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.

11 cardinal rules of Direct Mail copywriting (and how to break them)

  1. brady-4Use “I” and “you” (but mostly “you”). In fact, “you” may be the most frequently used word in your direct mail letters. Your appeal is a letter from one individual to another individual. You’re not writing a press release, a position paper, or a brochure. Abolish the plural “you” from your vocabulary (as in “Dear Friends” for example), and try to avoid the royal “we.” RULE-BREAKERS: You may write a letter in the first person plural if – but only if – for example, the letter is to be signed by a married couple, or your organization’s two venerable co-founders, or a famous Republican and a famous Democrat. Otherwise, stick to one signatory.
  2. Appeal on the basis of benefits, not needs. Donors give money because they get something in return (if only good feelings). To tap their generosity, describe what they’ll receive in return for their money – such benefits as lives saved, or human dignity gained, or larger causes served. Don’t be shy about emphasizing tangible benefits, too. Donors may tell you they give money for nobler reasons, but premiums often make a difference. (Remember: most donors read your letters in the privacy of their own homes.) RULE-BREAKER: If you’re sending a genuine emergency appeal, you’d be a fool not to write about your organization’s needs – and graphically so! But if it’s not a real emergency – and you’re really in trouble if you habitually cry wolf – then write about benefits, not needs. You’ll raise a lot more money that way.
  3. Ask for money, not for “support.” The purpose of a direct mail fundraising letter is to ask for financial help. Be sure you do so – clearly, explicitly and repeatedly. The “Ask” should not be an afterthought, tacked onto the end of a letter: it’s your reason for writing. Repeat the Ask several times in the body of the letter as well as on the reply device. It may even be appropriate to lead your letter with the Ask. RULE-BREAKERS: Many direct mail packages are structured not as appeals for funds but as membership invitations. Others feature surveys or other donor involvement devices. In these cases, you might be well-advised to de-emphasize the financial commitment, and highlight membership benefits, or write about the impact of completing a survey or mailing a postcard you’ve enclosed.
  4. Write a package, not a letter. Your fundraising letter is arguably the single most important element in the mailing package. But it’s only one of several items that must fit smoothly together and work as a whole. At a minimum, your package will probably include an outer (or carrier) envelope, a reply envelope, and a reply device in addition to the letter.When you sit down to write, think about how each of these components will help persuade donors to send money now. Make sure the same themes, symbols, colors, and typefaces are used on all elements, so that the package is as accessible as possible to donors. And be certain that every element in the package relates directly to the Big Idea, or marketing concept, that gives the appeal its unity. RULE-BREAKER: Sometimes it pays to spend a little extra money on a package insert that doesn’t directly relate to the marketing concept: for example, a premium offer presented on a “buckslip,” but mentioned nowhere else in the package. Often, in fact, such buckslips work best if they don’t use the same color and design as other package elements. (That way, they stand out more clearly.)
  5. Write in American English (if you’re writing to Americans!). Use compact, powerful words and short, punchy sentences. Favor words that convey emotions over those that communicate thoughts. Avoid foreign phrases or big words. Minimize your use of adjectives and adverbs. Don’t use abbreviations or acronyms; spell out names, even if their repetition looks a little silly to you. Repeat (and underline) key words and phrases. Make sure that even an imbecile could understand your marketing concept. RULE-BREAKER: A letter that could have been written by a twelve-year-old might not look right over the signature of a college president or a U.S. Senator, so follow this rule judiciously. (But don’t make the mistake of confusing big words, complex sentences and complicated thoughts with intelligent communication: even a literate fundraising letter needs to be clear and straightforward.)
  6. Format your letter for easy reading. Be conscious of the white space you’re leaving around your copy; the eye needs rest. Indent every paragraph. Avoid paragraphs more than 7 lines long, but vary the size of your paragraphs. Use bullets and indented paragraphs. In long letters, try subheads that are centered and underlined. Underline sparingly but consistently throughout your letter: enough to call attention to key words and phrases, but not so much as to distract the eye from your message. RULE-BREAKERS: Don’t mechanically follow the rule above. Some special formats, such as telegrams or handwritten notes, have formatting rules of their own. Don’t ignore them.
  7. Give your readers a reason to send money NOW. Creating a sense of urgency is one of your biggest copywriting challenges. Try to find a genuine reason why gifts are needed right away: for example, a deadline for a matching grant or an approaching election date. Or tie your fund request to an arbitrary budgetary deadline so you can argue why gifts are needed within the next 15 days. There is always a reason to send a gift now. And the argument for the urgency of your appeal bears repeating – ideally, not just in the text of your letter, but also in a P.S. and on the reply device as well. RULE-BREAKERS: Be very careful about fixed deadlines if you’re mailing via bulk rate. (Instead of citing a date, use a phrase like “within the next two weeks.”) Don’t overuse the same arguments for urgency, lest your credibility suffer. And try not to depend on deadlines based on actual dates in your acquisition packages: the value of those packages will be greater if you can continue to use them over time.
  8. Write as long a letter as you need to make the case for your offer. Though everyone won’t read every word you write, some recipients will do so, and others will scan your copy for the information that most interests them. To be certain you push their hot buttons, use every strong argument you can devise for your readers to send you money now. To spell out every argument may mean writing a long letter; it may also mean repeating what you’ve written to the same donors many times in the past. But don’t worry about boring your readers by restating your case: studies show that even the most active direct mail donors remember very little about the organizations they support. RULE-BREAKER: Not every organization – and not every appeal – calls for a long letter. Not by a long shot! A well-known organization with a readily identifiable purpose might be able to make its case with only a sentence or two. And in writing to your proven donors, you can sometimes state the argument for a straightforward membership renewal or special appeal in few words. And remember these three additional rules of copywriting – rules that are NOT to be broken:
  9. You – the signer – are an individual human being, with hopes, fears, convictions, and experiences. Write about them.
  10. You are writing to one person – the addressee – who has hopes, fears, convictions, and experiences. Write about them.
  11. Your organization addresses human needs on many levels, intangible as well as concrete, emotional as well as practical. Write about them.
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.

