You could have the best online donation form in the world. But people won’t give to you unless you make a really compelling appeal that inspires them. That’s often easier said than done! When you’re a nonprofit fundraiser, it’s hard to carve out a couple of hours to craft a really great appeal.
We’re here to help. Here are six in-depth strategies you can use to create a more effective appeal.
1. Set a Strong Foundation
There are thousands of articles on writing nonprofit stories on the Internet. They cover how to do it, why to do it, where to do it—the list goes on. It might seem repetitive, but experts emphasize nonprofit storytelling for a reason. It works!
When you’re a nonprofit, you spend your time focusing on widespread issues. You know how many starving people are in your metropolitan area. You can tell donors how many hundreds of cats in your area need to be spayed or neutered. You understand the huge scale of global refugee crises. And it’s really tempting to try to tell your donors about it.
But here’s the thing: donors aren’t as immersed in your work as you are. Showing them enormous problems can discourage and overwhelm them. “How can my $50 donation possibly even come close to helping our community’s rampant problems?” a donor might ask. The staggering scale of the problems you solve at your nonprofit can make donors feel like their gifts won’t make a difference. That’s where storytelling comes in.
Telling a good story puts a human face to a larger problem. A donor might feel like his or her $50 gift is a drop in an ocean of food insecurity ... but you can tell the story of a family who needs food. That $50 won’t solve widespread hunger, but it’ll feed a family for a couple of meals.
2. Choose Your Words
You’ll test your appeal for things like deliverability and formatting. But, before you even build out the template you’ll use, test your appeal for donor-centric language.
You can do this by using the “You test.” In red, circle “you” language—you, your, yours, etc. In black, circle “us” language—we, our, us, etc. If the “us” language is more prevalent than the “you” language, rewrite it! It’s not donor-centric.
Using “you” language is important, and so is using “because” language. When you tell your donors you need their support, or when you ask them to give to your campaign, tell them why! People respond really well to “because” language—they like to know why you’re asking them to do something. And they’re more likely to do what you ask if you tell them.
Saying, “We need your money to buy food,” is fine. But saying, “We need money to buy food because demand is outpacing our supply,” is great! It’s compelling, it’s specific, and it gives donors a problem they can solve.
3. Make Specific Asks
You make appeals because you need donors to give to you. YOU know that. WE know that. But do your donors know that?
When you write an appeal, have a very clear call to action. You might think it’s obvious that you’re asking for donations in your letter. Don’t assume! If you want donors to give, ask them explicitly to give. If you can, ask them for a specific amount!
One of the biggest reasons that people don’t donate is because they’re never asked to donate. Be clear with your requests! If you want them to donate $75 to your annual fund, ask them. If you want them to bring canned goods, ask them. If you need canned fruit and cereal, tell them. The more specific you are, the more confident donors will be that they can help you solve a problem.
4. Examine Your Formatting
We’ve all written letters! And, when we do, we generally write it in a specific order. We write the salutation, we write the body of the letter, we sign our name. We might add a P.S. if we forgot to include something.
Readers, however, don’t read appeals in the same order in which we write them. Instead, someone will look at your appeal in this order:
- Postscript (P.S.)
Keeping this tidbit in mind will ensure you make the most of your next appeal.
First, accompany the letter with a photo. It’s one of the first things donors will see when they open your appeal! The type of photos that performs best generally includes one central figure that’s looking directly at the camera. Your photo should reinforce the story you tell in your appeal, and it should help donors visualize the people they can help or the problem they can solve by donating.
When you write your appeal, make sure you personalize your salutation! This is one reason that having your CRM (customer relationship management) up to date is so important; it ensures you use the donor’s preferred title, and you can be positive it’s spelled correctly. A personalized salutation is much more effective than something generic, such as “Dear Donor” or “Valued Supporter.”
Write your P.S. before you write the rest of the letter. Because the P.S. is the third thing they see, make it count! This is the perfect place to reinforce your (very specific) call to action.
The signature on the appeal is important. Donors want to know who’s speaking to them, so make it legible. You should also consider who’s “sending” the appeal. An appeal from your CEO will probably not surprise and delight your donors. Consider asking other people to “write” the email—support staff, development staff, volunteers, clients, etc. They’ll give you a fresh voice and get people’s attention.
