Before you write
Back when I was a Girl Scout, we had a bake-off. (I won our Brownie bake-off with peanut butter blossoms because I voted for myself. I still have residual guilt about that.)
One of the lessons was to assemble your ingredients before you start.
So before you even think of writing, assemble the following:
The reason you’re writing. What will a donation change? Why, specifically, do you need the donation?
The reason it’s urgent. Why now instead of next month? Why is it important for a donor to act now?
Who you are writing to. Every donor on your list? A particular segment? Know your list and be able to create a donor persona. You already have information in your database – spend some time looking at it.
What emotions do you want your readers to feel?
A good story. It’s important not just to talk about your need. (And of course, you won’t present it as your need, but the need of those you serve.) Instead, illustrate the need. A story makes it human. Makes it easier for your reader to relate. Find a few possible stories before you begin writing.
Ready? Let’s start
Experts like Jeff Brooks will suggest you begin with your response device. It’s your whole appeal, in fewer words.
I’ll be honest, though, I’m not usually able to do that. I need to play with the words on the page before the soul of the appeal becomes apparent to me.
So if that’s you as well, the best thing you can do is to begin. Just think about your ingredients above and write.
Because you will probably be tossing most of what you write now. That’s ok. That’s the process.
Having trouble just starting? Jeff has a great prompt:
What I want to tell you is…
Your letter should be conversational, so have that conversation. Let it flow through your fingers. Don’t edit yourself now. Just write.
Write with emotion. This is right-brain stuff. Later, you’ll evaluate what you’ve written. You’ll see if it makes sense. For now, just think about the need, think about the donor you have in mind and get stuff on the page.
If you give yourself permission to write freely, you’ll have assembled pages of writing. That’s good. Buried in there may be the letter you want to write.
Then walk away for a while. Keep thinking, but don’t give in to the urge to fix the letter yet. Your brain will keep working while you do something else. (Do something organized – stuff some envelopes or clean up your database.)
So you’ve walked away. Your brain has continued to work – on the back burner. Now you can return and take a more objective look at what you have.
Your first line will be somewhere down the page. Your first line needs to be strong. Usually short. Something that makes the reader feel.
Your first line has a big job: get the reader to read the second line. It needs to have impact.
If you think you’ve found it, then check it against your ingredients above. Is it a good first line, but not a good first line for this appeal? Save it. You can always use it later!
If you’ve found that first line, and it’s the right line for this particular appeal, then go through the rest of the letter. Cut what doesn’t add to the appeal.
Figure out where you’ve gone off-topic. Cut that. Even if you’re writing a 4-page appeal, you need to be focused. Follow Jonathon Grapsas’ SMIT: Single Most Important Thing.
If you’re asking for money to provide school supplies to children, don’t start talking about another project. Focus.
(Again, if you find good language in there, but for the wrong appeal, cut it and save it!)
Walk away again.
Review some more
You may need to come back a few times. Now you’re looking for things like formatting, how well the letter speaks to the reader, how easy it is to follow.
Beware simple-to-fix formatting errors like long paragraphs, no indentation, small font size. Because no matter how brilliant your copy is, if it’s not easy to read… it won’t be read.
Listen to Tom Ahern and check on your “you” count. If this letter is conversational and focused on your donor, then you’ll find many variants of “you” throughout. I replace “you” in the letter with a highlighted “you”. Then you can look at the whole letter. Lots of highlights? Good job.
Look at the flow – does it make sense together? Would someone who isn’t familiar with your organization be confused? Bring it home and ask a friend or spouse to take a look. (Ignore them when they tell you it’s too long.)
Is it emotional, or business-like? You want emotional. A business letter doesn’t excite anyone. You’re going for head nods, maybe tears, maybe anger. But your reader needs to feel something.
Write your P.S.
You must have a P.S. And it’s not the place to introduce a new thought. Don’t ask for Facebook follows or alert the reader to your upcoming event. This P.S. is your appeal in a few lines.
It’s important, because it might be the only part of your letter that’s read. I know… all that work. But eye studies show how important that post script can be. Make it work!
Your response form
I know many organizations depend on a generic envelope/response form. It’s cheap to print a bunch and use them for everything.
It’s cheap, until you consider what you may be losing.
I’m a firm believer in a full-page response form. It doesn’t get lost. If someone does put it aside, it will stand out when check-writing time comes around.
It’s easier for people to read – no 10 pt. type.
And you can use an image to draw people to it.
Begin your response with a strong “Yes” statement that connects to your appeal. Like, “YES, Mary! I will bring people like George in from the cold!”
You’re getting the donor to buy in. You’re letting them celebrate their values. It’s uplifting and it’s why people give.
But you do the heavy lifting on the form. Pre-print the donor’s name and address. Use personalized ask amounts in the letter and on the response. (Remember at the beginning, when you were spending time looking at your list? One thing you do is figure out what you’re going to ask each person. Don’t worry, you can do a little Excel magic here and use a formula.)
Do everything you can think of, short of signing the check. You don’t want anything to stop someone who’s looking at this form from completing this form.
Images and other visual cues
One strong image, that communicates your request or the story you share, can be a great addition to the letter and the response.
Using many images can have the opposite effect. Pick one. Make it great. Otherwise, use your words.
And consider this idea from John Lepp of Agents of Good fame: print that image out and paper-clip it to the letter, instead of printing it on the letter. Anything you can do that signals “made by human hands” will increase its success.
Handwritten notes are another good way to stand out. Even if it’s a few words. It’s that personal touch that moves us. (And yes, you can include scanned handwritten notes. Just make sure they’re well-done. Here’s a how-to for turning your handwriting into a vector graphic that will reproduce much better. And if you need to include different signatures – say a particular staff or board member for different donors – you and do this here. Cool, right?)
Your carrier envelope
So, the biggest hurdle your appeal will face when you send it out into the world is being opened. You have seconds for someone to look at your envelope and decide to recycle or read.
Teaser copy should increase those odds. But it will fail more than succeed. So ask yourself: is this copy compelling? Is it great?
If you can’t answer an enthusiastic yes, then don’t include it.
But you can consider a few things that will help you stand out.
Pass on the white, #10 business envelope. Go for something bigger. Or smaller. Or colored. Anything that’s different will give you a few more seconds.
Hand-addressed. Yes, hard to do if you’re mailing many pieces. But if your numbers allow, hand-address the envelope. (Yes, you can use a handwriting font… but I suspect we’ve all gotten used to those and they don’t work quite as well anymore.)
Use a stamp. You can still send this mailing at nonprofit rates. Have your mail house use nonprofit stamps instead of a meter or indicia. They look like stamps. And stamps say “real mail”.
Your final review
Print out a copy of the whole package. Look at it as a piece. Does it hold together? Does everything make sense?
I would also run a copy of the response forms and the letters to your computer. Review them online. Anything funky happening with your variables? Does the response form format correctly when another zero pops up in someone’s ask amount?
But wait! You’re not done yet.
Right now, while the ask and theme and story is fresh in your mind, write your thank you letter copy.
Donors deserve better than generic thanks. Make sure those wonderful people who respond to your appeal are thanked for exactly what they did.
Some more great resources: Jerry Huntsinger’s tutorials on SOFII. Read them all.
Lisa Sargent’s thank you letter clinic on SOFII. Ditto.
Questions? Did I miss something? (I probably did.) Ask in the comments!