The Best Way to Write the Lead for Your Fundraising Letter

March 31, 2021

“I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.”

The opening line of the novel Kindred, by American science fiction author Octavia Butler, stirs the imagination. It raises questions. It inspires curiosity.

You want to read more.

The lead of your fundraising appeal letter, or the subject line in your next email ask, should do the same thing.

How are you “hooking” your reader and making them want to read further?

As copywriter and donor retention expert Lisa Sargent notes, rather than a “hook,” consider your letter’s lead an opportunity. “…An open doorway that calls: “Come in, come in…”

Her advice?

“With grit, love, and piles of crumpled paper. Grinning face with smiling eyes
Thoughts:
1-2 lines (1 = better)
Start a powerful story (like your Octavia: spark those mirror neurons!)
Human, honest, clear, urgent.”

For even the most accomplished nonprofit copywriters, writing the lead can be challenging.

I see it in my students. I see it in the overflowing box of direct mail in my office and the hundreds of never-opened deleted emails.

Letters that begin…” Dear Ms. Grow, I hope you and your loved ones are doing well…”

Oftentimes hedging for full paragraphs before coming to the point of the letter. Sometimes never even getting around to asking.

But that’s a story for another post.

Your lead needs more attention. But how?

My very first lead for a letter for a regional EMS organization in the late ’90’s read “With this letter, you could save a life!”

In my own writing, I’ve always liked to arrive at a strong lead first thing and work from there. When interviewing for a story, I pay careful attention to any turn of a phrase that grabs me emotionally.

From a young woman about to be the first in her family to graduate from college, “My parents have always supported me in anything I’ve done…but they’ve never been to college,” summarized our organization’s work in two lines.

Poetry or famous quotations will often give me a jumpstart.

To me, when your “hook” works, the rest flows.

How do you write your best leads?

For inspiration, I turned to some of my favorite nonprofit communicators and copywriters on Twitter.

Copywriter Julie Cooper (sign up for her emails if you haven’t already) acknowledges that the hook can be the most challenging part for her,

“probably because it’s so crucial. I create the idea in the first draft, but refine it in later drafts. (By refine I mean every single word in the hook is scrutinized.) Quick, engaging & slides seamlessly into the reason for the appeal.”

Aimee Vance noted, “I think my favorite ones involve the senses… it engages people quickly.”

And wordsmith, Bill Dewan says “I like using a 5-word story.” Good thinking, Bill. Could a 5-word (or 6-Word-Storytelling) exercise help jumpstart your creativity? Download the one used in our Nonprofit Storytelling class.

But can you get too hung up on the lead to the point where you’re struggling to get started at all? Sure. That’s when you want to take the advice of Mark Phillips of Blue Frog.

“I don’t write much appeal copy these days, but a great opening line is “The crux of the f***ing problem is…” and start from there. Once you’ve written most of the letter, you go back and write an appropriate and nice intro then refer back to that in your closing paragraphs.”

Heart-centered copywriter Mary Cahalane agreed.

“I think it was Jeff Brooks years ago who suggested, “What I want to tell you is…” I’ve found that helpful when I’m stuck.”

In closing, consider how you’re inviting your donor (or prospective donor) in. As Lisa Sargent eloquently shares, “as writers we need the right headspace AND heart-space to write. So that visual of inviting donors down a path, or through an open door, it saves me.”

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