Natasha Dresner: How to make your appeal more appealing

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PITTSFIELD >> It's that time of year when pretty much every nonprofit organization is working on its annual appeal letter. Some professional fundraisers argue that this is the best time for a solicitation because of the tax benefit, holiday spirit, and a charitable "knee-jerk-reaction". Some, instead, argue that this is the worst time because your organization gets lost in the flood of requests, and ends up being only one of many instead of the one.

Some easy steps

1. Make it personal – when I get an appeal that starts with "Dear Friend" or anything along those lines, it goes straight into recycling (or the "trash" folder). On the other hand, an appeal that has a little hand written note is much less likely to get thrown out.

2. Give it a dramatic start – the goal of any good piece of writing is to capture the reader's interest right from the first sentence. The same is true for your letter of appeal – its first sentence should captivate your recipient enough to make them want to read the rest. "Dear Natasha, every three minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer." Wouldn't you read further? I would.

3. Make it accurate – each time my name is misspelled, the nonprofit's chance of getting my gift or the amount I intended to give plummets. Spelling mistakes turn donors off too – they communicate unprofessionalism.

4. A word of gratitude – of course, it could be more than just a word as long as they are words of thanks. I suspect most people receiving your appeal have already supported your organization – financially just being one way – and deserve to be acknowledged. And even if they haven't yet, thank them anyway. Be generous if you expect generosity in return.

5. Less is more – keep your appeal to a page (both sides could be used if absolutely necessary). Few people will read more than that. Many will scan it, so bold, underline, and color strategically to highlight your key points and the ask. Don't forget that you also have space on your pledge card, and certain information is more suitable to be conveyed and/or reaffirmed there: e.g. "we are a nonprofit organization (consider including your EIN number); "your gift is tax deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law"; "your gift will be matched "

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6. Tell a compelling story about one real person whose life has been transformed by your organization – a person your audience can relate to or identify with. Use a visual if possible (especially in an email appeal). Do you have such a story to tell? The operative word here is "tell". Tape yourself telling the story, and then type it up – you want the letter to be simple, authentic, and conversational. After all, its purpose is to simulate an engaging conversation, and elicit a positive response from a donor.

7. Make a strong case – why should I give? Why should I give to your organization? Why should I give to your organization now? Remember, the needs of your organization will not motivate giving as much as your inspiring vision and the positive opportunities your donors will be proud to be a part of. Announcing a time-sensitive challenge match associated with your appeal could also be a really useful strategy.

8. Ask – a powerful ask doesn't beg for a gift or make apologies for asking for one. It flows naturally out of your story and your case, and serves as a logical conclusion to your appeal. Ask for a particular amount and toward a particular dollar goal. Let the donor know about the real impact his or her gift would be producing – e.g. "your gift of $250 will save lives by making genetic screening accessible."

9. Close the deal – make it easy to give to your organization by taking care of the logistics: enclose pre-stamped return envelopes; minimize the amount of information required in a pledge card; provide clear instructions for how to donate; and multiple giving options to support generational and personal preferences such as donating online versus writing a check. For those donating online make the giving experience as simple, quick, and pleasant as possible. Also, use the P.S. line as a strategy to repeat and drive your message and your ask home.

10. And finally, judge the book by its cover. While you worry about all of the things above that make your appeal letter the best it can be, don't overlook the fact that your amazing story will arrive in the same blah envelope as the rest of the appeals. So your job, in addition to producing an excellent letter, is to make its "cover" just as special. You can use a larger version of your logo, if your brand is strong and well-known, or simply use a different color envelope. You can use a suitable picture with a short and meaningful phrase. The bottom line is, use something special and unusual that naturally piques human interest and curiosity, and increases your organization's chance of recognition.

Now that your appeal letter, pledge card, and envelope are ready to go and sweep your supporters off their feet, let's see if you are ready to steward their generous investments in a timely and meaningful way. If you're not, tune in to my next article.

Natasha Dresner is a nonprofit development consultant and mentor with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation/JCamp 180 in Agawam. She can be reached at Natasha@hgf.org.


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