Top 5 Appeal Tips

Top 5 Appeal Tips.

I’ve reviewed a LOT of appeal letters.

Recently someone thought to ask, “What’s the advice you give most often?”

What a great question! I immediately wanted to know because it seemed like the top 5 pieces of feedback would make a great “checklist” to share with organizations who want their appeals to raise more money. So we did the research.

From hundreds of reviews, here are the Top 5 pieces of advice I give most often when reviewing an appeal or e-appeal…

#5 – Avoid using pronouns in underlined or bolded copy

The main reason to highlight specific sentences and sentence fragments in appeals is to pre-select what you want most people to read.

Here’s what I mean by “pre-select.” Most people will scan, not read, an appeal letter. As they scan, their eyes are most likely to stop on emphasized copy. So by bolding and underlining, you are in effect choosing for the scanner the parts of your appeal they are more likely to read.

And if you’re going to take the time to choose a sentence for a person to read, make sure they can understand that sentence without having read the rest of the letter. Which brings us to underlining pronouns and why not to do it.

If you underline a sentence that reads, “He needs it today” the person scanning your letter does not know who “he” is and doesn’t know what “it” is. The person’s limited attention has just been taken by something they can’t understand. Not good.

Whatever you highlight in your letter should be able to be easily understood without the context provided by the rest of the letter. It needs to make sense if it’s the only thing the person reads.

#4 – Ask donors to help one beneficiary, not to help all the beneficiaries

Appeals and e-appeals tend to work better when the donor is asked to help one person – one beneficiary – instead of asked to help all the beneficiaries.

To give you an example, a foundation that supports a hospital would likely write, “Your gift today will help cancer patients.” But the appeal or e-appeal would raise more money if the ask was, “Your gift today will help a cancer patient.”

Why? Because when a donor is asked to help just one beneficiary, it’s easier for her to say “yes” then when she’s asked to help an unknown, larger number of beneficiaries.

Additionally, it’s more believable. Say I’m a $1,000 donor to an organization that helps kids. Do I really believe them when they say, “Your gift will help all the children we serve”? I know the organization helps thousands of children, and I’m pretty sure my gift isn’t going to help all of them.

There’s a rule I have in mind as I create or review any piece of fundraising: I need to convince the donor to help one person before they will be interested in helping more than one person.

#3 – Include no more than 1 or 2 numbers in an appeal

Most numbers in appeals need context and thought before the donor recognizes why those numbers are important.

But because most donors don’t have the context, and are unlikely to put in the thought, the numbers become a part of the appeal that the donor doesn’t really understand.

Think about that for a second; the organization is using numbers to establish credibility and expertise… but is pushing donors away. The numbers have the opposite effect than the organization intends.

The numbers can be GREAT for Foundations, Partner organizations, Government grants, etc. But not for mass donor appeal letters and e-appeals.

And of course there are some numbers that are good to have in your appeals – you can read about those here.

#2 – Avoid “we” and “our” language

Your fundraising appeals and e-appeals should sound as if they were written by one person, for one person.

It should not sound as if an organization is writing a donor. It should sound as if a person is writing a donor.

Are there times with the editorial “we” makes sense? Sure. Some parts of annual reports come to mind. Your website. Blog posts, too.

But in your direct response fundraising, sounding 1-to1 is the way to go.

#1 – The only good news in an appeal should be that the donor’s gift today will help

Here’s something we see again and again – it’s like clockwork.

We’ll start working with an organization. Their previous approach to appeals was to “share a story of something they’ve already done, then ask the donor to do more of that thing.”

We change their approach to appeals that “share what’s needed today and how the donor can help.”

Their appeals begin to raise more money immediately.

Note: you should absolutely share past successes. That’s how your donors see that their gift to your organization was a good decision. But share the successes in separate publications; your newsletters, your blog posts, stories on your website, in e-stories, and your annual report.

Focus your appeals on something the donor cares about but that needs help, and the fantastic news that she can make a difference with her gift today.

This is hard because it’s counter-intuitive. But it works like crazy.


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

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