4 School Fundraising Letter Essentials

June 23, 2015 Marc A. Pitman

Despite what you hear about the growth of online giving and the buzz generated by ice bucket challenges, fundraising letters are still the faithful workhorse of most school fundraising.

Here are four tips to make your fundraising letters as effective as possible:

  1. Write to a single person

    The best fundraising letters are written like a friend talking to a friend. So look at your Raisers Edge database to find the profile of your “typical” recipient. You’ll likely have many: a typical parent, a typical alum, a typical donor outside of those categories, etc.

    When I was fundraising for a hospital, I determined our typical donor was an octogenarian woman who lived in a particular neighborhood in our city. I called her “Edith.” Whenever I wrote a general appeal, I wrote to Edith. The copy worked with all sorts of other types, but it was designed to be optimized to work with our best prospects.

  2. Tape her picture to your monitor

    Writing to just one person can be challenging because you start thinking of all the exceptions. There are prospects younger than your Edith. And there are prospects of different ethnicities or backgrounds. Then you start thinking about your board and your staff and how they would react to the letter.

    To cut through this noise, find a picture of your possible Edith and tape it to your computer monitor. Working on a fundraising letter for a coaching client, I actually pasted his Edith’s picture onto the letter!

    His writing got much clearer and more focused when he kept writing to her, not to the committee in his brain.

  3. Count the We’s and You’s

    Once you’ve written your letter and have it ready to mail, sit down and give it the We/You test. Take two markers: a blue marker and a red marker. With the blue marker, circle every single use of “we,” “our,” and “ours.” Go ahead and include the school’s name too.

    With the red marker, go through the letter and circle every reference to “you,” “your,” and “your’s.”

    Is your letter more blue or more red? The typical letters are much more blue – often three times as much blue as there is read. I reviewed a letter last week that had 14 “we’s” and only 7 “you’s.” Not good. But it was even worse: five of the seven you’s happened in the sentence with the ask! Seen this way, the letter read like this: “We are great. We do good things. And you need to fund our good work.” Not compelling. The letter with more red will get more read. People are more interested in reading about themselves than in reading about you! I know this is simply ”Fundraising 101”, but it is one of the most neglected steps I see with my coaching clients.

  4. Consider mailing more often

    At last year’s Nonprofit Storytelling Conference, fundraising letter expert Jeff Brooks challenged us to consider sending more letters. Every time his clients tested sending more letters, they find they get more donations. And they don’t get any more complaints. He said that the maximum donation revenue seems to peak around 21. 21 fundraising letters in a year!

    When I shared this during a training in Stockholm, the attendees shook their head in disbelief. “That would never work here,” they said. But one of the attendees raised her hand. “Actually, our experience has been more letters do raise more money.” Shocked, they listen to her share how her nonprofit was adding an extra appeal a year. They were up to 11 fundraising letters a year and had only seen growth in donations. And donors were fine with the increased touches!

It’s not about winning a Pulitzer Prize

Fundraising letters are designed to raise funds, not win a literary award. It takes a little time to get used to this approach. But using these simple pointers will help you write chatty, compelling, and action-producing letters to any audience you’re focusing on!

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