How to Write a Successful Appeal for Ongoing Programs


I get asked some form of this question all the time:

“How do I do an effective appeal letter for a program that runs all year long? We’re not one of those organizations that has One Big Need, like ‘meals on Thanksgiving’ or ‘summer camp’ or a new art exhibit. We do the same thing all year long…”

The answer is pretty simple: narrow your focus on what’s happening at your organization about 6 weeks after you mail your appeal.

Let me give you two examples of how this works…

Ongoing Program #1

Say you’re a children’s museum that fosters kids’ interest in the arts. And every month, local schools send their kids to the museum for field trips.

Narrow your focus and think about what will be needed about 6 weeks after you send your appeal. You can then send an appeal in January that says something like this:

“Your gift today will introduce a child to the arts! This March we have several bus-loads of children coming from local schools. Will you send a gift today to introduce one child to the arts by funding their visit to the museum?”

By narrowing the focus of the appeal onto a specific period, you’ve made it easier for the donor to understand and visualize how her gift will help. And any time you do that, you tend to raise more money.

Ongoing Program #2

Say you provide food and shelter for refugees fleeing violence. Narrow your focus and think about what aid you’ll be providing about 6 weeks after you send your appeal.

Your January appeal could say something like:

“Your help is needed to provide food and shelter for refugees in March. Shelter is so important during the rainy season. Will you send a gift today to provide food and shelter for one family?”

Again, by narrowing the focus you’ve made it easier for your donor to understand what’s happening at the nonprofit. Additionally, you’ve also added a dose of urgency to the appeal. In a clear, non-alarmist way, you’ve made it clear to your donor that these expenses are real and they are coming.

You’ll be thrilled with how your donors respond.

For the fundraising nerds, there are two fundraising principles at work here:

  1. Break your work into smaller chunks. In your direct response fundraising (appeals, e-appeals, newsletters), you’ll raise more money if you ask donors to help fund small, specific parts of your work instead of asking them to fund all your work.
  2. Ask before the need happens. You’ll raise more money if you ask donors to help before something happens, as opposed to asking them to help you “continue to” provide your services.

If raising funds for an ongoing program or service is something your organization struggles with, narrow your focus. Don’t ask donors to fund the whole program. Ask them to fund what’s happening a little more than a month from when you send your letter.

You’ll have made your appeal more timely, relevant, and easy to understand – all of which are keys to successful appeal letters.

James Bond Without a Villain


I saw an appeal recently and a thought that popped into my head:

“This is like a James Bond movie without a villain. Everything looks really good, but there’s not anything interesting happening.”

I had that reaction because the appeal I was looking at had no conflict.

Everything was going great for the organization. They’d helped a lot of people.

It’s good to remember that conflict is one of the main things that causes humans to engage. There are no successful movies without conflict. There are no successful stories without conflict.

And I’d argue that almost no fundraising reaches its potential without conflict.

Think about the James Bond movies: when the villain is evil and interesting, James Bond looks extraordinarily capable and successful. When the villain is uninteresting and poorly-drawn, James Bond looks more like a fashion model.

The Bond movies that do poorly at the box office tend to be movies where the villain isn’t particularly interesting. They still make money, but not as much.

And that’s just a movie – which doesn’t compare to the real-life situations that beneficiaries and nonprofit organizations face every day.

What does this mean for your next appeal?

If you want to raise more money, you should tell your donor what their gift will accomplish and also tell them the “enemy” their gift will defeat.

You’ve seen this before:

  • “Send in a gift to fight cancer!”
  • “Your gift will help stop the [opposing candidate] from being elected!”
  • “You’ll strike a blow against the system that holds our kids back.”

Adding the idea that “the donor’s gift will defeat or fight back against an enemy” is a tried-and-true way to increase how much money you raise because:

  • Your appeals are already engaging for people who are inspired by your organization’s work
  • Now your appeals will additionally engage people who are moved by “need” in the world

Think of it like a two-fer for the donor: their gift will do good and help defeat an enemy.

