Writing and mailing a fundraising letter to your donors is a popular fundraising strategy for nonprofit organizations.
It seems so easy to write a letter and send it out, but it’s a tricky process with lots of places you can get in trouble and squash your results if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Your purpose in raising money through the mail is two-fold: generate dollars for immediate needs and build relationships with individual donors for long-term success.
Raising money from individuals is one of the best strategies you can implement. According to Giving USA data, individual donors consistently account for over 75% of all the donations that are made in the United States each year. In 2021, over $484.85 billion was donated in the United States. Interestingly, these numbers have held steady for the past 40 years!
So, what does it take to get the letter right so you can raise thousands through the mail, even if this is your first mailing or if your last letter was a total flop?
Are you READY to send a fundraising letter?
Before you decide to spend money on a mailing, it’s best to make sure your nonprofit is READY to be successful in the mail.
Review this short checklist and make sure you can check ALL the blocks before you decide to invest money in a fundraising letter.
Fundraising Letter Readiness Checklist
Do you have at least 25 names to mail to?
Can you clearly describe how you’re making a difference in the world?
Are you currently and consistently communicating with those you will mail to?
Do you know what it costs you to deliver a unit of service, down to the penny?
Is there money budgeted for postage and printing?
Are there 2 or 3 volunteers who can help fold and stuff letters?
Do you have a specific goal for the amount you’d like to raise through the mail?
Do you have a donor-tracking software where you can record donor and gift information?
Can you mail merge donor names into your fundraising letter or get help getting it done?
If your nonprofit isn’t quite ready, spend a little time to work on the items on this list so that when you mail, you get the best possible results.
How people sort their mail (and where your fundraising letter goes)
If you want big results from your fundraising letter, start by understanding how it will be received by your donors.
People are extremely busy and your fundraising letter is an interruption in their day. Donors and prospects will decide in a matter of seconds whether or not to open the envelope and in a few more seconds they will decide whether or not to give. In short, you don’t have much time to catch your donor’s attention and get opened.
People typically sort their mail into 3 stacks before they open their mail:
- Stuff that needs attention (like bills)
- Stuff that can be safely thrown away (like junk)
- Stuff to look at later if there’s time (like your letter)
Your letter is probably going to land in stack number 3.
You must do everything you can to keep it out of stack number 2. That means communicating with donors BETWEEN mailings so they feel emotionally connected to your mission, which paves the way to a donation.
Keep in mind that not everyone donates through the mail. Ideally, you should send a fundraising letter to people who care about your cause, have the ability to give, and are willing to give through the mail. If you try to mail to every name you can get your hands on, you’ll be disappointed. That shot-gun blast approach just doesn’t work.
8 keys to writing the perfect fundraising letter
Your fundraising letter must quickly grab the reader’s attention, tell a story, and ask for a gift.
If you do that well, you’ll get what you want. If you don’t, well, you will have wasted a good opportunity to connect with people, feed their desire to do good in the world, and raise much-needed money for your cause.
Here are 8 keys to a fundraising letter that will get you the results you want from your efforts.
Key #1: Create a compelling offer
The “offer” is what you’re asking readers to support.
It’s the amount and the purpose for their gift. And it’s the first thing you should decide before you start writing.
A tangible offer that donors can envision and relate to will result in more donations than something intangible. For example, asking donors to give “$25 to provide a week’s worth of food to a family in need” is much more enticing than “$25 to help us reach our goal of $10,000.”
If you haven’t already, figure out your Core Number or what it costs you to deliver a unit of service (one hot meal, one night’s lodging, one hour of counseling, etc.). For example, an animal shelter might use an offer like: “For just $6.20, we can provide a day’s worth of food, shelter, and medical care for a homeless dog or cat.” You want the offer to be compelling and specific so that readers are moved to reach for their checkbooks.
It’s best to offer multiples of your Core Number to provide choices. For example, a soup kitchen might use this offer:
“For $1.87, we can provide a hot meal to a homeless person.”
“Your gift of $10.87 will provide a hot meal to 10 people in need.”
Your gift of $21.74 will feed 20 people in need.”
“Your gift of $93.50 will feed 50 people in need.”
To help create a sense of urgency, give a deadline for response, and reason for the deadline. “Please send your gift before November 15, so that we can be ready to provide food boxes for our needy neighbors this Thanksgiving.” When there’s a sense of urgency, people act.
Ask for only one thing in the letter so that your offer shines. Don’t ask your donor to make a gift toward your food box program and buy tickets to the upcoming gala. Confused donors won’t respond to either request.
Avoid sending a letter that describes how dire your financial circumstances are (even if they are). Donors want to hear about the work you’re doing, not how your ship is sinking. They want to support a successful, well-run organization, not one that might be “out of business” soon.
Key #2: Plan for the skimmer
Your fundraising letter has one main goal: move the reader to action.
Make it easy for people to understand what you are asking them to do.
Keep in mind that your readers are busy people and probably won’t read every word of your letter. Instead, they will skim it.
They’ll read the address block to see who the letter is addressed to and if their name is spelled correctly. They’ll skim through photos, images, and quotes that stand out. They’ll see who signed the letter and they’ll read the “P.S.”. Then they MIGHT go back and actually read the letter but probably not.
This means you need to use strategically-chosen photos, images, and headlines so that the skimming reader can get the gist of your letter even if they don’t read the whole thing.
You may want to outline or storyboard your letter before you start writing so you can make sure the design elements you include are the right ones.
Key #3: Make it flow
I write a LOT of letters for clients.
