8 steps to writing successful fundraising letters

63679_letter_lgAssume, for the sake of argument, that you’ve been assigned the task of writing a simple, straightforward special appeal to the active donors of a charity called “Hope Is Alive!” Here are the eight steps I suggest you follow as you go about the job. Step #1: Marketing Concept Write a complete Marketing Concept, so you’ll know the offer you’ll be making in the letter. Writing this down will force you to decide how much money to ask for, who will sign your letter, and whether you’ll include a donor involvement device (such as a survey), a premium, or a deadline – in short, all the things you’re writing the letter about. In this case, let’s say you’ve determined that the Marketing Concept runs as follows: As Executive Director of Hope Is Alive!, I’ve written you many times in the past about the terrible challenges faced by homeless people in our city. Now I’m writing you, as one of our most loyal and generous supporters, to tell you about a challenge that’s a wonderful opportunity: two members of the Board of Trustees have volunteered to match your gift on a dollar-for-dollar basis if we receive it before January 15 – up to a total of $10,000. The money raised in this Challenge of Hope will be used to outfit our new shelter, so that 30 more homeless families can find a warm and secure place to sleep in the difficult weeks still to go before winter ends. Now you’re almost ready to start writing the appeal itself. Step #2: Contents of package But what – exactly – are you going to write? A long letter . . . or a short one? A window envelope with text (a “teaser”) on the outside . . . or a businesslike, closed-face (no window) envelope with no printing except the name Hope Is Alive! and the return address? In other words, it’s time to determine how your Marketing Concept will be implemented as a fundraising package. What will the appeal consist of? For example, in preparing this particular appeal, you might decide the following components are adequate to the task:
  • Number 10 closed-face outer envelope
  • Two- or three-page letter, with page one laser-personalized and subsequent pages printed to match but not personalized
  • Reply device with name, address, and Ask amounts laser-personalized
  • Business Reply Envelope
I suggest you write all this information down on a sheet of paper. Label it something like “Contents of Package.” And take the time necessary to describe in some detail the dimensions, paper stock, ink colors, and other specifications for each of the items you’ve decided to include in the package. These aren’t casual choices. If you were writing to acquire new members rather than solicit support from proven donors, you might feel the need for a longer letter, a bigger reply device (to accommodate a full listing of membership benefits, perhaps), plus a brochure or other insert, and maybe a premium such as name-stickers as well. You might also find laser-personalization is impractical in such a member-acquisition package (because it’s unlikely to be cost-effective). Before you actually write a letter, you need to know such things. Even what might seem like inconsequential details can make a big difference in the way you go about writing a letter. For example, the choice of laser-personalization on the reply device and on the first page of the letter but not on subsequent pages means you can only include specific Ask amounts on page one, and not repeat them on the final page (as is customary and advisable). If the final page of the letter is to be reproduced on an offset printing press rather than a laser printer, the Ask amounts will all be identical. But now your choices have been made. You know what you’re writing. Now you can start. Step #3: Reply device Begin by drafting the response device. This may take no more than a minute or two, since you’ve already written a Marketing Concept. But writing the response device may force you to flesh out the Marketing Concept. For instance, if there are to be several different Ask levels (or segments) in your appeal for Hope Is Alive!, now’s the time to think through the implications. A gift of $500 might require a dramatically different reason than one of $25. Waiting until later to figure that out might oblige you to do a lot of rewriting – and if you’re anything like me and dislike writing, you probably despise rewriting! But this appeal, we’ve said, is simple and straightforward. So let’s assume different versions of the letter aren’t needed for different segments. The language on the reply device, then, will read somewhat as follows: Yes, I’ll help meet the Challenge of Hope, so that 30 more homeless families can find a safe, warm place to sleep in the difficult weeks remaining before winter ends. To beat the January 15 deadline – so my gift is matched dollar-for-dollar by the Trustees – I’m sending my special tax-deductible contribution in the amount of: $(Lastgift + 50%) $(Lastgift + 25%) $______ Step #4: Outer envelope If a letter I’m writing requires an outer envelope teaser, I might find myself dithering for hours before I can get past this crucial step in the process. But you’re lucky. You’ve decided the appeal you’re crafting for Hope Is Alive! will be mailed in a closed-face, personalized outer envelope with no teaser. You’re