Fundraising Letters

You've probably received a fundraising letter. It could have been from a local church asking you to contribute an item to a yard sale. Or the college you attended requesting your financial support of an important alumni program.

Fundraising letters are used by nonprofit organizations as a means to raise money for their good work. Most people think of nonprofits as charities, and many are. However, there are several other types of nonprofits that conduct fundraising campaigns, such as advocacy groups, political parties, research institutions, arts groups, and more.

There are few, if any, similarities between a traditional sales letter and a fundraising letter. In a sales letter, you're asking people to exchange their dollars for a specific product or service. In a fundraising letter, you're asking for money and offering nothing of substance in return.

That's what makes writing a fundraising letter so tricky. The classic copy-writing rules concerning features and benefits, and making an enticing offer, just don't apply. That's why some copywriters focus on fundraising letters and related materials exclusively. It's a specialty that is difficult to master.

There are two types of fundraising letters: the acquisition letter, which is sent to people who have no history of donating to the charity; and the renewal letter, which is used to get past contributors to donate again.

Here are tips for writing a winning fundraising letter:

Write in the First Person

Unlike many other forms of business communications, you must give the reader a strong sense of the author. The voice of the person who has signed the letter at the bottom should shine through in the copy. This person can be a director at the charity, a well-known celebrity who supports the organization, or even someone who has personally benefited from one of the charity's programs.

The writing style should be candid, personal, and conversational. A “friend-to-friend” tone often works well. There is a deeper level of intimacy in a fundraising letter that does not exist in traditional sales letters. After all, you're asking someone for support. It's personal.

Use Stories

Stories help the reader visualize and appreciate what the charity is doing, and how a donation will help the organization perform even more good work. Take a look at this example of the first paragraph of a fundraising letter:

I remember my first night being homeless. I was cold. I was hungry. I was terrified. Life wasn't supposed to be like this. I was educated — a master's degree. Yet, sitting on the street shivering, I didn't know where my next morsel of food would come from…

Notice how the first-person account of homelessness brings this issue closer to home for the reader? This isn't just a vague category of people you have no relation to. This is a real person you might have sat next to in a college class!

Get Specific

Don't use generalities like “Your donation will help feed the poor.” Be specific. Tell the reader exactly what their dollars will buy. Writing that a $25 donation will help feed starving children overseas is not nearly as compelling and motivating as “Your $25 will buy a basic well for a village that can provide desperately needed clean water for months…even years.”

Make It Urgent

Give the reader sound reasons why he or she should donate right now rather than waiting until some milestone like the end of the year or tax time.

Get into the field and talk to the people who are doing the day-to-day work for charity. Meet some of the program beneficiaries. Their stories and insights will give you a perspective that will help you write a more effective fundraising letter.

Here's a compelling line from a fundraising letter: “Five single moms die of AIDS each day in Africa's poorest nations, leaving children homeless and starving. But your $25 a month will change the destiny for one of these kids…if you act now.”

Use the “M” Word

Don't tiptoe politely around the issue by cloaking your request with such polite terms as support and financial assistance. If the charity needs the reader to send money, ask for it. Don't be afraid to use the words money and dollars. For example: “Would you please donate $100 this month to help us meet the needs of this urgent crisis? Your money will buy five refurbished blankets that will provide warmth to the suddenly homeless in this area.”

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