And when you engage more of your donors, and you provide additional reasons to give, you’ll raise more money!

Greatest Hit: Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Newsletter Article

The following post is one of the most popular posts in the history of this blog.

I’m reposting it because you might be new to the blog, or you might be like me and need to hear a piece of advice more than once before it really sinks in.

This post proved helpful to thousands of people, I hope it’s helpful for you!

The first sentence of every newsletter story is really important.

Don’t do what most nonprofits do. They assume that all donors read to the end of all articles. I routinely review newsletters where the most powerful parts of the stories are in the last paragraphs – where very few people will see it. Because all the eye-tracking studies show that most donors don’t “read” your newsletter. They scan it.

So, you want to work hard on the first sentence of your newsletter articles and stories. If the donor likes your first sentence, she’s more likely to read your second sentence, and so on.

And you don’t have to be a “writer” to make the first sentences of your newsletter sing. But you do have to think about them differently. I have 25 years experience that testifies that the following ‘ways of thinking differently’ about how your start your newsletter articles will help you raise more money.

Keep it simple

Make it short and easy to read. No long sentences. No complex sentences with multiple clauses. Your reader should be halfway into the second sentence before she realizes it.

Now you have momentum. Now you have a greater chance your donor is going to get the message you’re sending her.

Good Example: “Ebola took everything Elisabeth had.”

It’s not about your organization

The first sentence of any newsletter article should never be about your organization or staff.

The most successful newsletters are written with the purpose of showing your donor what her gift accomplished. Not to talk about all of the things you’ve been doing or have coming up. Because more people are reading your newsletter wondering “I wonder if my gift made a difference?” than are wondering “I wonder what the organization has been working on?”

So, your first sentence should be about the donor, or about a beneficiary.

(And remember: as your donor is deciding whether to read your story or not, she is in a hurry and has other things asking for her attention. So, if your first sentence is about your organization or staff, she’s just not as likely to keep reading.)

After all, would you be more likely to keep reading if the story was about something amazing you helped do, or something an organization you support is working on?

Bad Example: “After landing in the capital city of Kinshasa, The Democratic Republic of Congo, our team traveled inland to a village outside the town of Kivuvu.” Why would a busy donor keep reading?

Good Example: “Thanks to you, Sarah’s life turned completely around.” Bonus points for including the donor and a beneficiary in the very first sentence!

It’s the start of a summary

I need to do an entire post on writing newsletter stories. But here’s one of my tricks; the first paragraph is often a summary of the whole article.

Why? Because most people are not going to read the whole article, but you still want them to get the message you’re trying to send. So if you summarize the message in a compelling way two great things happen:

  1. More people get the message you’re sending
  2. More people will read the whole thing

Good Example: “Your gift did something simple but life changing for a mother named Teri Maes, and you might have saved the lives of her two sons.” This one is a little long, but it summarizes the whole story AND includes the donor!

Don’t start with a statistic

In a nutshell, experts love statistics. But donor’s don’t.

Experts like you, your staff, and your incredible program people love statistics. Statistics are meaningful to experts because they provide context, show progress, and show expertise.

But that’s not what most donors are looking for. They are looking for a quick, easy way to know whether their gift to your organization made a difference. That’s usually a story of a beneficiary, with a little editorial content for how the donor’s gift helped the beneficiary.

Starting with a statistic immediately reduces the number of people who will keep reading because it asks the donor to understand something new and then understand why it’s important or helpful. That’s a lot to ask of a non-expert donor who is moving fast.

She’d rather read a story, my friend. So start with a story.

Bad Example: “Only one in nine children in our great state will ever go to a symphony.”

Drama! Action! Peril!

I’m going to quote my post on appeal letters on this one:

“Fill it with drama or make it interesting to your donor. Drama and tension are two of the best tools you have for engaging their interest. Or make it something that would be interesting to your donor – which is likely something different than would be interesting to you!”

