Make Your Appeal Letters Accessible

Accessible typewriter.

We want to help you create appeal letters that are accessible for your donors.

You may have heard that the average donor is a 65-year-old woman.  She receives a LOT of mail.  To get through it all, she’s scanning and in a hurry.  But that doesn’t change the fact that she wants to make a difference.

The easier it is for a donor to read and understand your appeals, the more accessible your appeals are, and the more likely your donors are to give.

Here are some ways to make your appeals more accessible for your donors:

  • Use font size 12 and up.
  • Indent the beginning of each paragraph.
  • Write in high-contrast colors (black text on white paper).
  • Write at a middle-school grade level.
  • Use underlines and bolded sentences to show donors the most important sentences.  Each emphasized phrase should be understandable without reading the whole letter in case the highlighted sentences are the only ones she has time to read.
  • Use a double-space after a period.  It will be slightly easier for her to separate your sentences.

Writing accessible appeal letters will help more of your appeals get read, and show your donor the incredible difference she can make for your beneficiaries.  But your donor won’t know the difference she can make if the appeal is written in small text she can’t read, or if it uses colors she can’t see clearly.

It’s little changes like this that will make your appeal letters accessible, and help you raise more money!

What Becker the Yellow Lab Can Teach You about Fundraising Offers

Recently, I came across the strongest, clearest “offer” I’ve ever seen.

This “offer” came from my dog-nephew, Becker. He’s a one-year-old yellow lab.

Becker LOVES when people visit his house. And he presents one clear offer to each visitor:

“Will you play tug with me?”

Becker shares this offer using his warm brown doggie eyes, with a toy in his mouth and FULL confidence that you will say YES!

When you DO say yes, here’s the game:

You hold onto a toy that gets increasingly slimy while Becker tugs and shakes the toy until your teeth rattle. If you let go, he gives you a puzzled look and then gives you a chance to try again.

Taken at face value, this isn’t a game I would choose to play.

But I say yes nearly every time, because Becker presents his offer (play tug with me!) with urgency and contagious excitement (excited eyes and wagging tail). And I know what he wants is for me to grab the toy and hang on for dear life.

If I don’t respond, he is doggedly persistent and keeps nudging me with the toy until I respond.

Becker does all this without saying a word!

YOU can have this kind of success with your fundraising.

You see, Becker’s offer has three key nuggets that also make an effective fundraising offer.

  1. Shows a clear need
  2. Is urgent
  3. Tells the recipient exactly how to respond

When your fundraising offer is that clear, your donor doesn’t have to guess what’s needed right now. Nor does she have to guess what her gift will make happen. She knows exactly what to do!

This means you’re more likely to get a response and raise more money for your cause and your organization.

So next time you’re putting together a fundraising offer — whether it’s for an appeal, email, event, or in-person meeting — make sure you include all three of Becker’s heart-tugging tactics. Be clear with the need. Share the urgency. And make sure your donor knows what to do next with a clear instruction like “send in a gift today using the envelope I’ve enclosed for you.”

Start on Common Ground

Brain fog.

If you would like your letters and emails to raise more money, they should begin by talking about something the donor already understands, as opposed to asking the donor to learn something new.

Here’s a made-up example of an appeal that starts by asking the donor to learn new things.

Did you know that 19% of the families in our community have no exposure to the Arts? We call them L.E.A.H.s (Lacking Arts Exposure Households) and a LEAH might be arts-curious, but never had an enjoyable introduction to the Arts that was relevant to their life.

Look at all the work the reader has to do:

  • Understand a statistic
  • Learn a new acronym
  • Learn a new phrase (“arts-curious”)

All that and they haven’t reached the second paragraph!

A Neuroscientist would say, “That paragraph puts a large cognitive load on the reader.” So do you think the reader is more likely to keep reading, or less likely to keep reading, after a paragraph like that?

Now, here’s an alternative approach to the first paragraph, one that begins with what the donor already knows…

A lot of families in our community don’t have the same relationship with the Arts that you and I do. And I know you’d love for everyone to experience the same fulfillment and joy that you feel. But too many people were never introduced to the Arts in a way that was relevant to their life.

In addition to sounding more personal and less like a teacher, that paragraph opens by talking about things the donor already understands and cares about.

A paragraph that speaks to the common ground the organization shares with the donor will create connection with the donor.

The donor is now more likely to keep reading. Which means the donor is now more likely to donate.

Is there ever time for a statistic or bit of education? Sure. But most likely at an event or in some other context (lunch with a major donor, blog post) where both you and the donor have more time.

In a context like the mail or email where donors are moving fast (when was the last time you read a fundraising email top to bottom on your phone?) start with something the donor already knows. Not an education barrier.

Be careful with the phrase, ‘You can help a person like…’


It’s a classic fundraising move.

The appeal letter or email tells a story about a person that your organization has already helped. Let’s call her Catherine. At the end of the story, thanks to your organization’s work, Catherine is doing great.

Then the very next paragraph says, “You can help a person like Catherine today with a gift!”

Whenever I see that I wonder to myself…

“Why did they ask me to help a person ‘like Catherine’? Catherine does not need my help! The whole emphasis of the story is that she’s been helped and is doing great – so if the person is ‘like Catherine’ then they don’t need my help!

It doesn’t make sense to ask the donor to help a person who has already been helped… right?!?

Now, you and I both know what’s going on here. The organization is using the phrase “help a person like Catherine” to mean something like, “help a person who today needs the same type of help that Catherine received.”

But here’s the problem. By not clearly saying what they mean, the letter is a) a little harder to understand, and b) hiding the need.

