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Crafting the Perfect Annual Appeal for Your School

For independent schools, annual appeals have many goals. First and foremost, they must inspire families and help them understand the importance of giving beyond tuition.

By Jessica Browning

In pursuit of this core objective, your message must engage the reader. But almost more important is the way your annual appeal is delivered.     

To illustrate this, let’s delve into three recent school appeals. As we examine these examples, try to discern which one yielded the most substantial return on investment.

The First: An Elaborate Package

Friends of mine received a full-color brochure and letter from their daughter's school: a prestigious east coast independent school.

They love the school, and they have plenty of discretionary income, so why didn’t they give?

“I read the entire brochure,” explained my friend. “But it was confusing—too many pictures, too much text, and numbers everywhere. I was overwhelmed and didn’t grasp the point of the mailing. They even boasted about their 29% alumni giving rate, as if that were impressive. To me, it meant that 71% of their alumni didn’t value their education enough to support it. I tossed the letter.”

The Second: An Appeal from a Single-Gender School

This appeal was never even opened.

The outer envelope was plain, with only the return address and the text “ABC School Annual Fund.” No need to open the letter—I knew exactly who it was from and what they wanted. 

The school had no chance to engage the recipient with a touching story or to elaborate on all the ways an annual gift would enhance the school experience for their child. By telegraphing the purpose of the letter, the appeal never stood a chance. 

The Third: A Traditional Letter

This letter came from a school with a healthy endowment. A school that could afford a multi-color appeal.

The envelope was plain, with only the school’s logo and return address. Because it was plain, I was curious and opened it.  

There were no pictures, just two pages of text. Normally, I am overwhelmed by that much text, but after the first paragraph, I was hooked. 

It was a heartfelt story told by an alum who graduated 20 years ago.  He recounted the tragedy of losing his company and his family’s livelihood during the pandemic. Jobless, he turned to his school network of friends and to the lessons of resilience and determination he learned as a student.   

Thanks to his school days, the story had a happy ending. He founded another successful company; two of his children are now students at the school.      

Even though I didn’t know him personally, his words exuded pride for the school, felt personal, and were genuinely inspiring. It didn’t come from the development office or the administration, and interestingly, it was the most cost-effective of the three examples to produce.

Key Takeaways for Crafting Compelling Annual Appeals

Now that we’ve examined these real-world examples, let’s distill some key lessons that can guide your annual appeal efforts:

  • Direct Mail, When Done Right, Still Works: Craft clear, compelling messages that resonate with your audience.
  • Embrace a Multi-Platform Approach: Direct mail is just the beginning; entice recipients to explore your website for more information, stories, and videos. Coordinate your annual appeals across all platforms, including social media.
  • Create Curiosity: Experiment with plain envelopes or intriguing email subject lines to pique recipients’ interest.
  • Personalization Matters: Show donors how their contributions will directly impact their child, grandchild, or the school’s reputation.
  • Segment Your Audience: Tailor your messages to different donor groups, such as grandparents, parents, alumni, or friends of the school.
  • Focus on Bigger Themes and Unrestricted Giving: Center your appeal around broader themes to convey the transformative power of donations and encourage unrestricted giving.
  • Appeal to Emotions, Not Just Facts: Emotional connections drive donations, so craft stories and messages that tug at the heartstrings and inspire action.
  • Inspire, Don’t Educate: Your goal is to inspire your audience to take action. Keep your message simple and ignite passion and commitment.
  • Simplicity and Storytelling: Use storytelling to convey your school’s impact effectively. Enhance readability with easy-to-read fonts, short paragraphs, and ample white space.
  • Avoid Information Overload: Limit the use of statistics to maintain clarity and simplicity.
  • Seek External Feedback: Before finalizing your appeal, have someone unfamiliar with your school review it to ensure it’s free from insider jargon and effectively communicates your message.

By embracing these principles, you can create annual appeals that resonate, engage, and inspire action, ultimately supporting your school’s mission and fostering a sense of community among your donors. We wish you a fruitful annual fund season!

About the Author

Jessica Browning, Winkler Group Principal and Executive Vice President, has helped lead nonprofit organizations for more than 25 years. An award-winning case statement writer, Jessica is a specialist in donor communications and a former member of the Giving USA Editorial Review Board. Jessica received a B.A. from Duke University as well as an M.A. and M.B.A. from the College of William & Mary. Connect with Jessica on LinkedIn.

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