If you’re new to fundraising, writing an appeal to raise funds is different than you might expect. Once, I hired someone who had sales and marketing experience but no direct nonprofit experience. He tended to write appeals that were very fact based, “1 billion people live in poverty” or “You can help 10,855 people right now!” His assumption was that if we explained the problem to people, they would give.

The logic makes sense, right? If the people on our donor list have a passion for a cause, why wouldn’t they give when we explain the problem?

Because giving isn’t a logical decision, it’s an emotional one.

You see, people do understand there is a problem, but understanding there is a problem doesn’t mean they will give to solve the problem. They give when they hear a story of Aura who needed an education to escape a possible life of sex slavery or a story of Frank, a disabled veteran who received job training and went from homeless to homeowner. These emotional stories of the one (SOTO) connect someone’s passion with your ability to solve the problem. This is the foundation for an excellent fundraising appeal.

Today, you’re going to learn how to write great fundraising appeals.

1. Tell a Story

Story is embedded into who we are. When I first arrived at Food for the Hungry, our direct mail appeals used vivid stories to drive the reader to take action. Our emails were disconnected from the direct mail appeals and were more fact-based. The writer at our then-agency that handled email appeals had a journalistic background and believed that explaining the situation to people or just informing people of a match was enough to drive a donation. Unfortunately, our email fundraising suffered. After a few months, we took emails in-house and greatly improved our fundraising.

Telling the story of a beneficiary before, during, and after your organization helped paints a picture for the reader that any other explanation cannot. Let’s look at an example from an appeal for a Bible translation nonprofit organization:

Eugene is a Korean-American Bible translator working in a country that’s closed to Christian missionaries. Eugene is passionately committed to getting translated Scripture into the hands of the people who need it. “My greatest challenge,” Eugene says, “was that I could not find an effective method of distributing the Scripture I was translating.”

He produced microSD cards for use on mobile phones, but couldn’t safely distribute enough of them. A local video store owner even agreed to sell DVDs, but Eugene couldn’t advertise them publicly. Then he decided to post the Scripture videos he produced on Facebook. However, they prompted so many negative, discouraging comments that Eugene was poised to remove them altogether.

And that’s when God intervened in a remarkable way.

Read How

The message that Eugene received directed him to a Scripture distribution solution that has reached nearly one million people. God is working in amazing ways to reach the people Eugene works among with the life-changing words of Scripture.

In this story, we have Eugene’s story arc showing a challenge he faced all the way to an eventual resolution and Eugene having hope. In this appeal, the organization opened a story loop and closed it on the landing page. Opening a story loop means the organization began a story and left the ending out, a psychological trigger in humans to want to close the loop by clicking to the landing page to read what happened to Eugene. It’s a clever tactic to get people to your landing page.

Let’s look at another story, this one from Food for the Hungry:

This couldn’t be more urgent — a true life-or-death emergency for families like Halima’s.

She runs a food cart in her Kenyan village — the only source of income for her and her two children. But the water Halima used to cook, wash dishes, and keep the cart hygienic with … came from a far-off river contaminated by animal and human waste.

Her daughters, Sabina and Zainabu, kept getting sick from the dirty water. The customers even complained of the foul taste and stopped buying food from Halima’s food cart.

As a result, Halima didn’t have enough money to buy her daughters the medicine they needed to get well … to pay for school … or to meet basic needs for food!

But then a generous friend like you intervened — helping Food for the Hungry construct a rainwater harvesting system in the marketplace of Halima’s Kenyan village, not far from the food cart!

Now, Halima has access to safe, clean water for her business. Her customers — and income — have increased, making it possible for Halima to send her girls to school, afford medicine when they’re sick, buy food, and make way for a brighter future!

But many more impoverished children and families are still desperately waiting — suffering, and even dying, for lack of clean water.

This story use urgent language to convey an immediate need to take action. The descriptive language paints a picture of what was happening to Halima and her family. It tells the resolution of the story from the point of view of the donor, But then a generous friend like you intervened, positioning the reader to see himself in the shoes of the one that helps.

Great fundraisers are great storytellers. Connect with people from the point of view of a donor helping a beneficiary so the reader can put themselves in the shoes of making a difference in the life of a real person.

