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Love letters: 6 tips on how to woo donors with winning words

John McWhinney shares his tips on how to write successful fundraising letters that your donors will love


As a much respected former creative director used to say: ďItís not rocket science, but it is brain surgery.Ē His point was that you donít have to be a genius to write a successful charity appeal, but persuading people to part with their money takes knowledge, delicacy and care.


1. Warm Appeals - Show interest in your donor

So you have a list of people you know have sent a gift in the last 18 months. How do you convince them to give again? One good way is by finding out what they like to support and asking them as frequently as you dare. Think of it as dating. If two people spend a lovely evening together in September but neither ask the other out again until after Christmas, is either party really interested?

As a charity, put yourself in the role of the person pursuing the relationship. Your donor is playing hard to get, so youíll do anything you can to find out more about them. Youíll get in touch more often, suggesting things you can do together that you know they like. It means you wonít talk about yourself, but about what they can do.


2. Donor Acquisition - Use old-fashioned courtship

I see many charities asking complete strangers to start a long-term relationship. And yes, we all know itís possible to get people on the street to sign up to a direct debit. But why skip the romance? Even if it seems time consuming, a growing friendship is ultimately more rewarding for both parties. Find people who donate to like-minded charities, and really convince them that their first gift will achieve something special.

Yes, they the donor, will do something special. Itís not about you. You have to present your vision, sure. But you can translate that into action. When talking to potential new cash donors, tell them a story about how their affordable gift can change one personís life completely.


3. Emails - Be bold, clear and direct

I hear fundraisers say that itís practically free to email donors. But so is standing on a street corner with a loudspeaker. When you email, make it worth your while. Anything else is a waste of time or worse, an annoyance. It may sound obvious, but some people donít realise that fundraising emails are more effective if they are shorter than direct mail counterparts. Type should be large. Buttons leading the reader to donate should be prominent, in colour, and repeated, near the top and lower right.

You should also make it easy for the person to give. One click of a button should take responders directly to a cash donation form. Nothing else. You can do that after they give.


4. Newsletters - Report back, but urge support

If thereís ever an opportunity for a charity to talk about itself, itís in their newsletter, right? Wrong. Every part of it should be targeted at your donor, and should describe in loving detail what their gifts have achieved. Include a fundraising element; many four-page newsletters incorporate a reply form on the back page. As you tell donors clear, powerful stories about what you do with the money they give, remember your budgets depend on matching your aims to their desires.

Iíve seen good newsletters raise as much as, or even more than, a typical appeal. And they donít have to cost more to write, print and post.


5. High-Value Donors - Be present, and thankful

Many charities are afraid to speak to their most generous donors face to face, so they post them bland proposals. Meanwhile, hours and hours are spent on the street talking to strangers, and only a few help you out. Should we turn the tables?

Try speaking in person to your mid- to high-level donors. Call them on the telephone. Sit down with one or two over coffee. When presenting a fundraising offer, donít be afraid to ask for their support towards an essential high-ticket item. Heap thanks on them, not expectation. Listen, donít tell. And tailor-make a proposal for them; many will be glad to know youíre interested in what they want to support.


6. Legacies - Give a reason to remember

There are several reasons donors donít leave you a gift in their will. It may be because they havenít written one. They might think their children need every penny. Or could it be that youíre practically invisible in their marketplace?

Write frequent articles in your newsletter about what legacies achieve. Remind supporters that small legacies also pack a punch. Donít be afraid of this issue. Instead, have helpful advice to hand when people want to know more about leaving a gift to your charity in their will. People who request a brochure about wills probably know perfectly well how to leave a gift to you. What theyíre really asking is whether their gift will last forever. Behind that, they need to know that you acknowledge and appreciate such gifts. Everyone wants to be remembered well. By you and the people you reach, by their friends, their family, their neighbours and the community they are part of.


John McWhinney is a freelance fundraising writer with nearly 25 years of experience in US and UK charities


This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 31, July 2013

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