celebratory event. Invite everyone who contributed. Remember that the invitation has cultivation value all by itself. Make sure it is prominently branded with organizational messaging!
  • Host an anniversary party at the preserve a year later with the same intention.


In a lot of her material, Claire Axelrod talks about creating an obvious and well-lit pathway between being passionate about one specific project or program and being passionate about the organization behind it. This won’t happen by accident. It happens because you have a plan of action already in place to “convert” project donors into mission donors. This planning is part of the campaign to raise money for the project.


So, if project appeals yield less than desirable first renewal rates, how does that square with the results from the 5Yr Value Study? The answer lies in the gifts that are made by first donors to an appeal. The median value in the study was about $1,100. If a first-time donor gives anything greater than that to the project, they can drive up both the average and the median, even if they never give another gift within the five-year window. Several of the project appeals I looked at had donors making first-time gifts of $5,000, $10,000 and even $20,000 to help the project happen. One organization had two donors making first gifts of $100,000 toward the project. That will skew anyone’s numbers!


Cheers, and Have a great week.




Photo by Tuesday Temptation, courtesy of


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