Appeals: 5 Mistakes You’re Making with your Appeal Letter and How to Fix Them
Hey everyone, I'm Sarah Lange and I'm here to spark the philanthropy revolution The word philanthropy means love of mankind My show is all about the ways we can open our doors and hearts so we can do more good.
Hey everybody. Thanks for joining me today. My name is Sarah Lange and I'm a professional… Yeah, I keep forgetting whether I should say philanthropist or fundraiser… So I raised money for nonprofits. I've raised over 90 million dollars, but I'm also engaged in personal philanthropy. Philanthropy meaning “love of mankind” so I do my best to be a good person every minute of every day and just try to make the world a better place every minute.
Why do I do what I do? When I was four years old I dug up arrowheads in my backyard and because I lived on the land formerly occupied by the Iroquois and the Mohawk Indians and I went in and my dad explained it to me that the Indians used to live on our land and apparently I did not like that response and stood on a kitchen chair and started yelling at my parents about giving our house back because it wasn't okay that we took it from the Indians.
In my four-year-old mind we were you know the portrayers of some serious injustice and I was gonna let them know about that but that's just who I am. I came into the world this way and I want to use all my skills and talents to help nonprofits raise more money so they could do more good because It is my belief that nonprofits are the holders of the dam, we've got our fingers in the dike per se, but if you think about the quality of life in the United States without 501c3s, it would be terrible! Right? And yet we get the crumbs all the time and we accept the crumbs. So part of this show is to show you how to get more money so you can do more good.
Today's episode is about your appeals, which I'm sure all of you are scrambling to get out the door in the next few weeks. I want to talk about the five most common mistakes that you might be making with your appeal and how to fix them.
I Want your year-end fundraising efforts to generate as much revenue as possible and if you're making one or more of these mistakes, you're leaving money on the table. Now what I found in my 35 years in the industry is that every single nonprofit is leaving some money on the table. It's just a matter of how much so let's hope it's not too much but I'm gonna give you some tips on how to fix those leaks.
Last year, let's remember that 499 billion dollars was donated to U.S. nonprofits, but 30% of that happened in December, so this is why year-end fundraising is so important, and 12% is made in the last three days of the year. You know, you're coming up against the end of the year and also you're like, “oh my gosh I have to make all my my donations.” So last three days of the year is Big push.
The first mistake I see is that you're not making a direct ask. So our annual appeal is also called direct mail because you're asking people directly for money, right that seems fairly obvious. The whole point of your appeal is to ask people for money, but don't assume they know what you want them to do. So for example; a couple years ago, I got a email from the Colgate women's soccer team, sorry guys I'm gonna throw you under the bus, and it was this great email about the season they had had and how a couple of the players had been recognized in the NCAA and, just to put this in context I actually played for Colgate women's soccer which is why I ended up with the email, but anyway, it went on and on to like ‘tell us about all the great season’ and then the coach signed off and I was like, “Great? Is this a newsletter? Do you want me to donate?” So I actually got in touch with the coach and I said, “hey, I got this email I'm so excited. What do you want me to do?” Like, “Oh, we want you to donate” It's like ”great”, I responded I said, “can you show me how to do that because I don't know where the link is”, Anyway, then I had to click like four links so I had to go to like Colgate University then I had to go to athletics then I think I had to go to like women athletics and then I think I could find the the soccer team donate button but like man, that's a lot of work to get it. I'm sure that I may have been the only person who pursued that line of inquiry to that extent but you know, that's just one way we end up leaving money on the table by not directly asking. You want to make your ask simple and straightforward. Give them the next step, give them the instructions like literally give them the instructions or say things like “Please fill out the enclosed reply card and send it back today” Or “please hop online and make a difference”, “ Our clients need your support today, please give a gift right now.”Right? You literally want to be that direct because people are busy, they're distracted and they need you to tell them what to do and when to do it. The more you can give them a direct set of instructions the better.
