Writing Better Fundraising Letters

Writing Better Fundraising Letters

 

31 August 2021

 

By David Allen, Development for Conservation

 

In 2019, I received an appeal letter from a client. The letter was two pages, 12 pt. type, black text on white paper, and illustrated with two attractive photographs. As a fundraising letter, it probably did well in that it probably stimulated people to write checks that Fall. But it broke so many rules, I thought I’d doctor it up as a case study and share a “before” and “after” with you.

The letter was signed by the Executive Director without a PS note. Even people who simply glance at the letter read the PS note, and not including one could almost be considered a minor sin. It also did not include a list of Board members on the front page. The Board list helps with credibility – people recognize someone they know and are more likely to give if they believe that someone might notice.

I want to emphasize, right up front, that the letter as written certainly raised money and may have even done relatively well. Improving it would equally as certainly raise more money. But quantifying that improvement, without a side-by-side test, would be next to impossible. This post isn’t about throwing one of my clients under the bus. It’s about helping everyone improve their writing to improve their results.

I probably could have used the entire letter here, but this post would end up much longer than necessary to make the point. Instead, I have reprinted only the second page, and I have removed the name of the land trust and any reference to their geography.

 

Part I:

The letter copy in its original form. The Reading Level is 13.3 – way too high for an appeal letter.

 

From the Pollinator Festival and 12th Annual Native Plant Sale, to landowner & stewardship workshops, a rain barrel workshop, multiple classes, garden club talks and more, we’ve worked to help educate the public on the natural resources that surround them while working with landowners to conserve habitat, farmland, and scenic or cultural landscapes.

Our job is simple. Here at the Land Trust, we protect the lands that sustain, uplift, and inspire us – forever. From now — till the end of time — the Land Trust will be supporting, protecting, and stewarding the area’s most important lands. We will continue to provide broad environmental education and opportunities to help the public become immersed in nature. With your support and guidance, together, we are creating a region that is both ecologically and socially thriving.

There are numerous reasons why we feel the work we do matters and there are numerous reasons why, since 1990, the Land Trust has been recognized as a respected and trusted organization. We have helped to protect more than 21,000 acres of pristine farmland, critical habitat, streams, parks, trails, and more!

Please give as generously as you can and please make an end-of-year gift that supports the Land Trust’s educational programing, where families build a deeper connection to wildlife, farming, and the benefits of water quality.

We need you now and we are appealing to friends like you to help us raise critical funding to ensure that vital habitat, agriculture, and healthy waters are a priority.

Please consider making a gift to Land Trust or consider becoming a sustaining member by donating monthly through our website! Together, we can prevent habitat loss and have a positive impact on the land we love — forever. Thank you for your continued support.

 

Part 2:

The first thing I did was highlight in PINK all the pronouns “we,” “us,” and “our.” Look how many there were! In each case, I asked myself whether the pronoun includes the reader. In every case but one, it did not. In every case but one, the pronoun refers generally to the organization or to the staff and board most involved with the organization. Using these pronouns in this way implies that the readers (members and donors) are NOT part of the organization. The exception is in the last paragraph where the “we” is clarified by the use of the word “together.” When a writer says “Together, we…” the implication is that the pronoun includes both the writer and the reader.

Next, I highlighted (here in GREEN) all the numbers and asked whether the reader would have any context for understanding the point of the number. (Actually, there weren’t that many – which is good!) Last, I added the BLUE notes to help you see what I was thinking.

 

From the Pollinator Festival and 12th Annual Native Plant Sale, to landowner & stewardship workshops, a rain barrel workshop, multiple classes, garden club talks and more, we’ve [clearly doesn’t include the reader] worked to help educate the public [this sounds so arrogant!] on the natural resources that surround them [surely they can’t appreciate the natural resources without our “education”] while working with landowners [aren’t landowners part of the public?] to conserve habitat, farmland, and scenic or cultural landscapes.

Our [somewhat ambiguous, but I’m betting it does not include the reader] job is simple. [this might make a better case for support if it was in front of the preceding paragraph] Here at the Land Trust, we [now it’s clear] protect the lands that sustain, uplift, and inspire us [combined with the previous two pronouns, this implies a super-exclusionary result] – forever. From now — till the end of time — the Land Trust will be supporting, protecting, and stewarding the area’s most important lands. We [!] will continue to provide broad environmental education and opportunities to help the public become immersed in nature [back to the noblesse oblige of the land trust’s job being to help all the little people]. With your support and guidance, together, we are creating a region that is both ecologically and socially thriving [socially thriving? That case has not been made].

There are numerous reasons why we feel the work we do matters [I love the idea that people care more about what they do with their money than what we do with it. It changes the whole paradigm of fundraising. How “we” feel about the work should matter less than how others – including the reader – feels] and there are numerous reasons why, since 1990, the Land Trust has been recognized as a respected and trusted organization [the idea that the Land Trust has been recognized would be a neutral or slightly positive thought if it were substantiated by a specific example that the reader would recognize – a presidential commendation, perhaps. Left alone here it probably works against the messaging in the letter]. We have helped to protect more than 21,000 acres [this portion of the letter is not as heavily reliant on numbers as some I’ve seen, and I would probably be inclined to leave this one alone. Still 21,000 has no real context – sounds like a lot, unless you’re in the west – and few people really know what an acre is] of pristine [it’s a minor point, but applying the modifier “pristine,” which literally means “in its original condition” to farmland, much less parks and trails, is probably unnecessary] farmland, critical habitat, streams, parks, trails, and more!

