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Misconceptions About Writing Fundraising Letters

Excerpt from Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why

One of the most crippling misconceptions about letter writing is that it's hard and something to labor over. Not so. The secret to writing effective fundraising letters is to write quickly and naturally. To let the words flow from your fingers, to talk a "blue streak" on paper.

We're wary of people who choose their words too carefully, and we seldom vote for political candidates who appear to be "thinking" while they're speaking. Donors write checks because they feel a personal and comfortable connection with your organization, and that starts with your writing.

Of course, once you've spewed out your purple prose, you must go back and rewrite. And rewrite again. Too many drafts can turn your letter into a stiff and convoluted essay, but I worry if my letters haven't gone through three drafts.

In fact, one of the primary reasons I edit my letters is that, in my haste in putting words on paper, I sometimes slip into "fine literature." I want to make sure my letter does feel like conversation—that it does indeed break the rules of good grammar and conventional prose. In other words, you edit fundraising letters so they don't seem "written" at all.

As I edit letters written by myself and others, there are at least seven practices that fly in the face of what many believe is good grammar or fine writing:

  1. Contractions—the bread and butter of conversational prose. In the minds of many executive directors, the use of contractions is probably the single most offensive aspect of direct mail writing. But even the most educated and elegant leader can't avoid using this shorthand when speaking.

  2. Frequent use of "I"—the singular voice that our schoolteachers tried to drum out of our essays, in an effort to achieve "objectivity."

  3. Beginning sentences with "and"—one of my favorite connectors that encourages readers to keep reading (actually "listening" because that's the way we talk with friends).

  4. Liberal use of dashes—they're so handy for linking phrases together in an "illogical" manner that helps the reader jump from one thought to another. They also serve as visual "breaks" that evoke the "breaths" we take when we're talking enthusiastically with our friends.

  5. Short paragraphs without worrying about whether the sentences belong together—often just one or two sentences and never more than seven lines. Fundraising letters are read very quickly and with only partial attention, so you must make them easy to read.

  6. Incomplete sentences—without a subject and predicate, missing either or both a noun and a verb. Even just one word. Really. We don't talk in complete sentences. If your computer screen doesn't have a bunch of squiggly green lines (Microsoft Word's grammar warning), then you haven't written a fundraising letter.

  7. Redundancy and repetition—using the same words over and over as well as repeating arguments made earlier. In school, we were encouraged to rephrase. We were taught to organize our points in a logical progression from thesis to conclusion. But we know readers of fundraising letters don't read in a sequential pattern, so we can't ever leave them wondering about referents. And we can't rely on having our strongest argument appear only once in a letter. In a sense, almost every sentence—and surely every paragraph—has to stand on its own.
Please don't conclude that I believe in sloppy writing. Woe to you if you throw good grammar out the window. And you can't simply transcribe your oral speech onto paper. In reality, your syntax should be simpler, and you must avoid the trite phrases and other "empty words" that populate our speech. Your fundraising appeal will fall short if it sounds like an essay or an editorial, but ultimately your letter—filled with conversational prose—is still a letter to be read.

Stephen Hitchcock
© 2005-2006, Stephen Hitchcock. Excerpted from Open Immediately! Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Stephen Hitchcock is vice president of client services at Mal Warwick and Associates.
Topics: Fundraising