Whether your fundraising appeal is front and center on your fundraising website, goes out in the mail as a letter, or pops up in an inbox, it’s an important tool to raise money for your cause.
Good fundraising appeals can inspire action, connect people to a cause, tell your story, and bring in donations. Great! Awesome! Let’s get all those things!
But first, you have to write it.
Confronted with a blank page or screen, and the monumental task of “write something that will make people want to give us their money,” no wonder many fundraising folks aren’t excited about writing appeals. Throw in some anxiety about being a “good writer,” and the nervous suspicion that other professionals know something you don’t know about what the “you: we ratio” is supposed to be, and the whole thing gets stressful.
I’m going to let you in on a secret.
You can write an excellent appeal.
Yes, you can.
I hear all the stuff you’re muttering about high school English, and your crazy schedule, and how much you wish you could afford to outsource your appeals, and I’m sticking with my declaration: You can do it, and it doesn’t have to take all your time.
A fundraising appeal is an important piece of persuasive writing, but it’s not The Great American Novel. You can follow simple steps, over and over, to create appeals that get the job done. You don’t have to be some kind of literary genius; writing appeals is supremely doable.
Here are the steps to get you to your best appeal yet.
1. Tell a Story
Stories are what make people care, and what makes them give. For your appeal story, you’ll need:
- A change: Every story is about something changing. If nothing changes from beginning to end, you aren’t telling a story, you’re sharing some facts. Think about the impact your organization has on individuals. What is the change you make, and the impact donors will be a part of?
Example: “We surveyed 600 audience members, and discovered that 89% of them had never seen a play before we brought Free Shakespeare to the park.”
- A central character: In order to empathize, we need someone to empathize with. Your fundraising appeal story will need a central character to focus the story on. How did life change for one person as a result of your work?
Example: “81-year-old Velma couldn’t get fresh vegetables because there’s no grocery store in her neighborhood. She isn’t up to long bus trips anymore. Now the Veggie-Mobile delivers produce to her door every week. ‘I eat a big salad every day!’ says Velma.”
2. Supercharge Language
You’ve only got so many words, so optimize them.
- Use powerful verbs: The most powerful verbs are active and direct. Think about battling cancer vs. suffering from cancer, or protecting the environment vs. caring about it.
- Cut most adverbs: Adverbs are words that give more information about (aka modify) verbs. They also modify other adverbs, adjectives, and clauses, but don’t worry about that right now. Most adverbs can be replaced by a stronger verb. Instead of, “The father spoke quietly,” choose, “The father whispered.” Instead of, “She plays the drum loudly,” choose, “She pounds the drum.”
- Choose specific adjectives: Adjectives are words that give more information about nouns. Adjectives hold the power to spice up your writing, or water it down. The best adjectives are specific and evocative. Instead of generic adjectives, look for specific ones. Is something just big, or is it giant, huge, monumental?
- Involve the senses: Set the scene or describe a situation using as many senses as you can. What did it look like? What sounds do you hear? What does something smell like, or taste like? Sensory descriptions activate the reader’s imagination.
3. Engage Emotions
People give because they care. For someone to care about something, they need to feel. Appealing to people’s feelings isn’t “cheap” or “manipulative,” it’s an essential way that humans connect and communicate.
Appeal to emotions by:
- Building commonality: Empathy is a result of recognizing ourselves in other people. It’s putting ourselves in other people’s shoes and feeling for them. Give the reader a commonality with the characters in your story to connect to. While our specific experiences can vary widely, we can all understand wanting the best for our children, needing clean water, or things being more complicated than they need to be.
- Describing emotions: Emotions are another commonality to appeal to. Write about how people felt, ideally in their own words. Consider the difference between saying, “The residents were angry and scared to discover their water was contaminated,” or “‘I was furious, I just started shaking,’ said Lynn, ‘I felt like I’d been poisoning my children.’”