Please give as generously as you can [this does not count as an ask, because it’s not specific] and please make an end-of-year gift that supports the Land Trust’s educational programing, where families [back to the noblesse oblige] build a deeper connection to wildlife, farming, and the benefits of water quality.

We need you now [if the work of the land trust is important to the reader, “they” would need “us”] and we are appealing to friends like you to help us raise critical funding [nothing in the letter rises to the level of “critical”] to ensure that vital habitat, agriculture, and healthy waters are a priority.

Please consider making a gift to Land Trust or consider becoming a sustaining member by donating monthly through our website! [this is NOT the time or place to introduce sustaining membership. The time and place would be 6-8 weeks AFTER they respond to this letter. Including it here will serve to dilute the message.] Together, we can prevent habitat loss and have a positive impact on the land we love — forever. Thank you for your continued support.

 

Part 3:

In the rewrite, I softened the “educate the public” language throughout and strengthened the ask paragraph. Note that creatively using incomplete sentences both simplifies the language and emphasizes the messaging. I also modified the last paragraph and used it as a PS Note. The resulting reading level is 8.1 – still a bit too high, but not bad.

 

The Land Trust’s job is simple: protect the lands that sustain, uplift, and inspire all of us – forever. From now — till the end of time — the Land Trust will be supporting, protecting, and stewarding the area’s most important lands. For critical habitat. For wildlife. For farmers. For communities. For Quality of Life.

Your support is an important part of that story. From the Pollinator Festival and 12th Annual Native Plant Sale, to landowner & stewardship workshops, a rain barrel workshop, garden club talks, you support activities that help all of us understand and appreciate the natural resources that surround us. You are helping sustain a community immersed in Nature. That thrives both ecologically and economically.

And you are helping conserve additional habitat, farmland, and scenic landscapes. Since 1990, the Land Trust has helped protect more than 21,000 acres of farmland, wildlife habitat, streams, parks, trails, and more!

This year, please consider an end-of-year gift of $100 or more. If you are in a position to do more, please be as generous as possible. And if $100 isn’t possible, please find a number that is right for you.

The Land Trust needs you now. Friends like you help ensure that vital habitat, agriculture, and healthy waters are a priority – now and forever.

Signed,

PS: Please consider making a gift of $100 or more today. Together, we can prevent habitat loss and have a positive impact on the land we love — forever. Thank you for your continued support.

 

 

You can and should apply these same writing tips to all of your writing – email, internet and social media, newsletters, and so on. How is your own writing coming? Did this help? (If so, I might do it again.)

 

Cheers, and Have a great week!

 

-da

 

PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.

 

 

Photo by Sakon Shima courtesy of Pixabay.

 

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9 Comments
  • Kaye Berman
    Posted at 15:42h, 08 September Reply

    Great article and I learned a lot. I am working on all these things with the appeal letters I’m now responsible for writing. I’ve always worked for orgs that have built in communications experts or hire a large company to do this. May I ask for your recommendations on the best program to use to determine the reading level? Thanks!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 17:05h, 08 September Reply

      Kaye, thank you for writing. I just use Microsoft Word. If you run a basic spellcheck on a particular passage or on the whole letter, at the very end it will give you a summary box with word and sentence counts and so on. One of the metrics is Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level.
      Good luck!

  • Kathy Peven
    Posted at 12:56h, 01 September Reply

    This post was extremely helpful! Having versions to compare and examples highlighted with different colors was easy to follow – I learned a lot. Although I don’t do official fundraising as the main focus of my position, it is such an important reminder to weave this style of writing into everything we do.

    Thanks and keep ’em coming!

  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 11:18h, 31 August Reply

    Good reminders as we go into year end appeal season!

  • Cheryl Todea
    Posted at 09:44h, 31 August Reply

    This is great David!!! THANK YOU!!!!

  • Heidi Habeger
    Posted at 09:36h, 31 August Reply

    Helpful as always, David! Thanks for going this example like you did.

  • Barbara Murphy
    Posted at 09:07h, 31 August Reply

    Thanks, Dave. This example with the reminders was just what I needed as I sit down today to tweak the fall appeal letter.

  • Ashley UpChurch
    Posted at 08:49h, 31 August Reply

    Thanks, David! Great to read this after writing our first draft for our winter appeal just last week. I’m ready to dig back into it now with a better eye and some tips. Very helpful; I’d love to read more like this.

  • Melissa P
    Posted at 08:11h, 31 August Reply

    Thanks for reinforcing these copywriting best practices! One of the easiest things to fix in writing (in my opinion) is to flip the focus from we/us/our to you/your–yet, it’s rarely done. And, it drives me nuts. In conventional b to c marketing, the aim is always third-fourth grade reading level. So, the 8.1 reading level seems pretty high, but I suppose makes sense for the audience.

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