Once I get the story and the angle in my head, I can usually whip a letter out in about 30 minutes and my clients love the results they get! In a recent Mastermind training, I rewrote an appeal for a homeless ministry, and they raised over $20,000 with it, so I KNOW this formula works!
Here’s my personal go-to fundraising letter template:
- Grab the reader’s attention with a hooky, surprising first line that begins to tell a story.
- Continue by telling more of a brief but moving story that demonstrates the need met by your nonprofit.
- Briefly explain how your organization is uniquely positioned to respond to the need.
- Transition into why you need your reader’s help and the urgency of the need.
- Make the Ask (offer).
- End the letter with a specific call to action.
- Use the signature of the top-ranking staff person.
- In a short P.S., repeat the Ask (offer).
This format will keep the letter flowing naturally from one thing to the next.
Key #4: Tell a great story
It’s critical that you tell a story about a life that has been changed by your nonprofit’s work. After all, this is the whole reason people give.
Words are everything in fundraising. The way you tell your story and engage people in your message can make or break your fundraising efforts.
Stories can connect your reader emotionally to those you’re helping, which creates the foundation for a donation. So get good at finding and telling stories.
Nonprofits are full of great stories. Just pay attention to what’s going on around you or ask front-line staff and volunteers for stories.
If you need to protect privacy, it’s common practice in fundraising letters to change the name of the person to protect their privacy. It’s also common practice to use a composite story that is actually made up of details from several stories. Or if you can’t do that, talk about a typical person who comes to your organization for help.
Key #5: Write as personally as possible
Personalizing fundraising letters will dramatically increase the number of gifts you receive. So, do everything you can to make the letter feel like it was written specifically for the reader.
Here are a few tips to help you give the letter a personal feel:
- Always address a specific person. Never use a generic “Dear Friend” salutation. A donor who has given to your organization over the years may be offended by this, assuming that you can’t remember his or her name by now. New prospects may also be similarly unimpressed. Use an informal salutation to start your letter.
- Write TO one person. Write the letter as if you are speaking directly to the reader. Don’t write “Hi everyone.” Instead, make it feel personal. Use the Kitchen Table exercise to help you make it feel conversational.
- Write FROM one person. Don’t sign the letter from the entire Board or from the whole organization. The highest-ranking staff person should sign the letter and the tone should work to establish a personal connection between the signer and the reader.
- Avoid jargon, acronyms, and insider language. Use layman’s terms that anyone would understand. Leave out anything the average donor won’t understand. Ask someone outside your organization to review the letter to spot jargon or insider language. An outside person will often provide fresh insight from the viewpoint of an “average reader.”
- Let your passion for your cause shine through. Enthusiasm is contagious so put it front and center as you tell your story and ask for a donation.
Key #6: Polish for perfection
Once your draft is written, edit it for style, content, grammar, and spelling.
It’s easy to skip this step if you’re short on time, but it really is important! Don’t embarrass yourself or your organization by mailing a letter with obvious errors to your donors.
If you’re not great at spotting errors, run your letter through Grammarly. Keep in mind that you don’t have to use every grammatical suggestion that the tool offers. Sometimes an incomplete sentence makes a letter easier to read. Truly it does.
Have that outside person read your letter to make sure it makes sense and to gauge how much it stirs them to want to give. If there’s no sizzle, start over. The perfect letter is full of passion and commitment, and it should set your reader’s heart on fire.
Be careful not to get input from too many people, especially those on the inside of your nonprofit. They may feel strongly that a section about a program needs to be worded differently, when it’s more likely to make a connection the way it’s currently written. This can especially be true of smaller organizations where everyone wants to “have a say” in what’s included in the letter. Remind folks of the goal for the mailing – to move people to action, and that the person with the most understanding of donor-based fundraising should have the final say.
Key #7: Make the letter LOOK appealing
Your letter should be designed and formatted so that it’s easy to read.
Keep everything consistent between the letter, reply card, and envelopes. Use the same fonts, colors, paper, etc., to create a professional look and feel.
Good design will keep the reader moving through the letter. Bad design can stop them in their tracks. Don’t give your reader ANY reason to stop reading and put the letter down.
Use a 12-point Times New Roman font for a printed fundraising letter since it’s easiest for most people to read. Stay away from any font that is too small or too hard to read. Keep the bold, underline, and italics to a minimum.
Use lots of white space so your reader’s eyes have a place to rest. A page that is chock-full of text can be intimidating, unwelcoming, and hard to read. One-inch margins, single line spacing and indented paragraphs will help make your letter easy to read. You can break up the text on the page with a photo or a quote in a text box.
Use a high-quality paper and print each letter. Don’t print one letter, then copy the rest. Copies don’t look nice and you can’t personalize them. If you choose to be cheap or take shortcuts, don’t expect good results from the mailing.
Make sure to put the return address on the letter if you aren’t using regular letterhead. Also include a phone number and website so your readers can find you easily.
Key #8: Keep it the right length
Make the letter long enough to say what you need to say.
Don’t fall into the trap of trying to fit everything on one page to save money on printing. You’ll wind up sacrificing quality to save a buck and it’s not worth it in the end.
Many organizations have found that two-pages are needed to communicate their message effectively. It’s perfectly okay to send a double-sided letter.
Here’s an example of a good fundraising letter:
The Bottom Line
A fundraising letter can be a powerful way to connect with donors, educating them about your cause and giving them the opportunity to be part of solution. And it’s a great part of an annual fundraising plan.
A successful letter is more than a heartfelt plea – it takes strategy, skill, and time to create the perfect fundraising letter that generates lots of money through the mail. Commit to the process to learn how to do a fundraising letter well and you’ll have a tool you can use now and for years to come.