Calling All Procrastinators: 7 Secrets to Raise More Money With Your Year End Appeal

September 11, 2013

Did I ever tell you about the time I’d been hired on as the grantwriter for an organization serving women and children?

I was only two weeks in to my new job and had been working furiously to complete my first government grant application (GAH!), a report and new grant proposal for one of our foundation supporters, and familiarize myself with both the organization and our supporters (the files were a mess!), when the agency’s development director came to me to tell me that their annual appeal was due next week, and I would be responsible.

Say what?

The resulting “Mother’s Day” appeal was mailed out, in-house the following week to nearly 1,000 names.

I was insistent on personalized letters.  But, because the agency had neglected to maintain their database, I was working with excel records (GAH!).  No time to segment.  No time to review past giving history.  Not much time to craft a truly compelling story.  A direct mail package?  Forget about it!  The result was not one of my proudest moments.

You know that you should have a solid communications calendar in place, one that combines touches with direct asks throughout the year.  But if you’re one of those organizations relying on your year-end direct mail appeal to raise the majority of your funding, here are seven tips to get you headed in the right direction.

1  Segment your list

In the book Tiny essentials of writing for fundraising, George Smith writes of the five things that should be in the back of your mind whenever you write any fundraising communication.  Number one?  “Who am I talking to?

Simple Development Systems member Julia Wilson of OneJustice writes that the biggest change they’re making in their year end appeal this year is segmentation.  “We used to send out just ONE blanket direct mail to everyone on our list.  Been giving to us for 20 years?  Well, sorry – you get the same letter as the law firm partner who just attended one of our trainings one month ago.  Well, this is the year we are stopping that!  We are heavily segmenting our list – so that we’ll actually sending out six different variations on our direct mail letter.  If we know that you are interested in legal assistance for children and youth – and that is the fund that you gave to last year – well, we’re making sure that the letter you receive this year thanks you very specifically for THAT gift, reflects that interest, and invites you to contribute again this year in order to help kids.”

I’ve personally worked with in-house databases of less than 500…and arrived at as many as eight different segments.

2  Humanize

You want your letter to be read, don’t you?  Part of being donor centric means losing the jargon and writing at a sixth-grade level.

As Jeff Brooks writes in The Fundraisers Guide to Irresistible Communications:  “Think of low-level writing as a form of courtesy.  It’s like enunciating clearly when you speak.  Or using neat handwriting.  Even the most intellectual PhD will appreciate and respond to clear communication.”

3  Tell a story

Your story is at the heart and center of all that you do (well, second to your donors).  Statistics rarely sell.  How do you go about finding your best story/s?  Renowned copywriter Indra Sinha said it best:  ‘Don’t start by writing. Start by feeling.  Feel, and feel passionately, and the emotion you feel will come through the spaces in between the words.’

Remember that every single decision has its roots in emotion. Time and time again, it’s been proven that the brain’s wiring overwhelmingly relies on emotion over intellect in the decision-making process.

What will touch your donors’ and prospective donors’ hearts? You may roll your eyes at some of the television advertisements for the ASPCA or various children’s charities. But there’s a reason why you see them over and over and over again: they work.

Review your interviews and your organization’s stories. Is there a detail there — an emotional hook — something that might have made your eyes well up with tears or made you laugh out loud? It might not even be central to your story, but it will be something that will make your donor read on.

4  Write for older readers

According to The Next Generation of American Giving, Blackbaud’s recent report on generational giving habits, “direct mail continues to be the workhorse.”  In fact, “93 percent of individual donations still come through traditional offline channels.”  And that’s not going to change overnight.

Older readers still respond best to direct mail.  Make it easy to read with a proven serif font like Times New Roman…and how about bumping it up to 13 or 14 point for the matures on your list?

5  Ask early, ask often!

You’d be surprised at how many letters come my way for review, letters that tell a heart-wrenching story, letters that speak directly to me, letters that follow every rule but one:  they never get around to making the ask!

Ask early and ask often — and feature a very clear call to action.

6  The red pen

I call it the “I, Me, Mine” test.  The most important word in your letter is the word “you.”  Take out your red pen and circle every instance of the word “you” in your letter.  Now go back and circle the instances of “I, Me, Mine.”  How’d you do?

7  Begin with the end in mind

Here’s a trick that I’ve used for years, swiped from Stephen R. Covey and his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:  Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind.

Before I do anything, I write my thank you letter and think about what systems I have in place for making my donor feel like a valued friend.  It sets tone for what I’m looking to accomplish — and everything’s better with a gratitude mindset.

Want more?

Check out this free downloadable Basic Appeal Letter template for more ideas on rocking your agency’s year end appeal.


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