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Follow-up to Crucial Year-End Giving Strategies for Your Nonprofit Appeal Webinar

Below is a follow-up by Mazarine Treyz to a handful of questions submitted by participants during the November 5, 2013 webinar “Crucial Year-End Giving Strategies for Your Nonprofit Appeal," and a cross-post of our Tumblr post here. To view the presentation or listen to the recording of the webinar, please click here.

Q: I am confused… I have been told toalways keep my appeals “positive” and stay away from depressing photos and depressing stories that don’t have a happy ending (for instance talking about the dog that died). Can you speak more to this?

According to the research we shared in the webinar, people are more motivated by fear of loss than by potential gain. HOWEVER everyone’s list is different, and you should test the two approaches with your list.

If you do this, you’ll soon learn which works best for your audience.

This is why you should do a spring appeal, a summer appeal, a fall appeal and a winter appeal, to have a chance to try all of the different things we talked about to tweak your letter.

Q: Where do you find compelling stories in a historical society? Based on saving “the stuff” or “why someone else has given” or what?

Why are you saving the stuff? What STORIES are attached to the stuff? Is it a chair that Thomas Jefferson sat on? Is it a unique piece of southern history?

If there is no story, try this. Get your nose in the dirt of the time period. How?

  • Read a couple of historical novels set in the area you live in,
  • Dress up in a costume from the time period,
  • Talk with a historian, and
  • MAKE a story around this stuff.

History is fascinating! And this could be your chance to write a short piece of historical fiction that people would actually read!

Q: When you work for a nonprofit that has several arms - i.e. - housing for homeless, affordable housing for low income seniors, hospice, memory care, adult day care. Do you think one appeal letter would work for this? Or do we need to segment?

I believe I addressed this in the webinar, but to recap, you want to survey your list RIGHT NOW and ask your most loyal supporters (via email, mail, and telephone) which of our programs do you connect most with?

And they might start to tell you the story of why they care so much about a particular program.

If more people tell you they care about one program, then you can write one story about that program.

If it’s evenly split between two, write two stories, and split your list so you send one half one letter and the other half the other letter, and see how your appeal does.

Q: My organization, a feminist community space, wants to do a holiday card/end of year appeal. Have you seen this before and was it successful? The mock up is brief (two paragraphs), no story, wishing peace.

This will not work as well as you’d want it to, because it has no urgency, and it’s very short, and there is no story.

I would say do the opposite of what you’ve proposed here. Make a long holiday appeal with one story from a woman who has found your space to be a haven for her when the rest of her life was in turmoil.

Talk about the special features of your space, the light, the books, the tea, the people who come in and chat with her. Make a visceral experience for the reader about WHY your space is so important and how it MUST continue to be there, for generations of women to come.

Q: You did not really spend too much time on the ‘grant-speak’ issue. That said, any suggestions are to the ‘grade-level’ pitch?

Well, open up one of your favorite novels. You know a good story when you see it!

And you know grant-speak when you see it too! It’s those cut and paste paragraphs that everyone always skips over.

“Our nonprofit’s mission is blah blah blah. Last year we helped X number do X. Then we did this, then we did that. In the future, we hope to do X.”

And it’s all about YOU, and not about the DONOR.

I would put your grade-level at the third grade level, to make it as easy as possible to read. That means short sentences, punchy lines, all of these lacking in grant-speak!

Q: How would you tailor a letter for a policy appeal letter (no kids, no animals!)

You want to tie what you are doing to real human beings. Presumably these policies affect humans somewhere down the line. Where and when do they affect people? THAT is how you will get people to care.

You know who does a REALLY good job with this? Pesticide Action Network. Sign up for their emails. They deal with some of the driest policy stuff you could imagine, but they make it really juicy.

Corporate Accountability International is another good one too.

Q: If our organization is a non-service nonprofit, with more abstract mission, how do we have a story? Do we make up a mythical person whom we hope we’ve helped indirectly? We are a women and children’s rights organization.

That’s hard. I’d say get on the ground and talk with people that are affected by your work, even if you don’t serve them directly. Talk to your partners and find some good stories there.

If you fight for women’s and children’s rights, take your most recent campaign, make that conglomerate person (while remembering the people that you’ve talked with) and then tell their story. Then tie it back to your campaign.

Throw in some statistics about women and children’s rights, and then ask for the gift.

Mazarine TreyzWant to learn more from Mazarine? Sign up for her e-newsletter at and get many more tips on how to write your appeal letter.

Topics: Fundraising Webinars Giving season