A Tale of Two Appeals

The one you want to write vs. the one your donors and prospects want to read

“I love this letter. It makes me feel so good about what we do!” Have you had that reaction after writing or when reviewing a direct mail appeal or an eAppeal? The pride you feel at what your organization is doing is almost overwhelming. “Wow! We are amazing,” you think.

If that’s what you long for when you write or edit an appeal, this article is not for you. Really?!! Yes, because there is one important thing everyone involved in the process of creating a fundraising appeal has to remember:  I am not the target audience. What you think or feel doesn’t matter. What matters is what the person being asked to make a donation thinks and feels. Will he or she respond because of that appeal, or will the carefully written words and cutting-edge design go straight into the recycling can?

What’s the reason?

Before writing even Dear Mrs. Smith, ask yourself why. Why should anyone bother supporting this cause? What is it that is so different that it makes a contribution to your cause a far better investment than the same gift being given to another organization that sounds about the same to the reader?

“Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.”

Sholem Asch, Polish-Jewish Novelist

Some people write a brief case statement for each appeal or rely on the case statement that was written for a specific campaign or annual fund drive. Other writers are less formal, but they take the time to jot down a few notes that say why they think donors will want to give to this need. At the very least, before you begin writing, answer these questions, “Why us? Why now? What will a gift do?”

Who’s reading it?

Whether you are writing a letter that will go in the mail or an appeal that is being sent electronically, knowing who you are writing to is essential. And that isn’t a generic “donor file.” A fundraising letter has been called a conversation in print, so you have to write as if you are sitting in the home of a supporter, sipping iced tea and talking about your program — not lecturing, educating or trying too hard to impress.

So to accomplish this conversation, what do you need to know? You need to know that one person to whom you are writing. For many nonprofits, that’s an older woman. So visualize her. Give her a name. Love her like you would a favorite aunt.

“Your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person–and write to that one.”

John Steinbeck

But never write your regular appeal letter to the person you wish were your donor. Find other ways to reach that person – ways that are specifically designed to attract an audience that is different from what you currently have. You can’t expect your current donor to twist like a pretzel to become your vision of an ideal donor; it’s just not worth the bother to her.

Stay on Message

Since you now know the reason you’re writing and to whom you are writing, you can begin the actual writing. One of your biggest challenges is to always make the letter about “you” (the reader), not “us” (the organization). Tell a story that is so compelling the reader sees him- or herself right in the scene. Their passions are ignited as they realize that the problem is big, but they can do something to fix it. You aren’t promising miracles, but you are showing the promise of what the reader can make possible.

Appeals are not something most people really want to read. In fact, I can’t recall an appeal letter ever being on the New York Times’ bestseller list. But a well-written appeal can raise significant money … and that happens when we don’t confuse it with a college essay.

“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Gene Fowler, American Writer

Generally, well-written appeals use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs. They never include a multi-syllabic word when a single syllable will do. They use decent grammar, but they aren’t afraid to break rules like “Never start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’” They include enough commas to be readable, but not so many that the end result is a sea of commas floating across a page.

Good appeal writing isn’t afraid to repeat itself, because a good appeal writer realizes that most readers won’t read word-for-word, line-by-line. They will scan and pick out ideas here and there. So by rephrasing the key points in a way that keeps it interesting, we increase the potential that our most important points will be communicated.

That’s also why we use indented paragraphs, underlining, bolding and paragraphs that are short (ever one word). We are always thinking, “How can I make this easier for my reader to comprehend?” We choose a font that is appropriate for our audience, even if it isn’t part of our branding guidelines. We recognize that donors tend to skew to the older end of the spectrum (after all, a criteria for donating is having disposable income) so we don’t make them work too hard by using a small font size.

Tell the Story

“Storytelling” is big news in communications today, but the truth is, storytelling isn’t a fad. It’s a long-standing, proven means to connect with people and help them relate to an abstract concept or a condition that they have never personally experienced. What absolutely shocked you when you learned about the problem you are writing about? What person or event brought tears to your eyes or a lump to your throat? That’s the story to tell to engage your reader.

“The shortest distance between a human being and truth is a story.”

Father Anthony de Mello, Indian Jesuit priest

If you struggle to tell a story, remember these three things:

  1. A good story gives your reader enough detail to feel part of the action, but only enough so she can paint a picture in her own mind.
  2. A good story has compelling sound bites which are often the words of the person whose story you are telling.
  3. A good story leaves the reader wanting to help you write more good stories.

Good Copywriting Needs Better Editing

Once you have written your appeal, set it aside for long enough that you’ve forgotten what it says. That’s essential because you want to read it later through the eyes of your target audience.

Editing is tough because you are willingly tearing apart your own work. There’s a good chance that if you’re honest in your editing, many of the words or sentences that you are proudest of will have to go. That’s because those often lack the necessary criteria of being conversational. How do you find those problematic words? Read your copy out loud. There’s a good chance that when you stumble in your reading, your reader will also stumble.

“I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”

James Michener

Remember that your goal isn’t to win a literary prize; it’s to raise money for your worthy cause. So rewrite until you can give your donors the message that is easy for them to read, understand and connect with.

Don’t Forget the Supporting Cast

When writing an envelope teaser or email subject line, the number one question to ask is, “Does it help the envelope or email get opened?” While it would be great if we could always mail in a hand-addressed, closed-face envelope with a first class stamp, that’s not reality. Nor is timing our eAppeal to arrive when our donor isn’t distracted by a million other things. So we have to be sure the first copy they confront breaks through the clutter of daily living.

We also can’t neglect the reply form, landing page and/or donation form. There’s still time to lose a donor when they get to that piece (and conversely, there’s still a chance to change their minds and get them to say “Yes!”). So don’t save the response copy for the last minute; give it the attention it deserves.

“Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Do you want to write appeal letters and emails that raise money? Then get started. That’s how you’ll write the appeal your donors and prospects actually want to read.

Originally published in NonProfit Pro (print edition).

Author: PJBarden

With a professional career in strategic fundraising that spans more than 35 years, Pamela brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to working with nonprofit organizations. She specializes in writing fundraising copy, grant proposals, P.R. materials, instructional articles and blog entries, as well as developing and executing fundraising strategy for her clients. Pamela is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE); an instructor for UCLA Extension School’s Fundraising Certification Program and the University of La Verne, College of Business and Public Management; a frequent webinar speaker; and author of two online courses for UCLA Extension. Pamela earned a Doctorate of Business Administration in 2015; her doctoral project (dissertation) was entitled “Nonprofit Organizations’ Awareness of and Preparation for Legislation, Regulation, and Increasing Scrutiny.” She is a past winner of a Gold Award for Fundraising Excellence and an ECHO Award from DMA; recipient of a Distinguished Instructors Award from UCLA Extension; a weekly columnist for NonprofitPRO (formerly Fundraising Success); and a monthly contributor to Blackbaud’s blog, npEngage.

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