Before & After

Once Upon a Time

Here’s another fundraising “before & after” for your reading pleasure.

It’s the first sentence of an appeal, and it feels like a great example of all the thinking that goes into successful first sentences – and into successful direct response fundraising in general.

Here’s how it arrived on my desk:

  • I send this urgent letter to you because our organization-supported orphanages are overwhelmed, and in desperate need of help.

This is very strong fundraising.  It’s clearly urgent.  The word “you” is used.  It’s clear that there’s a specific problem that the donor can help with. 

But I thought it could be stronger.  Here’s how it looked when I was done with it:

  • You’re receiving this urgent letter because there’s an orphanage that’s overwhelmed and in desperate need of help.

Let me break down the changes and tell you why I made them…

You > I

Notice how the first word of the letter changed from “I” to “You.”

“I send this urgent letter to you…” changed to “You’re receiving this urgent letter…”

“I sent…” puts the focus and the action on the letter writer.  “You’re receiving…” immediately puts the focus and action on the recipient. 

Plus, we humans are trained to be more likely to read and respond to the word “you” … so I moved “you” to be the very first word of the appeal.

Our organization-supported

I deleted the phrase “our organization-supported” from before “orphanages.”

Mentioning that the orphanages are supported by the organization doesn’t help make the case that the donor should send in a gift today.

In fact, it weakens the case because it spends valuable time focusing on who has funded things in the past instead of focusing on what the need is today.

And finally, always remember how fast donors are moving.  Go back and read the first sentence again.  But quickly, like a donor.  Doesn’t it say that the orphanages are supported by the organization?  Wouldn’t it be reasonable for the quickly-scanning reader to think, “If the orphanages are supported by the organization, why do they need my help?”

“Orphanage” Is Better Than “Orphanages”

Note that “orphanages” became “orphanage” (singular). 

Why?  At the beginning of any direct response fundraising, I want to present the donor with a problem that is solvable.  If I tell her that a bunch of orphanages are overwhelmed, I’ve likely presented the donor with a problem that is too big for her to solve.

In our experience, when you focus fundraising on problems that are too big for the donor to meaningfully help with a gift, you get fewer gifts.

So rather than saying “orphanages are overwhelmed” (potentially a very big problem), I changed the sentence to read, “an orphanage is overwhelmed” (a smaller problem where a donor is more likely to feel like she can make a meaningful difference).

Many nonprofits believe that sharing the large size of a problem makes donors more likely to give a gift.  In direct response fundraising, it’s generally the opposite; if you present your donors with a smaller problem where they feel they can make a meaningful difference with a gift today, they’re more likely to make a gift today.

Remove the Comma!

My general rule is to make first sentences as simple and easy-to-understand as possible.

So “…overwhelmed, and in desperate need of help” became “…overwhelmed and in desperate need of help.”

It’s a tiny little change.  But you want to think of the first sentence as the onramp to your whole appeal.  If your onramp is easy to understand and keeps your reader moving forward, your reader is more likely to continue reading your letter or email.

If your onramp is a perfect, well-formed, multi-clause sentence that your high school English teacher would reward you for, and the comma-induced pauses add richness and complexity… well, it’s statistically less likely that people will continue to read your letter or email.

All That From One Sentence?

Yup.  It’s a curse of the trade.  When every word matters, and lives or livelihoods or real life consequences are on the line, you tend to obsess about each word.

Even as I’m writing this blog post I’ve thought of a way to make it better.  And I’m annoyed at myself for not noticing it on my initial pass.

But here’s the thing for you: just practice.  You’ll get better and better.  With email fundraising, the positive feedback loop is almost instantaneous.  You can get very good at this stuff, very quickly, if you’re willing to practice. 

Don’t treat each piece of fundraising as precious.  Write e-appeals, do the best you can, and send them out.

After all, for most smaller organizations it’s easy to make the argument that the volume of fundraising you send out is more important that the quality.  Just practice.

Most likely, you’re not communicating to your donors enough.

Go practice!  What can you write and email out this week to learn from?

Three Editing Principles


In my first job as a fundraising writer, my mentor regularly and rigorously edited my work. 

It was painful. 

But I’m forever grateful because he always explained the “why” behind the edits.  And over time I became a more effective writer.

In an effort to “pass it on,” here are three edits I made in the last week.  Hopefully seeing the “before” and the “after” – and knowing why the edit was made – will help you in the same way it helped me…

Start with the Most Important Info

Original copy:
“Today, you have an incredible opportunity. Thanks to the generosity of [company name], your gift will be TRIPLED up to $40,000.”

Edited Copy:
“Your gift will be TRIPLED up to $40,000! What an incredible opportunity to increase your impact, thanks to the generosity of [company name].”

Put the most important information first.

The example paragraph contains three ideas: the donor has an opportunity, the matching funds are provided by a company, and the donor’s gift will triple.  Of those three, the most important idea *to the donor* is that their gift will triple.  Arrange the ideas in the paragraph so that the most important idea is first. 

You never want to put important information at the end of a paragraph. A significant percentage of people will scan your letter or email (instead of reading it).  And “scanners” often don’t read more than the first few words of a paragraph. 

“Don’t bury the lede” is in the Donor Communications Constitution for a reason.

Avoid Ambiguity

Original copy:
“Her mom’s ability to work has been impacted by the pandemic.”

Edited Copy:
“Her mom hasn’t been able to work as much because of the pandemic.”

Avoid words and phrases that can mean multiple things.

The phrase “ability to work has been impacted” is value neutral; the ‘impact’ could be either good or bad.  But the job of this sentence (and the paragraph it resides in) is to provide evidence that a gift is needed today.  The edited copy makes it clearer, faster, that the situation is a negative one. 

Any time you require a reader to figure out exactly what you mean, you’ve increased the chances they will abandon your email or letter. 

Make It About the Reader

Original copy:
“We still need your help to reach our match goal.”

Edited Copy:
“Your help is still needed, and your gift will be doubled.”

Donors are more interested in themselves than they are in organizations.

The sentence, “We still need your help to reach our match goal” is mostly about the organization.  It’s the organization that needs help.  It’s the organization’s goal. 

But that sentence can be re-written to be about the reader.  “Your help is needed, and your gift will be doubled.”   And we’ve turned the slightly ambiguous phrase “match goal” into a donor benefit; their gift will be doubled.

Editing your direct response fundraising to make it more about your reader and their interests is a counter-intuitive but proven approach to raising more money.