The other thing you want to do is create a sense of urgency because you don't want them to wait, do you? So use the word ‘today’ use the words ‘right now’ literally set up an urgency that cannot be ignored. Give them a deadline, give your gift of X number of dollars made by December 31st. This will provide the people we serve With the hope that 2024 will be a better year for them, right? So you want to push them towards that giving deadline that you set up. The donor needs both a direct ask and an urgent deadline so they don't set your letter aside for consideration ‘later’, that is like the last thing you want. You just went to all the trouble to writing this carefully crafted letter and getting in the mail and following up by email. You do not want it to just go “bleep” off the radar screen. The more people you can get to donate right this minute, the better off you're gonna be because trust me, your donors are not gonna do what I did with the Colgate soccer coach. Maybe one of them will but most of them won't.
The second mistake I see all the time is you are not asking enough. So you want to make your explicit direct ask two to three times in your letter. Ask at the beginning, in the middle and at the end. Why? Because people don't read, they skim, they go “bing, bing, bing, bing” and maybe look at your PS, that is it, and if that intrigues them, maybe they will go back to the top and actually read, but they're first gonna skim your letter so you want to make sure you're asking at the beginning and the middle and the end because that's where they're skimming, right? So don't forget
The other thing is that people again busy and distracted and you want them to make a gift and to make their gift now so if you don't ask, you don't get. Here are some ways you can ask people:
Please join us in this ‘particular mission’ or this ‘particular vision’ or this specific project or in this goal, right? So you can invite them, which is a very different energy than asking, right? Inviting is this way, asking is that way. So invite them.
Your help today will (blank) maybe it's provide ten families with food. Maybe it's provide an animal with meals for the week. Give them something explicit that their help is gonna make happen because they want to feel like the hero in your story because they are.
We can't do this without you, take these step two steps now to (blank). So maybe it's support your cause or be our hero, fill in the blank.
“The people we serve are relying on you for help, please make your gift today”, I like using that line because it kind of puts it in the reality that we're all here to serve the people who are coming to us for help. It may sound a little manipulative, but it's just the truth.
I Also suspect that you're not asking for enough. People are tired of being asked to do the least they can do and this is particularly true of Boomers, who are the wealthiest generation this country has ever seen and who want to make an impact, so ask for more money.
Use your donor data, yes that four-letter word data, to move people up the giving ladder, so you want them to keep moving up from donor to habitual donor to significant donor to major donor to a state planning, right? So not everyone's gonna go all the way up the ladder but it's our job to get them to move up a couple of rungs So move people up the giving ladder.
Ask them to give monthly gifts. You would be surprised how many people are willing to give you a monthly gift and research shows they're gonna give you more money if they do it that way. Use the trick of the second one in so we don't want to be seen as stingy, right? So I want you to put your ideal gift on the second line, so if your first gift amount is $25 and your second is $50, that's the box that's gonna get most frequently checked, if your ideal gift is $100 then go $50, $100. And if you're worried about losing the people are giving you $25, that's why you have the thing that says “other” and allows them to fill in the blank. Whether you're doing this online or in a reply kind of mechanism like a pledge card or something, you want to line up the second gift as your ideal gift because most people are gonna check that one.
It's an easy way to make more money and don't forget to reach out to your lapsed donors. If you're on my mailing list, I just sent out a sample donor survey and this is a really great tool to engage your lapsed donors, it's a little late to do it for this year so you might just want to send them a letter but at some point, you're gonna want to reach out because these people loved you at one point and supported your cause financially. You want to find out why did they walk away. For some people, It might be that they moved, maybe their philanthropic interest shifts. I've had one donors who whose family said “oh she died.” It was like, “oh, sorry” and then of course we sent them a card saying “we're sorry about your loss” and sometimes it's like for me when I had my kid in college, “don't ask me for more money” like every penny I made I felt like I was, like really, I just paid the tuition and now you want this fee and that fee. It was like every penny I made went to the university so that was not a great time to ask me to give more money. Some people just are in situations where they don't have any left over but you want to find out from your lapsed donors why did they lapse. Maybe you did something really offensive and didn't realize it, like obviously, none of you are gonna do something offensive on purpose, but maybe there was like some phrase or some Newsletter article that just struck the wrong chord, so reach out to your folks who used to be in the donor pool and find out why they left and definitely Include them in your appeal efforts.
