You want to raise money with your year-end nonprofit appeal, right?
Think about what inspires you about your mission. What are you passionate about? What drew you here and keeps you here?
Look at your last appeal; does it sound like you know who you’re writing to? If not, you’re likely writing on auto-pilot, talking at your donor rather than to them. You’re likely writing about what you care about, not what they care about. You’re writing unconsciously.
1. Know Your Audience
This should be a no-brainer. How can you write to someone if you know nothing about their interests?
The fundamental secret that underlies all donor-centric fundraising is this: show your donor you know them.
How do you get to know them? Begin with facts in your database (age, gender, geography, profession, gift designation).
Then think about what else you’d like to know about them in order to make them a compelling fundraising offer they won’t be able to refuse. Would it help to know something about their interests? Their values? Their initial reason for connecting with you?
- Create a mailed survey or pick up the phone to get answers to your questions. Design questions so you can better understand your donors’ values. All philanthropy is based on a value-for-value exchange.
- Don’t ask too many questions or you’ll depress response.
- Ask a mix of questions to collect demographic and psychographic data.
- Ask open-ended questions to get qualitative information.
- Why did you first give here?
- Why do you continue giving here?
- What do you like most about what we do?
- What do you like most about the information you receive in our newsletter/blog?
- Create personas. This summarizes the characteristics of your key audience members so you can picture them. “Suzy Soccer Mom.” “Bob Business Entrepreneur.” “Wanda Widow.” Personas help you create a mental picture of the folks you’re writing to. You may also find that different segments (e.g., monthly donors; major donors; online donors) have distinct traits, and you may, therefore, want to approach them differently.
2. Use Your Audience’s Words
When you mirror people’s own language, they’re able to see themselves in what you do. If you do it right, they’ll see the person they want to be. Your hero!
Use what you know about your audience from survey questions or phone conversations. Look for phrases or statements that tend to recur.
- Draw words that will resonate with your supporters from surveys, thank you letters, phone calls, events and daily conversations. Keep a notebook at your desk, and every time you realize you’re hearing a word repeatedly, add it to the list. This helps you to be conscious of what’s already in your donor’s head, enabling you to make your copy more relatable.
3. Create a Sense of Urgency
Your donor needs a reason to give NOW and to give to YOU rather than someone else. Put your appeal into a current context. What’s happening in the world that’s top of mind for your donors?
Sprinkle the sense of urgency throughout your letter. Don’t wait until your final call to action to say “Please give today.” The “why” should begin your appeal, and then permeate all through your writing.
- Save appeals you receive that move you to action. Why did it work? Was there a sense of urgency? How did they create that urgency?
- Try one of these urgent calls to action:
- Your gift will be doubled if you give before [deadline]
- Our doors will close unless we hear from you before [deadline]
- Someone is killed by gun violence every minute. Please give NOW.
- The cold of winter is upon us. Please get people into a warm shelter TODAY.
- Put your urgent reason to give in your P.S. It’s one of the first things people read and will capture their attention, drawing them in to read the rest of the letter.
4. Make it Easy to Comprehend and Digest
Write at a 6th-grade level. People today are challenged for time. They skim. Short words and paragraphs make skimming possible.
- Use the Flesh-Kincaid test (you can find this in your Word program). Write colloquially (i.e., how you would talk). Read your letter out loud, and take out anything over which your tongue trips. It’s okay to use contractions, one-word sentences, and to begin sentences with conjunctions. That’s what we do when we talk.
- Dictate your appeal by using the voice tool on your computer or cell phone.
- Use simple design. Plenty of white space. Indented paragraphs. Headlines, sub-heads, underlines, and bullets. Compelling photos that tell a story.
- A picture is worth 1000 words. Look at the photos you’ve used in past appeals. Do they stand on their own? Do they stand on their own once you add a brief caption? If not, find something better.
- Re-read your letter. How might you add headlines, subheads, and bullets to break up the text and make it more readable. Now look at how you might make judicious use of boldface, italics and underlines to call out important text. I like to consider my letter to be a series of smaller letters. If folks read only the headlines and subheads, they’ll get the gist. If they read only the boldface, they’ll get the gist. If they read only what’s underlined, they’ll get the gist. Since you never really know what parts of the letter your reader will read, it’s good to hedge your bets and repeat your core message more than once.
5. Overcome Writer’s Block
Sometimes you sit down at your desk and your mind goes blank. You just can’t get started. What to do to overcome this?
- Talk to someone else about what you want to say before you sit down to write.
- Find a quiet space where you can be uninterrupted.
- Vanessa Chase Lockshin says “Fill up your inspiration cup.” If it’s been a while since you visited your programs, get out in the field before you sit down to write. Go through some old files of thank you letters from clients (ask your program staff). Rewatch some of your own video stories.
6. Communicate for Understanding by Avoiding Jargon
It takes a lot of awareness — and practice — to avoid falling into the jargon pit. It’s important that you so so, however, as jargon stops folks dead in their tracks. When people have little time to read your letter, they’re not going to keep reading if you make them struggle. Acronyms are bad. Annoying words are bad.
- Is there a more simple word?
- Is there a word that has more impact?
- Is there a word that’s more specific?
- If I took this word out, would the meaning be just as clear? More clear?
- Does this word unnecessarily (or stereotypically) categorize someone?
I hope you won’t simply read this article and delete it. Print it out, put an asterisk next to a few of the items that resonate with you, and commit to doing something new that will improve your writing.
Claire Axelrad J.D., CFRE specializes in fundraising coaching, nonprofit marketing consultation and board training as principal of Clairification. Named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, she brings 30 years frontline development experience to her work.