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8 Tips for Writing a Fundraising Letter

Personable, Specific, Easy-to-Read

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Just like copy writing, writing great fundraising letters is not for the amateur. However, unlike businesses that can often afford to pay the big bucks for great copywriting, nonprofits, especially small ones, often depend on in-house staff to write that crucial letter and to put together their direct mail package.

Here to help are the Cardinal Rules of writing a fundraising letter, adapted from Mal Warwick's immensely useful How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters.

1. Use "I" and "You," but mostly "You."

Forget what you've learned about writing a press release or a brochure and think of how you would write a letter to another individual. Using I and You provides human interest and is a powerful way to engage the reader.

2. Base your appeal on benefits, not needs.

Donors give in order to get something in return, primarily the good feelings that come from helping others, or an opportunity to enjoy an experience.

Intangible benefits are lives saved or human dignity restored. Tangible benefits could be tickets to a special performance of your ballet company or early admission to a special exhibit at your museum. Tell your prospective donor what he/she will get out of their donation, both tangible and intangible.

3. Ask for money, not for support.

Be explicit when asking for money. Example: Send a special gift today of $25 or more. Be clear and repeat some variation of the message throughout the letter. Don't be shy and don't be vague.

4. Write a package, not a letter.

The letter is the most important piece of your package, but it is only a part of a multi-piece unit that must all work together seamlessly.

At the very least, your package will contain an outer envelope, a reply envelope, and a reply device, as well as the letter. Think about how each of these will help persuade donors to take action now. Use a unifying theme, symbols, colors and typefaces so the package is both memorable and accessible.

5. Write in simple, straightforward English.

Your words should be powerful and your sentences short and punchy.

Use emotional words rather than those that provoke analysis. Avoid foreign phrases and overly large words. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, and avoid abbreviations or acronyms. Spell out names. Repeat and even underline key words and phrases. Readers skim, so make it easy to find the meat of your message without reading the entire letter.

6. Make It easy to read.

The eye needs to rest, so leave plenty of white space around your copy by:
  • Indenting each paragraph.
  • Avoiding paragraphs that are more than seven lines long. But do vary the length of your paragraphs.
  • Using bullets rather than listing items within sentences.
  • Using subheads. If the letter is long, try centering and underlining the subheads.
  • Underlining sparingly but consistently to call attention to key words and phrases.

7. Give readers a reason to send money now.

Create a sense of urgency by citing a deadline for a matching grant, or tie your request to a budget deadline or a particular holiday.

Repeat your argument for urgency both in the text of the letter but also in a P.S. and on your reply device. Be careful about using actual dates if you are using bulk mail. The letter might arrive after the date.

8. Write as long a letter as you need to make your case.

Many people will read every word of your letter, while others will simply scan it. Write to both groups with a reasonably long letter that is set up to be easy to scan.

Don't worry about boring long time supporters. Research shows that even the most active donors may remember little about your organization, so don't worry about repeating yourself. Think of your letter as yet another opportunity to educate your donor about what your organization does and why that is important.

These points are just a sampling of Mal Warwick's expertise. His book, How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters, provides ample tips, examples, and case studies. It also has a wonderful Writer's Toolbox with suggestions for developing a great fundraising package from envelope teasers to ways to start the P.S. for your letter.

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