off the hook, ready to move along to the fifth step. Step #5: The lead Here’s another of those points where I’m likely to stop dead in my tracks. Because research shows the lead of the letter has higher readership than any other element except the outer envelope copy and the P.S., I’ve been known to clutch on an opening paragraph. You won’t clutch, however. You know exactly how you’re going to lead off your letter for Hope Is Alive! You’ll begin with a brief, inspiring story about a six-year-old client of the agency who personifies everything that’s best about its work. Something like this: Jennifer just knew things were going to get better. Molly told her so. Jennifer was only six years old, and she’d spent most of those years on the streets. Drifting from town to town with a dad who could never find work that lasted. No school. No friends, really. No pretty clothes like the other girls she saw sometimes. But one day Jennifer and her dad showed up at our Front Street shelter. Molly D’Alessandro was on duty and greeted the new arrivals. You might say it was love at first sight. While you’re engaged in writing this lead, you might find it convenient to write the close of the letter as well. Just as the lead must almost always be directly connected to the outer envelope teaser, the close should relate to the lead. If you began by asking a question, answer it now. If you started by challenging the reader, refer to the challenge again – and note how the offer you’ve made will enable the reader to respond in a meaningful way. Complete the circle; round out your letter with a satisfying close. In this case, you’ll want to be sure that Jennifer and her dad and Molly D’Alessandro all figure in the way you wind up the letter. Step #6: The P.S. After a lot of thought, you’ve decided to use the P.S. to emphasize the deadline for receipt of matching gifts in the Trustees’ challenge grant campaign. The postscript, then, would go something like this: P.S. Your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar – but only if we receive your check by January 15. In this difficult winter, please help us outfit the new shelter and take 30 homeless families off the streets! In this way, you’ve conveyed three of the strongest elements of the appeal – the deadline, the dollar-for-dollar match, and the 30 families who will benefit – at just the place in the letter that’s bound to have the highest readership of all. Now you’re ready to move along to the body of the letter itself. Step #7: Subheads and underlining Let’s assume you’ve decided that subheads are inappropriate for the appeal you’re writing for Hope Is Alive! There’s still an easy way for you to accent the benefits offered in your appeal, answer readers’ unspoken questions, and make your letter easier to read: by underlining. Do it sparingly. Choose only a few key words and phrases. But, if possible, choose them before you write the body of the letter! In this case, you’d be likely to decide that among the points requiring underlining are the following: If you respond by January 15, your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar. With your generous support, Hope Is Alive! will be able to open the new shelter on time – and 30 homeless families will be off the streets for the rest of the winter. One way to determine which points warrant underlining (or subheads) is to outline the letter before you write it. If you construct your outline paying particular attention to the benefits you’re offering, the appropriate words and phrases may come jumping off the page. Keep this in mind: the items to underline – or to feature in subheads – aren’t necessarily the ones you think will break up the text at the most convenient intervals or help convey your tone of voice. Rather, subheads and underlining must appeal directly to the reader. For example, instead of emphasizing Hope Is Alive!’s $10,000 budget to outfit the new shelter, you’ve wisely chosen to stress the homeless families who will have a warm place to sleep. Readers will care much more about Jennifer and her dad than about an agency budget! Step #8: At last! The text This is the easy part. You’ve already written the reply device; you’ve developed the lead, the close, and the P.S. You’ve drafted the subheads and principal underlined points. What else is there to do? A game of fill-in-the-blank! Take care, though: it’s all too easy to stumble off-course in the stretch. Tell the story you started about Jennifer and Molly – but don’t turn it into a novelette. Make sure the story shows the benefits the reader will receive if she accepts your offer. (Jennifer now has hope for a better life. So will dozens of other good people trapped in terrible circumstances.) Stick to the points you selected for the subheads and underlining. You picked those points because they answer the unspoken questions you know your reader will have – and because they emphasize the benefits that will motivate the reader to send a gift without delay. If you stay on this course, Hope Is Alive! will raise its $10,000 and more, those 30 families will be off the streets, and you, the author, will be a hero. Mal Warwick is founder and chairman of Mal Warwick | Donordigital and the author of twenty books on fundraising. His most recent book is The Business Solution to Poverty with Paul Polak.

