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Plan the Perfect Annual Appeal with These Tips

14 min read
September 20, 2023
Shannon Whitehead headshot
Shannon Whitehead
Content Strategist, Neon One
a computer showing a money plan with a notebook and mouse beside it

When it’s time to plan your annual campaign, your annual appeal will be one of the most important parts of your fundraising strategy. With a well-planned appeal, your nonprofit can reconnect with donors, thank them for their past support, highlight their impact, and ask for their continued support.

Your annual appeal is just one (very important) part of your annual campaign plan, but it’s a critical element in helping you secure the funding you need to run operations throughout the year.

Every nonprofit approaches their fundraising appeal for the annual fund a little differently. Some send one big appeal to fund their annual campaign, while others ask for donations at multiple points throughout the year. Most send at least one big appeal—that’s what we’ll focus on in this article.

Setting Goals for Your Annual Appeal

Your annual appeal’s send date might depend on your individual nonprofit’s mission. For example, a nonprofit focused on AIDS awareness and research may choose to kick off their annual campaign on World AIDS Day. An organization that works to provide resources and support to veterans may choose to launch their annual campaign during November to align with Veterans Day.

No matter when you send your annual appeal, it should support your overall annual fundraising campaign and the goals you set for it.

Start your annual campaign planning with three primary goals:

  1. Build upon and strengthen relationships with current donors
  2. Captivate current and potential donors with mission-focused storytelling
  3. Inspire donors to help raise the amount needed to fund operational expenses by making a donation during the campaign 

When it comes to planning an effective annual campaign that thrives on the support generated by a successful annual appeal, the old rules don’t apply.

The New Rules of Annual Campaign Planning

Think of the “old rules” of annual campaigns as anything holding you back from being innovative and digging deeper into what’s working (or what’s not) at your organization. What assumptions are you making about what your nonprofit can and cannot do?

You might hear that you can’t send an appeal to donors who have already given this year. Are you sure? Can you inspire them to make another gift by proactively telling them about how their previous gift made a difference?

Maybe you find yourself planning a fundraising event you hold every year that causes lots of stress but barely pays for itself. Can you adjust your event to be more appealing to donors? Can you scrap it entirely and try something new?

It’s easy to create “rules” for yourself and your staff based on what has and has not worked in the past. Put those assumptions out of your mind and pick up these principles instead.

1. Focus on Specific Campaign Goals

Gone are the days a nonprofit might fundraise hard and fast without a goal in mind. Setting S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely) goals for your annual appeal allows you to explicitly communicate how much money your nonprofit needs to raise (and by when) to ensure that expenses are fully covered.

2. The Annual Appeal Letter Isn’t the End

The best annual campaigns pair new, tech-based tools with an old-fashioned personal touch. But in order to leverage both of those methods, your campaign will need to include fundraising activities that go beyond the annual appeal letter.

You should absolutely plan your annual fundraising campaign with the annual appeal as a key component, but you don’t have to stop there. Build upon your annual appeal with other newer tools such as social media campaigns and more traditional methods like face-to-face asks (more on these tools later).

3. Give Data the Attention It Deserves

How do last year’s operating costs inform this year’s annual appeal goals? Did you meet last year’s fundraising goals, or did you fall short? Did you raise more than you needed? How much is your average donor likely to give to your campaign?

Pay close attention to what worked in the past and use your organization’s data to make informed decisions. Analyze the data available to you to set the right goals and segment your donors for relevant, effective email communications.

4. Don’t Rely on the Rules and Tools of Yesterday

What blew the fundraising target out of the water for one nonprofit may not generate the same results for another. Find the best fit—the best strategy, the best donor management tool, the best practices—that works for your organization.

Forget what you’ve been told: Your annual appeal doesn’t have to be sent in December only, you don’t have to focus solely on finding major donors, and sending the annual appeal letter in the mail doesn’t have to be the end of your annual campaign communications. In fact, it can be the beginning.

What to Include in Your Annual Appeal Planning

A strong annual appeal begins with a strategic annual campaign plan. Before you write your annual appeal letter, make sure your annual campaign includes these parts to support it.

