Cardinal Rules For Writing Fundraising Letters

This is a great article about the eight cardinal rules of writing fundraising letters by Mal Warwick, an expert on donation request letters. The article goes into great depth about how to structure your appeal and is well worth a detailed read. Mal also talks about the exceptions to these cardinal rules of writing fundraising letters, i.e. when to break them.

Learn how to write a more effective fundraising letter by taking advice from Mal Warwick, the author of “How To Write Successful Fundraising Letters” who is also one of the top authorities in the non-profit fundraising business.

Eight Cardinal Rules For Donation Requests

When writing a donation request letter, there are eight cardinal rules to follow. Failure to follow these rules will weaken your message, lower your response rate, and substantially reduce donation size.

Here’s how to get the most out of your fundraising letter:

Rule 1 – Use “I” and “you” (but mostly “you”).

In fact, “you” should be the word you use most frequently in your fundraising letters. Your appeal is a letter from one individual to another individual. You aren’t writing a press release, a position paper or a brochure.

Rudolf Flesch’s studies on readability supply the fundamental reason the words “you” and “I” are important: they provide “human interest.” Stories, anecdotes and common names (and capitalized words in general) have some of the same effect — but the most powerful way to engage the reader is by appealing directly to him or her: use the word “you.”

For example, in one fundraising letter, see how the author uses these powerful personal pronouns to establish intimacy:

You are a dream catcher.

I peeked in on some of the younger kids who were already asleep.

You protect our children from nightmares. You save them from poverty, illiteracy and despair.

I hope you’ll keep this card to bring good dreams to yourself and your family.

A singular salutation should be used even if the letter is addressed to a married couple. (Only one person at a time reads a letter!) Abolish the plural “you” from your vocabulary (as in “Dear Friends,” for example).

Try to avoid the royal “we,” too; it smacks of condescension and will detract from the personal character of your appeal.

Use a singular salutation
Use of the singular will require that you stick to a single letter signer. You’ll cause yourself two problems by using more than one singer:

(a) You won’t be able to enliven your letter with the personal details and emotional asides that might come naturally in a letter from one person to another.

(b) With multiple signers, you’ll sacrifice “suspension of disbelief,” to wit: your reader’s willingness to accept that your letter is actually a personal, one-to-one appeal.

Think about it. How am I to believe that two or three busy people who don’t live together or work in the same office have collaborated in writing a fundraising letter to me?

Which one of them typed the letter? (Or was it really someone else?) Did they both actually sign it? These are not questions you want your readers to be asking!

When to break Rule Number 1:
You may write a letter in the first-person plural if – but only if – there’s a very special reason to do so. For example, if the letter is to be signed by a married couple or your organization’s two venerable co-founders or a famous Republican and a famous Democrat.

Even in such exceptional cases, however, I advise you to craft the letter as though it were written by only one of the two signers, in much the same manner as one of those annual family letters that arrive by the bushel every December. Something like this:

Howard and I had a terrific time at the yak farm, but the same can’t be said for the yaks. (Yep, you guessed it: the kids were up to their old tricks!)

Rule 2 – Appeal on the basis of benefits, not needs.

Donors give money because they get something in return (if only good feelings). To tap their generosity, describe what they’ll receive in return for their money – such benefits as better government or attention to important issues or larger causes served. (Remember: most donors read your letters in the privacy of their own homes. They don’t have to admit their own mixed motives to anyone – not eve themselves.)

When to break Rule Number 2:
If you’re sending a genuine emergency appeal, you’ be a fool not to write about your campaign needs – and graphically so! But if it isn’t a real emergency – and you’re really in trouble if you habitually cry wolf – then write about benefits, not needs. In the long run, you’ll raise a lot more money that way.

Rule 3 – Ask for money, not for “support.”

Almost always, the purpose of a fundraising letter is to ask for financial help Be sure you do so – clearly, explicitly and repeatedly. The “Ask” (pardon my jargon) shouldn’t be an afterthought, tacked onto the end of a letter: it’s you reason for writing.

Repeat the “Ask” several times in the body of the letter as well as on the reply device. It may even be appropriate to lead your letter with the Ask.

The Ask should appear at least twice in the letter and twice again on the reply device. The request for funds should be clear and explicit.

When to break Rule Number 3:
Many direct mail packages are structured not as appeals for funds but as invitations to join a membership organization. Others feature surveys or other donor involvement devices. In these cases, de-emphasize the financial commitment, and highlight membership benefits – or stress the impact of completing the survey or mailing the postcards you’ve enclosed.

