09 Aug A Dozen Rules for Writing Better Fundraising Letters
9 August 2022
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
It’s primary election day in Wisconsin, and I am a pollworker, so I am reprising my set of fundraising letter “rules” from several years ago. The set is based on a book by Jeff Brooks that should probably be required reading for anyone writing fundraising letters: A Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications. I wish I had written it. If you read it, and follow it closely, the writing may not come any easier, but it will be more effective, and you will raise more money.
(BTW – I do not know Mr. Brooks, and I do not benefit in any way if you buy his book.)
Mark Twain was credited as writing to a friend: “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.” Writing a good fundraising letter will take time and effort, but it will be worthwhile. And starting NOW – in August – will help you by pulling the job out of the last-minute crunch in November.
So – if you don’t want to buy Brooks’ book, or if you don’t want to read it, hear are a dozen rules to run with for your Fall appeal:
Rule #1 – If you’re not testing, you’re not learning
Got a better idea? Try it. Don’t believe the common wisdom? Prove it wrong. Think your membership base or community is different? Test it.
The one I always get pushback on is the letter length issue. “A four-page letter? No one would read a four-page letter!” Yet in every test I’ve ever witnessed, longer letters get more responses and raise more money.
OK, to be fair, I have heard stories over the years of longer letters that did NOT do as well. They are few and far between and almost always comparing one year’s results to another year’s results. The scientific concept of “control” is important here. The lists have to be statistically identical, the ask letterhead has to be the same, the ask has to be the same, they have to be mailed on exactly the same day, and so on. And in controlled testing, longer letters routinely outperform shorter letters. Go figure!
To do a test, you need to divide your list in some way that is statistically random, and you need to code your response envelopes. The classic test is the A/B test with half the audience getting one version and the other half getting the other version. Make sure the versions have only one difference, so you can learn from the results.
And commit yourself to using what you learn!
Rule #2 – People give money because they want to
Good fundraising letters remind the donor why they love the organization. Why your mission is their mission. Why your organization is the best organization to get the work done. How their gift last year made a difference, and how their gift this year will make a difference.
We are not coming to our donors, tin cup in hand, seeking alms for the poor organization that is unable to feed itself. We come as partners, dedicated to a common vision and outcome, each ready to do our part to make this part of the world a better place.
Write your letter from the perspective that your organization is the best organization for the donor to use to get their work done.
Rule #3 – Don’t tell me, SHOW me
Tell a story. In fact, tell a couple of stories.
- Stories convey emotion.
- Stories stimulate the imagination
- Stories move us to action
Make the story about one person and tell it from the first-person point of view.
Make the donor the hero of the story.
Rule #4 – Technique Matters
You’ve heard all this before. Perhaps you don’t believe it. Perhaps you just haven’t tried it yet. But it hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years since I’ve been in fundraising. These are all proven techniques:
- Write your letter at the 8th grade level or simpler. You aren’t writing “down” to people. You are writing in such a manner that intelligent people can get the point very quickly.
- Longer letters do better than shorter letters. Write four pages if you can.
- Always include a PS note. People who read nothing else will often read the PS note. Make sure the PS note communicates the ask and communicates urgency.
- Communicate urgency all through the letter.
- Embedded photos draw the eye, but they don’t draw the reader into the letter. They are a distraction from your message. You’re still only going to get a glance. Save the printed photo for the envelope, or better yet, print one as a stand-alone insert.
- Ask for money on every page.
- Be very specific about what you are asking for. I recommend that you ask for $100 (or OTHER).
Rule #5 – Design for older, female eyes
What does that mean?
- Choose a serif font and at least a 12 pt type size. 13 is better and easier to read. Even 14 pt type is OK.
- Leave lots of white space on the pages. Put extra space between lines and double-space between paragraphs. Try 1.25 inch margins, too.
- High contrast between type and paper is easier to read. Black type on white paper, for example. And don’t ever print over graphics.
Rule #6 – Have a Call to Action. Make it urgent. Make it specific
Put yourself in the position of the reader/donor, and ask yourself this question: Can I tell what the letter writer is asking me to do? If not, go back and be specific. Here’s some language I have used in the past that will illustrate what I mean:
“Please consider a special gift this year of $100. If you can do more, please be as generous as possible. If $100 is not possible, please choose an amount more comfortable for you. Every gift counts!”
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 (I’m NOT suggesting this!), and it would only amount to tiny fraction of the total. Reducing the mail you send every year might not even get noticed at all and certainly won’t make donors MORE likely to give.
BTW, 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. Working on making your mail more interesting and fun to read, and worry less about sending it.
BTW #2, there is good evidence that younger people get mail and go online to give. How people give is not the same thing as how they should be solicited.
Rule #8 – Tailor Your Response Card to Your Audience Segment
Here is 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 response devise 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. You want to make it AS EASY AS POSSIBLE for someone to give on-line. Having a one-size-fits-all landing page suppresses giving.
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. 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 a 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.”
Here’s hoping that these rules are helpful to you this year and that your appeal is better than ever. Got questions about your appeal letters? Your comments and questions are welcome here.
Cheers, and Have a great week!
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 World Wildlife courtesy of Stocksnap.io.
Jim PerryPosted at 07:41h, 10 August
Personally, I don’t read long appeal letters, and the idea of a four page letter counters everything I learned in some pretty sophisticated fund-raising seminars. Or at least they were expensive. Perhaps if within that four pages there are pretty pictures that will be attractive. And two things that cause people to open letters: real stamps, not bulk mailing marks, and what appears to be hand-written script in the address of the envelope,
David AllenPosted at 12:21h, 10 August
I’m not necessarily recommending anyone send 4-page letters as much as I am recommending everyone test the idea and use what they learn to modify future behavior. Be a scientist! What someone actually reads – or what any one specific person would or wouldn’t read – really just misses the point. There is good, correlated evidence that that people who don’t open the envelope don’t give either. But there is no corresponding correlation between people who read letters (of any length!) and people who give. In fact, reading the letter shouldn’t even be a metric. Because we don’t and can’t ever really know. And we shouldn’t even really care. The metrics we will care about are how many people respond and how much they give. And in both cases, longer letters tend to outperform shorter letters (up to a point) in controlled experiments.
The problem with critical thinking is that we are too often selective when applying it. We say, “we’re going to choose where to work based on the best available science,” and then “go with our gut” in fundraising. We apply adaptive management to our range science and ignore behavioral science.
A central tenet of most scientific endeavor is the idea of repeatability. If I conduct the same experiment multiple times, will I continue to get the same result? With that idea in mind, consider that the 4-page letter theory has been challenged in the conservation community for decades. Consider that many actors all over the country have conducted experiments – with varying levels of sophistication – and some with the idea they would be proving the theory wrong. The overwhelming evidence suggests exactly the opposite.
For the record, I have heard “pretty sophisticated fund-raising seminars” recommend not getting hung up on how long the letter is, but I have never heard any direct mail marketing expert claim that shorter letters outperform longer letters. If that is what you heard – not getting hung up on it – I would completely agree. There are factors that will have far greater influence on how many respond and how much money you raise than the length of your letter. (That’s why the post was so long.)
With great respect and gratitude for your comment,
David LillardPosted at 09:40h, 09 August
I have been using the 4-page letter since the Raleigh Rally, after your data workshop (cut short by a fire drill or something). Everyone fights the idea — board members, staff, volunteers. Hands down, it always performs better. Always.