As we approach year’s end, we’re entering the season of fundraising appeals. Here at Libretto, I’ve written my fair share of letters seeking to scare up philanthropic support – and I’ve read plenty more that run the gamut from fantastic to flat. So what are the ingredients of an effective appeal? As usual, there’s no simple, foolproof solution. But there are a few qualities that most good appeals share:
1. They celebrate unique aspects of the organization
Your appeal has to feel differentiated. This is simultaneously the most obvious, important, and difficult aspect of every fundraising letter.
I’ve worked on appeals for a number of different colleges and universities, and I don’t think any of those clients would be surprised to learn that their fundamental goals and challenges are more similar than different: they seek to provide an exceptional education to promising students, and they require donor funding for things like financial aid and operations support to achieve this.
Unless your organization has a truly unique mission, you will run into instances of overlap with your peers (even if they go about their work in a different way). But this doesn’t mean your appeal has to sound just like theirs.
One way to uncover and communicate your differentiators is by establishing a strong sense of your brand – this is best achieved through creating a comprehensive messaging platform for all your public-facing communications. You can also differentiate yourself by pointing to specific, unique programs or initiatives that donors can support, or by surfacing the voices of individuals who have benefited or stand to benefit from philanthropic efforts.
For example, instead of saying that a gift to “College A” will support financial aid for deserving students, you might identify a specific student who receives financial aid and share their personal story. This is guaranteed to be different from the story “College B” will tell.
2. They are rooted in the present
Another compelling way to create a unique and differentiated appeal is to include references to current happenings at your organization. Not only will this give you additional ammunition for distinguishing yourself from competitors, but it also helps to ensure that this year’s appeal sounds different from last year’s, reinforcing that your donors’ support continues to be as important as ever.
For example, a theater company's appeal could make reference to recently completed runs and offer a glimpse into future shows. Or if you are working to cure cancer, you can let readers know how you’ve been spending your money and what progress you’ve made to date – or, by the same token, explain what pathways you plan to follow next.
This doesn’t mean your appeal should be about the month’s top trend on Twitter, but it’s vital that each appeal feel like an authentic reflection of its moment in time – and especially of what this moment in time represents for your organization. If your reader doesn’t get any sense of “now” from the letter, they’re unlikely to feel any urgency to give.
3. They use both rational and emotional motivators
Donors are motivated by a variety of factors, including their personal beliefs, priorities, and experiences, as well as the association they have with your organization. One way that we at Libretto try to make sense of these complex relationships is by organizing them along a spectrum of rational and emotional cases for support.
A rational case for support might allude to the donor’s return on investment, while an emotional case might describe a specific individual whose life was changed by philanthropy. The most successful appeals speak to donors at both ends of the rational–emotional spectrum.
It’s important to note that the scales of this framework should be calibrated according to your audience. This will enable you to engage a broad range of potential donors, and ensure that your content and tone don’t skew too far toward one end or the other.
4. They have an explicit call to action
There’s no reason to be coy. As readers, we know what you want: our money. Beating around the bush only makes it feel like you’re uncomfortable asking – and therefore makes the reader less comfortable giving.
Successful letters are upfront about the request for support, and often include a straightforward call to action in multiple locations.
A common technique is to include a direct ask, in bold, as a stand-alone paragraph. This ensures that everyone who opens the letter will understand what you’re asking for – even if they read nothing else. You can even put it right on the envelope (but if you do, try to make it clever and enticing – you still want them to open the thing up, after all).
Although there are exceptions to every rule, I advise clients to frame their requests in terms of positives rather than negatives. It’s possible to motivate donors by telling them about the terrible things that will happen if they don’t give, but this often has the additional consequence of making them feel emotionally manipulated and less positive about the work you’re doing.
Conversely, explaining to a donor what amazing results you will achieve thanks to their gift makes them feel good about their contribution and encourages future engagement.