An Appeal Letter Makeover: From “Organization-Centered” to “Donor-Centered”

Here’s a great lesson on how to convert an appeal letter from organization-centered over to donor-centered.African-American businessman

Sometimes writing from the donor’s point of view can be really difficult - because it’s just not intuitive.  It doesn’t come naturally.

When we actually sit down to write a letter,  our natural inclination is to remind our donor how worthwhile and important our effort is.

We want to say nice things about our organization and our work. Right?

But all the pundits say that writing about ourselves and our organization just doesn’t cut it with donors.

Tom Ahern himself (if you are not subscribing to his newsletter do it now!) keeps reminding us to use the word “you” as much as possible.

So take a look at this letter makeover.  First we have the “Before” initial draft. Then we have my “After” suggestions.

I’m a volunteer for this wonderful organization and they were kind enough to let me use the Before and After as  a teaching tool for everyone!

Will your donor ready or ditch your letter?

Will your donor read or ditch your letter?

Also please know that it’s still a work in process.  But I thought that the contrast was so stark that you could learn a lot from our efforts – even in this preliminary stage.

The “Before” Letter:

Here at the xxx, we’ve been working to raise our game since my hiring as the new executive director in June 2013.  

This year, our Annual Auction will be held in xxxx, on date. This auction is going to be a very special one, as it will be held in our capital, and we expect 250 of the state’s leading xxx patrons to attend. We need your help to make it the biggest and best annual auction to date!

 Here is how we’ve been upping our game, how we want to continue improving, and why we need a truly exceptional work of art from you this year.

You know our mission – promoting public awareness and appreciation of the history, heritage, and ongoing tradition of xxxx in our state. The better we fulfill our mission, the more we all, as a statewide community of xxxx, xxxx lovers and supporters, benefit. 

Since June 2013, we have been making a concerted effort to reconnect with xxxx artists across the state. There are a lot of you, so it is an ongoing process and dialogue, but I’m happy talk with, and listen to, anyone. Our collaboration with xxx  is in its second year. We will have two interns working on xxxx this summer, and we are actively working to increase our collaboration with their xxxx program, as well as with their sustainable tourism and marketing programs. We were recently awarded a $130,000 grant from xxxx Foundation to restart our Artist-in-Residence (AiR) program, upgrade a house on our property that will house the Artist-in-Residence, hire an Educational Program Manager, and enhance our technological capabilities. 

We’ve assembled a dynamic auction committee consisting of xxxx, xxxx person, a member of the xxx, xxxx, a member of the xxx Board, and Ms. xxxx, an influential lawyer with strong ties to our tradition, to name a few. This group has the ability to make great things happen, they are used to doing so, and they are interested in helping the xxxx make this year’s auction the best ever. These ladies do not think small.

This is why we need you, our xxxx, xxxx lovers and supporters, our core bases, to step up and help us by donating something exceptional to this year’s auction. We are on a roll. Help us keep that momentum and better fulfill our mission, one that benefits us all.  


Here’s my feedback to our organization on the first letter:


1. This letter is supposed to be an ASK – outright.

I worry that the ASK is buried way at the bottom of the letter.  We seem to have several objectives in the letter – lots of updates and then our ask. If the letter has more than one objective, it will be confusing to the reader.

Can you capture his attention?

Can you capture his attention?


2. Too much update information.

I’m confused by the fact that you are taking about yourself and hiring a new ED.

I know you are trying to make the case for the ask, but this letter talks too much about the xxxx organization.

Do the letter readers know this information already? Do they need a separate update?

We find over and over that an appeal letter should NOT be an update letter, because it seriously dilutes the ask.


3. Use of the word “Need.”

The idea of “we need this year” is a very weak ask. We typically don’t like to use the word “need.” It turns donors off.

Donors give to opportunities not needs. Try a vision statement like – “We have the opportunity to . . . ”


4. Are we using the word “you” enough?

How many uses of these words: “we” and “our” and “ours,” versus the use of the word “you?”  You need to use the word YOU in the letter far, far more than you use the word WE.

Letters like this are shown to drive donors away, because they don’t appeal to the donor.


5. What’s in it for the donor?

I would like to know what’s in it for the smart generous artist who provides this wonderful gift to our auction?

You need to talk about what’s in it for them (to have a fab successful center) – NOT what’s in it for the xxxx organization. How does the xxxx organization help the average artist?


6. Stronger opening.

Let’s draw our reader in. The opening needs to have the word “you” in it OR it needs to open with a wonderful short story. If you open with a story,  people are more likely to continue reading.

