I have learned that writing is a critical part of fundraising. Not only must you write messages that speak to people’s heart, your messages must also be written clearly and concisely so they are compelled to donate. Therefore, your next fundraising letter must capture people’s eyes, hearts, and minds.
When I read some letters and emails sent to me, such as the case for support, an appeal letter, or even a thank you note, I sometimes wonder how effective charities are in raising money. I find grammar errors, typos, unclear messages, and poorly formatted templates. They also share their story through blurred photos.
I have even received emails with PDFs or photos that are 5MB or more in size, thereby clogging my inbox. I wonder if fundraisers know that some email services block emails altogether when they surpass a certain size. Also, an email can be moved directly to the junk box because the content has too many photos. Yes, too many pictures in emails can flag them as junk or spam. As a result, not everyone will receive the email.
What is sometimes more disheartening are those letters and emails that look too professional but have forgotten the most important part: the Catholic faith! Some Catholic entities pay fundraising consultants, and pay them quite well, to write and send content to the laity. This is unfortunate because consultants apply the generic rules and formulas they use for their nonprofit clients, overlooking the underlying purpose we all respond to charities. We don’t respond to appeals because someone is helping the poor, the hungry, or the sick. No. We respond because someone is doings these acts in the name of Christ and His Church.
These mistakes have negative consequences because many donors and potential supporters base their decisions on what they read. When people become distracted by the mistakes, they spend less time on discerning a donation.
The content you write may even be the only form of contact they have with your charity or enterprise. You are doing incredible work, and the donations you receive are helping you do even more. However, if people are not learning about you because of poor communications, how will you raise more funds and increase the number of donors?
I am not saying all of this to point the finger. I am in the front of the line when it comes to making mistakes. I have committed every grammatical error under the sun. But along the way, I’ve learned to improve my writing skills which, as a result, improved my fundraising results.
Writing well is paramount to fundraising. Here are four tips to writing better when speaking to people about your charitable work and asking for donations.
1- Use a beautiful template when you write
Catholicism has a rich history of art, beauty, and orthography. I am reminded of the manuscripts monks made in past centuries. The hours they spent transcribing Scripture onto their beautiful illuminated manuscripts. I am also amazed by the stained glass windows that tell the Gospel stories and the lives of the saints. If Catholics in past centuries (and even today) can spend days, months, and even years crafting these works of art, we can take a few hours designing a template that reflects our Catholic charities’ missions.
I understand that our schedules don’t always permit us to spend large portions of time for designing, but technology has provided us several shortcuts to produce great results in a fraction of the time. Software, sure as Adobe Illustrator and Canva, offers easy to use templates which we can adapt to our needs.
To make this task even easier, I recommend collecting five examples of documents, brochures, adverts, or bulletins which have attracted your attention. These may come from any journals, magazines, websites, or advertisements. Examine why you like them so much. Then, design a new template by combining all the elements you liked most. You will then have an original design for your fundraising letter that looks unique and fantastic.
Last, I suggest picking up a copy of Desktop Publisher’s Idea Book for about one penny on Amazon. The book offers many examples of how to format different document types such as flyers, web pages, letters, and booklets.
2 – Have one message for each piece of communication
I recommend that each fundraising letter that you send to people conveys one message or idea. This message (whether it’s to donate, attend an event, pray, or volunteer) should also be summarized into two to three sentences. Every other sentence should then support this central idea.
I say this because people’s reading habits (especially for fundraising documents) are quite short. People tend to skim read a page in less than 5 seconds, scanning only for the key points, and then make a decision.
When reading your material, you don’t want people thinking, “This is way too long and complicated. I cannot read this now. I’ll put it to the side and read later.” If they decide to read your letter later, 90% of the time they won’t return. This is a lost opportunity for you because they were about to read what you had to tell them!
You may lament this fact, particularly with how the internet is reducing our ability to focus on a topic for extended periods of time, but it is the reality. If someone does not immediately understand what you are asking them to do, instead, they will do nothing.
Therefore, keep your message as clear as possible and remove any unnecessary content. By doing so, you increase the chances of your reader or listener to act.
To help make your material easier to read, I suggest that you limit the number of adjectives and compound sentences. Paragraphs and sentences should be short, particularly if you are writing an email or text on your website.
Also, because people read the first and last paragraphs of a letter or page primarily, have a strong first paragraph and a last impactful paragraph.
I wrote an article listing 100 recommended phrases to use when you write a fundraising message. You can also download a workbook on Scripture passages which you can use in your next letter or speech.
If you must provide additional information, causing your text to be lengthy, I recommend adding an addendum or a hyperlink. You can also include the additional text as a separate document.
Clarity is what you want, not confusion.
Last, ask others to proofread your document before you send it. You can also use grammar software like Grammarly to edit your text. I have sent too many times a letter with spelling errors to hundreds of people. What a horrible feeling. Now, I always have someone proofread my documents before I send them. I also never send or publish a text the same day I finish writing it. Instead, I review it one last time the next day.
3 – Avoid scare tactics
Many charities in a fundraising letter focus on a problem and structure their appeal along the lines of, ‘donate now… or else people starve/die!’
As Catholics, we know that panic and panic are not gifts of the Holy Spirit. We may be distraught, but God is calling us to respond to challenges with wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
Therefore, when you write, be positive, hopeful, and motivational. I recommend you share stories of how you are transforming the world. Then, when you do ask for donations, ask people to help keep the momentum. People are more inspired to donate when they hear great things are being accomplished.
People donate to great charities; not mediocre ones. Be a great one by communicating great stories in great ways.
4 – The four parts to a compelling fundraising letter
I recommend writing letters, emails, pamphlets, and speeches in a simple four-step structure.
Part 1 – Have one message in your fundraising letter which you wish to share with your audience. Make this subject you focus on throughout your content.
Part 2 – Facts provide the context around your message, allowing you to expand on it in greater length. For example, if your core message is that you have an event coming up, the detail facts could be the specifics of the event.
Part 3 – Create a desire. You must understand what your audience wants from you. Do you know why they are listening to you? What factors cause them to respond? By identifying their interests, you can present your message with the appropriate desire.
For example, if you wish that people attend your upcoming event, you can communicate the reasons for why they would attend. Are they more interested in the venue, the speaker, the other people attending, the time of year?
You may assume that people want to attend an event because of a particular venue, food, or keynote speaker but this is not always the case. By knowing what triggers people to want to come to my events, I have been able to attract many people. Additionally, I have been able to keep my costs significantly low because I know expensive dinners often do not attract people I am inviting.
Part 4 – Clearly verbalize your call to action three times. You must clearly state what it is you wish them to do. Remember, you are addressing your audience because you want them to do something. Don’t assume that people know what you are asking them to do. You have to tell them directly and make clear how they go about doing it.
Continuing with the same example of an event, you must explain (1) an invitation is being made and (2) the details for how people can confirm their attendance are clearly given. And (3), if they have questions, you should outline how they can ask for further details.
Remember, we are always students even after doing something for years. Writing a fundraising letter is an art form that can be adapted, shaped, and improved. I recommend to frequently reread prior communications and ask the question: how could I have been clearer?
There are hundreds of Catholic charities competing for donations, and many secular charities are also asking for money. Therefore, being heard in a noisy world requires effective writing.
Question: What steps do you take to write an inspiring fundraising letter?