A quick primer for non or new appeal writers.
Start with a story
Find a story that illustrates the “why” of your organization. Talk to your program staff. Gather several stories and see which one is best. This won’t be the story that shows off the breadth of your programming. It’s likely not the one your executive director prefers.
And chances are, it’s the story that makes you proud to do the work you do.
Keep statistics in the background
I mean, way in the background… like, off the page. Know them. Use them in your research. But understand that numbers are not going to move your reader. Especially big ones.
Choose your objective
You can’t have it all – or at least not at once. If you want to be effective, isolate exactly what you want the reader to do. Jonathan Grapsas calls it the SMIT: the Single Most Important Thing. The more you can focus on this, the more successful you’ll be. Do you want a one-time gift by December 31? Stay with that. Do you want your reader to become a monthly donor? Focus there.
Resist the temptation to ask for everything.
Listen to the voices in your head
I mean, write as you talk. You have a story. You know what you want. Imagine you’re talking to someone and telling them your story, hoping they’ll respond with your objective. Write what you’d say, not what you’d write. Or just record yourself talking!
The goal here is to keep it simple, emotional and human.
Write to a person
Know your donors. Do you have a sense of their average age, gender, concerns? Bring all of it into the letter. Picture your reader. Then write to one person, from one person.
Make it as personal as you can. Don’t write to “Friends”. Personalize! Keep it conversational. More talking with than talking to.
Give it the Tom Ahern “you” test. Tom circles every instance of “you” or “your” in red. I’m lazier and use the highlight and search/replace functions to make them all blue or green. But we’re looking for the same result: the letter should be spotty with “you”.
Ready to go? Write fast, edit slow
You’ve heard this advice before, but it’s true. Often, it’s best to just write.
What you put down on paper will need lots of editing. Almost certainly, the first few paragraphs will need to be cut. But don’t think about any of that now.
Don’t think much at all. Listen to the voices and write.
Write for lazy readers
This is important: you can’t make anyone read your appeal.
And let’s face it, even if it’s a work of art, this isn’t going to be the most important thing your donor reads today.
To make it more likely they’ll read, keep it easy. Write between 4th and 6th grade. (You can check that right in Word, or use Hemingway.)
Keep the sentences short, the paragraphs short. Indent the paragraphs. Keep the margins wide.
And for heaven’s sake, regardless of your organization’s brand standards and what all the cool kids are doing, use a serif font! And make it big enough for a senior citizen to read. That means 12 point at a minimum. Better at 14.
Use a bit of bold or underlining to help your reader through. But don’t go overboard. A little is good, too much backfires. Hit the most important things.
I like to see if I can get the gist of the appeal with only the bold words.
Go back in for the kill
Your words, of course! What kind of monster do you think I am?
Go back and begin editing. Be ready to kill anything that doesn’t work. Even if it’s genius writing and you love it like a baby.
Does the opening sentence grab you? Does it do its job – which is to get your reader to read the second sentence? Make that first sentence short. And make sure it packs a punch. It has to do some heavy lifting!
Does the story come through? Is it really emotional? Do you talk in feelings or statements?
Does the letter flow? Do the transitions from paragraph to paragraph and sentence to sentence make sense? Did you forget something important?
Speaking of important…
Remember the SMIT? Are you asking your reader to act throughout the letter? One ask isn’t enough. Remember this is your goal for the appeal. It’s the reason you’re writing. Don’t be afraid to repeat the request several times throughout your letter.
And the more specific you can make your request – “please give $50 to feed a family of four this week.” – the better. Don’t wimp out with “please support us”. What does that mean to your reader? Emotional support?
If you’re asking for money, ask for money. And let the reader know why you need it.
Your donor needs to know why she should give. She also needs to know why her help is needed NOW. Build urgency into your appeal. It could be a match challenge. It could be a calendar deadline (Thanksgiving, the end of the year). It could be the number of people who are hurting right now. Find the urgency and communicate it.
Spend serious time on the P.S.
This may be the only chance you have to really make your appeal. Many readers will skim the letter at best. (I know. After all your hard work!) So ask strongly here. Make your case succinctly here. And keep it full of emotion!
Many readers will skim the letter at best. (I know. After all your hard work!) So ask strongly here. Make your case succinctly here. And keep it full of emotion!
Wait! Think you’re done?
Print it out. Look at it as your reader will look at it. Hold it, turn it, read it out loud.
Give it to someone who doesn’t know much about your organization and ask them to read it. What’s their reaction?
If it looks right on paper, and if it makes sense to someone outside your office… then maybe it’s time to print.
But one last caution before you do:
Don’t let anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing operate on it
Letter by committee is death for your appeal.
Be assertive, unless you have a trusted colleague who really does know how to write an appeal. Otherwise, do whatever you can to fight for what you know is right. Trust me. Well-meaning colleagues or board members can do some truly unspeakable things to an appeal!
Then get it out. Do your best and mail them. Because they definitely will not work if they never arrive!
Some resources for you:
Go to SOFII and read the incredible tutorials by Jerry Huntsinger there. A treasure trove!
And here is more from me on the topic of donor communications.
Photo by Ryan McGuire at Gratisography