Sitting down to write a direct mail fundraising letter can be a daunting task, particularly for someone who only does it once or twice per year. It can seem like your whole fundraising goal is riding on every word you write, and the self-inflicted pressure often builds up into a form of writer’s block.
Fear not! Writing a profitable fundraising appeal is not an insurmountable task, and with time and practice, you may even find that you enjoy the chance to take the phone off the hook, close your e-mail client, and spend a few hours writing about your non-profit and the people you serve.
Here are the 5 steps I use when I sit down to write a non-profit fundraising letter:
Before you put pen to paper, it’s important that you determine why you are writing this fundraising letter. You may be saying to yourself, “What a silly step! The answer is: to raise money!” That’s true, but you need to dig deeper.
How much money do you need to raise? What will the money be used for? In what increments will your donors likely be able to donate? What will you be able to do with each of those increments?
For example, your organization may be building a hospital in an impoverished nation. You need $50,000 from this particular appeal, which will pay for the next three months of construction, during which time you will be putting on the roof. Your donors are likely to give in $50, $100, and $250 increments. $50 will buy 25 roof tiles. $100 will buy 50 roof tiles, or one square yard of roof. $250 pays for an entire day’s labor at your worksite.
This information is important, because it will form the basis of your letter’s message and fundraising ask.
Everything you do in a non-profit, and every letter you write, should be mission-focused. Your organization’s purpose for existing is to make a difference. The goals you are laying out should further that mission and help make that difference.
For this fundraising letter, you need to figure out how meeting this particular goal connects with your organization’s overall mission.
In our hospital-building example, your organization may be dedicated to improving the health and lifespan of people living in poverty worldwide. You may determine that building this particular hospital will provide access to medical care for 50 square miles, home to 25,000 people who previously had no access to emergency or ongoing medical providers.
This information is important, because it will provide a connection between this project and your long-term supporters, as well as help convert new donors into longer-term friends.
Now that you know how much you want to raise, what that money will be used for, and how that work connects with your mission, it’s time to find some proof that what you say is true. Many donors like facts and figures, and I always try to include at least a few quantifiable facts into my fundraising letters, to show donors that we’ve done the research and have the knowledge to succeed in accomplishing our goals.
What facts and figures (proof) do you have for your claims? For our example charity that is trying to build a hospital, we’ve already listed some important facts: the charity’s mission is helping impoverished families get access to medical care, and they showed that completing this hospital will provide medical services to 25,000 people. Perhaps they could also show how many illnesses go untreated in proximity to this unfinished hospital, and provide an estimate of how life expectancy changes when access to medical care is introduced for the first time.
Once you have your facts and figures together, it’s time to gather emotionally compelling stories. These stories should be true (even if you change names to protect anonymity), and will provide the lion’s share of the content for your fundraising appeal. People want to hear about people. Donors don’t want to give to nameless entities or vague goals – they want to see what real and tangible impact their dollars will have. The best way for them to see that impact is with compelling stories.
The stories you choose can take many different forms. You may have stories about people you have already helped, or you could include stories about the people you want to help (or both). In our hospital example, you could have stories about sick children who were healed at other hospitals you built, or stories about an ill grandmother you want to help, but can’t until the hospital is built.
You could use stories about donors and how their lives have changed since they donated to your project, or stories about your own personal experience with your mission. Be creative, and gather a number of stories for possible inclusion in your appeal.
Now you’re ready to write your letter. First, read the writing tips in Effective Fundraising by Mail. Then, get prepared. I always turn off my phone, click off my e-mail, close the door, and try to avoid distractions. Let the information you gathered in the first four steps be your guide. If you get stuck, take a break, then come back and read through the stories again. Enjoy the process, and the profit will follow.