Advanced Tips For Your Year-End Appeal Letters

Can you imagine how many nonprofit appeal letters I receive after 40 years in fundraising? And yet I still open each one, relish most of them, and occasionally grimace. Here are advanced tips for crafting your year-end appeals that will help you raise more revenue.


1. Is direct mail dead?

It most certainly is not. Direct mail is still the workhorse of fundraising. You’ll want to collaborate closely not just with your printer and mail house, but everyone on your team—including your copy editor and graphic designer.

What’s a good response rate for direct-mail fundraising? A recent Direct Marketing Association study noted that average response rates from direct mail is 4.4%. That’s 37 times higher than the average email marketing rates at 0.12%.

Exclusively using online modes of communication could isolate an important segment of donors. Direct mail can connect with donors of all ages.


2. You’ll need a compelling fundraising appeal letter/package.

Here’s the heart of the approach the fundraising industry has prescribed for your appeal letter:

Tell a story. Your fundraising letter should start with a story — one that fully engages your current and potential supporters in the problem your organization is working to address. Define the problem. Present your goal. Ask for help. Be humble. Make sure to tell compelling client- centered stories. It’s the stories that get you the donations.

Is that true? Mostly.

Now here’s what’s missing from that formula: Among the various voices you can use to write the appeal letter (institutional voice, client-story voice, or the most personal YOU voice) always choose the YOU voice. Why? Because it’s not about you the fundraiser, it’s about the donor. “You” and its variations (you’d, you’ll, you’re, your, yours, yourself, and you’ve) pull the reader in, calling out to them and making them pay attention to what you’re saying. Using “you” words also keeps your writing oriented toward the donor, giving the donors credit for the good things they’ve helped make possible. That makes them feel good, and donors who feel good about giving to you will keep giving.

Also missing is the fact that the prospective donor is not even likely to open your envelope! With a glut of mail at year-end, you have to find a way for your piece to stand out and get opened. I’ve often used large and/or colorful envelopes to secure a higher response rate. Also, a provocative question on the exterior envelope has proven to be effective in getting it opened.

Your appeal letter should not be a brochure with lots of details about your charity. Insiders care about that stuff, outsiders don’t. Good direct mail is highly “skimmable”—short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.

There are two types of appeal letters: those sent to people who have given previously, and those sent to people who have not. Those who gave before are likely to give again, often without even reading the letter. Finally, be sure to test your mailing with a small group of people before you finalize it. You’ll learn a lot. Here are multiple examples of terrific direct-mail appeal letters that will inspire you.


3. Incorporate aspects of email marketing that are proven to increase response rates in your direct mail campaign.

Direct the reader to a landing page. One of the principal purposes of a marketing email is to funnel a potential customer from their inbox to a landing or sales page. You can do the same thing using direct mail, but with some slight adjustments.

While you can’t include clickable links in a piece of direct mail, marketers use QR codes as an easy way to bring readers to their websites and push them further along in the donation funnel. A QR code is essentially a barcode that users scan with their phones to go directly to a web page.

Near-field communication (NFC) is another technology you can use in conjunction with direct mail. NFC is used to transfer information between two electronic devices in close proximity and it’s appearing practically everywhere, such as when paying with your phone at a checkout.

By adding NFC technology to your mailing, recipients can load offers directly onto their smartphones from the marketing material. This technology also allows marketers to direct customers to sales pages on their phones. It can easily be personalized and track the information they present to customers and customer reactions, too.

By integrating technology into your direct-mail campaign, you’ll make it easier for potential customers to respond, much like with email.


4. Integrate monthly giving.

Experienced fundraisers assign prime importance to monthly giving. You’ll boost returns in this year-end quarter if you pay attention to monthly giving.

Here’s how to integrate the monthly-giving option into your year-end appeal letters:

  • Add a specific call -to-action button for recurring gifts on your donor navigation page.
  • Simplify the donation landing page. Most landing and/or donation pages request far too much information: Hard-to-answer questions that are confusing (and often mandatory). Credit authorization at the payment processor stage may be set so tight that higher gifts are rejected. Worst of all is the number of times we have to prove we’re human and use Captcha, which leads to the maddening game of “pick the street signs.” Instead, simplify the usability of your landing/donation pages.
  • Make your case for the importance of a recurring gift. Most organizations fail to make the case. Why should I give a recurring gift to you, instead of a one-time donation? And rather than to some other organization, or not at all? Making your case for recurring gifts and adding different copy for recurring givers can increase your conversion rate by 150% according to research done by NextAfter.
  • Take post-donation action. I just gave, now what? The NextAfter researchers found that most organizations don’t offer a post-donation call to action. Such as asking a single-gift donor to become a monthly donor, or asking a donors to check with their employer for a matching gift possibility, or inviting donors to sign-up for an advocacy team. Don’t stop with the gift.


5. Expressing thanks to donors is still woefully insufficient.

The research that NextAfter did with 115 organizations revealed that only 13% called to say “thank you” for the gift. Just 15 out of 115 organizations called, and only two sent text messages.

Once again, the power of the “thank you,” or lack of it, comes to the fore. Remember:  A donor’s second-year gift could be up to 40% higher just for having received a “thank you” call, according to fundraiser Penelope Burk.

Further, only 1 in 5 organizations sent email communication from a real person. Most were from info@ or support@, or “no-reply” addresses.

Also, as reported by NextAfter, when a donor is thanked, open-rates on subsequent email communications are 28%-1301% higher. And the use of the recipient’s name on email increases clicks by 270%.


What changes will you make in your year-end appeals to maximize the returns? Please share with us below on the blog. Please forward this post to a colleague who may appreciate it.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Related Posts

Has Donor Trust in Charities Changed?

In this age of “fake news”, “alternative facts” “hyper partisanship” and what seems to be a general erosion of trust, why should we even care?  And if we care what can we fundraisers do about it?

Of course, every fundraiser should care because trust is the lynchpin of a solid and sustainable relationship with a donor.  And because there are ways to measure trust, taking steps to increase the level of trust, and by doing so increase donor value and an organization’s net revenue.

Read More »

MacKenzie Strikes Again

You probably won’t recognize most of the names on the list of the top 50 mega-philanthropists.

MacKenzie Scott’s name, though, immediately rings a bell and puts a smile on the face of those of us serving in the non-profit sector.

Ironically, she is not on that list, unlike her ex-husband.

Yet we love her for the special sensitivity she shows us, and her latest “strike,” an announcement to give away $250 million in funding to small nonprofits, is no exception.

Read More »

The CEO as Chief Fundraiser: A Role That Should Never Be Delegated

Our recent posts have lasered in on fundraising perennials–retention of fundraising staff, annual funds, and why donors give.  Another perennial stacks up as equally worthy of thoughtful commentary, and that’s the role of the chief executive officer in fundraising.  

A short definition of a CEO is he or she who makes decisions.  Nowadays, we recognize the value of consensus decision-making, and that’s fine.  But the kinds of decisions I’m referring to are the big ones, decisions such as those made by the captain of a ship.

Read More »