My best one-liner about this is, “You want to write like the National Inquirer, not National Geographic.” That probably over-dramatizes it, but drama and emotion catch people’s interest. Most nonprofits assume they have their donor’s interest – and that’s a bad assumption.

Bad Example: “Drs. Martha and Robert Bryant strive to use their medical practice to make an impact.” Who are those people? Why should the donor keep reading?

Good Example: “The first night Jacqueline went to community theater, her life changed in the second act.”

So as you go to work on your next newsletter, here’s what I hope you’ll remember:

  1. Very few people will read an entire newsletter article. So get to the point very quickly, summarize it, then tell the full scope of the story.
  2. To increase the chances that your donor will read more, make your first sentence easy to read and interesting to her!

This post was originally published on February 2, 2018.

Greatest Hit: Five Tips for the First Sentence of your Next Appeal Letter

Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter

The following post is one of the most popular posts in the history of this blog.

I’m reposting it because you might be new, or you might be like me and need to hear a piece of advice more than once before it really sinks in.

This post proved helpful to thousands of people, I hope it’s helpful for you!

The first sentence of your next appeal letter is really important.

Most readers will use it to decide whether to keep reading… or start thinking about whether to recycle or delete your message.

So yeah, it’s important. We’ve written hundreds of appeals and e-appeals over the years, and studied the results. Here are five tips to make your first sentence GREAT:

1. Short and Sweet

Your first sentence should be short and easy to understand. If your first sentence is long, complex, has lots of commas and clauses, and maybe a statistic or two, would you want to keep wading through? Remember, your reader is using it to decide whether to keep reading… or not.

2. Drama, Drama, Drama

Fill it with drama or make it interesting to your donor. Drama and tension are two of the best tools you have for engaging their interest. Or make it something that would be interesting to your donor – which is likely something different than would be interesting to you!

The worst example of this I ever saw was a first sentence that said, “Recently we hosted a staff leadership seminar.” Ouch.

3. What’s The Point?

One of the best first sentences is, “I’m writing to you today because…” That sentence forces you to get right to the point – which donors really appreciate. You want to know why so few donors actually read fundraising letters? It’s because they know how long it takes most nonprofits to get to the point! So if you and your organization get to the point quickly, your donor will be far more likely to read more.

4. Who Cares?

Another great tactic is to make the first sentence about the donor. Think “I know you care about Koala bears” or “You are one of our most generous donors, so I think you’ll want to know…” Listen, most of the other organizations she donates to wax poetic about totally unrelated things or about how great they are. When you write her and talk about her, she’ll love it!

5. Less is More

After you’ve written the first draft of your appeal, you can often delete your first couple of sentences or paragraphs. This happens to me all the time in my own writing, and in appeal letters that I edit for clients. In the first draft, the first couple sentences or paragraphs are often just warmup. They can be deleted and your letter will be stronger because now it gets right to the point.

So next time you’re writing, pay special attention to your first sentence. Keep it short and easy to read. Fill it with drama if you can. And when more people read your writing, more people will donate!

This post was originally published on June 21, 2017.

What We Have Got Here is a Failure to Differentiate


With apologies to the famous line from Cool Hand Luke, I’d like to talk about differentiation.

Savvy Fundraisers are constantly differentiating as they create an organization’s fundraising.

As you create your organization’s fundraising in 2022, you’ll raise more money and keep more of your donors if you differentiate each piece of fundraising based on:

  • How you’re communicating with your audience
  • Who you’re communicating to
  • What you’re trying to achieve

Let’s look at each…

HOW You’re Communicating

How you communicate with a donor (or potential donor) affects what you can say and how you can say it.

Everyone knows that what you’d say in a long lunch with a donor is different than what you’d say in a two-page direct mail letter.

How you’re communicating in those two contexts is completely different.

But let’s take that even farther: what you’d say in a grant application is different than what you’d say in a two-page direct mail letter.

Even though both are examples of written communication, they are clearly different.  Grant applications are more likely to be pored over, while direct mail letters are more likely to be scanned.

Therefore, a grant application should be written entirely differently than a direct mail letter. 

The form that the communication takes place in should affect what you say and how you say it.

WHO You’re Communicating To

Everyone knows that you would say different things to a person who has a Ph.D. in whatever your organization does, than you would say to a person who knows next to nothing about your field.

We all know that we’d say different things to an involved Major Donor than we would to a person who has made their very first gift.

Who you are talking to should affect what you say and how you say it.

WHAT You’re Trying To Achieve

Everyone knows that you would say different things to a person depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

If you want to ask someone for a favor, you’d say different things than if you were praising them for a job well done.

What you’re hoping to achieve with a piece of communication should affect what you say and how you say it.

What To Look Out For

When I review pieces of fundraising that didn’t work well, I almost always spot a lack of differentiation:

  • The How: a direct mail letter that sounds like a grant application
  • The Who: a newsletter that was written assuming that audience is made up of Ph.D.’s
  • The What: a Thank You email that thanks me for my first gift to an organization and then (in the second paragraph!) asks me to give more and join a high-priced giving circle.

This failure to differentiate costs nonprofits millions of dollars a year.

The causes are pretty simple.  There are inexperienced fundraisers and organizations.  They just don’t know, and you can’t hold it against them because everyone was inexperienced at one point.

And there are people who prefer a specific type or style of communication and refuse to differentiate, using that type or style regardless of context. 

This post is an attempt to help both groups see how they are causing their organization to engage their donors less, and to raise less money.

Does Your Organization Need to Differentiate?

The more you can differentiate, the more money you’ll raise.

For organizations that need to differentiate, one question should become forbidden for anyone to ask.  That question is, “Do we like this piece of fundraising?”

Because liking a piece of fundraising is usually a function of it being the type or style that’s preferred – and isn’t an indication of whether it will work well, or not.

And then one question becomes mandatory – “What would work best in this situation?”

This leads to specific questions like:

  • Who is this piece talking to, and what do they know?
  • What form of communication are we using, and how should that effect what we’re saying?
  • What’s the purpose of this particular piece of communication, and is everything in it working to achieve that one purpose?

Ask questions that help you differentiate, and you’ll create fundraising that engages your donors and raises more money.

Your internal audiences might not prefer your new fundraising as much. But your fundraising should be judged more on how much it raises as opposed to whether internal audiences prefer it. 

Emotion Leads to Action, Reason Leads to Conclusions

As you start your fundraising work for 2022, let me give you a simple idea.

It’s from the Canadian neurologist Donald B Calne:

“The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action, while reason leads to conclusions.”

When you create fundraising, one of your primary goals should be to write and design to reveal the strong emotions held by your donors.

If you can tap into their emotions, you’ll cause more action.

If you cause more action, you’ll raise more money.

So. As you create fundraising this year, aim for the heart. If you or anyone on your staff finds yourselves trying to “convince donors to support us” … you’re most likely creating fundraising that attempts to “reason” donors into giving. You’ll absolutely get some gifts. But you’ll also get a lot of conclusions – which are hard to deposit.

If you want more gifts you can deposit and use to fund your programs, use stories. Talk about shared values. Talk about needs, conflicts and triumphs.

This fundraising thing we’re doing. It’s not hand-wavy. It’s science.

Please Don’t “Continue To”

To be continued...

When you ask a donor for a gift in an appeal or e-appeal, you will raise more money if you can focus the donor’s attention on the change that their gift will cause.

Unfortunately, organizations often accidentally emphasize the lack of change that a donor’s gift will cause – and they raise less money because of it.

This is happening every time you see the phrase “continue to” in an appeal or e-appeal.

Example Time

Here are three examples of how “continue to” causes an organization to raise less money from appeals that recently came across my desk…

“Your gift to the Annual Fund enables us to continue to provide the necessary support, programs, and services to our students.”

According to that sentence, will anything change if the reader gives a gift? Nope. If the reader gives, the “necessary support, programs and services” will continue to be provided. There will be no change if the reader gives a gift.

Here’s another example:

“Please join us in making a contribution so we can continue to do work like this…”

If the reader gives, the work will continue to get done. There will be no change.

“Your help is needed now more than ever, so we can continue to provide safe, stable and affordable homes to those in need.”

If the reader gives a gift, the work will continue to get done. No change.

How To Emphasize Change

Here’s how to emphasize the change, using two of the examples above.

Original copy:

“Your gift to the Annual Fund enables us to continue to provide the necessary support, programs, and services to our students.”

New copy:

“Your gift to the Annual Fund will provide necessary support, programs and services to our students.”

Even better copy:

“Your gift to the Annual Fund will provide necessary support, programs and services to a student.”

Compare the “even better” copy to the original. Doesn’t it feel stronger and more direct? I can more-or-less guarantee that it would raise more money.

Here’s the second example from earlier:

“Your help is needed now more than ever, so we can continue to provide safe, stable and affordable homes to those in need.”

New copy:

“Your help is needed now more than ever to provide safe, stable and affordable homes to those in need.”

Even better copy:

“Your help is needed now to provide a safe, stable and affordable home to a family in need.”

Every single one of those sentences is accurate and truthful. But the “new” and “even better” copy would help those organizations raise more money.


In our experience, one of the qualities of successful appeals is that the change that the donor’s gift will make is obvious to the reader.

Your appeal letter is likely to raise more if it tells your donor that their gift will cause meaningful change, as opposed to funding the status quo.

So watch out for “continue to” in your fundraising this year – make sure you’re not accidentally downplaying the big change your organization makes in the world.

Because donors give gifts to make a change. To right a wrong. To stop an evil. To help a person. To advance a cause.

Ask donors to make a meaningful change with their gift and you’ll receive both more gifts and more meaningful gifts.

Fundraising is a Pie-Eating Contest

Pie eating.

It’s the best line I’ve ever heard about fundraising:

Fundraising is a pie-eating contest and the prize for the winner is… more pie!

Feels true, doesn’t it? You have a great fundraising year, and the result is that you’re asked to raise 7% more the next year.

It’s a great, crazy job we have.

My hope for you is that you ate a lot of pie this year, and you get a few days off to enjoy it.

Enjoy your holidays… more pie awaits!

Imagined Constraints Can Lead to Real Revenue

Boy in a box.

The following is a guest post from Mike Duerksen of Buildgood in Canada.

The exercise he proposes is a GREAT way for your organization to uncover (quickly, in my experience) actions you can take next year to help you raise more money and keep more of your donors.

Think of the exercise as making your fundraising healthier & more robust and increasing your organization’s immunity to difficulties.

The little boy isn’t limited by the shape of the cardboard box.

Yesterday it was a secret cave. Today it’s a plane flying through the skies. Tomorrow it might be a pirate ship.

His only constraint is his imagination, not the four walls that box him in.

And that’s the power of constraints: they force creativity.

Right now your nonprofit might be in a cardboard box. And you feel stuck. And you’re waiting for the day when the walls come down again.

But what if the pandemic is giving you a rare chance to think creatively about how you can free yourself of the ways you’ve always done things?

What if you can use the new limits imposed on you to re-imagine the ways you show up in the world?

And what if you can actually improve your fundraising and future-proof your revenue to protect yourself from the next crisis?

Chances are you can…by playing a game of constraints.

What Is A Game Of Constraints?

A game of constraints is a simple exercise where you imagine a scenario that might seem impossible or unlikely.

Then you brainstorm as many ways as possible to overcome the problem.

You’ll be surprised how quickly you can free your mind from thinking:

  • “We can’t do that!” to
  • “This is tough, but maybe not impossible” to
  • “Here’s one way we could respond that would solve the problem”

You can have a lot of fun playing these games and stretching your imagination. But you’ll also feel energized about the opportunities ahead.

You’ll be more confident in your ability to solve potential problems. And you’ll identify where you are weak today, so you can become more resilient for tomorrow.

Ready to play some games?

5 Games You Can Play Today

Here’s a few scenarios to get you started…


Imagine a world where the postal service is no longer operating. From one day to the next, you can no longer reach your donors by mail. How will you communicate with them?

This is a great game to start with because we have seen postal strikes before. And when COVID hit, some print houses weren’t sure at first if they would keep operating

Chances are the options you came up with were to email, call or use social media to reach your donors.

Now ask yourself: How many emails do we have on file? What’s our email open rate? How many phone numbers? How many cellphone numbers? What do we need to do today to make sure we increase emails and phone numbers on file?

What you’ll discover: You likely need a better strategy to harvest donor email addresses and phone numbers.


Imagine a world where you are no longer able to host any fundraising events in person. How do you engage current donors so they feel like they are still part of a community of givers? How do you attract new donors? What tools or approaches do you use instead?

This one hits close for many nonprofits right now. Some are finding success (and profitability!) moving to online formats.

Others are discovering that simply moving your event online is not a sound strategy — you have to re-invent the entire experience.

And some are letting go of events altogether, replacing them with something else.

What you’ll discover: There are many ways to draw donors closer to your mission outside of special events that may yield higher net revenue, save you time and give your donors a greater sense of connectedness.


Imagine a world where you can no longer get funding from public and private foundations, governments and other institutional funders. How will you raise your yearly budget? How much more will you need to raise from individual donors? How many more individual donors do you need to get there?

This is one of the most important games you can play if you rely on applying for large grants and government funding every year.

Priorities for funders change. Governments change. Key relationship players at foundations change.

Don’t wait until you are denied funding before creating a strategy to diversify your income.

What you’ll discover: You may need to invest in your individual giving program a lot more in the coming years to protect your mission from future volatility.


Imagine a world where the largest gift you can secure from anyone is $10,000. How many $10,000 donors would you need? How many $5,000 donors? Or $2,500? How would you identify who in your donor file can upgrade to give close to $10,000? How would that change the way you treat your donors?

Some organizations are getting the highest gifts in their history right now. Others are seeing major donors sit back a bit while they evaluate the situation.

Meanwhile, foundational donors — those in the “mass” file — are stepping up. Many just needed to be challenged with a clear and urgent problem to solve.

What you’ll discover: You likely have hidden value in your middle donor file — and you likely need a strategy to help each donor in your mass file give the best gift they can.


Imagine a world where you can no longer acquire new donors. All you have to work with is your existing records in your database. How will you ensure your active donors don’t lapse? How will you convert your loyal donors to monthly givers? How will you upgrade your active donors to middle donors? How will you upgrade your middle donors to major donors? How will you re-activate your lapsed donors?

The point of this game is to help you realize that you can grow the value of your current donor file. You just need to pay some attention to the donors you’re at risk of losing.

Because the donors you already have are a lot more valuable than the ones you hope to acquire.

After playing this game, you’ve probably identified a few ways you can become a smarter fundraiser using the resources at hand.

What you’ll discover: You have a lot of room to improve your donor retention, and win back donors who haven’t engaged in a while.

Your Next Steps: Play A Game With Your Team

Now it’s your turn.

  1. Pick one of the games above. Or create your own scenario. Then gather your team.
  2. Split into smaller groups and brainstorm. Make sure each person knows there are no bad suggestions, as long as they stay within the given constraints.
  3. Share your answers. Have each team read out their answers to each other.

What you’ll end up with is an invaluable source of raw ideas that will help you uncover better ways to serve your donors, make your fundraising more resilient and position your nonprofit for growth.

And you’ll notice your mindset will shift.

You’ll feel more prepared to meet this moment in time. You’ll be more optimistic about your ability to raise funds.

You’ll start to see the cardboard box you’re in not as a limitation, but as an opportunity to create something new.

And you’ll feel more confident that you can emerge stronger…thanks to the power of constraints.

Big thanks to Mike for letting us share his post with you. And if you’re interested in more from Mike, here’s a link to his podcast that’s focused on practical fundraising tips and strategies.