2. Make It Easy to Read

Anything that puts a barrier between the reader and the ability to give should be eliminated. This includes the design of your emails and landing pages. There are several elements you should consider when you review the design of your email appeals:

  1. Layout
  2. Photos
  3. Fonts

The layout of your email should have a clear flow from your central proposal to the reader to the call to action. Multiple columns or embedded tables reduce comprehension for the reader and should be eliminated. In our testing, overly designed emails reduce response, in other words, the more graphical elements in your email, the less response you’ll receive. Believe it or not, but often (not always), plain text emails outperform graphical emails.

Mobile layout should also be considered when designing. According to MediaPost, 55% of the population reads email on their phone. If you have a large banner ad that isn’t mobile responsive, it can mess with the layout of the email and make it unreadable on a mobile device. Be sure to test your emails across a variety of devices and email clients.

If you’re using a photo in your appeal, make sure it relates to the appeal and adds emotionally to the decision point to give or not. I’ve seen situations where a photo of a smiling person in a full garden has suppressed giving as the reader thinks “they don’t need my help,” so selecting the right photo can make a big difference in whether or not someone donates.

The right font can make a difference in your email appeal and landing page. Both font size and font selection is crucial, if you have an older audience, selecting the right font size will impact the readability of your email. Use common web standards such as blue and underlined for links. Changing the way people expect something works leads to confusion and confusion leads to people deleting your email. Choose standard web fonts such as Arial or Verdana for your email to maximize readability. Remember: if your recipients can’t read an email, they won’t give.

I mocked up an example of what not to do. The organization isn’t real, but this email resembles many I’ve received. Here are just a few of the mistakes in this example:

  1. The image at the top isn’t compelling. The lighting is off, it’s not a person, the subject doesn’t motivate the reader to continue down the email.
  2. The white text on the image is hard to read.
  3. The white text on the image isn’t compelling. Who cares?
  4. The white text on the image talks about Guatemala, the woman and child in the picture are definitely not from Guatemala.
  5. The image on the bottom left is too dark.
  6. Who put the “Give Now” button over the poor child’s face?
  7. “Give Now” text isn’t aligned properly on the button.
  8. The text on the right of that image is all about the organization and not at all about the donor.
  9. The text on the right doesn’t tell a story or motivate the reader to give.
  10. It’s also an all image email, the experience won’t be good on mobile devices.
  11. Drop the signature from the email. Not necessary.
  12. “YOUR GIFT IS TAX DEDUCTIBLE!!!!” has too many exclamation points, is unnecessary, and is in Comic Sans font!
  13. The columns on the email aren’t aligned well.

This may seem like an example that is a little overboard, but I’ve seen recent email appeals from nonprofits that look like this. Creating an appeal that isn’t easy to read wastes your time and the time of the recipient.

3. Be Clear

Clarity is the enemy of confusion. Bringing a clear message in your appeal will help the reader understand exactly what you’re asking for and why they should give. You may have heard the phrase, “if you confuse, you lose.” If the reader gets confused or mixed up in your messaging, the default option is to throw away your appeal or delete your email. If your message isn’t clear, the reader will choose to opt out of reading the rest and donating.

Read this slightly altered paragraph from a nonprofit organization’s landing page:

If you’re looking for the best place to invest in Guatemala’s future, Latin America Nonprofit Organization is the best fit. From our core interventions to our capacity building projects, we empower project participants to gain knowledge and become self-reliant. We partner with government agricultural extension officers to offer the most efficient and effective knowledge transfer programs.

This paragraph doesn’t only lack clarity, but it doesn’t even explain what the organization does in any meaningful way. Here’s the structure:

We’re the best place to invest your donation -> we focus on core poverty issues -> we help farmers become self-reliant -> by partnering with the government

Few potential donors will understand this paragraph and even fewer will be motivated to give. If the organization wanted to explain how they work in simpler language, it might be something like this:

Your donation goes further with Latin America Nonprofit Organization. You will help Guatemalan farmers learn how to become self-sufficient: growing enough food to feed their families and even have some left over to sell at the market to earn income. You will provide the knowledge farmers need to be successful!