Gratitude for Current Donors

Along with making your latest ask, make it a point to celebrate your donors’ generosity and tell them how they made an impact with their past support. They’ll be more likely to donate to your annual campaign if they feel like their money will make a difference.

Storytelling That Illustrates Your Mission and What Donations Will Fund 

You’ll use storytelling in your annual appeal letter, and it will reinforce the rest of the activities in the overall campaign. 

When you’re planning the themes and stories that will drive your annual campaign—and, by extension, your annual appeal—try to focus on telling individual stories instead of relying on lots of numbers and statistics. 

A classic example of this is an appeal to address food insecurity. Asking people to donate to a food pantry to feed 7,000 families is overwhelming. Donors understand that their $30 will not realistically solve hunger in their city. Asking them to donate to the food pantry so Sarah and her two kids can have groceries while she searches for a new job feels much more doable. They know they’re not solving hunger on a huge scale. But they do know they’re solving hunger for a family, and that’s a powerful motivator.

A Narrowed List of Tools

Plan in advance for how you’ll spread the word about your campaign and how you’ll send your annual appeal letter. The fewer tools you’ll need, the better. Some tools we suggest using include:

  • A campaign calendar that includes when you’ll send your appeal, post on social media, hold events, connect with major donors, etc.
  • A donor database or nonprofit CRM that lets you pull donor lists, segment them, and create targeted communications
  • An email tool that lets you send segmented appeals
  • A social media management tool, even if it’s something as simple as a spreadsheet you use to track what you post on which channel

What will your organization use? Determining this in advance will ensure you have the tools you need—no more, no less—and a plan for using them.

How You’ll Collect and Use Data

Make sure you have systems in place to capture your donors’ information as they interact with your campaign and respond to your annual appeal. Track their contact information, how they gave, their gift amount, and other details you can use to shape future campaigns.

Just as you used past campaigns’ performance to set realistic goals this year, you’ll use this year’s data to inform next year’s annual campaign. If you identified any data points you wanted but did not have this year, come up with a plan for collecting them so you’ll have it next year.

A Segmentation Strategy

This is how you’ll divide donors to send targeted annual appeals to each group. You can use this to tailor your annual appeal letter to your audience, and a careful segmentation strategy will give you the ability to send targeted appeals that are very relevant to their recipients.

Some segments you may want to consider including in your strategy are:

  • One-time donors
  • Recurring donors
  • Major donors
  • Lapsed donors
  • Donors who give at different levels

Done well, segmentation can make your annual appeal much more effective. A major donor can receive different messaging than a donor who gave a one-time $30 gift. Someone who’s an existing monthly donor can receive an appeal for a small additional gift while a lapsed donor receives an invitation to reconnect with your cause.

Tips for Writing a Great Annual Appeal

Here are some practical tips for writing a great appeal for your annual campaign.

Open With a Good Salutation

If you can, use personalization tokens to add your donor’s name to your appeal. Addressing your message with someone’s name is more effective than addressing it to “Dear Friend” or some other generic opening.

Start With An Impact Story

Grab peoples’ attention by opening your appeal with a heartwarming story about someone who’s benefitted from your donors’ generosity. This achieves a few goals: It makes them more likely to read your appeal, it makes them feel good about their past support, it signals to them that you’ll use additional gifts wisely, and it helps them understand how their donation will continue to make a difference.

Add Images

Whether you use one powerful photo or choose multiple, a good image will make your annual appeal more … well … appealing. Choose a photo that enhances the story you’re telling and connects your reader to your cause.

Make It Scannable

As much as everyone loves to think that donors read every syllable of an annual appeal, that’s not usually the case. People are much more likely to skim through your fundraising letter before deciding to act or to go back and read it more deeply.

That means your appeal will be most effective if it’s easy for someone to skim through it, understand what it’s about, and grasp what you want them to do. You can do that by:

  • Adding plenty of line breaks
  • Using bullet points when possible
  • Bolding important phrases and calls to action
  • Include buttons or linked images that reiterate calls to action
  • Reinforce your message with engaging images

When you make your appeal easy to understand after a quick scan, your donors will be much more likely to engage with it!

