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Fundraising Letters

Legal Counsel for Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector

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Fundraising Letters


This article, by Ken Hoffman, originally appeared in Third Sector on March 22, 2001.

Producing fundraising letters for posted solicitations has been a major part of my work for more than 20 years. Here are a few basic strategies and techniques that seem to work with US and Canadian donors.

My clients often think some incantation of magic words will unlock the treasure - donations. The writers struggle to find the right words. Sometimes they natter on about the charity's good deeds, then, at the end, pop the question apologetically: would you mind, terribly, giving us some money?

The search for the perfect word combination is unproductive. Direct mail is ritual communication, made up of content and presentation. The key is clarity. A fundraising letter must answer three questions: WHO are we? HOW MUCH do we want? WHAT do we want it for? Do not be coy about announcing the purpose of the letter. No one will mind. At least no one who is likely to contribute. They would rather save time and learn, quickly, what it is you want.

The content can be organized into four paragraphs: (1) Here we are again, please send money. (2) We did great things last year (three examples). (3) We will do great things next year (three examples). (4) Please send money.

There are many steps to boost the yield from a letter. The single best one is a handwritten postscript. It is claimed that 90 per cent of people read the postscript first and you have just 20 seconds to engage the reader - including eight seconds for opening the envelope!

Good supporting materials are helpful. The most typical 'credibility' enclosure is a collage of newspaper cuttings, each referring to the good work of the charity, printed on coloured paper stock. Including a pledge card makes it easy for the donor to remember to take action after everything else is binned. A return envelope adds to the response. But as for using Freepost or including a stamp, I have never seen any empirical evidence to support the higher cost with a higher return.

One overlooked area in solicitations is acknowledgment. Does your charity routinely acknowledge gifts in fewer than six weeks? If so, you are doing better than average - though you are the winner of a slow race. I counsel my clients to acknowledge gifts within eight working days. Briefly. Because the donor does not need further justifications, just the reassurance of a receipt.

But my fundraising fantasy is to send the ultimate, succinct solicitation, saving everybody lots of time and effort. The body of my letter would have four words in two sentences:

Dear [first name],
Send money.
Thank you.
Sincerely, Ken.

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