When you clarify your messaging, donors understand the impact they make on the lives of the beneficiaries.

4. Provide a Sense of Urgency

Imagine you receive an appeal from two different organizations that you support. In one appeal, the organization explains the need and emphasizes the urgency of providing your support. The other organization simply describes the need. Which one are you most likely to give to?

A donor thinks if organization A needs my money right now and organization B can wait, I’ll give to A now and B later. The problem comes when the donor doesn’t get around to give to organization B.

Why does the donor need to support you right now?

If your answer is “there’s just nothing urgent about my appeal,” then the donor doesn’t have sufficient motivation to give to you right now.

What happens if the donor doesn’t give right now? People won’t get the help they need. You must express urgency so you can serve as many people as you can.

How do I demonstrate urgency in a fundraising appeal?

  1. Create scarcity: When a reader believes there is a limited opportunity to get something and time is running out, he is more likely to act. For example, instead of “Attend our annual art auction fundraiser,” you could use “Only 10 tickets left for our annual art auction fundraiser!”
  2. Set a deadline: set a deadline and a goal for the campaign. People are more likely to give to a campaign as it closes in on a deadline.
  3. Use a match: match donation campaigns are very popular at year end for good reason. In the for-profit world, FOMO – fear of missing out – drives a lot of purchase decisions. If you have a 4 to 1 match, a potential donor doesn’t want to miss an opportunity to have their $100 donation turn into $400.
  4. Tell them to do it now: there are certain trigger words that place an impression of urgency in the reader’s mind, such as Now, Hurry, Fast, Quick, Immediately, Today. Use these words in your copy to set a tone of urgency.
  5. Be specific: when describing why a donor needs to donate today, be specific in why the appeal is urgent.

Let’s look at an example from a real email. This organization works toward healthy pregnancies, moms, child birth, and children. The goal of this email is to engage their audience to share content about their cause. Look at the language they use to get the reader to take action:

Jeremy, we have a maternal health crisis in the U.S. and your state is no exception.

Of the most developed nations, our rate of maternal death is one of the highest and it’s been increasing over the past 25 years. What makes this even more disturbing is that black women are three times more likely than other women in the U.S. to die from pregnancy-related causes.

We have programs and research underway to address this health crisis and the shocking racial inequality in our health care system. The most important thing YOU can do today is spread the word. The more we talk about it, the easier it is to drive change.

They use words to convey urgency:

  • health crisis (the reader needs to respond because this is a dire situation)
  • increasing over the past 25 years (if we don’t do something, this will continue to rise)
  • disturbing (paints a picture that we need to act because we care about the issue)
  • programs and research underway (we’re already working, we need your help to continue)
  • YOU can do today (you can help, but you need to do it today)

Even in this non-appeal email, the organization is using language to help move the reader to action. Urgency isn’t about deadlines, it’s about getting people to take action.

5. Be Concise

Writing tight copy for an appeal is tough.

There is so much to explain to the prospective donor. If you just include one more stat or one more story, the reader will be more likely to give.

A quote that illustrates this has been attributed to several people, and for this article, I will use a version written by Blaise Pascal,

I have made this letter longer than usual because I haven’t had time to make it shorter.

So how long is just right?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a precise answer for you other than to say: you need it as long as necessary to motivate someone to give.

Each channel has its own custom and rhythm for the length of an appeal, direct mail will almost certainly always be longer than digital. The exact length of your fundraising tome will be dependent on the channel, the appeal, and your prospective audience.

In every appeal, write with as few words as possible to make your case.

6. Show Impact

Donors are wise with where they want to invest their giving. When you write an effective appeal, it includes the impact the donation will have. To determine your impact, ask these questions:

  1. What is the problem we’re solving?
  2. How have we solved the problem in the past?
  3. What is the condition like before the problem is solved?
  4. What is the condition like after the problem is solved?
  5. How much will it cost to solve the problem?
  6. How will we measure the impact?
  7. What is the impact of an individual donor?