The third thing I see all the time, frequently, is your letter is hard to read. I can't tell you how many appeal letters I see that are written in 10 or 11 point… Oh Excuse me. I just got back from Arizona jet lag is real… Okay, so they're written in 10 or 11 point font with half-inch margins or with Times New Roman font, so what's wrong with these things you ask? Well, you're trying to cram too much information into too little space. If your appeal letter is serving as a forum for bringing your supporters up to date, Then it's a sign that your donor communications program is lacking. So you have a little bit of time right now to bring people up to speed so get on your social media channels, get on your email if people haven't heard from you for a while, And then the next thing that shows up is an ask for money? It's not gonna go over very well. Give them information about all the amazing stuff that you're doing and do it before you hit them up for dollars.
The other problem is today's typical donor is female age 60 plus. What happens people when we get over 50? We need glasses. We need to remember that the eyes that are reading our letters or our emails are older eyes for the most part, and that we should use 12 or 14 point font and margins that are at least three quarters of an inch wide, because again, you want to give the eye a rest, you want to give people a break, you don't want to have them to like “look at this dense thing” because the eyes, if we're looking at Times New Roman font, it has those little tails on it, that is actually harder to read and when you cram information into a small space and use a small font, the brain subconsciously thinks of it as work, they're not gonna put in the work to read your letter. So again, focus on year-round communications and use 12 or 14 point font and use a sans-serif font. For example, that little bar that's going along on the bottom is sans-serif font, it doesn't have any of those tails on it.
Again, remember that people don't read, they skim, so you want to use techniques like photos, pull quotes, Italics, underlining and other things to draw their eye to the important points in your letter. You want to use your real statement wisely. Remember people go like this, it's like a lightning, It's like a zigzag. So think about what you want to put at those key points in your letter, maybe a graph, maybe a bold word, maybe a bold phrase, maybe a photo with a caption. So again use that real state quickly and easily so people can dive into your letter without having to do all the heavy lifting.
Some of the favorite appeals that I have created over the years have actually been a little on the cheeky side, because I'm a little cheeky. For one appeal letter that I did, I think was two years ago now, we actually used I Might be dating myself, but back in the day there were cartoons like “Batman and Robin” Where it was like Kapow! BAM! right? it was like this cartoon blowout and we actually used those in the letter at those key points and basically, the whole theme of the letter was “you are our superhero”, So the opening line was “you may not have a cape or drive an invisible plane but you are still our superhero” and then we went on to talk about all the things that people do for this particular client and they have a very, very high number of volunteers who come in, so we were able to showcase all the different volunteer efforts and talk about the things that the donors had made possible with their funding and the the board president was a little nervous about sending this out, because it was kind of out of the box, but that appeal actually did better than all the previous appeals with the exception of one, the first appeal, so they actually hadn't been sending out appeals for a couple of years when I started working with them in 2013, and that first appeal brought in tons more than the appeals they had sent out before, because we did a really good job of leading up with reconnecting emails and social media and also we had a tour. We had made a lot of upgrades to the buildings. We had kind of an open house where people could come in and see the new facilities. That initial appeal in December 2013 was amazing and then it was still maintained a really high level, but then the superhero won the giving went “boop” and I should have looked up the numbers to give them to you, but I just remember that it was pretty significant uptick, so even though it was kind of an out-of-the-box approach and the board chair was a little concerned that we were literally using cartoons and people might not take it seriously, it was something to which they really, really, really responded. Think about graphics because the picture says a thousand words, right?
