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How to Write a Stellar Fundraising Appeal

7 min read
April 22, 2021
Mary Cahalane headshot
Mary Cahalane
Principal, Hands-On Fundraising
writing an appeal

The Road Map to a Stellar Fundraising Appeal

Most people start the process by simply asking how to write a fundraising appeal. But without breaking the process into sections, it can become a large and challenging task. You don’t have to worry, because your stellar fundraising appeal can be created in eight easy steps.

Before we begin, remember your organization’s mission is your north star. Keep it firmly in mind as you go. Because, to put it simply, a fundraising appeal is just a method to make a case for financial support from your donors. It could be sent electronically, by phone, or with direct mail. Whatever the channel, you can’t make your case without putting your mission at the center of your fundraising appeal and your ask.

Step 1: Your Journey Begins With Your Offer

What is it you need gifts for? What will a gift do? 

Be as specific as possible. A tangible request makes it more likely people will respond. 

But you need unrestricted income! We get it. Here’s what you can do, focus on one aspect of what you do. What does it cost to carry out that activity? Now break that into gift-sized pieces. What’s the cost for a month, a day, an hour?

Your appeal can focus on one part of your organization’s work. But be clear that the gifts you receive will be put to work where they’re needed most. Take time to think through your offer: how much impact can the donor have with their gift?

Step 2: Who Will Come With You?

Figure out who will you be asking for a gift? How well do you know your audience? Consider segmenting your list.? Then determine what’s different about each segment.

The more you know, the better your communications will be. And better communication leads to a better response to your appeal.

Read More: Donor Communications at Every Lifecycle Stage

Step 3: What’s So Urgent?

If you don’t really need the money, why are you asking now?

You need the money. So you need to communicate what makes it urgent. Your “annual appeal” is not a reason for someone to give now. Funding your mission is.

You can also create urgency. Could a board member provide a matching gift with a deadline? Consider how the pandemic has affected your organization’s work.

Step 4: Tell A Story — It’s Rocket Fuel For Your Fundraising Appeal

You’ve decided what aspect of your mission you want your appeal to focus on. Great! Now you need to illustrate it. There’s a reason you don’t send donors a grant proposal. Stories say so much more than statistics!

Humans are wired for narrative. It’s the best way to learn and the most enjoyable.

If you don’t already have a story bank, don’t worry. Talk with the people closest to your programs. They may have stories to share. Or they may put you in touch with someone who would be willing to share a story with you.

If you can personally interview someone, you’re more likely to get the details you need. Zoom can be terrific for this because recording a video is easy. (With permission, of course!) 

Your fundraising appeal tells a story to illustrate why you need a donor’s help.

Don’t cut the donor out of the story! Save the happy endings for your next donor newsletter. Right now, focus on the problem.

Check your visual

Images get into our brains faster than words do. Just be sure to choose a “there’s a problem” photo, not an “everything’s good now” photo, for your appeal. 

Step 5: What’s Your Flight Plan? Structure your story

The first sentence of your appeal is critical. Keep it short. One great sentence will compel your reader to keep going. 

Sometimes a story told in chronological order works well. Sometimes, that sucks out the excitement. Try pinpointing the moment in the story that everything hangs on and start there. 

You can leave cookie crumbs for your reader as you move through the letter to keep them interested. 

Step 6: How Will Your Ship Fly?

Think about your whole package, not just the fundraising appeal letter. Do anything and everything you can to make your appeal stand out. Sometimes, seemingly small details can make all the difference to your donors.

If this is a mail appeal, write the response form first. If it’s an email, look at the landing page copy.

Boil your ask down to one or two solid lines for a “YES!” statement. (And do use a full-page response form for mail. Make it big enough for anyone to fill in.)

Have you thought about your outer envelope? A basic white #10 envelope is likely to get lost between the mailbox and recycling bin. Try something else: a colorful envelope, a larger size, or handwritten font. Anything that will make you stand out. Don’t forget your return envelope; it’s a lovely chance to add a small thank you message. 

If this is an email appeal, focus some time on perfecting your subject line. Test which subject lines get the most clicks from your audience. 

Step 7: Test Flight- Now You’re Ready to Write

You have a strong offer. You know where you’re going. You understand the urgent, specific message you want to send. 

Now picture your donor. Write what you would say to them her if you were talking. Don’t edit yourself here – there will be plenty of time later! Just write your appeal. 

If you need a prompt, try simply, “I’m writing to tell you…”

Keep it personal. You are one person writing to another person. You want this to sound like a conversation. 

Keep it simple. Not because your donors aren’t intelligent, but because simple is easier to read. You do that with short paragraphs, short sentences, short words.

Check your work with the grade level checker in Word or with Hemmingway App. You want to be between 4th and 6th grade.

Your Mission: Ask Well and Often

When you’re writing your fundraising appeal, keep your ask front of mind, too. One ask is not enough. Repetition will help underline the importance of your request. And try to get your first ask in early – within the first few paragraphs. Then repeat it throughout.

Be specific. How much are you asking for? What will that accomplish? When do you need it?

Now, walk away. Let it sit a bit. Get some distance from your work. Because next, you’re going to edit. 

Step 8: Your Pre-Flight Checklist

Now that you’ve written your fundraising appeal, give it one last look and make sure your appeal is set up for success. 

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the appeal easy to read? Aim for 4th to 6th grade level.
  • Does it sound like a conversation or is it all business? Your goal is to be conversational.
  • Are you using a large enough font? 14 is the new 12. If this is a direct mail piece, are you using a serif font? Are you indenting paragraphs?
  • How often do you directly address your reader? Count the number of times you say “you” or “your.”
  • Is your ask clear, specific, and repeated throughout?
  • Do you have a P.S.? This is one of the most-read spots.
  • Do you depend on emotion or statistics? Emotion wins. Bonus points if you can also add an element of statistics mixed with your emotion.

Once you are able to answer yes to all of these questions, you’re ready to send out your fundraising appeal!

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