These questions help you create a value proposition in your appeal that facilitates the exchange of money for the good feeling the donor receives. When you properly explain the impact of the donation, the reader connects her donation with the outcome. Let’s look at how one nonprofit raises funds to treat a neurotoxin in sea lions:

Why is Mopey so sad, do you think? Because she’s not feeling well at all after eating fish contaminated with a neurotoxin called domoic acid.

If you ever type out the word “domoic,” your spell check will want to change it to “demonic”—and that pretty much explains what it does to the brain.

This nasty toxin is produced by harmful algal blooms and can affect humans too. In California sea lions like Mopey, it can cause painful full-body seizures, disorientation and memory loss—and even death, if not treated in time.

You’ve probably heard about marine mammals showing up in unusual places or behaving in strange ways. Now you know that this is often because of exposure to this poison. But they don’t have to die. Every dollar you give today will help Mopey and others like her get a second chance at life.

Mopey was lucky enough to be rescued by The Marine Mammal Center’s trained responders, but she is counting on the support of caring people like you to get the life-saving treatment she needs to return to the wild.

Yes! I want to help turn Mopey’s frown upside down!

Thanks to kind supporters like you, we know how to treat Mopey’s distress. Since discovering this condition in sea lions in 1998, our researchers have learned a lot about domoic acid toxicity and how to treat it effectively.

And help from past donors has meant we’ve been able to successfully treat and release hundreds of patients over the years that stranded with this condition.

Now your help is needed to treat Mopey.
This is an excellent example of taking a complex topic like neurotoxins and sea lions and translating it into something clear, simple, and with a powerful impact story.

7. Tell the Story Through the Donor’s Eyes

When you tell stories in your appeal, write from the point of view of the donor. What did donors similar to the person reading the appeal do to help? How will the reader’s donation be used? How does the donor impact the life of the beneficiary? These questions help direct the story from the point of view of the reader.

For example, this is a variation of an appeal I recently received:

For seven long years, the war in Syria has raged on. We’ve been there, providing much needed emergency supplies, shelter, and food for the hundreds of refugees. We will continue to work in Syria until the last refugee goes home. We are building child friendly spaces, education spaces, healthcare facilities,  and support groups. We are making a difference in the lives of the Syrian refugees.

How would you rewrite this paragraph to come from the point of view of the donor? You could do something like this:

You’ve seen it on the news. You’ve watched in horror over the past seven years as the war in Syria has raged on. You’ve wondered, “when will these people get to go home?”

Because of donors like you, Syrian refugees have shelter. Emergency supplies. Food and clean water. You’ve built safe places for kids to play. You’ve provided education, healthcare, and support groups. You’ve stood by these refugees and will continue to do so until the last refugee goes home.

The first example is written from the point of view of the organization and positions them as the hero. In the second, the donor is the hero and can see immediately how his donation has impacted the work in Syria.

Writing from the viewpoint of the donor is also accurate. You can’t do the work you do without the donor. He is the one making the impact in the life of the beneficiary. You are simply the conduit or the tool he uses to help people.

8. Conversational Tone

The best fundraising appeals read like a conversation between two people.

Hi Jeremy,

With graduation time around the corner, I want to share an update about Nonprofit Org alum, Carolina, and her incredible daughter, Angel. Angel and Carolina lived at Nonprofit Org over 15 years ago — Angel was just two years old when she moved in.
Carolina fought through high barriers to overcome homelessness. Her commitment to giving her daughter a better childhood and a future has paid off. Angel is graduating high school and heading to a prestigious university in September.

In this appeal email, the author immediate brings me into a story. It’s a story that, as a donor, I’m excited to hear a success story of the good work they do. The email is easy to read because it’s conversational.

It’s easy to want to sound smart. As the voice of your nonprofit, you want your copy to feel professional and well edited. Professional and well edited doesn’t mean your copy has to be complex. Fundraising copy doesn’t feel like business writing because it’s not. It’s written to be conversational. It’s written to have the reader quickly understand and connect to the stories and the fundraising ask. When you write well polished, high grade level comprehension copy, you risk confusing the reader. When you confuse the reader, she won’t give to your organization.