Another favorite one I designed was for a women's shelter and it had a picture of a mom and two small kids right in the middle of the page, right? So you have the page and here was this picture of this mom and the two kids and the whole letter was her story. So you could not walk away from the fact that this woman and her two small children, they had been through, oh my gosh, so much. It was heartbreaking and you know, obviously you don't want to do that without a client's permission but she really did not want to see other young women suffering the way she had, she was trapped in a domestic violence situation and the number of times she tried to get out were staggering and finally she was able to get a friend to pick her up while her abuser was at work and drive her literally halfway across the country to safety. That was a powerful story, but just in terms of the design, we decided that we literally wanted to center the photo and so people just went straight in to the story, right? you see this photo of a mom and two little kids, both of them were under the age of five and that's just heartbreaking, we don't want that reality for women and kids and yet it is a reality for women and kids. Think about your design and remember to use that open font and all sorts of visuals to pull your reader in.
The other thing that I see this is item number four is, No offense, we talk way too much about ourselves. Of course your staff is doing great work and of course your mission could not be fulfilled without your staff and we wouldn't be able to do that work without the support of our donors. When I think about the donor relations, it's like your staff, your clients and the donors, right? You're both there to help the people who are your service recipients and it doesn't matter whether they are pets or trees or people or whether you're doing arts and culture or health or youth development, these people who are service recipients need and deserve that level of support.
Obviously you need your staff, but there are a lot of people in the world who actually give a crap about what you're doing and the people you're serving. We don't want to keep them on the outside, we want to bring them to the inside. Now does this mean we want our donors running amok? No, of course not. We have trained staff who are you know, perfectly capable of running our programs, but we do want to make our donors feel included so we need to talk about them and their contribution when we're communicating with them, right?
To foster good donor relations, we need to place them at the center of our work. Use the word “YOU” because they could spend that money on another organization or on a dinner, so we need to really value every dollar that's coming in the door because it's precious. Beyond this, the word “you” is an emotional trigger, right? I've studied neuro-linguistic programming and donor psychology, so you don't have to and so the word “you” is an emotional trigger and it immediately pulls people in and given that philanthropy is a heart-centered activity, we need to make them feel like a hero. We really want to help them have a donor identity that's connected with being a good person, particularly when it comes to helping you the folks who are in your organization, this is why you want to send out a donor survey, because in the survey, you can ask them to describe themselves in five words as a donor but also as a person and then the whole point of asking them for those words, is then you literally use those words back to them in communication.
So for example, most donors who are surveyed will use the word “Generous” or “kind” right? So you want to echo back to them, we know how generous you are. We know how kind you are, right? So you're literally speaking their language and this is where Studying NLP and donor psychology is really handy because believe it or not, we only use 5% of our brain in a conscious way, but 95% of our brain is in the subconscious or the unconscious and that's where we make all of our decisions. You want to kind of like take your crowbar and lift up that percentage and then dive into the to the realm of the unconscious and by using words like “you” or using words like “generous” and “kind” that they have told you is their identity. “I Identify as a kind and generous person”, right? That's donor identity, you will actually crack the code and get into their subconscious and because it's a heart-centered activity, you want to do that, you want to tap into their identity as a donor. So this is why surveys are so important because you're using their words, you're speaking their language.
All of you who are on my email list got a copy of the survey But if you didn't drop me an email at Sarah S-A-R-A-H @SarahBLange L-A-N-G-E dot com ([email protected]) and we'll get that out to you because it's gonna provide you with a lot of interesting insight into the folks who are supporting your cause. So you want to check your letter to see how often “you” and “your” are used. When you find the word “we” or “us”, rework the sentence to say “you” or “you’re” instead. I literally want you to go through your letter and do a search for “we” and “us” and “we” and “us” is not terrible but using “you” and “your” is way more powerful.
