November 8, 2017

Now that the holiday season is almost upon us, it’s important to consider what we can do to improve nonprofit fundraising letters.  Because those of us running small nonprofits work hard and do the impossible when it comes to meeting our missions in spite of our shoestring budgets, we are understandably inclined to tell our donors and prospects about our marvelous successes in terms that we believe are quite convincing. Here’s an example:  “With our new ABC vaccination outreach program, we’ve reduced the incidence of XYZ illness in Transylvanian school-age children by 50% in just 3 years time. Won’t you help us do more?”

the most important way to improve nonprofit fundraising letters: tell STORIES & scrap statistics

The problem with the foregoing, however, is that, to the average donor, the statement is as cold as ice. Sure, most everyone can empathize with the need to ensure that all children are properly vaccinated and we can create a mental image of the suffering that can ensue when that doesn’t happen.  But, with respect to what your organization did and exactly who it helped and how, we have nothing to go on because you haven’t given us anything except a statistic.  You’ve left us out in the cold with nothing that would bring us closer to you based on what you’ve done to improve a particular child or family’s well being.

And that, my friends, is the biggest problem with most fundraising appeal letters.  They offer plenty of statistics and rah-rah statements about your wonderful breakthroughs. But there’s no story. You assume that we individual donors are rational people who should be moved by objective, verifiable evidence of success. I’ll say this once: individual donors are NOT foundation program officers. If you want individuals to give to you, ditch the statistics and craft a good story, especially one where the donor is the hero.

Improve Nonprofit Fundraising Letters-Stories Not Stats

BEYOND telling STORIES, we can improve nonprofit fundraising letters by employing some tried & true BEST PRACTICES

Fundraising appeals are an art form with a number of tried and true best practices. To the uninitiated, many of these things may seem illogical, but they work. Here’s my check-list for a successful appeal:

1. follow these techniques

LENGTH:  Make your letter at least three pages long. Longer letters, properly written, have been shown time and time again to be more successful in raising funds than shorter ones.

TONE: Write as if you are having a one-on-one conversation. Use action verbs, and avoid lengthy words and sentences. Use the words “I” and “you,” so as to help the reader see him- or herself as a critical part in impacting your mission. Communicate why giving now is important.

TAX BENEFIT:  Always mention a tax benefit to donating. This is particularly important for end-of-year appeals.

TANGIBLE EXAMPLES OF IMPACT:  If you have various giving levels, give prospective donors an example of what a gift at each level will achieve so that they can make a meaningful connection between their support and your mission.  For example, if the lowest level is $25 and the next level is $100, you might say “a gift of $25 will purchase 25 information packets;” “a gift of $100 will purchase 6 doses of the XYZ vaccine.” But let’s be clear:  individuals are your greatest source of unrestricted income, so don’t say that if you give $100, we’re going to buy 6 doses of vaccine.  That’s a restricted gift that won’t help most nonprofits keep the lights on.

USE A POST SCRIPT (P.S.):  State what you really want from your prospective donor and ask for a specific amount of money, typically an amount in the next tier of giving beyond the prospective donor’s last gift.  The P.S. is a way of dealing with the fact that many people will skim your letter – at the bottom, you want to catch them on the way out.

ASK ON EVERY PAGE:  No explanation is really needed here.  You should have a bold or underlined ask for money on every page of the letter.

INVOLVE YOUR BOARD: Call a meeting for the purpose of having board members write personal notes on your letters. Not every board member has to sign every letter.  And it doesn’t really matter whether or not the person knows the prospect. The idea is to make it clear that the appeal is truly important to your organization and that board members care enough about the activity to take the time to write notes on the letters.  This activity really is dependent on having a list of your board members running down the left-hand side of the first page of your letter. Apart from notes, individual board members with direct relationships to your prospects might want to actually sign the letters going out to them in the place of your executive director or board chair. This is an added touch of personalization that can cause your appeal to receive greater attention than might otherwise be the case.

INCLUDE A RESPONSE ENVELOPE:  Not everyone agrees with me on this point, but I will tell you from experience that response envelopes work.  The prospect might toss your letter, but the envelope, which contains all of the instructions for giving and is addressed to your organization, remains on your prospect’s desk. I have had many occasions where I sent letters in December and received the response envelope with a contribution in January or even February. This tells me that the end-of-year tax incentive is not as important to some as it is to others. Many people just need to get through the holidays before they have the presence of mind to be able to respond to appeals. If the tax benefits of charitable giving are not a primary driver for donating to an organization, waiting until after the holiday rush makes a lot of sense.  And that makes including a response envelope in your appeal a very important consideration, indeed.  I have used notforprofitprinting.com successfully for printing large quantities of this donor envelope successfully for many years.  (I’ve previously discussed the importance of including a response envelope when you mail your print newsletter.).

DESIGN FOR OLDER, FEMALE EYES: Research shows that older women are the demographic that gives the most money in response to snail mail fundraising appeals, so it makes sense to design the document with their interests top of mind.  Here are a few design recommendations:

  • Use a serif font like Times New Roman or Cambria and make the font size 13 point.
  • Use 1.15 point line spacing and double space between paragraphs.
  • Make the margins of your page 1.25 inches.
  • Underline passages in the text that you want to stress.
  • Use a high contrast paper: In other words, don’t get crazy and print your black type on blue paper.  Use the highest quality, preferably textured, white paper you can afford and print in black ink.
  • Use graphics only to draw attention to specific points in the text.

Many people who receive your regular mail appeal will still want to make their contribution via credit card and/or online. Make sure your response envelope has fields sufficient to collect the necessary credit card information and that staff understand how to process these when they are received.  Make sure your website is set up to handle online donations and that the system for these donations is working properly.  If you have not explored alternatives for online giving, PayPal is a good place to start.  It even integrates well with Akubo, a fundraising and communications database discussed in several earlier posts.


We all get a ton of direct mail appeals this time of year. I’d like to suggest that you evaluate yours against the foregoing list of best practices and set aside those you think might help you make your own case.  I’ve done that for a few years running and I’ll share this one with you as an example of an organization that I think has done a pretty good job with its appeal.  I’d love to hear about what you find and also about your appeal experience. Which techniques worked? Which didn’t? Leave a comment to let me know.

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