The elements of a compelling fundraising letter are timeless — but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to explain to writers. That’s why I like the advice offered by Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson in their long-out-of-print guide to good business writing, Writing That Works.
The authors of this slim, strikingly designed book worked for Ogilvy & Mather, the renowned advertising firm famous for such legendary ad campaigns as The Guinness Guide to Oysters, Rolls-Royce, and the Man in the Hathaway Shirt — to name just a few.
In other words, Roman and Raphaelson know how to persuade people to part with their money.
“To raise money for charitable, educational, or political causes, you must appeal to the emotions,” they write. “People can have strong feelings about a community fund or a church or a candidate. They can want to give.”
Whether writing a sales letter for a business or a fundraising letter for a nonprofit, there are certain elements that are universal in getting people to give you their money willingly — and happily. Here are Roman’s and Raphaelson’s tips for successful sales letters, which apply to fundraising appeals too:
- Have a strategy. “Successful advertising starts with clear thinking on what to say — and to whom.”
- Project a personality. “Sometimes the tone of your letter can be as important as what you say.”
- Make sure the offer is right. “The offer is what gets the action.”
- Get people to open the envelope. “If the sales letter is an advertisement, the envelope is the headline, serving to attract the reader to read on.”
- Start fast. “Involve your reader in your first sentence, or your second sentence may never be read.”
- Favor long letters over short ones. “Remember that your reader is looking for information, not for reading pleasure. Every sentence must work for its living.”
- Give something away. “A simple pamphlet, perhaps one you’ve already printed for another purpose, can be an effective free offer — and a cheap one.”
- Make it inviting to read. “People won’t read long letters that look formidable, with solid blocks of text.”
- Make it look like the real thing. “Letters should look like letters, not like advertisements.”
- Give your reader something to do. “Don’t let your reader nod in agreement, but do nothing. Your enemy is inertia.”
- Don’t let your reader off the hook. “People procrastinate. You must create a reason for your prospect to act now.”
Here are a few more tips that apply explicitly to fundraising appeals:
- Tell the prospect how much money you want. “The reader does not know how much you expect. Suggesting the amount is up to you.”
- Make it emotional. “People don’t give to institutions; they give to other people.”
- Make your donors members, not just givers. “An effective fundraising letter gets people to identify with your cause. It makes them feel part of it.”
Writing That Works is full of valuable, succinctly expressed advice about many other kinds of business writing that are relevant to fundraisers too, such as reports, speeches, and newsletters. Although a second edition came out in 1995 and a third in 2000 in order to address the advent of personal computers and the early internet, the advice in the first edition is as sound today as it was 35-plus years ago — plus, I think the design and layout are more aesthetically pleasing than those of its successors.
If you write for nonprofits, it’s worth tracking down a copy of any edition for your reference shelf. Properly applied, it can truly help your communications stand out from the crowd.