How to Choose What to Underline and Why

Underlining your letters.

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.

The Secrets of Successful Amateur Fundraising Writers

Over the past few months, we trained two people on staff at Better Fundraising to write appeals and e-appeals.

“Fundraising writing” is not what either of these capable people was hired for. But we have a core belief that fundraising writing is a knowledge issue, not a talent issue.

And today, less than a year later, these two people are creating VERY successful appeals! The appeal letters and e-appeals they are writing for our clients are raising thousands of dollars more than the clients were able to raise themselves.

It’s such a joy to see these whippersnappers have such success, and help our clients raise more money to do more good!

So I asked them to share what they are thinking about when they write. They wrote down the tips and tricks that made them so successful, so quickly. I agree with every single one of them. Follow these tips and fundraising success will be yours!

  1. Write the letter (or email) as if it is from one person to one person.
    • You want your appeals to sound conversational, as if it is a letter from one person to another. Avoid use of the word “we” and avoid language that sounds like marketing.
  2. Start your letter with the sentence, “I’m writing to you today because…”
    • You may edit it out later, but that one sentence causes you to focus on and say why you’re writing them right away.
  3. Use the word “you” a lot.
  4. Mention “the offer” early and often.
    • The offer is the very short summary of why the donor’s gift is needed today, and what the gift will do.
  5. Tell a Story of Need that shows why the donor’s gift is needed today.
    • If you share a story of a beneficiary, don’t talk about the beneficiary’s situation after they were helped. Most nonprofits tell stories in their appeal letters of people they have already been helped. You want to leave donors with the feeling that they need help now. Steven calls this ‘telling an unfinished story.’
  6. Talk about how the donor’s gift will solve the problem / meet the need, not about how your organization will solve the problem / meet the need.
  7. Ask the donor very clearly to send in a gift today.
    • Donors appreciate the directness. And then you don’t sound like one of those nonprofits that are constantly “kind of” asking you for money, but they never just say it clearly.
  8. Write at a 6th or 7th grade reading level.
    • This has nothing to do with the intelligence of your donors, and everything to do with their ability to understand your writing quickly. Use — we use it all the time.
  9. Include a P.S. that restates why the donor’s gift is needed, and what the donor’s gift will do.
  10. If you have a deadline, mention it often.
  11. The organization needs to get out of the way from between the donor and the beneficiaries.
    • We’ve been spending very little time talking about the organization that the letter is from. Instead, we talk about the people who need help or the problem that needs to be solved, and how the donor can help them and/or solve the problem.

It really is a joy to teach people how to raise more money!

If you’d like to go deeper than the list above, download our free e-book. Or if you’d like to work with us – we can coach you & your team how to fundraise more effectively, or even have us create your fundraising for you – take a look here.

For right now, be encouraged! You can be a better fundraising writer – and raise more money with your next letter or e-appeal – by following their advice above.

Appeal Letter Writing Tips

20% can produce 80% of results

What follows is a short list of quick tips for writing your next appeal letter or e-appeal.

It’s a short list because exhaustive lists can to be … exhausting.

But what happens if you’re just trying to get a little better? What if you don’t want to reinvent your fundraising, but just to do this appeal better than the last appeal?

Then this list is for you.

Think of these as the 20% of tips that get 80% of results. The next time you write, do as many of these as you can. More of your donors will get your main message – and you’ll raise more money!

  1. Be able to summarize the problem that you’re writing about, and what the donor’s gift will do to fight that problem, in no more than two jargon-free sentences.
    • Your letter could be about the problem your organization is facing right now (e.g., ‘School is out, low-income kids won’t get enough to eat this summer…’) or the bigger/long-term problem your organization was created to help solve (e.g., ‘Our Jewish culture is dying out in our city…’)
  2. Say why you’re writing in the first two or three paragraphs.
    • The phrase “I’m writing to you today because…” is magic. Use it!
  3. Directly ask your donor to send in a gift somewhere in the first three paragraphs, and somewhere in the last three paragraphs.
  4. This often works perfectly with the “I’m writing to you today because…” phrase. High-performing letters often have couplets like this at the beginning of the letter:
    • “I’m writing to you today because many low-income kids are about to spend summer at home without enough to eat. Will you please send in a gift today to provide supplemental food for at least one child?”
  5. Remember that most donors aren’t reading your letter; they are scanning it. Two of the places they are most likely to actually read are the beginning and end of your letter. So put your main message in both places to increase the chance your main message will be seen.
  6. Avoid the dreaded Wall of Text – the long paragraphs and long sentences that make up a page full of words that run together. Instead, write in short sentences and short paragraphs.
  7. Use the word “you” a lot. I mean a LOT. Your donor should feel like the letter is to her, about something she cares about, and about what she can do about it. There should be at least twice as many uses of “you” as there are mentions of the letter writer and the organization.

Now, go get ‘em! Make your next appeal a little better than the one before. If you do that a few times in a row, you’ll be amazed by how much money you raise and how many more donors you retain!