If I’ve learned anything in my fundraising writing career (30 years as of last month!) it’s that clearly saying what you mean will raise more money than kind of hinting at it and hoping that donors will get it. And I’ve learned that saying that “there are people who need help today” will help you raise more money (and help more people) than accidentally hiding the need.

So, I replace “help a person like…” with sentences like

  • “…help a person who is in the same situation today that Catherine was in: [describe the situation Catherine was facing that she needed help with].” An example of this would be, “You can help a person who is in the same situation today that Catherine was in: unable to afford a college education on her own.” This option still links the statement to Catherine, and clearly states the need that exists today.
  • Here’s another option: “…help a person that [state the services you provide and how they meet the needs]…” For example, “You can help a person by providing a scholarship that will enable them to go to college.” This option doesn’t flat out state the need, but it clearly indicates that the need exists.

It’s good to always remember how fast most individual donors are moving when they read fundraising.

So it’s good to review fundraising writing to make sure it means exactly what we are trying to mean. Any time we Fundraisers make the donor have to figure out what we mean, we raise less money.

Right Value, Wrong Place


Something happened to me in 2002 or 2003 and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

It’s foundational to our approach to fundraising.

I was part of a team serving a large, national charity you’ve likely heard of. They focus on hunger here in the US.

This organization did not like to use the word “hungry” to describe their beneficiaries. They preferred the phrase, “food insecure.”

The team I was a part of were pretty sure that asking a donor to “help a child that is food insecure” would raise less money than asking a donor to “help a child that is hungry.”

The organization allowed us to do a head-to-head test. The results came back and what we suspected was true: when the organization asked donors to help a child who is hungry (or “suffering from hunger” or something similar) they raised more money. And when they asked donors to help a child who is food insecure (or “suffering from food insecurity” or something similar) they raised less money.

The results of the test were shared with the higher-ups at the organization. The ruling came back:

“We’re going to stick with using ‘food insecurity.’ It’s more accurate. Please continue to use ‘food insecurity’ moving forward.”

I was outraged at the time. This organization was making a choice that they knew would cause them to raise less money and help fewer people! (I was also pretty young and hadn’t yet experienced that things like this happen all the time.)

Looking back, my impression is that their decision seemed to be driven by two ideas:

  1. They valued sounding professional
  2. They valued being perfectly accurate

While I agree in principle with both of those values, I’ve come to see how much those values applied in the wrong places can cause an organization to raise less and do less than it could.

On Sounding Professional

The most successful fundraising organizations concern themselves with writing and talking in a way that their donors can quickly understand. They value being understood by the audience more than they value sounding professional.

And the most successful organizations differentiate between audiences. They sound professional when they are talking to other professionals, like partner organizations, foundations, etc. And when communicating to individual donors (who aren’t professionals!) organizations make the generous choice to speak in the donor’s language, not professional language.

On Being Perfectly Accurate

The most successful fundraising organizations tell stories and use language that is representative, not perfect. They know that being perfectly accurate is for experts and professionals – and they know that individual donors are not experts or professionals.

It’s true that “food insecurity” is a more accurate description of a host of scenarios that describe the families this organization helps. It’s also true that “hungry” is an accurate description of one of the most common scenarios that describes the families that this organization helps.

“Hungry” is perfectly legitimate. It’s just not as complete as the organization’s experts would like to be.

Their insistence on accuracy over understandability cost them revenue and impact.

Interesting sidenote to writers: the “hungry vs. food insecurity” conflict is an example of the weird instances when being more accurate can make a piece of communication less clear.

Inclusive, Not Exclusive

At Better Fundraising we help organizations see how positive organizational values like “sounding professional” and “accuracy” can accidentally cause them to create fundraising that’s exclusive.

And we work with them to make their fundraising more inclusive.

When an organization makes its fundraising more inclusive it’s often an uncomfortable process. You have to say things differently than you’re used to. You have to say different things altogether. You even format your communications differently!

But when organizations keep their beneficiaries in mind, it’s not a particularly hard process. And it’s incredibly rewarding when more money starts coming in, from a more inclusive group of donors, and more good gets done.

The Dreaded SASA LELE!

Sasa lele

Posting this because it’s fun. And it’s a perfect way to end the recent mini-series of posts about heat maps and first sentences.

I hope it rings true that all of us occasionally write and/or design things that make perfect sense to us… but causes our audience to give a quizzical, “huh?”

I’d describe a SASA LELE as any time internal folks think the writing/design/messaging is communicating well, when it’s actually causing confusion and lowering fundraising results.

Here are two “fundraising SASA LELEs” that I see all the time.

The positive appeal letter that communicates that everything is going great. There are pictures of happy, healthy people. There’s a story about someone who is doing great.

There’s 4 pictures and 500 words communicating that things are going very well… and two sentences asking for support.

SASA LELE! The message most donors receive is that everything is going great and their support is not needed right now.

The other example is the appeal letter that starts off with a Thank You and assumes the donor will keep reading.

But you know from the heat maps that a significant percentage of donors will only read the first part… think the letter is some sort of thank you note… remember that they have a bunch of other mail and bills to go through… and put the letter in the recycling.


And here’s a “hot take” for you – SASA LELE does more actual damage to organizations’ fundraising than the mythical “donor fatigue” ever has.

In your direct response fundraising, every word you write and every design choice you make needs to be with the purpose of helping that piece of communication do its one job.

So be clear. Get right to the point. Don’t be conceptual.

Any time you find yourself working on a piece of fundraising where donors need to understand the gist of it at a glance, work like crazy to make it clear, and beware SASA LELE!