No one sets out to write crap. A short lesson in nonprofit copywriting.

No one sets out to write crap. A short lesson in nonprofit copywriting.

No one sets out to write crap.

But when you’re in the middle of a pandemic and the craziest election in American history… Well, things fall off the plate. Now your organization’s year-end fundraising appeal is due No one sets out to write crap. A short lesson in nonprofit copywriting.tomorrow. What are ya gonna do?

Instead of copying and pasting last year’s letter, you can create your very own masterpiece.

Read on…

First off, turn off your phone and the online noise so that you can focus. And then pay heed to these 13 tips and free downloads.

1. Know your audience

My grandmother raised nine children on a dairy farm that lacked the benefit of indoor plumbing. Her life wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t unusual for my grandfather to lay a hand on her in anger. Her faith got her through. Years after her children were grown and her husband had died, she sold the 250-acre farm. When she did, nothing made her happier than to present a check for $10,000 to the local Catholic parish.

That’s one of the reasons it’s easy for me to write for Catholic charities. I can picture the donor in my mind’s eye. That’s what you want.

Who are your donors? And what are their reasons for giving (what I refer to as their BIG WHY)?

Creating a donor profile is a great first step in writing a fundraising appeal.

When you can see the individual you’re writing to, from their reading preferences to the color of hair, you’ll find your communications flows. Everything, from your appeals to your emails, to your website copy, will take on a deeper, more personal approach.

This is not the type of wealth screening “donor profile” you might be thinking of, but rather what some call a “persona.” Personas have gotten a bad rap lately, thanks to misuse. But trust me when I tell you that they have one, and it’s invaluable.

You’ll write better when you know who you’re writing to. Know your audience. It’s the best place to begin.

2. Find your best story

Wow! I’m still reeling from Stephanie “Tanquerey” Johnson’s story in HONY. Nearly $3 million raised in a matter of DAYS.

You’ve heard it before: stats don’t sell. Great stories do. What stories resonate the most with your supporters?

Your data is one of the best tools for figuring this out. Let your data inform you about which of your stories are standouts. Which past appeals have raised the most? What do your Facebook analytics tell you about which stories have garnered the highest response rates? What stories or images do your supporters share the most?

3. Get to the heart of it

These words, from renowned copywriter Indra Sinha hang above my desk:

”Don’t start by writing. Start by feeling. Feel, and feel passionately, and the emotion you feel will come through the spaces in between the words.“

Embrace that emotion! Sure, maybe you don’t feel comfortable writing “that way.” Lose it. Nothing plays a more effective role in fundraising than compelling storytelling does. Storytelling delights. It inspires, it captures the imagination, and storytelling compels donors from all demographics to give. But it can only do that if the emotion is there.

4. Write music

Okay, this is one of my favorites! At their optimum potential, your words have the power to resonate and generate an emotional impact. Words can stay with us long after we’ve first read them or heard them, and they’re no longer “just words.” They take on more power. But it’s easy to fall into a rut when it comes to writing.

The results can be dull writing that’s incapable of fully accomplishing what you want it to. So whether you’re writing a book, a short story, or fundraising copy, what author and writing teacher Gary Provost demonstrates in this graphic is worth reading. And remembering. Variety isn’t just the spice of life. It’s critical to your writing!

5. Infuse your letter with gratitude

How are you making your donor feel as she reads your letter? Fundraising researcher Jen Shang says, “The good feeling of ‘thank you’ lasts for 2.5 months.”

Just two words. They’re vital, and their possibilities are endless…

“Thank you for being the power behind this work.” (Donor Love 20 Ways)
“Thank you for helping to build the EmbraceRace community. Thank you for
your support. And thank you for truly being the power behind this work.”

Incorporate the power of gratitude throughout the entire framework of your letter. Especially now, you’ll be giving them the gift of hope.

6. Put your donor in the picture

I get the most questions on this. We consultants will say “put your donors in the story!” And I’ll hear “but where??? How??

When we say the donor is the hero here, that’s not meant in a superficial or pandering way. You are offering your supporter a rare and precious gift: the opportunity to make a difference.

So please don’t communicate as “we” and make it all about you. It’s not about you. It’s about the amazing supporters who make your work possible. What have they accomplished through their gift? What are they accomplishing through you?

“Without you, we could never have achieved so much.” (from a social justice organization)

“When she arrived at the front desk, you were there with a welcoming smile.” (from an addiction treatment center)

7. Ask

Every year, I review and receive hundreds of appeal letters from charities of all sizes. And one of the major flaws of the *small shop* letters is that they never get around to actually asking. They tread lightly as if they’re walking on eggshells. Right around the last sentence, they might reference a vague “your support.”

As I’m reading your letter, make sure you tell me exactly what you want me to do.