An excellent tool to use to reduce the complexity of your copy and write it with a conversational tone is the Hemingway App. The Hemingway App grades your content and highlights the sentences that are confusing or too complex.

9. Connect the Appeal to the Landing Page

At Food for the Hungry, we have a very successful gift catalog. From animals to clean water, it raises a lot of money and helps a lot of people. Each year, we send out emails to our audience promoting items in the gift catalog. There are two ways we can promote the items: link directly to an item or link to a landing page that tells a story about the item and focuses the reader’s attention on that specific item without distraction.

In the former version of our website, the gift catalog item pages were a desert of fundraising. They usually contained only 2-3 sentences. The image was small. The give button was poorly designed. Overall, the experience wasn’t great.

At times, there were appeals that linked directly to the item page and the experience wasn’t good for the donor. The appeal didn’t connect well to the landing page.

Is your fundraising appeal congruent from the email to the landing page to the checkout process? Does the reader feel like he’s in the right place when he clicks through to give?

This congruency is important for the email or direct mail recipient. A consistent story and look and feel throughout the process helps weave a thread from the first point of contact through the donation confirmation page. Without this thread, the recipient may feel like he ended up on the wrong page or worse, become demotivated to give because the experience is a let down.

I know there are times where I haven’t thought enough about the emotional process of giving and how the donation process makes the donor feel. If it works, that’s good enough, right? The donor is giving because he feels good about his donation. When we put up roadblocks, we often call it friction, the donor will stop feeling good about his donation and bail on completing the process.

Create a congruent donation process by aligning the content and messaging throughout. Think of the giving process as a journey. When you’re following directions giving by someone who only knows the area by land markers, it can become confusing quickly if you miss a marker or if the journey begins to feel unfamiliar. If you’re not sure where you are, you want to retreat and regroup. When a potential donor feels like he’s not in the right spot on the journey, the same feeling applies: he wants to retreat because he no longer feels good about where he is on the journey.

10. Call to Action

It’s a shame when you receive a well written appeal with a great story and you get to the call to action … and it’s a dud. It never lands, eventually squeaking out a link or a mild “Give” button. As fundraisers, sometimes we’re scared to ask. We’re scared the reader will get turned off by our direct ask so we write a “soft ask,” hoping the push the reader over the edge to give. What we forget is: the reader supports your organization because they care about your cause! You wouldn’t have grabbed her attention to read the appeal if she didn’t care, so don’t be afraid to directly ask! She wants to support your organization!

Tell the reader what you want her to do. Don’t be shy. She’s reading because she cares.

Here’s several good calls to action from real appeals:

  • Until midnight tomorrow, you can fund DOUBLE the lifesaving research and reach TWICE as many families this holiday. Make your tax-deductible donation now.
  • It only takes a few minutes to make a donation to save a life. Give by December 31 and a generous OCRFA board member will match your gift, dollar-for-dollar up to $250,000, so your donation will have double the impact. Donate today to make sure we can match your gift.
  • As the year comes to a close, we are stepping up our efforts to fight even harder to alleviate the injustice of abortion that grips our nation.
  • Please donate today to help animals like Lola, who, despite such extreme neglect, is an affectionate dog who wants nothing more than to be loved by humans.
  • Your donation doubles, thanks to the matching challenge. Every $1 becomes $2, every $50 becomes $100, every $200 becomes $400, to provide twice as much help.
  • But many more are still suffering right now — this is why it’s critical we rush aid to them. Your online donation today — multiplied 22x by the matching grants — will help save lives.
  • Your gift of $50, $100, or even $250 will help provide children an education and free them from a life of scavenging and abuse. Please give today!
  • Please give as generously as you can because — today only — your tax-deductible donation will be TRIPLED.

(Bonus) 11. Thank the Donor

In a day of such ease of communication, it’s sad to learn how many nonprofits fail to adequately thank a donor. 75% of donors respond in surveys that they want to be thanked in order to give a second gift. With only about 20% of first time donors returning to donate again, the typical nonprofit is losing 80% of their first time donors.

Thanking goes beyond an email or mailed receipt. That is simply an acknowledgement of the gift, how will you show gratitude to your donor? You’ll find 11 creative ways to thank a donor in this article.