Mailing smarter means segmentation

gg60855672When you segment your membership or donor file, you select some individuals to include while leaving others out. Those you include may be further divided into subgroups that receive packages distinguished by variations in one or more of the Three P’s: Packaging, Postage, and Personalization. By intelligent segmentation of your donor file, you can cut mailing costs, upgrade donation levels, and minimize complaints from your supporters. Here are 5 simple guidelines to follow:
  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Three criteria stand out above all others as predictors of direct mail donor behavior: recency, frequency, and gift amount. Don’t assume you can beat the system by ignoring these three criteria and arbitrarily substituting others. [As with every rule, of course, there are exceptions. For example, two factors that might weigh as heavily as recency, frequency, or gift amount in some circumstances are the original source of the name (non-direct-mail sources generally produce much less responsive donors) or whether a premium has been used as an incentive to obtain the first gift.]
  2. Remember: some people give more money than other people. Mail most often to those donors who give most frequently, or who have contributed most recently, or whose individual gifts have been the biggest. These are your prime prospects for gifts right now, and they’ve demonstrated their interest in your organization. They’re worth extra attention. By contrast, those who don’t fit these criteria are worth less attention – and less investment in the Three P’s.
  3. Remember, too: if some people are more equal than others, a smaller number are the most equal of all. If your donor file consists of 10,000 names or more, the top 10% to 30% – as defined by Recency, Frequency and Highest Previous Contribution – are worth extra-special attention. Many nonprofit organizations benefit greatly from extra mailings targeted exclusively on this core group. For example, if you’re accustomed to using bulk postage in your resolicitations, a core group mailing could be sent via first class mail; it’ll probably work even better if you use “live” stamps. And if you normally use mailing labels on your donor appeals, these same people are likely to be worth an investment in personalization, which is likely to increase your mailing’s impact by getting more donors to pay attention.
  4. Stop beating dead horses. If members or donors have failed to respond during the past 36 months, stop asking them for money. They’re a lost cause. [But here are two things you can do to break this rule: if you’re actively prospecting by mail for new members, include these former members in your acquisition campaign. You could also try calling them by phone in an effort to persuade them to reactivate their support for your organization. Most groups find that both these types of activity work well.]
  5. Don’t try to squeeze blood from turnips. If the average contribution in your direct mail fundraising program is more than $15, you may be wasting money with repeated mailings to donors of less than $10 gifts. Many big mailers profit from appeals mailed to donors of gifts from $5 to $9.99. But even they rarely mail to donors of less than $5 gifts.
Mal Warwick is founder and chairman of Mal Warwick | Donordigital and the author of twenty books on fundraising. His most recent book is The Business Solution to Poverty with Paul Polak.

How to get started in Direct Mail for small organizations

mailboxVicki Quatmann, a fundraising consultant in Lake City, Tennessee, reports that she works with small organizations, those with budgets ranging from $50,000 to $300,000. She asks “How do you help these small organizations take the first simple steps — rather than get overwhelmed with sophisticated strategies?” Almost every nonprofit organization should be involved in what is called “direct mail” because of two central realities: (a) A significant number of individuals want to provide financial support for activities and causes they believe in. (b) Many of these donors (perhaps two to five million, if not more) find that sending a check in response to a mailing to be convenient, cost-effective, and personally satisfying. But the dilemma for so many organizations is that it takes immense capital, organizational discipline, and time to put in place the technology, expertise, and staff needed to take advantage of these philanthropic impulses. So what can we do to help smaller organizations for which a highly technical and complex direct mail fundraising program would be impossible? One of the most cost-effective ways to get started in direct mail is to offer a readable, attractive newsletter which is published four to six times a year. By enclosing a return envelope with each newsletter, you can give readers an opportunity to send contributions. Donors can also be recognized in the newsletter, and articles can be published from time to time about how individuals may remember the organization in their wills. The circulation of this newsletter will grow if you include the names of those who participate in your programs, attend events sponsored by you, or who have been recommended by those already involved in your organization. The next simple step to take is to make sure that thank you letters or notes are sent in response to contributions (in many cases, individuals will simply send money without even being asked). A reply or return envelope should be included in this thank you letter — without mentioning it. A small but significant percentage of individuals will send an additional contribution, some even every month. A third component of small-scale direct mail programs is to send out a year-end thank you letter to all donors, board members, and volunteers. If staff or board are really nervous, you can avoid any mention of sending a contribution. But at least a low-key request for funds would be appreciated by donors. A fourth step is now almost an inevitable necessity because of the IRS requirements that individuals have proof that contributions of $250 or more were indeed charitable. You can send a January mailing to your donors reporting on their contributions for the year — along with the statement that they received no goods or services in return for their gifts. Many individuals receiving this report, which should repeat your organization’s thanks and appreciation, will send yet another gift. My view is that an organization should master these first four steps before approaching other organizations to exchange or trade lists for acquisition mailings. If you can put these first four components into place, then you will have a membership or donor list worth exchanging. And I bet that in the process you’ll have gotten some signals from your donors about which organizations would be the best to approach for exchanges. In fact, you may want to send out a survey or questionnaire to your members to ask them which other organizations they belong to. That information will also help you when you contact those organizations to arrange an exchange. To be sure, these four — or five — efforts will consume valuable staff time and require some financial investment. But, even if all components are done within the same year, they are easily achievable by every viable, continuing nonprofit entity. Some organizations may want these small steps to lead to a direct mail fundraising program which will provide significant, ongoing income stream. Perhaps those organizations could set aside all income from these modest first four steps to launch a more systematic direct mail program. Better yet, the board could agree to match dollar for dollar every gift received from these first, preliminary steps.
Stephen Hitchcock is a former President of Mal Warwick Associates.