Don't talk about yourselves, talk about your donors and how amazing they are in the work that they're making possible. Does this mean that you don't report out about the amazing stuff? Of course you do, look at that story letter we sent out about that mom and the two kids, of course that was made possible by the staff. But let's face it, you want your donors to understand that they are part of the puzzle and too many times we shut our donors out, which is why they go find other causes to be a part of. People are not giving you their hard-earned money because they have nothing better to do with it. They're giving you their hard-earned money because the people that you are serving resonate in their heart. Let's just take an example, I love animals, I was telling Chris, my producer, before we got on, how somehow my Instagram feed is just now all “rescue animals”, right? Well, it's because I keep pushing the heart because I'm a sucker, every animal that I've had since I was 14 years old has been a stray or rescue or has been like dropped off at my house by friends who know that I'm a sucker, so we ended up with our two cats.
Anyway, I can't really do anything about having more than a couple of pets. So for example, my rescue dog does not like other dogs, so I'm not about to foster dogs, I'm certainly not about to open up a rescue facility, because she hates other dogs, loves people, not dogs. Same thing with my cats, I have one 14 year old cat, I have a dog that is a very high prey drive and it took my cats and my dog a year to, kind of, come to a detente, now they tolerate each other. But I can't really take in any more cats or dogs and even if I could, it would be like two or three, right?
So if I really care about giving animals a safe sanctuary, I'm gonna find organizations that can do that on my behalf. I'm gonna take my money from my heart and I'm gonna say “Here, I cannot open an animal rescue. Can you please do take care of these animals for me”, right? So if we don't recognize that and we don't interact with our donors understanding that, this is why they can end up walking away. We need to make them feel like not only are they are a part of the cause, but that they are the cause.
Another letter I sent out that did really well was, we talked about how “you are” this organization and we gave examples of the ways that people showed up and the difference that just ordinary people were making in the life of this organization, and again, that letter did really well because we kept saying “you are agency X”, “You are agency X”, and we just kept repeating that throughout the letter, again, we did it over here, we did it over here, we did it over here, we did it again and in the PS you know, we talked about how they are the foundation of our support we want them to give a gift of X number of dollars, you know, today if possible and if not then definitely by December 31st. Talk about your donors and how important they are to you because they are and we don't want them to walk away. Talk about them.
The other thing that I say and this is issue number five, We leave them hanging. One of the main reasons we can lose up to 30% of our donors each year, that's a lot of people who are walking away and If they walk away, it's a lot of work to get a new donor and new donors are usually what I call baby donors who are gonna give you $25.50 right? They're entry-level donors and the person you lost may have been giving you $250 a year or $500 a year, right? So you don't want people to walk away. You want to really focus on keeping your donor retention levels high. It's not because our donors stopped liking us or no longer care about our mission but because we fail to let them know how their donation was put to work and that they are a valuable part of our community, right?
Let's go over this again. They didn't walk away because they were having a temper tantrum. They didn't walk away because they don't care or they don't like you anymore, they walked away because you did not communicate with them, right? So they are giving you a donation to make the world a better place and it's your job to tell them “Oh, you made the world a better place” because the other thing, I don't know if you know this, when we make a donation, whether it is Volunteering or like maybe donating to the local food pantry or dropping off for say there's like a winter clothing drive, right? That's a dopamine hit.
Dopamine is the happy chemical inside our brain and it literally gets released when we do something like donate. So you want to continue to release dopamine because then, in a subconscious way, your donors associate feeling good with supporting your cause, right? We want to stimulate as much dopamine as possible. We want our donors to stick around so we need to communicate with them on a regular basis, Let them know how their money was put to use to support the people they're trying to help. In this day and age of digital communications, it's super easy to stay in touch with people.
The first step is to create your year-end communications campaign using email and social media to drive donations until 11:59 on 12/31, it ain't over till the ball drops in Times Square unless you're on the West Coast and then you have three more hours, right? As each donor contributes, they should be on the receiving end of your donor affirmation drip campaign. What is a donor affirmation drip campaign? Well drip campaign is just a scheduled series of emails that go out to a particular set of people So, you know, for your year-end campaign, you can set up your own affirmation drip campaign. First thing you want to do is send them some sort of thank you. This could be like some kind of big splashy graphic, it could be a thank you from your board chair, it could be from your executive director, it could be from your client, right? So you want them to be like, “thank you for supporting our cause Your gift is gonna make such a difference in the lives of the people we serve and here are some of the great things We look forward to accomplishing with your support”, right? It doesn't have to be a professional video, people don't like professional videos anymore, they feel too canned so like hop on your phone and make a video.
