What makes a fundraising letter effective?
Mal Warwick

March, 2007

Most fundraisers apparently think fundraising letters are all pretty much the same. Here's how their definition of a fundraising letter seems to run:

A fundraising letter is an appeal from a nonprofit organization, describing needs and requesting charitable gifts to fill them.

Right?

Wrong! Wrong on every count.

Banish that ill-conceived and misleading definition from your consciousness. Better yet, copy it down onto a sheet of scratch paper, cross it out with bold strokes of your pen, slice it up with scissors, and deposit the whole revolting mess in the nearest wastebasket.
Now you're ready to get started on the right foot!

Okay now? Read this next part carefully:

An effective fundraising letter possesses three attributes:

1. An effective fundraising letter is an appeal from one person to another.

2. An effective fundraising letter describes an opportunity for the recipient to meet personal needs by supporting a worthy charitable aim.

3. An effective fundraising letter invites the recipient to take specific and immediate action.

I'm sure you noticed that one all-important word is missing here: money. Money — a request for a charitable gift — is an indispensable element in the overwhelming majority of fundraising letters. Omit that request for funds, and your letter will fail the most basic test of effectiveness. What's worse, you'll almost certainly fail to raise much money.

But the action requested in a fundraising letter doesn't always consist of sending money, at least not right away. The specific action requested might be to complete and return a survey . . . to use a set of stamps, name-stickers, or greeting cards . . . or to authorize regular bank transfers. There are hundreds of possibilities. The letter-writer's first responsibility is to determine what that action is. That's always the writer's responsibility when writing for results! And understanding that duty leads to what I call the First Commandment of Fundraising Letter Writing:

When you set out to write a fundraising letter, make sure you know precisely to whom you're writing and why — and be certain your letter makes that point just as clear to them as it is to you.

That "point" — the equation that expresses the who, what, why, when, and how of your appeal — is what I've fallen into the bad habit of calling the "Marketing Concept." So let's take a stab at a working definition of this ungainly term:

The First Commandment, then, is to work out the Marketing Concept before you write a single word — and then to be sure every word you write speaks to that concept.

Fundraising letters: One size WON'T fit all

In fact, fundraising letters are of many different types, serving a broad variety of ends and thus involving a great many different Marketing Concepts. To write an effective appeal, you must first determine the target audience and specific purpose you want to serve:

There are important types of fundraising letters that I didn't include in this list. Monthly sustainer requests, upgrades, or renewals, for example. Lapsed donor reactivation letters. Planned giving letters. Cultivation letters. And dozens more. What's important here is to note that every fundraising letter is unique. Each has its own distinctive Marketing Concept.

In fact, there's such great variety in fundraising letters that it's difficult to speak except in general terms about what they have in common. Difficult or not, however, the title of this Special Report promises you I'll reveal the "characteristics of an effective fundraising appeal," so here goes my best effort.

I think of six qualities that are shared by the most productive fundraising appeals I've read:

1. Clarity
There's no doubt or ambiguity about the writer's intent or what the reader is asked to do. The message is delivered in unmistakably clear and simple terms that rule out guesswork. Early on, you get the point of the appeal, and that point never wavers throughout the package.

2. Cohesiveness
Every component of the package works with every other to reinforce the message. If the message is complex — as, for example, in an appeal that combines a petition with a request for money — the close connection between the two is absolutely clear. The message isn't mixed. This means, for example, that an appeal for funds shouldn't be muddied by including a catalog or a flyer that offers merchandise for sale or an update on a project discussed in an earlier appeal.

3. Authenticity
From beginning to end, the appeal is credible. The style and approach of the letter fit smoothly with what readers are likely to know about the signer — and the text includes enough revealing personal information to drive home that fit. Similarly, the nature of the appeal fits smoothly with what readers know about the organization and its work. In short, it's natural for this signer and this nonprofit to be sending this particular appeal. For instance, a Hollywood starlet or hunk might not be the most credible signer of an appeal from a sociological research institute. (Don't laugh! I've heard worse suggestions.)

4. Ease of response
The appeal contains everything the reader might need to respond without a moment's delay after reviewing the appeal. At a minimum, the package includes a clearly marked response device and a pre-addressed response envelope, and there's no doubt these two items are included exclusively for the purpose of responding to the appeal. In direct mail, the fundraiser's job is to make it easy for the reader to respond — because experience shows that if it's not easy, the recipient is likely to set the appeal aside and, more often than not, never respond at all.

5. Appropriateness
The message is calculated to be of interest to the intended reader, and the appeal requests assistance of a sort that the reader might naturally be assumed to be able to provide. For example, I might write an extraordinarily interesting letter about the cuisine of Kyrgystan (though why I might do that I can't possibly imagine), but I would be unlikely to generate much response to my appeal unless I were writing to people with either a demonstrated interest in exotic cuisine, a fascination with Kyrgystan, or, even less likely, both. In other words, it's always important to write to the audience.

6. Engaging copy
There's something inherently intriguing about this appeal — either in the story it tells, in the character of the request (or offer) it makes, or in the language in which it's written. It's interesting. It holds the reader's attention. Sometimes this can be accomplished with a clever outer envelope teaser (which is appropriately followed through inside the package). Sometimes a fascinating personal story about a recipient of the agency's help connects with the reader on a deeply emotional level. Sometimes a writer's style is so fresh and compelling that the reader is inexorably drawn through the copy. But something catches the reader's attention — and holds it.

From a mechanical perspective, however, the only things common to all appeals, I believe, are an offer (or proposition) that incorporates the Ask, if any, as well as the benefits to the donor, and the case, which is the argument that justifies the offer and spells out the benefits. If the appeal is framed as a letter, as are almost all successful fundraising efforts, it's likely to include a salutation and signature that clarify the relationship between the letter signer and the person to whom the letter is addressed, a lead that starts off the letter, a close that ends it, a P.S., and a response device (or reply device) and reply envelope the donor may use to return a gift. That's about it.

Many fundraisers relate these elements to a formula, insisting there's a standard structure or sequence a writer may follow in constructing an appeal. I disagree. To understand how to write successful fundraising letters, I believe, you must study appeals that have worked well, attempt to determine what made them successful — then put them aside and focus on your own donors and your own organization. Your fundraising letters will be successful only if they reflect what's unique about your organization and uniquely attractive to your donors.

This article, excerpted from the revised edition of Mal Warwick's How to Write Successful Fundraising Letter,was reprinted with permission from Mal Warwick of Mal Warwick and Associates located in both Berkeley, CA and Washington D.C.. Consultant, author, and public speaker Mal Warwick has been involved in the not-for-profit sector for more than 40 years. He has written or edited seventeen books of interest to nonprofit managers. He has taught fundraising on six continents to nonprofit executives from more than 100 countries. Copyright (c) 2005 by Mal Warwick. All rights reserved. You can learn more about him at www.malwarwick.com.