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Essential Elements of a Fundraising Letter

Resource Center - Foundation

(Oct. 26, 2010) With all of the recent emphasis on the short and quick communication, from email to text messages to Twitter, letter writing has almost become a lost art. Yet a personally addressed note remains an extremely powerful way to reach donors--and get a response. At the Blackbaud Conference for Nonprofits held in Washington, D.C. last week, Doug Shaw and Michael Johnson of Douglas Shaw & Associates in Chicago offered tips for crafting a successful fundraising letter.

Five Necessary Questions to Address

1. What is the problem that the organization must solve...or opportunity the appeal is written to address?
The first step to a compelling letter is making it as clear as possible just what change needs to take place. Never take it for granted that people understand the nature, or the scope, of the problem at hand.

2. How will the organization solve the problem or address the opportunity referenced in the appeal?
The next step is to be clear that there is a solution, and describe the way your organization provides that solution. What does your program do to advance the cause at hand?

3. How much must the organization raise to meet the need?
Understanding the scope of the solution in dollars in cents is just as important and understanding the scope of the problem. What exactly does your organization need to achieve change? Offering actual dollar amounts makes it clear what a donor can do if they give at one dollar amount, and how much more they can do at a higher level.

4. How will the donor's gift help to address the problem and/or opportunity?
It sounds simple, but you must make sure you are clear in a letter to a current or prospective donor what it is that the donation will actually accomplish. Donors no longer give because it is the right thing to do. They give to achieve results. So give them a clear connection between the money they donate and the good they'll do. What exactly is the need? What will this one gift I give do to address it?

5. Why is it important for the donor to give today to address this problem/opportunity?
The difference between a donor reaching for his or her checkbook and reaching to toss away your appeal is urgency. Why now? What will happen if I do not give today?

A good way to approach a fundraising appeal letter, Shaw and Johnson explained, is to remember that it is not about your organization, it's about who and what your organization helps. They believe the best thing the organization can do is get out of the way and let the donor connect directly with those in need.

Tricks of the Trade

Based on their direct mail tests and experience with fundraising campaigns, Shaw and Johnson also had some clear do's and don'ts when it comes to direct mail.

Do make your letter as personalized as possible....ideally handwritten, or in a hand-addressed envelope.
Don't use difficult-to-read fonts when typing a letter. Keep it simple and clean. Shaw suggests Courier font.
Do use a postage stamp whenever possible.
Do pay attention to the size of the envelope. Shaw advises a standard letter envelope whenever possible. It should look like a letter from a friend.
Don't delay in saying thank-you. Reply to a donor's gift within 24 to 48 hours of receipt.
Do provide an opportunity for a second gift in the acknowledgement letter.
Don't be afraid to restate the ask. Shaw suggests a "P.S." at the end of the letter that summarizes the essential point of the letter.
Do tailor the message to the gift. Thank them for the specific need their gift will go to address.
Don't ignore the reply envelope. Include your website URL, a call for planned gifts, a restatement of the ask and other elements to help the donor support your organization's mission.

For more on crafting fundraising appeal letters, consider these helpful books available in the AFP Bookstore:

How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters, Second Edition, by Mal Warwick
How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money: The Art, the Science, The Secrets, by Tom Ahern

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