Now If you're like me, you're gonna make it 50 times before you're happy with the results but it doesn't have to be more than 30 or 60 seconds, right? So people really like video. Again when they hear an affirmation, right? This is “after purchase confirmation” Which is a marketing term, but you're again renewing that dopamine hit right? “Oh You're so thankful for my gift. That makes me feel so good” bing! dopamine hit number two. Every time you send out, it maybe you're gonna send out a story about a person whose life got changed or a photo montage. If the content can be anything you want nut it keeps them on the hook for say it's six weeks as the general timeline that I recommend. One email a week for six weeks because once a week they get this great hit and within six weeks, they're usually gonna get something else from you like an e-newsletter or a physical newsletter or some kind of update. You want to create your year in communication plan and get your donor affirmation drip campaign set up. That really works well to keep people busy and engaged until you send out your next communication.
One of the things I hear quite a bit from nonprofit staffers is that they're worried about over communicating. Okay, so let's think about that. Think about your own life. Do we catch every single email or single post that sent our way? heck no, I am still trying to catch up with emails that were sent last week and trust me, I spent six hours on the plane trying to catch up on email and I'm still behind. Don't worry that people are gonna get offended that they've seen this content before “Oh, they sent me a letter in the mail and now it's the same in the email” No, they're gonna understand that people are busy people are distracted. They're just gonna stop reading your email if they've read it before right? So don't worry about that because our donors are us, right? If you're Busy and overwhelmed by the amount of information and email you get, the chances are, they're not catching every single email, social media post that you're sending out.
The other thing is that multimedia multi-channel marketing is shown to be the most effective way to reach people. Let me say that again multimedia Multi-channel marketing right that means more messages sent out through more channels to more people So that is the most effective way to reach people, especially during the holidays when everyone's busy and there's lots of noise. So we need to remind our donors Year-round that we're here and that we need their support. If you don't already have a donor communications plan, 2024 would be a great year to start. If you guys want me to do a live stream show on how to do donor communications plans like just send me an email and I'll get that on the schedule.
So those are the five mistakes I see, there's more but you know, we're pretty much out of time for today.
You're not making a direct ask.
you're not asking enough.
Your letter is hard to read.
We're talking way too much about ourselves. I often talk about like the mattress and the good night's sleep. So our organization is the mattress and when we're shopping for a new mattress We don't really care about whether it's got 50 million coils and whether those are individually lapped or whether it's got a pillow top or a memory foam right? Well, all we want is a good night's sleep. So that's what our donors want. What is the good night's sleep that you are offering to the people who come into your organization? so talk about the good night's sleep not the mattress and talk about your donors instead of yourselves.
And finally we leave our donors hanging by not communicating with them.
So I hope this was super helpful. Good luck with your annual appeal if you need help, I'm here. Just drop me an email and I can step in and work with you one-on-one on your letter. I can review letters Just let me know how I can help and we'll figure it out. Thanks for joining me today, and I hope you rake in more money than ever this holiday season and I invite you to follow me on social media and I will see you guys on November 2nd, We're gonna have a special guest Joey Goone, who's gonna talk about leveraging the power of audiovisual to boost your fundraising. Just in time for you guys to make those awesome videos.
All right. Thanks for joining me guys. I'll see you in two weeks
Thanks for tuning in. I'll be back in two weeks with another episode got topics you want me to cover? Organizations you want me to showcase? Let me know. Also, I'm here to help you revolutionize philanthropy at your nonprofit. If you want to talk about what that looks like, drop me an email