Don’t Make These 5 Mistakes In Your Fundraising Appeal Letter

Don’t make these 5 mistakes in your year end fundraising letter!

Your year-end appeal letter just might be missing the boat.

Tom Ahern shares his tips with us!

Tom Ahern shares his tips with us!

I interviewed the great direct mail genius Tom Ahern this week for our 2013 Year-End Fundraising Telesummit. (You don’t want to miss this!)

Here are some things I bet you are doing wrong:

1. Your call to action is weak.

Lots of letters I see beat around the bush. They don’t tell the donor explicitly what step to take.

You’ve simply got to tell people what to do! And you have to lay it out in very specific words.

Give them the next step. Say: “Please fill out the reply card and send it today.”

Say “the xxx needs you today. Please make a gift right now.”

Use the word “today.”

You've got to give your donor a reason to act NOW.

You’ve got to give your donor a reason to act NOW.

Use the words “right now.”

That gives the letter a sense of urgency and a deadline.

The donor needs both – so she’ll take action and not set your letter aside to consider later.

MUST DO: Make your call to action completely explicit.

2. You are not asking enough times in the letter.

Tom Ahern says that there should be asks all over the place. Your letter should be full of asks.

That’s what the letter is for, isn’t it?

We looked at an appeal letter he recently wrote and it was chock full of asks.

Tom says there are different types of asks.

1. Soft asks.

2. Implied asks.

Is this a "soft ask or a hard ask?

Is this a “soft ask or a hard ask?

3. Hard asks.

MUST DO: Use all these different ways of asking in your letter:

  • “Please join . . . “
  • “I need you. Xxx needs you.”
  • “Can’t do it without you.”
  • “Take part.”
  • “Take these two steps. . . “
  • “Make your gift right now.”

3. Your type font is too small.

Tom says when he interviews donors in focus groups they complain a lot.

Can she read the type on your letter???

Can she read the type on your letter???

One of the main things he hears about is that the letters are hard to read.

The new standard for appeal letters is 14 point type.

Your likely donor is a woman who is over 50 years old. She needs to be able to read the dang letter, right!

MUST DO: Always use 14 point type.

4. The word “you” is not showing up enough.

Tom and I looked at his appeal letter and we counted over 20 uses of the word ‘you.”

The most important word in your letter!

The most important word in your letter!

He said that “you” is an emotional trigger. It IMMEDIATELY pulls people in.

If you don’t have “you” and “your” showing up tons and tons in your letter, throw it out and start over!

MUST DO: Add the word “you” wherever you possibly can.

5. You are not mailing often enough to your donors asking them to renew.

This is amazing.

Tom says that the reason your donors are not renewing their gifts is NOT that they don’t like you anymore.

It’s that you don’t remind them enough.

He says “what really kills your response rate is that your donors throw your letter away.”

Some of the nonprofits he works with mail 5-6 times during the year asking donors to renew their gifts from last year.

Gotta keep mailing your donors!

Gotta keep mailing your donors!

And the nonprofits get a 40-60% response rate on their letters – because they are in front of these donors – constantly putting offers in front of them asking them to join in and renew.

MUST DO: You’ve got to stay after your wonderful donors with plenty of reminders to renew their gift!

One more thing!

You need to create the best possible year-end campaign, right? And you are wondering how on earth to organize it, what to say, what the sequences are, right?

Did you know there are short cuts you can take that will jack up your dollar results? Just like these in this article!

I’ve got the TOP EXPERTS in our field for you this month – giving you exactly what you need to know – to give your fundraising power and punch right now – the fall of 2013.

Tom Ahern, Ted Hart, even the great Mal Warwick himself. All the masters in our field.

Join us in the 2013 Year-End Fundraising Telesummit!

Find out what the experts say donors want from us right now.

Find out the short cuts to use and the little things you can do to BOOST YOUR RESPONSE RATE – and the money you bring in!  Yay!   Find out about it here! 


What do you think are more BIG MISTAKES people make in their year-end appeal letter?

I left out some good ones – leave a comment and tell me what they are!


  • RJ

    title of article says 5 mistakes… but the subheader says 3 mistakes. does that count as another mistake we shouldnt make?

  • gailperry

    Ha! thanks for spotting! I fixed! Yup, triple proof read everything is a “must do!” :)

  • judith cornelius

    Most sentences are too long. Short to the point. Letter should have the 14 pt font, but should also have lots of air – it’s easier to take in and more inviting.

  • Claire Axelrad

    Great tips Gail!
    I’d add: (1) Stop using jargon; (2) avoid big words; write like a 7th-grader; (3) don’t be stilted and stuffy; write like you talk and forget all those grammar rules that were drilled into you, and… the “biggie”… (4) don’t forget to add a strong, inspiring P.S.; it’s often one of the first things people read.

  • Lisa

    My executive director signs and adds a note to every appeal. It’s great except he will often write, “Can you help?” I can’t stand it! Am I overreacting?

  • gailperry

    Well I think “can you help?” is ok. Many times the note says “please help!” so I don’t have a problem with “can you help?”

  • Amanda

    Don’t forget to include a response card!

  • Amanda

    I have my 11 year old read all my appeal letters. If she can tell me what the letter wants her to do, I figure our donors can too. She has asked questions after reading that have resulted in me re-writing the letter.

  • Claire Axelrad

    I love this tip! I’m going to advise folks to do this.

  • anonymous

    What is the appropriate response when someone asks to meet with you to ask you to partner with them financially when you know you are already over committed financially and cannot do it?

  • Anonymous

    I think a lot of these tips are great but I have to disagree with the last one. When I donate to an organization and then begin receiving appeal letters and phone calls every month or two I usually end up not renewing my donation and asking them to take me off their list. One reason is that I feel bombarded and do not have the time to speak with the solicitors or to review every letter – I usually send them straight into the recycling bin without even opening them, especially those that use the same language and brochures for each letter. The other is that, knowing how much time and effort goes into preparing appeals, I feel like my donation is not being used to support the programs themselves but rather to support the sending of more appeals. As someone who has worked at small non-profits for many years, I know how important appeals and donations from individuals are to sustaining a non-profit but I wish that I could just receive asks when my recurring donations are close to ending or once a year.

  • gailperry

    Hi! you are polite and tell them you are overcommitted. Then you wish them well. Better not to waste their time or yours!

  • gailperry

    Hi – thanks for your comment. I find that many small nonprofits are not following up often enough with their donors. They may send only one reminder.
    I am certainly not in favor of sending appeals every month or two! Or phone calling donors every month or two! That sounds like one of the huge nonprofits with a huge fundraising effort. If our donors are feeling bombarded then we are “bombing out!”
    But perhaps there’s a big difference between the strategies employed by huge nonprofits vs the smaller ones.