You need funding. You’re giving your donors an opportunity, so ask with clear intention. Ask early (right on the first page) and ask often throughout your letter.

8. “How long should my letter be?”

I get asked this question a lot. In fact, it’s one of the most frequently asked questions I hear when it comes to discussing the fundraising letter. And the answer is always this: As long as it takes for you to make a compelling case for support. Your letter should be long enough to make your case. There’s no hard and fast rule. I will only say that I’ve never seen a one-page letter that managed to present an actual case for my support. Longer letters typically outperform shorter letters, but there is always an “it depends.” My recommendation, at least two pages. Most of my letters for clients are four pages in length.

Compelling cases need some space.

9. One writer

Too many cooks spoil the broth, and when it comes to writing your fundraising appeal, this couldn’t be truer. Multiple writers is bound to result in chaos. Who needs more chaos right now?

The worst fundraising appeals I’ve encountered are those drafted by a committee. Your appeal demands the skills of one writer-storyteller, and the focus should be singular, dedicated, and clear.

10. Outline it

Maybe you’re a regular writer and you’re already well into the swing of things. Maybe you write so often that when you sit down to write a fundraising letter, the words just flow. But there’s also a good chance that’s not the case. Outlines are a valuable tool for getting you started. A standard outline will help to keep you focused on what you want your letter to accomplish, from beginning to end. The Fundraising Appeal Template to the rescue! Add it to your arsenal of fundraising tools. You’ll be glad you did.

11. Swipe

I once knew a nonprofit founder who made it a regular practice to save direct mail that landed in her mailbox. She was able to recognize what worked in direct mail and what didn’t, and so she held onto the most compelling pieces. She created her own swipe file and filled it with examples, which she used as tools. Over time, she built an enviable donor database and a million-dollar agency simply by emulating what moved her.

I try to regularly spotlight what moves me in direct mail, and you can find a lot of these pieces published as examples on this blog. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but I will anyway: they are examples. Building a swipe file is one thing. Plagiarism is another.

12. KISS

Keep it simple, sweetheart.

“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.”
-Stephen King

Ahhhh, wise words from a master who not only makes it a point to write every day but writes to be read. Stephen King writes a lot, knows his audience, and produces content that is easily accessible to them. Write at a fifth grade (and below) reading level. It’s not about dumbing down. It’s about talking to people like they’re people. Think about it. How do you speak to people in everyday conversation? You want to bring your readers in and talk to them, not alienate them. Let the Hemingway App guide you.

13. Write drunk. Edit sober.

No, not literally. (But hey, if you want to, I’m not going to try and stop you.) If you’re suffering from the dreaded writer’s block, relax. Put on some music. Dance. Go for a walk. Meditate. Eat a snack.

And then sit down, make yourself comfortable, and just…write. Let it go. What’s been going on with you during these past seven months? Pour it out. Don’t hold back. To make this exercise most useful, put a time cap on it. And before you start, turn off your phone and get rid of any other distractions. The timer will ding before you know it, and by the end, you’ll have something that you can work with.

In art, an underpainting is an initial layer of paint applied to a ground, which serves as a base for subsequent layers of paint. Underpaintings are often monochromatic and help to define color values for later painting.” (Wikipedia) Think of your letter as a painting and the first draft as the underpainting.

Stephen King also noted that “The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” Boot up your laptop, sit down, and get started!


Hemingway App: Get your readability score with the Hemingway app. Aim for a fifth-grade reading level and below.

Related Words: This tool helps you find words that are related to a specific word or phrase.

Free Text to Speech: Remember you’re writing to a friend. Does your letter sound natural? This fun app will let you have your letter read by Daniel, a UK Male.


Donor Persona Worksheet: Who are you writing TO? Download your Persona Worksheet and get a picture of your reader in your mind’s eye.

Appeal Letter Template: The original Appeal Letter Template will guide you with a solid outline to start.

My friend, the copywriter Julie Cooper, has the best Appeal Letter Design Checklist. It’s going to make writing your letter so much easier.

Books and Resources

How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters (Mal Warwick). This oldie but goodie has scads of examples and swipeable asks, closes, and PS’s.
The Fundraiser’s Guide to Irresistible Communications. (Jeff Brooks)
Turning Doubters into Donors: How to Make a Compelling Case for Your Cause (Tom Ahern)
. This new one from Tom is all about writing your organization’s case for support. And, while you might think your case is for your capital campaign, every letter needs a mini-case behind it. Best book I’ve read on writing your case.
SOFII. is a fundraiser’s treasure chest. And the Huntsinger tutorials cannot be beaten.

Direct Mail Masterclass | Basics & More. You’ll learn how to write your best letter in less time, the secrets behind great design on a tiny budget, tips for getting your envelope opened, and mroe.

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