- Surprising the reader: Surprise is an emotional experience, one that readers can have while reading your appeal. Surprise comes from upending expectations. The reader thinks they know what’s coming, and then you give them something else.Consider the preconceived notions that surround your issue–do you know something different? This might be a surprise to your audience. Surprises can be shocking, like discovering a big problem in your own city. Surprises can also be delightful, like Health 2 Humanity’s video, which spoofs fundraising ads.
4. Connect Personally
The old fundraising adage that “people give to people,” is true. Anonymity, excessive formality, and speaking as an organization doesn’t give your readers anyone to connect to. Connect personally by:
- Imagining your audience: An appeal is addressed to one person. Imagine this person as you’re writing. It could be a real-life donor, an imagined persona, or a person from your life. What does this person care about? What do they want to know?
- Addressing people by name: Let’s banish this “Dear Friend,” or “Dear Supporter of XYZ” business forever. If you don’t know someone well enough to have their name in your files, you don’t know them well enough to ask them for money.
- Choosing one sender for the appeal: An appeal should be from one person, two at most. It cannot be from “XYX Organization,” simply because your organization is not a person who can send a letter. There is no accountability to a letter from an entity–no one is counting on you to respond.
- Keeping it casual: By all means, be polite. But if your letter sounds like it’s from the IRS, or that you’re issuing some kind of fundraising subpoena, it’s hard for people to connect with you. Read your appeal out loud. Do you sound stuffy? Would you ever actually talk to a donor that way?
5.Make the Ask
Last on the list is the most important thing, one that may seem incredibly obvious, but that some nonprofits dance around–you have to ask for money in a fundraising appeal directly.
People who receive a fundraising appeal know what’s happening. You’re not going to surprise them by making an ask; they’re looking for it. I’m with Gail Perry, who advises making the ask immediately in your appeal. Start with, “I’m writing to ask you to/ I want to ask you to/I hope you’ll consider making a gift of $XXX to…”
“Changing the world,” is more appealing than, “giving some money,” so connect your ask to your story. Explain the impact the gift will make. What happens because someone gives? Who is helped?
Close your appeal by reiterating the ask. Research has shown that many folks read the postscript of an appeal first, so use that for an emotionally-engaging, impact-related ask, too. Asking three times in one letter isn’t too much, as long as you connect it to impact.
Ready, Set, Write!
So there you are: Five steps to an appeal that connects with readers and inspires giving. Do you wish someone would walk you through it? No worries, we made you the closest thing to a fundraising Madlib we could. (LINK TO WORKSHEET) Use it to go through the steps and write your appeal.
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Fundraising Appeal Worksheet
Campaign Goal: We want to raise $________
Campaign Purpose: We want to raise this money for ___________
This money will allow us to _________________.
That is important because _____________________.
- Tell a story
What is the change we’re making with this project/purpose?
Who is affected by the change we want to make or thing we want to do?
Who is one person who has been affected by the change?
What happened to them?
What was life like before the change?
What is life like now, or what could it be like?
- Supercharge Language
3 Powerful Verbs That Occur in This Story Are__________________, __________, _______________.
- Senses in the story:
- Engage Emotions
How do we want the reader to feel?
How does the character in the story feel?
What do readers have in common with the character in the story?
What is surprising about this story?
- Appeal Personally
To whom are we writing? (This can be a real or imaginary audience member, but it should be a specific persona, not “we’re writing to all our donors.”)
What are that person’s interests?
What doesn’t that person care about?
Who is the letter from?
- Make the Ask
How much are we asking for?
What change will this amount make?
1st Paragraph Ask:
- Tells a story
- Story shows a change
- Story is about a person
- Language is supercharged
- Verbs are powerful
- Replace adverbs with powerful verbs
- Replace vague adjectives with specific ones
- Are you using “very”? Replace with a more powerful verb
- How many senses are involved? Can you add more?
- Emotions are engaged (check at least two)
- Appeal to commonality?
- Emotional impact described?
- Direct quote available?
- Appeal is personal
- Addressed to individual by name
- Sender is an actual person
- Read letter aloud
- Confirm ask
- Did we ask?
- Did we ask for something specific?
- Is the connection between the ask and the impact clear?