Include Clear Calls to Action

When you spend hours crafting the perfect story, sharing a donor’s impact, and talking about the future, it’s easy to assume people will know you actually want them to donate. But that’s not always true! Make sure your appeal includes an explicit ask.

The more specific you can be, the better. Don’t just say “Your support will help us feed families like Sarah’s.” Say, “Your support will help us feed families like Sarah’s. Will you make a gift of $35 today?” You may even want to bold, italicize, or underline your ask so it stands out as a donor skims through your appeal.

Make It Easy to Act

Including good calls to action won’t pay off unless you make it easy for people to act upon them. 

If you’re sending your annual appeal through the mail, you’ll want to include a few options. Some donors will want to give by check, so be sure you include a remit slip (and make it large enough that they don’t have to try to cram their whole address on a 4-inch line) and self-addressed stamped envelope. You should also include a QR code that takes readers to your donation page and a note that includes a URL they can type into their browser themselves.

For annual appeals sent via email, link to your donation form throughout your message. Use a variety of different formats, too—text links, buttons, and even hyperlinked images are all appealing. Make sure they’re easy to tap on if someone’s using a mobile device, too. Most emails are read on phones!

Don’t worry about including too many links to your donation form during this process. Our research revealed that adding multiple links to a single form increased click-through rates in emails. Click-through rates were highest when there were six links to the same form!

You can learn more about creating effective emails by downloading The Nonprofit Email Report: Data-Backed Insights for Better Engagement.

The Best Tools to Use for Your Annual Appeal

Make your nonprofit’s annual appeal a success by using the best tools at your disposal. You can even use all of the ones below to support your annual appeal letter! Here are some tools or tactics to consider:

  • Email communication (send a personalized annual appeal directly to inboxes)
  • Social media (to tell stories and reach new donors)
  • Donor database (access a host of helpful donor information)
  • Direct mail (sending personalized appeal letters)
  • Personal touch (includes face-to-face meetings and events)

Here’s how to know which tools to use.

1. Send Your Main Annual Appeal Letter via Direct Mail or Email

This is where the previously mentioned donor segmentation and data analyzation really comes in handy. Look at donors’ past engagements with your organization—donors who gave online may respond best to email appeals while donors who regularly give by check may prefer direct mail.

But try sending direct mail appeals to your digital donors, too; inboxes are crowded, and reaching them through two different channels increases the likelihood of them seeing and responding to your annual appeal letter. Give this a trial run with a small group of donors to see if it makes financial sense.

2. Use Social Media to Reinforce Your Annual Appeal

Billions of people around the world use social media to send and receive all types of messages every day. It’s where they get their news, find their community, and yes, learn about their favorite nonprofit’s annual campaign. Make sure you include a link to the donation form for the campaign in all social media posts.

3. Use Your Donor Database for All It’s Worth

Go through your donor database to identify which donors may benefit from personal phone calls, in-person meetings, and other outreach methods. Remember to prioritize…

  • Loyal donors who have supported you year after year
  • Major gifts donors
  • Mid-level donors
  • Donors who have major gift potential but haven’t yet given at that level

If you’re using a donor management platform with built-in email tools like Neon CRM, you can send targeted emails directly to your different donor segments. Otherwise, you’ll either need to integrate your database and email service provider or transfer them manually. 

Write a Great Annual Appeal That Supports Your Overall Campaign

Your annual campaign is one of the most critical projects you’ll manage all year, and your annual appeal needs to be a thoughtfully written message that inspires your donors to support your work. Taking the time to plan your overall campaign will help you send the most effective annual appeal possible and set your organization up to thrive financially.

Make plans to tell your story, share your most meaningful talking points, and decide who will receive your annual appeal. Once you’ve sent your appeal, reinforce your message by connecting with your donors through multiple channels throughout your annual campaign.

If this sounds like a lot of pieces to juggle, Neon CRM can help manage donors, emails, events, fundraising, members, grants, and volunteers in a powerful, all-in-one platform. Neon CRM allows you to plan and execute a successful annual campaign with a suite of relationship-focused nonprofit tools.

If you want to learn more about Neon CRM, schedule a demo today!

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