The opening talks about you as the new director in the very first sentence. It’s terrific that you are the new director but talking about yourself personally in the opening is not as strong as it could be.


7. Is the font too small? Is the letter readable?

The font seems awfully small. The letter needs to be extremely readable. Two page letters are just fine.

Don’t squeeze everything in just to get it on one page. If it’s hard to read, then no one will take the trouble to read it.


8. There’s a large unreadable block of copy in the letter.

It’s unreadable because it is too dense. Appeal letters need to have very short paragraphs because the reader is skimming.

I think all the “update” information is unnecessary; it deviates from the ask.


Here are my Donor-Centered suggestions for the letter:

Dear Mr Artist,

You’ve been wonderful to support the xxxx organization through our growth adventures! Thank you for your partnership!  (or involvement etc.) (Note: starts with the word You.)

Did you know the annual auction is coming up in September? For a change we’re having it in xxxx location, on xxxx date in the early evening so we can draw in more collectors and donors. The local collectors love to meet our artists, so please mark your calendar and be sure to attend!

There will be a special reception for our local artists – because this night is when we spotlight YOU and YOUR fabulous work. (Note: talks about what the donor will get out of this event.)

Our goal is to raise money – but also to introduce YOU to local collectors so you can expand your own market. (Note: this is something the donor wants!)

We’re writing today to ask you to donate a xxxx work to the auction. Your gift, and those of the other artists, will support the xxxx organization so we can do xxxx for you.  The center will have xxx impact etc etc etc.

Note: the ask is outright. It is in the first part of a paragraph so people will see it. Also note that the ask is connected to a benefit and an impact. Be sure you talk about the IMPACT that the xxxx organization makes in the world and what it does for donors.

Also, you don’t need to talk about the committee and who we are. You don’t need to talk about your grants and interns. Interns are generally not interesting.  Ditch the artist in residence update stuff.

Also get rid of every single word, phrase, or sentence that is not totally compelling!

Consider a bang-up closing along these lines:

Let’s make this year’s auction the best ever! We’ve got a great team of smart, connected volunteers working on sponsorships, a fabulous location, and all that is left is to have amazing works of art to auction.

Come on and join the fun! We’d love to showcase YOU to a whole new community of wealthy collectors!

Can you see the difference?

It’s all in the tone, the friendliness, the point of view, and the camaraderie you want to create with your donors.

It’s all in the point of view.

Disclaimer: I am not a professional fundraising copywriter.  I’m a pretty good writer but not a pro. These are my suggestions based on best practices. There are many pros (Harvey McKinnon,  Jeff Brooks, Mal Warwick, Tom Ahern, John Lepp to name a few) you should follow.

And if you’d like me to give you a quick 30 minute critique/makeover of your appeal letter, I’d love to help you.

Bottom line:

You can turn an organization-centered letter into a donor-centered letter. But you can see that the approach is as different as night and day.

I’d love to see some examples of your OWN before and after writings!

What do you think? Leave me a comment and let me know!!


  • Joy Branham

    Spot-on for today! Excellent suggestions! /joy

  • Megan O’Mahony

    I love how easy it can be to turn our language around and make way more of a difference than we would by going on and on about us, and what we as an organization need in order to accomplish our goals. This is great advice, clearly laid out, and I can start using this today. Thank you, Gail!

  • MP

    Great stuff, this! I am immediately redrafting! mp

  • LD

    Can you share the results the organization had, please?

  • gailperry

    Hi LD – we can’t share results because the letter is not finalized yet. ALSO – very important – the results from this letter are very much based on the current relationship our organization has with these artists. If we have not been in touch lately, we won’t get such a terrific response.

    This letter is part of a series of communications – and the ED of our organization will be following up personally with many of the artists.
    We are not expecting this letter as a stand-alone tool to secure the gift. It’s an important piece within the entire “relationship” with the donors.

  • gailperry

    thanks MP – would love to see YOUR Before and After!

  • gailperry

    thanks so much Joy. Best to you – Gail

  • LS

    Would you actually capitalize every time you say YOU and YOUR? Or was that just for emphasis??

  • Dave Eshbaugh

    Great suggestions. Will you use a P.S. to reiterate your ask?

  • gailperry

    HI LS – good catch. I tend to overuse all caps and exclamation points. Then I go back and take them out. My suggested edits were just off the top of my head and the letter was still in process the other day.

  • gailperry

    So glad this is helpful Megan!

  • gailperry

    Dave, a PS is a wonderful suggestion. thx

  • Mary Cahalane

    Indent your paragraphs, too!

  • gailperry

    Yes yes thanks!