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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Effective fund-raising letters in 10 easy steps

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Also see grant proposal writing.
 

 

Most of us are pretty good at reading letters asking us for money.  In just moments, we can give a fund-raising letter a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

 

But writing these letters is another matter.  Here’s how to go about it:

 

Know your audience.  The more you know about your readers, the more likely you are to appeal to their interests and values.  Key to your success is a good mailing list.  An up-to-date list of past donors and likely prospects enables you to acknowledge previous contributions and to avoid wasting your resources by mailing to people who are unlikely to give (or even open your letter).

 

Get your reader’s attention right away.  Your only limitation is your creativity.  Use “teaser copy” on the outside of your envelope to induce your reader to look inside.  Use a handwritten note to create a personal touch.  Use an “involvement device” to get your reader to take some initial action – such as filling out a card or responding to a survey – on the assumption that, once “involved,” your reader will be more apt to make a donation.

 

Whatever your approach, start fast.  Lead off with your strongest material.  Appeal first to the heart with descriptions, anecdotes, and quotations.  Appeal next to the head with information and statistics.

 

Make your letter personal.  Write to the reader as you would write to someone you know.  Use the word “you” and the person’s name.  If possible, refer to personal information such as previous giving level. 

 

Describe the benefits of giving.  Tell your reader, in specific detail, what a gift will accomplish.  You might want to describe what services could be provided or what materials could be purchased at various levels (for example, a $100 donation to your favorite columnist would buy a new print cartridge; a $1,500 donation would buy a new laptop computer).

 

Convey a sense of urgency.  Urge your reader to act now.  Explain why your request can’t wait.  Most of your readers won’t do tomorrow what they put off today.

 

Avoid fund-raising clichés.  If it sounds familiar, you’ve probably heard it before – hundreds of times – and so has your reader.  Here are some to avoid:  “You don’t know me, but . . .”; “In the minute it takes to read this page . . .”; “Join in the excitement . . .”; and “The question is not whether to give, but how much to give.”

 

Use a “lift letter.”  A “lift letter,” so called because it can “lift” the response to your mailing, is a short, supporting letter enclosed with the main one.  The idea is to arouse the curiosity of the reader, particularly the reader who won’t take the time to read the longer letter.

 

Use a “P.S.”  In direct mail, the postscript tends to be read by even the most hurried reader.  Use it to make a last pitch (“Won’t you please support our talented young people by making a $20 contribution to the Dead Poet’s Society?”) or to offer a gentle reminder (“Please check with your employer to see if your gift can be matched.”).

 

Eliminate “stoppers.”  A “stopper” is any element in your letter – a grammatical error, a confusing statement, an inappropriate remark, an offensive tone – that stops your reader from reading your message.  As with all important writing assignments, ask other people to check your copy for anything that might annoy or distract your reader. 

 

Test your copy.  Try your letter out on a test group.  Compare the response to that of previous letters.  Experiment with different versions of the same letter by altering one element at a time and by coding and recording responses.

 

There you have it:  effective fund-raising in 10 easy steps.  Good luck.

 

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