8 Things You Should Never Do in a Fundraising Letter

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It's never too early to analyze your last fundraising campaign and get ready for the next. To do so, first ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do you know how effective your latest direct mail appeal was?
  • How many of your fundraising letters went into the trash?
  • How many resulted in a donation?
  • Have you been afraid to even look at your response rate? 

Writing and packaging a fundraising appeal is hard work, so it can be quite discouraging when it falls flat.

Fundraising today has become multi-channel, with a mixture of digital messages, direct mail, and in-person events—but all of these methods can work together. For instance, digital fundraising solutions firm MobileCause has found that people are three times more likely to donate online after receiving a direct mail fundraising letter.

Direct mail still works, however, and the fundraising letter is at its center. Between "mature" donors and Baby Boomers, a large chunk of donors still likes direct mail. According to Blackbaud and Winspire, mature donors favor direct mail over digital communications, and Baby Boomers respond to a mix of direct mail and digital appeals.

Many factors play into a good direct mail fundraising letter that doesn't end up in the trash. If you could ask your donors why they barely looked at your fundraising letter, here's what they might say.

1. You Didn't Use My Name, or You Got It Wrong

Using the wrong name or address or just saying "Dear Friend" usually signifies that the appeal is from a smaller charity with limited resources.

It's pretty easy now to personalize letters and not that expensive. A donor management system can do it and make all of your fundraising tasks so much easier.

But misguided salutations and wrong names can sometimes afflict even large charities. That seems counterintuitive, but with huge mailing lists, some purchased, it's easier to make an error, and one that can go unnoticed for a long time.

For years, I've been getting mailings from a large nonprofit that misspells my name. Another thinks I'm a man instead of a woman. Please double-check these details. MobileCause says that as many as 20% of database names are incorrect and that 14% of people change addresses each year.

2. You Made Your Mailing Too Complicated

When there are reams of inserts in the package, I can't even focus on the letter. I get confused, lost in indecision, and end up dumping the whole thing.

The best letters I've received included a straightforward, even plain one, with one small insert. That letter was from a large, national charity. But the message was simple, and the letter stuck to the main point.

Another effective letter was from a small theater company in my city. The executive director wrote a beautiful, simple, and heartfelt letter that got to me immediately. It worked because I'm very familiar with the group and have been a longtime donor and audience member. If your organization enjoys a level of intimacy with your audience, skip the bells and whistles and write from the heart.

3. You Talked Too Much About You

I don't care about your organization's accomplishments, the award you got, or where your president last spoke. I do want to know about the person or animal that I can help.

I respond best to a story about one individual rather than a crowd of individuals. This psychological quirk is called the "identifiable victim." It means that when I can focus on one person, I feel that I can help. When faced with several people, my feeling of agency is reduced.

I am quickly overwhelmed by vast numbers of stories and feel helpless in the face of them. I'm not alone. Research has shown that the human brain works better on a smaller, personal level. This phenomenon has been called "psychic numbing."

Instead of overwhelming me, tell me about just one person and how I can help. Tell me a story about that individual or pet. Tug on my heart and make me want to make things better for that one person or animal.

Save the Chimps, for example, writes backstories for all of their animals. Each chimp has a name and a profile. That way, a more personal connection is made, and the chimp becomes known and loved by donors.

4. You Tried to Impress Me with Your Vocabulary

I'm perfectly capable of reading hard stuff. I do it when I have to. But, I'm not going to take the time to wade through optional reading like your fundraising appeal if it's too hard.

Give me short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Remember, too, that you may be an expert in your field, such as medicine or sociology, but I'm not. Try not to use professional jargon.

Fundraising experts suggest that fundraising letters should be somewhere between 6th-8th grade reading level. There are tools, such as the Flesch-Kincaid scales (available in Microsoft Word), to help you check your message for the grade level. Or, you can paste your text into an online calculator to check as well.

5. You Didn't Tell Me I Need to Donate Now

I respond better if you are urgent. Tell me why I need to give today. Please tell me what will happen if I don't. How many more people will go hungry? Or how will a child not go to school unless I give today?

Remind me that you will match my gift if I donate now. I respond to urgent needs, not ones that I can easily ignore until your next appeal.

Make it super easy to send you my donation. Include a postage-paid return envelope for my check, let me know that I can also donate online, and include instructions on how to sign up for monthly donations. Also, include a toll-free phone number in case I'd rather pay that way.

6. You Weren't Specific About What You Want

I respond better when I can see the effect of a specific amount of money on a problem. Tell me that my $25 donation will buy four backpacks for needy kids, or that $50 will feed Fluffy the cat for three months.

Use the power of surprising numbers to motivate me. For instance, the United Nations World Food Programme tells donors to its ShareTheMeal program that just $.80 will feed a child for a day.

Do tell me what you want several times in the letter. I might be reading quickly and miss the first time you mention what you need. Don't be afraid of repetition.

7. You Cared More About Design Than Making Your Letter Easy to Read.

Did you know that reverse type (white type on a black background) makes my eyes hurt? Are you trying to cram more words on the page by using a small font size? Design means nothing if I can't read your letter.

Help me pick out the essential parts of your message by underlining keywords and phrases, or even highlighting them or using bold text. I won't mind at all. I like to skim your letter, so please help me do it.

Write as much as you need. If that's a short letter, that is fine. But if you need to write a long letter to explain the need, project, or describe something in great detail, do so. You know your audience and the need. So choose the best letter length accordingly. Also, your response rate will, over time, help guide you.

8. You Didn't Appreciate Me

First, you didn't acknowledge that I've been giving to you for the last two years. Second, you never said how kind and caring I am, and that's why you know I'll want to give this gift, too.

Tell me that you know I care and that's why you are writing to me. Make me the hero by focusing on my generosity and giving history. Even if you are writing this letter for hundreds of people, try to also write for me, personally.

Call me by name, not "Dear Friend." Reassure me that my continued giving has made a difference.

Help me feel that I'm part of the story of the people or animals my donation helps. Bring me up to date on how they are doing and how I can continue to help them flourish.