Rule 4 – Write a package, not a letter.

Your fundraising letter is the single most important element in the mailing package; no fundraising appeal is complete without a letter. But it’s only one of several items which must fit smoothly together and work as a whole. At a minimum, your package will probably include an outer (or carrier) envelope, a reply envelope and a reply device in addition to the letter.

Think about how each of these components will help persuade donors to send money now. Make sure the same themes, symbols, colors and typefaces are used on all elements so the package is as memorable and accessible as possible. And be certain every element in the package relates directly to the Big Idea or Marketing Concept. Packages may contain not only a letter, but a reply device, photo or brochure, a reply envelope and perhaps other pertinent information.

Now reexamine your components. You should have:

(a) A Big Idea, emphasized on every component of the package except perhaps the nearly test-free reply envelope.

(b) The “subtext” (or underlying theme) of gift giving is explicit almost everywhere – and implicit everywhere else.

When to break Rule Number 4:
Sometimes it pays to spend a little extra money on a package insert that doesn’t directly relate to the Marketing Concept. For example, a gift offer might be presented on a “buckslip” – an insert specially designed to highlight the premium – but the offer might not appear anywhere else in the package (with the possible exception of the reply device).

Rule 5 – Write in clear language.

Use compact, powerful words and short, punchy sentences. Favor words that conve emotions over those that communicate thoughts. Avoid complex phrases or big words. Minimize your use of adjectives and adverbs. Don’t use abbreviations or acronyms; spell out names even if their repetition looks a little silly to you. Repeat (and underline) key words and phrases. Use simple, unadorned language, free of pretense.

When to break Rule Number 5:
A letter that could have been written by a 12-year-old might not look right bearing the signature of a U.S. senator, so follow this rule judiciously. (But don’t make the mistake of confusing big words, complex sentences, and complicated thoughts with intelligent communication: the most literate fundraising letter is clear and straightforward.)

Rule 6 – Format your letter for easy reading.

Be conscious of the white space around your copy; the eye needs rest. Indent every paragraph. Avoid paragraphs more than seven lines long, but vary the size of your paragraphs. Use bullets and indented paragraphs.

In long letters, try subheads that are centered and underlined. Underline sparingly but consistently throughout your letter – enough to call attention to key words and phrases (especially those that highlight the benefits to the reader), but not so much a to distract the eye from your message.

When to break Rule Number 6:
Don’t mechanically follow this rule. Some special formats, such as telegrams or handwritten notes, have formatting rules of their own. Remember that you want the reader to believe – or at least to act as though he or she believes – that you’ve sent her or him a telegram, a handwritten note or a personal letter.

Rule 7 – Give your readers a reason to send money NOW.

Creating a sense of urgency is one of your biggest copywriting challengers. Try to find a genuine reason why contributions are needed right away: for example, deadline for buying tied to a theme or an approaching election date. Or tie your fund request to a budgetary deadline so you can argue why “funds are needed within the next 15 days.”

There is always a reason to send a contribution now. And the argument for the urgency of your appeal bears repeating – ideally, not just in the text of your letter, but also in a P.S. and on the reply device.

When to break Rule Number 7:
Be careful about fixed deadlines if you’re mailing via bulk rate. (Instead of giving a date, use a phrase like “within the next two weeks.”) Don’t belabor the same arguments for urgency, lest your credibility suffer. And try not to depend on deadlines based on actual dates in large-scale mailings to acquire new donors: the value to those letters will almost always b greater if you can continue to use the same letter over and over again.

Rule 8 – Write as long a letter as you need to make the case for your offer.

Not everyone will read every word you write, but some recipients will do so, no matter how long your letter. Others will scan your copy for the information that interests them the most.

To be certain you push their hot buttons, use every strong argument you can devise for your readers to send you money now. And to spell out every argument may mean writing a very long letter; it may also mean repeating what you’ve written to the same donors many times in the past.

Don’t worry about boring your reader by restating your case. Research repeatedly reveals that even the most active donors remember very little about candidates or organizations they support.

About The Author

Mal Warwick one of the country’s top direct mail fundraising agencies, Mal Warwick & Associates, and co-founded The Progressive Group, a nationwide leader in telephone fundraising. This article is excerpted with his permission from his book, How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters.