The Simple Outline for Appeals That Raise Money

letter outline

I noticed a pattern that I want to share with you.

We see a LOT of appeals around here and I read them all. And we spend a lot of time with the results because we want our coaching to be based on what works, not on what we like.

About a week ago I noticed the appeals that did not work well tended to follow the same general outline. It goes something like this:

  1. Thank you for helping in the past
  2. Let me tell you a story about someone we already helped
  3. Please help us continue this good work

I think this is fascinating because every step of that outline makes sense:

  • Of course you should thank your donors for their previous giving. That’s just being polite, and it reminds them that they’ve given before.
  • Of course you should tell them a story about a person (or thing) that’s already been helped. That shows the donor that their past gifts made a difference, that the donor can trust you, and that your organization is effective.
  • And of course you should ask them to help you continue the good work. You need their donations, and the work is good.

But here’s the thing; even though every step in that outline makes sense, appeal letters and e-appeals that follow this outline don’t raise as much money as they could. We know this from years of experimenting and testing. This is one of those places in fundraising where common sense isn’t the best sense. What you need is data.

So what’s the alternative? Here’s the outline that works best for our clients:

  1. There’s a problem right now
  2. You are needed to solve it
  3. Here’s how your gift will solve it

When our clients adopt this outline, their appeals and e-appeals immediately start to raise more money.

The next time you are appealing for funds, follow this model. You’ll raise more money. And your donors will love knowing that they helped solve a real, urgent problem.

I mean that. If you honor and respect your donors by sharing real problems that your beneficiaries and your organization are facing, Donors will love helping you. Be vulnerable with your donors, and they will reward you with their generosity!

If you want to go deeper on this issue, download our free eBook!

How to Choose What to Underline and Why


I’m going to teach you to raise more money by showing you what to emphasize in your fundraising letters.

Because if you underline or bold the right things, you’ll raise more money.

NOTE: for brevity, I’m going to lump all forms of visual emphasis as “underlining.” You might use underlining, or bolding, or highlighting, doesn’t matter. All of those are different tactics. I’m talking about the strategy of visually emphasizing small portions of your letters and e-appeals.

First, let me tell you why your underlining is so important.

Underlining has two purposes in fundraising writing. Almost nobody knows the second – and more important – purpose.

  1. Bolding or underlining signals that a sentence is important. This is true of almost any writing.
  2. But underlining also serves a second, more important purpose. The most effective fundraisers use underlining to choose for your donor which things they are most likely to read.

Because remember, most of your donors won’t read your letter from top to bottom. They will scan your letter – briefly running their eyes down the page. And as they scan, when they see a sentence that has been emphasized, they are likely to stop scanning and read.

It’s this second, more valuable purpose that most organizations don’t know about. So they underline the wrong things.

My Rule of Thumb

Here’s what I try to do. This doesn’t apply to every letter, but I try this approach first on every single letter I review or write:

  • The first thing underlined should be a statement of need, or a statement describing the problem that the organization is working on.
  • The second thing is a brief explanation of how the donor’s gift will help meet the need or solve the problem mentioned in the first underlined section.
  • The third thing is a bold call-to-action for the donor to give a gift to meet the need / solve the problem today.

If you do that, I can basically guarantee that your letter will do well. A MASSIVE number of fundraising letters don’t even have those elements, let alone emphasize them. If you have them, and you emphasize them, here’s what happens:

  • Donors know immediately what you’re writing to them about
  • Donors know immediately what they can do to help
  • Donors know immediately that they are needed!

Because of those things your donors are more likely to read more. And more likely to donate more.

There Are Some Sub-Rules

  1. No pronouns. Remember that it’s very likely that a person reading the underlined sentence has not read the prior sentences. So if you underline a sentence like “They need it now!” the donor does not know who “they” are and what “it” is. The sentence is basically meaningless to the donor. Their time has been wasted.
  2. Not too many. You’ve seen this before; there are four sentences that are bolded, five that are underlined, and the result is a visual mess that only a Board member would read. Be disciplined. I try to emphasize only three things per page, sometimes four.
  3. Emphasize what donors care about, not what your Org cares about. If you find yourself emphasizing a sentence like, “Our programs are the most effective in the county!” … de-emphasize it. Though it matters a lot to you, no donor is scanning your letter looking to hear how good your organization is at its job. But donors are scanning for things they are interested in. So emphasize things like, “Because of matching funds, the impact of your gift doubles!” or “I know you care about unicorns, and the local herd is in real danger.”
  4. Drama is interesting. If your organization is in a dramatic situation, or the story in the letter has real drama, underline it. Here are a couple of examples from letters we’ve worked on recently: “It was at the moment she saw the ultrasound that life in her belly stopped being a problem and became a baby” and “The enclosed Emergency Funding Program card outlines the emergency fundraising plan I’ve come up with.”

And now, I have to share that I got the idea for this post when I saw this clip from the TV show “Friends”. It turns out that Joey has never known what using ‘air quotes’ means – and he’s using them wrong (to hilarious effect). I saw it and thought, “That’s like a lot of nonprofits trying to use underlining effectively.”

If you’re offended by that, please forgive me. I see hundreds of appeal letters and e-appeals a year. I developed a sense of humor as a defense mechanism. 🙂

The good news is that learning how to use underlining is as easy as learning to use air quotes!

You can do this. Just remember that most of your donors are moving fast. Underline only what they need to know. That’s an incredible gift to a compassionate, generous, busy donor!

And if you’d like to know how Better Fundraising can create your appeals and newsletters (with very effective underlining!) take a look here.

How to Thank Your Donor So She Actually Feels Thanked

Thank You.

The goal of your Thank You and/or Receipt package is not just to acknowledge your donor’s donation.

Any organization can do that.

Any autoreply or receipt letter can do that.

Your goal should be to make your donor feel thanked, appreciated and important.


I have already shared this before, but it’s worth sharing again…

thank a donor graphic email.

When you thank her for helping your organization do its work, you’ve make it about you, about your organization.

What you want to do is make it about her. So, thank her for her generosity. Tell her what her gift is going to do (instead of saying what your organization is going to do). Tell her how important she is to your organization.

When you do that, you’ll find that most of your Thank You/Receipt copy is about her. And less of it is about your organization.

Less about You, More about Her

Donors are inundated with requests for support. In the United States, there’s one nonprofit for every 200 people. And almost all of those organizations talk about themselves. Endlessly.

But a very few of them have learned the secret: your donors are more interested in themselves – their lives, their values, their impact – than they are in your organization.

So if you talk to donors about their lives, their values and their impact, they will finally feel like a nonprofit “gets” them. They’ll feel that there’s a nonprofit that’s working on their behalf – trying to help them do what they want to do – instead of just another nonprofit trying to sound great to get their next donation.

Do you feel the fundamental difference? The posture of gratitude for what the donor did, not for what she helped your organization do?

If you can embrace that fundamental difference, and start communicating to your donors that way, you’ll begin to build a tribe of loyal donors who will give you more gifts, larger gifts, and will give to you for longer.

Five Tips for the First Sentence of Your Next Appeal Letter

Appeal Letter.

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!

EASY year-end emails that raise a ton of money

Year-end emails video still

Last year I came up with a way to make it easier than ever to raise more money with your year-end emails.

It’s a super-easy template you can follow. Your emails will take less time to create AND you’ll raise more money!

easy year end emails video still

And I know it’s July at the moment – but we focus a ton on year-end fundraising around here.

(By the way, all that focus is paying off; last year every one of our clients raised more money at year-end than the year before. That’s a great deal higher than the national average.)

We’ve noticed that the most successful fundraising organizations start creating their year-end fundraising earlier than they need to. They know things will get busy in November and December, and they know their year-end fundraising pieces are the most important pieces they send all year.

So they start early – and you can too. And watch this 7-minute video (and bookmark it!) to save yourself a bunch of time this year-end!

How to Focus on One Specific Program Yet Still Raise Undesignated Funds

I teach often about the power of using specific offers – highlighting specific programs or even parts of programs – in your appeals and e-appeals.

Then a good question always comes up:

“But how do I raise undesignated funds in my appeal letter if my appeal focuses only on one program?”

This video answers that question.

In the video I show you the things you need to say in your appeals, and the places you need to say them, to have your appeal raise undesignated funds.

I also share how to think about this approach – which is new for most people.

It’s just 5 minutes long. But watch it so that you too can enjoy the benefits of raising more money, benefits that come from talking about specific programs or parts of your organization – while raising undesignated funding!

7 Crucial Storytelling Tips to Help You Raise More Money

I make a lot of fundraising videos.

It’s a joy when a video helps a lot of people raise more money – and that’s exactly what this video has done.

I made it with Jeff Brooks and Chris Davenport.  It’s called 7 Crucial Storytelling Tips to Improve Your Fundraising

You’ll learn Jeff’s best tip for how to start your stories, my advice on the best stories to tell in appeals, and why repetition is so important to successful fundraising.

It’s a long one – 20 minutes – but if you watch just the first couple of minutes you’ll leave with a tip that will help you raise more money the very next time you send a communication to your donors. I hope you’ll watch it and raise more money!

Why Church Fundraising Dropped

Church tithe.

Most churches are raising less than they used to.

Below, I’ll talk about why that is.

The solution is not easy. (If it were easy to raise money, we’d all be raising a lot more.) But there IS a solution.

Quick Backstory

In my experience, the vast majority of churches didn’t need to be good at fundraising.

Churches didn’t need to get great at fundraising because the tithe – members giving 10% of their income to the church – meant that the church raised a lot of money despite not doing much/good fundraising.

So churches didn’t need to get good at Asking. Churches didn’t need to get good at Reporting on what donors’ / members’ gifts accomplished.

In other words, most churches didn’t need to learn the skills and approaches that nonprofits have developed over the years to help them raise more money.

(Additionally, the generational shift from Builders to Boomers has hurt church fundraising, too. Builders tended to give because they were supposed to give. Boomers tend to be more skeptical; they want to know more about why their gift is needed and what it will accomplish. Personally I think this skepticism is warranted, even though it makes fundraising harder.)

Quick Story

Recently my pastor preached a fantastic sermon about why tithing was a practice that didn’t make sense in today’s world. Everything he said made a ton of sense.

And giving at the church dropped overnight.


Because many people no longer felt like they had to give. They’d been taught to tithe; tithing was a duty. The tithe was one of the main reasons people gave as much as they did.

They gave less because their main reason for giving had been removed.

And that reason was not replaced with any other reasons.

(The lesson, as always: if you remove a reason to give today, you raise less money.)

What Should Churches Do?

To solve this problem, let’s admit that the pastor and leadership team usually aren’t aware of the fundraising skills needed to thrive in today’s church fundraising environment.

But here are the two things they need to do:

  1. Give their congregations new, powerful reasons to give today
  2. Get great at the Skills and Strategies that nonprofits use to engage donors and raise money

Skills and Strategies like:

  • Give people multiple reasons to give today
  • Get good at describing the outcomes of people’s gifts
  • Develop and use great offers
  • Report back to donors on the outcomes of their giving
  • Give donors the credit for those outcomes
  • Segment donors, and treat major donors differently than mass donors
  • In addition to talking about giving from the point of view of God and the church, talk about what’s in it for the donor

The good news (ha!) for churches is that all of these are learnable skills. Because fundraising is a knowledge issue, not a talent issue.

Get in touch if you’d like to speak with us or connect us with your church!

Super Simple Segmentation

Segmentation list.

You can save a lot of money by segmenting your mailing lists.

I’m going to make a couple of super simple recommendations here, then I’ll unpack why:

Only mail your appeal letters and newsletters to donors
who have given you a gift in the previous 18 months.

Of course it gets more complex than that, as your donor file grows.

But if you’re new to segmentation, here’s where to start: mail only to donors who have given a gift in the last year and a half.

Why Just Those People?

Two reasons:

  1. The longer it’s been since a person gave your organization a gift, the less likely they are to give you another gift. (This has been tested, analyzed and proven again and again.)
  2. The dropoff in a donor’s likelihood to give you another gift is not a straight line. There’s a real “cliff” 12 months after a donor’s last gift.

When sophisticated organizations analyze the success of their mailings, they notice something: it often costs more to mail their lapsed donors than the income they receive from those donors.

Here’s what that means for you: if you’re sending your mailings to more people than “donors in the last 18 months,” you’re almost certainly throwing some money down the drain.

So the savvy organizations stop mailing those folks – with a couple of exceptions.

Should You Ever Mail Your Lapsed Donors?

Absolutely. But do it smartly:

  1. Mail them only a couple times a year. Pick those times carefully; they are usually your Holiday / Year-end Appeal, and your other best-performing appeal.
  2. When you do, create a version of your main appeal just for your lapsed donors. That version should, right at the beginning, tell the donor that you haven’t heard from them in a while. It usually goes something like, “Dear [NAME], I haven’t heard from you in a while, but I’m writing today because [URGENT REASON].” Then use the rest of your original letter.

Nerd Nerd Nerd

Please forgive me, the Teacher / Explainer / Nerd in me is making me say something.

Most nonprofits with large mail files do not follow my recommendation above. Instead of mailing to donors in the last 18 months, they mail donors who have given a gift in the last 12 months.

You know that “cliff” I mentioned earlier? It’s real. After it’s been 13 months since a donor gave you a gift, their chances of giving you another gift really drop. Fast. So most larger organizations don’t waste money by mailing donors who are unlikely to give a gift.

But I recommended 0 – 18 months above because, through testing, we’ve found it fruitful for smaller nonprofits.

Why? Because smaller nonprofits aren’t mailing their donors often enough. They just aren’t giving their donors enough opportunities to give. So when we mail to donors 0 – 18 months, we give the 13 to 18-month donors another chance or two to give a gift. And those gifts (plus the additional revenue from reactivating those donors) make the investment to mail them a good one.

What Should You Do?

The next time you pull a mailing list, critically think through who you are selecting.

If you’re mailing more people than “donors 0-18 months,” you can save real money by cutting your mailing costs!