Developing a marketing Concept

Pencils_hbby Managing Editor Deborah Block and Paul Karps Before we actually begin to write an acquisition package for an organization—or for the direct mail agency working with that nonprofit—we’re often asked to develop one or more Marketing Concepts as a first step in the creative process. As we see it, our role as freelance writers gives us more of an outsider’s perspective on the group—even if we’ve written for the organization in the past—which meshes particularly well when it comes to writing to other outsiders (aka cold prospects). Of course, we also enjoy the creative challenge of coming up with ideas we feel could work in acquisition. So for this column, we thought we’d share with you some of the ways we —as copywriters—approach this sort of assignment. Perhaps you’ll be able to use one or more of our tips the next time you’re confronted with a comparable task. Look at old mailings First off, we like to see as many of the group’s previous acquisition packages as we can get our hands on. Obviously, this will give us a better sense of what’s performed and what hasn’t. But here’s the thing: It really helps to see these packages for ourselves instead of being told by someone else how “a survey package bombed” or “stories never work for us.” We, for example, might read this survey package—and understand immediately why it didn’t work in that instance. Same for the use of a story. It’s one thing to tell a story . . . and quite another to tell a good story well. Don’t forget house appeals We also find it particularly helpful to review previous housefile mailings. In effect, we’re looking for ideas, stories, topics, and/or formats that could be adapted into an acquisition package. Now, granted, not every successful house appeal can be transformed into a prospect mailing. But it is the case that if a certain appeal resonates with existing donors, the concept has the potential to resonate with prospects (who are indeed targeted to approximate these same donors). Check out the Web site and more Okay, we know that some Web sites are better than others. But nowadays, it’s the single best spot for info. So take advantage of the site—especially because this represents the organization’s most public persona. Either on the Web site or in print, also remember to review newsletters, annual reports, and other publications. Because you never know where you’ll find that one golden nugget—a story, project, or topic—that you can use as the centerpiece of your Marketing Concept. Don’t rely on a gimmick When writing up a concept, it’s critical to differentiate a strategic technique (or gimmick) from actual content. For example, it’s not enough to say, “This will be a petition package.” While it’s undoubtedly a popular involvement device in acquisition—generally because it’s a tried-and-true strategy that works—it’s more important in writing up a concept to spell out the broader theme or issue that’s being addressed by the petition. What’s it about? What’s the goal? Who is it going to? What’s the urgency? In other words, as you develop your concept, think of the petition (or whatever the technique) more in terms of being a means to an end rather than being the end itself. Provide options Typically, we try to be as flexible as possible in our concepts. Since so many different factors come into play when creating a new acquisition package—especially budgetary constraints—we like to offer a variety of options. Then the client can decide which way to go, depending on the individual circumstances. In some cases, for instance, we might suggest the inclusion of a four-color insert piece to give the package some visual pizzazz. At the same time, however, we understand this may be too expensive. So we may offer the alternative of putting comparable information on the bottom portion of the reply slip (printing in one or two colors). Here are some other scenarios: We could write a four-page letter or a shorter two-page letter with an informational insert. We might want to tell a story in the package, but give the client the option of using it in the letter or in an insert or even in a lift note. Writing the concept itself Usually we’ll begin with some sort of introduction that summarizes our core idea. If it’s a relatively straightforward concept, this may run as short as a paragraph. But there are certainly times when we find ourselves needing to go into more detail to justify our choice of the overall theme. We then, more often than not, go through each of the package’s components—to present as complete a picture as we can of what this mailing may end up looking like. If possible, we may also include some sample language for the letter, as well as for the outer (if appropriate) or other components. Mixing and matching If we write up multiple concepts—each of which may include any number of options—we’ll conclude our memo with a paragraph or so explaining how the client should feel free to mix and match the various strategies, involvement devices, or formats presented. At a minimum, these represent propositions that can be tested further on down the road. Copywriters Deborah Block and Paul Karps are partners in BK Kreative in Mountain View, Calif.