How I learned to love writing appeal letters. And some of what I’ve learned.

June 27, 2011

This guest post comes to us via Mary Cahalane, a delightful fundraiser I initially came to know through Twitter.  Mary is currently development manager at Riverfront Recapture, a Hartford, Connecticut based nonprofit that is reconnecting the area to its riverfront by building beautiful public parks and creating programs, performances and events that are free for all to enjoy. Prior to that, Mary spent many years fundraising for nonprofit theaters. In more than 20 years of fundraising, she’s done a little of everything but admits to being geeky about direct mail. She is most happy when working with individuals – the amazing people who support our organizations. Follow Mary on Twitter at @mcahalane.


Many years ago, early in my first development job, there was a bit of a staffing shake-up in the development office I worked in. Actually, the director left, and the staff remaining was… me.

But our very clever marketing director wanted to help. And so the two of us – neither with a whole lot of development experience at the time – waded in. We got on the phone, talked to our colleagues at other theaters all over the country – and happily appropriated any idea we liked. We hired some consultants. And at the suggestion of our consultant, we hired a writer.

She knew her stuff – though I didn’t know enough to push back when the board complained that no one read a two page letter, or could we please just have a few paragraphs and fit it in… I’m betting you’ve heard all the same things.

Maybe I was just being frugal, but after a year of that, I thought… I could do this, and save us some real money. But the truth is that writing those appeals also terrified me. I’d do most anything to avoid diving in. There was always more filing or data entry I could do, right?

Sometimes, however, the thing that scares you the most is just what you have to do. So I got permission to spend a few bucks on Jerry Huntsinger’s mail newsletter, and I soaked it all up. Every month, I’d eagerly wait for my pages of appeal-writing wisdom.

Over the years, I’ve added to that, with many thanks to people like Mal Warwick and more recently, Tom Ahern and Jeff Brooks. In fact, it’s guaranteed that I’ll read anything on the subject. Geeky? Guilty.

So, what have I learned?

Know what you want to say. Why do you need the money – or to put it better, what will change if the donor sends the money? How much money?

What’s the tone? This is where it really helps to know your audience. Will they respond to guilt? Anger? Flattery? Do you want to make them smile or weep?

Then start writing, and quit worrying about it being perfect. I’ll be thinking the whole time, of course, of that great opener – usually one line, often punctuated with a question mark or an ellipse. But I usually don’t have that in my head until I start writing. You know what they say – write fast, edit slow? It’s true. Often, somewhere in what you write you’ll find that important first sentence. “Promote” it to the top spot!

Think about the one person you’re writing to. Picture that person. Write like you’re talking. And for heaven’s sake, please don’t write a proper business letter! Have you ever willingly read one of those? Yeah, me neither.

And remember, because this is a one to one conversation, your letter will be signed by one person, please. If different signatures will appeal to different people on your list, then make use of merge fields. (You can make Word insert different signatures, too – it’s fun to play with!)

Don’t try to be too clever. Clever is too tricky – so easy to miss the mark. Just… talk. Tell a story. We all like to read stories. Find the story. It might not being “once upon a time”, but find a way to give your letter a narrative. Keep it simple: in fact, use those handy tools in Word that let you see the grade level and difficulty of what you’re writing. Aim low.

And as Jeff Brooks (http://www.futurefundraisingnow.com/future-fundraising/) and Tom Ahern (http://www.aherncomm.com/news.php) would say: add “you”. You, you, you. The letter is about your donor, not about your organization. It’s about what you can do for them: how can you help them change the world? Tom suggests highlighting every “you” in your letter. You should see a whole lot of highlighting there – aim for at least once in every paragraph.

And those paragraphs need to be short. Short is easy to read – you can skim it. Don’t try to make your donor read through a dense letter, because you can’t make them.  I had a college professor who told us once that if you’re going to ask someone to read a sentence more than once to understand it, it had damned well better be worth it. Smart guy.

Speaking of asking – don’t forget to ask. Ask early in the letter. Then ask again. And again.

And of course, never forget your P.S.! That might be the only copy that actually gets read. Make the most of it. Approach it like a puzzle: try to put your case into a few, concise, packed-with-meaning words.

There’s so much more! Fortunately, there’s also so much great information out there. Go find it, and then start writing!

And if you need some inspiration you don’t have to call around the country anymore. Check out SOFII (http://www.sofii.org/) and swipe a few ideas!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Bunnie Riedel June 29, 2011 at 8:15 am

Remembering it is about the donor is important. What are we going to do for you? Also the short paragraphs, how many times have I seen appeals with paragraphs that are several inches long? Nobody has time anymore, you have to grab them early and quickly.

Kirsten Bullock June 29, 2011 at 6:59 pm

What a great summary of tips. The one I always need to go back to – just start! It doesn’t matter that it’s not perfect the first draft (and I probably won’t ever be perfect the first time), but it’s a start.

Another thing I’ll mention is that writing needs to be practiced. If you’re keeping a journal, or blogging on a regular basis, the regular practice makes it easier.

Xan from Juno Consulting June 30, 2011 at 5:13 am

Great advice. You were lucky to have a board that let you alone to write these! I’m sitting here remembering all the wonderful letters I’ve written that Executive Directors have ruined (in fact, I’m looking at one right now). Hey– Senior Staff! Let your fundraisers do their thing!

Pamela Grow June 30, 2011 at 5:24 am

Ha! Coincidentally I’m working on a post on questions for prospective employees to ask prospective employers during an interview for a DD job.

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE June 30, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Thank you Mary for all the wonderful advice. I remember long ago when I sent a letter in for Jerry Huntsinger to critique… and he said he wouldn’t touch much. My heart skipped a beat.
As reader, I want to be moved by a letter.
Oh yes, read it aloud before you wrap it up.

Pamela Grow June 30, 2011 at 2:52 pm

That’s quite the supreme compliment Gayle! Kudos!

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