Spend a little extra time formatting your appeal, too. Ensure your letter is easy to scan and make sure it’s effective when people do scan it. Almost no one thoroughly reads everything they receive. But they will scan it! Leave plenty of white space in your letter to break it up visually. Start paragraphs with powerful or emotional words. And bold the important parts—including the call to action!
5. Make Donating Easy
An appeal—even if you make a very specific ask—will fall flat if you make it hard to donate. Your supporters shouldn’t have to work to make a gift!
If you’re sending your appeal through email, be sure to actually link to your donation form. It’s remarkable how easy it is to forget this! But remember, you must make donating easy if you want people to give to you. Make your call to action, then link to your donation form. Make it obvious!
Here’s a way to test how easy it is to donate: send the email to yourself, then open it. How many clicks does it take to get you to the donation form? If it’s more than one or two, that’s too many.
If your donors will get your appeal in the mail, be sure to include a reply page they can use to make a gift. The best reply pages are actually full pages—not a little detachable slip of paper. Those little slips of paper require tiny handwriting, and that’s something many donors can’t manage. A majority of the people who give via direct mail are elderly donors—keep that in mind when creating your reply pages.
Direct mail reply pages should be very simple to fill out. Don’t ask donors to make multiple decisions (think: what kind of card? What amount? Should it be recurring? Do you want volunteer information? Do you want newsletters? etc.)—give them one or two options. Additionally, reply pages should always be accompanied by a pre-paid envelope. Donors shouldn’t have to work to find and address an envelope, get a stamp, and fill out the reply card.
6. Consider Your Mailing Habits
You’ve got a great appeal—now it’s time to make sure donors get (and open!) it. Here are a few tips.
If you want people to open your direct mail appeals, send them in interesting envelopes. The standard #10 envelope is boring and easily discarded as junk mail. Changing the shape, size, or color of your envelope might cost a little more up front, but those letters are more likely to be opened, read, and acted upon.
Email appeals obviously don’t require envelopes. Instead, think of your subject line as your “envelope”—it serves the same purpose! A good subject line will catch a reader’s eye and inspire him or her to open your appeal just like a good envelope will. Basic tips for writing great subject lines include using “you” language, using active verbs, and using language that creates a sense of urgency. Avoid using “free” or writing words in all caps—many email services will flag them as spam.
Nice, eye-catching envelopes are a little more expensive than white #10 envelopes, and writing a great subject line takes extra time. But the improved open rates and increase in gifts make them worth it! Another way to improve your appeal’s performance is to make sure the right people are getting at the right time.
You do that by keeping your lists and CRM information up to date. If you haven’t cleaned up your records, you could be spending precious resources to contact donors who aren’t at their recorded addresses. You could also be sending direct mail appeals to online donors who don’t read direct mail!
When you’re cleaning up the records for your direct-mail donors, spend some time cleaning up your email list, too. Remove donors who are deceased, long-inactive donors, and email addresses that regularly bounce. When you send regular email campaigns, low open rates, unsubscribes, and bounced emails can affect your campaign’s deliverability. If you have too many of those things, email providers may mark your appeal as spam or not deliver it at all.
You can also improve open and response rates by segmenting your emails. Segmenting your list ensures your donors get information that’s relevant to their history and experiences with your organization. Speak differently to different groups of donors—sending a one-size-fits-all appeal is a waste of your time and a waste of your donors’ time. Major donors, mid-level donors, smaller donors, one-time donors, recurring donors, etc. are all examples of different segments. Writing segmented content for each group of people takes extra time, but it will raise more money!
These six strategies will give you a solid foundation upon which to build your next appeal. They’ll help you improve open and response rates, raise more money, and inspire your donors. You’ve got all the basics you need now—happy writing!
Abby Jarvis is a blogger, marketer, and communications coordinator for Qgiv, an online fundraising service provider. Qgiv offers industry-leading online giving and peer-to-peer fundraising tools for nonprofit, faith-based, and political organizations of all sizes. When she’s not working at Qgiv, Abby can usually be found writing for local magazines, catching up on her favorite blogs, or binge-watching sci-fi shows on Netflix.