Something must be in the air this week as I got several voice mails from clients who started their message with the exact same message: “Help! It’s time for our annual appeal letter to go out and I need to write something different!” In fact, this message represents an annual theme among nonprofits looking to create the perfect appeal letter—the one that will bring in more funds than the nonprofit can imagine (although nonprofits can imagine some pretty high numbers!). I don’t think there is a magic formula out there that can unlock the best possible words and phrases for maximum dollars; however, I do think that if you want to maximize your potential with your annual appeal, there are some common sense tips you can use to get the response you want:
Write from the Heart
Ultimately, your appeal won’t work unless you trigger your stakeholders’ heartstrings, so write from the heart. This means you need to be honest and open and write as personal a letter as you can. Most organizations try to sound as crisp and professional as possible—as if they’re sending out a grant proposal. Try reading your appeal letter out loud; if it doesn’t sound as if you’re having a conversation with the donor, then it’s probably devoid of any personal connection.
Keep the Emphasis on the Donor
Make sure you use your donor’s name in the letter more than once—not just in the greeting. There are great software programs out there that can interject your donor’s name throughout the letter. The more people see their names, the more connected they become to your appeal and the more willing they are to respond in kind.
Focus on Successes Not the Deficits
It’s true, while most donations serve to reduce or prevent deficits in your operating budget, most stakeholders prefer to invest in success stories. Refrain from having to explain why you had to lay off staff or reduce the number of services you provide and use your appeal letter to focus on the goals you did meet the past year. I suggest customizing appeal letters to your highest donors and acknowledge how their contribution contributed to you meeting a specific program goal as a result of their support. People donate to you because they want to help you make a difference; find ways to communicate the benefits the donations provide as opposed to offering up a desperate appeal due to a major shortfall.
Statistics Tell, But Stories Sell
No one will remember your accounting summary in your appeal, nor will they be mystified by statistics that you may include about prior donation levels. People like stories. They want to hear about how a program impacted someone, how your organization has helped a group of people—and how someone in your organization truly made a positive impact. Write your letter as if you were sharing a story around a campfire and focus on how a specific program or some of your staff stood out in carrying out your mission. Everyone knows you’ll provide an annual report; use your appeal letter to enroll and engage your donors to want to be part of the next story your organization tells!
Need Inspiration? Take It From Someone Else!
You know how most television shows start with the “taken from the headlines” disclaimer? Well, there’s nothing wrong with you doing the same thing in your annual appeal letter! There’s nothing wrong with combing through a newspaper, magazine or blog and get inspired by a headline. I also think that an inspiring quote from either a historical figure or a well-known fictional character is a great addition to any appeal letter. For example, if your organization appeals to people who love science fiction, a quote from any of the captains from Star Trek is sure to make your donors read on and see what you have to say!
Simply Keep it Simple and Specific
If your sentence goes on for more than one and a half lines, you might be losing potential dollars from your appeal letter. Keep your sentences short and your grammar simple. Again, go back to the notion of your appeal letter being a conversation you would have with a donor. Unless you’re Adam Sorkin, you naturally tend to speak in short sentences. Likewise, aim the reading level of your appeal letter to someone with a junior high school reading level (unless you’re writing to Mensa graduates, then get out the big thesaurus!). Additionally, be specific and not vague. Use adjectives and highly descriptive terms about what you plan to do with your organization. For example, “using donations to provide more than 500 students with blue and pink Jansport backpacks” sounds more distinct than saying “we provided 50 percent of the students a backpack.”
Go Big and Go Bold: Create Action or Urgency
Make your appeal as big and bold as possible. That means interjecting your honors in the story with you as to how they contribute to your success and the potential consequences if they do not join you in your story for the oncoming year. Use action-oriented messaging to get them to be part of your achievements rather than sounding like some disinterested outsider. If your goal is to upsell your donation levels, create a sense of urgency by showcasing an immediate need or a time-sensitive opportunity. Election outcomes can often impact what a nonprofit does so talk about what could happen with a different administration who might not be as a friendly to your cause or what could happen when you know a newly elected official can open up opportunities for your organization.
These are my favorite tips for writing appeal letters—feel free to share yours in the comments section below!
Ready to Work on Your Annual Appeal?
Looking for support in sending out your next annual appeal and are ready to make more of the dollars from your donations work for you? Why not contact Multi Print Media today at our website or call us at 412 875-9004 and we’ll show you our version of a value-added annual appeal campaign that can bring in significant dollars at a cost-effective price!