Crafting the Perfect Year-End Appeal

It’s that time of year…time to plan for year-end giving. At the heart of every strong year-end giving campaign is a message and a plan.

By Jessica Browning, MBA

Believe it or not, people still read written appeal letters, or at least they intend to skim them. Don’t give them a reason not to. If your letter is full of text, long paragraphs, and stats, your letter will likely end up in the trash before a decision to give is even made.

The key to an effective year-end appeal is one that is emotional, easy-to-read, and creates a call to action.

Make Your End-of-the-Year Appeal Emotional

When I draft an appeal, I try to keep in mind one of my favorite stories from the world of philanthropy. It’s from an unexpected source: Draymond Green, the Golden State Warrior’s power forward. And it shows the power of emotion.

Nearly 10 years ago, Green pledged $3.1 million to his alma mater, Michigan State. It was one of the largest gifts ever given by an active athlete. The motivations behind Green’s gift surprised me a bit because they were self-centered, but not in the way you’d expect.

Only a fraction of his gift went to a specific project, so naming rights were not the motivator—he was more excited to fund other things. “My plan is to be the first athlete ever to endow a scholarship,” he said.

Green had spoken with Tom Izzo, his former coach, about giving. Izzo told Green all about the $1 million donation he had made to Michigan State four years earlier. He told Green it was one of the happiest moments of his life. “I wanted that feeling,” Green explained when he was asked why he gave.

People give because it feels good to help others. When you’re drafting your appeal, keep the acronym BOY (because of you…) in mind. Give your reader a chance to feel the impact of their gift. Help them understand their gift is the reason a student can be the first in their family to ever graduate from college, or a dog that has been living on the streets finally finds his forever home. Because of you (donor), lives are changed.

Statistics Do Not Raise Money

Focusing solely on your organization’s accomplishments in an appeal—without showcasing the donor’s role in those accomplishments—is bad enough. But too often, I see appeals that spew numbers, percentages, or statistics at their donors to demonstrate how effective they are.

Yes, donors want to give to organizations that are successful. And yes, data proves that success. But statistics don’t inspire real giving.

Think of it this way. You receive an appeal that says an organization provided 2 million meals last year for the community. That sounds like a lot of meals to you, but what if it said 1 million or 3 million? Would your opinion of the impact be any different? Or what if you received an appeal from a clinic that boasted about performing 25 procedures per day? You don’t work in the medical field…how do you know if that’s an impressive number or not?

People have trouble with numbers because they are impersonal. And when numbers are especially large, it’s hard to measure real impact because they become abstractions.

Real-life stories tell a different story. Describe the family who, once they found a stable source of housing, went on to secure jobs and send their child to college. Or tell me the story of the man who lived to walk his daughter down the aisle—thanks to the dedication of the clinic staff. Emotion trumps data every time.

Our Tried-And-True Best Practices for a Powerful Year-End Appeal

Direct mail—if done correctly—still works. But don’t rely on direct mail alone. Tease direct mail readers to your website with a story or video. Coordinate your appeal across all platforms, including social media. Make sure it’s easy to give on your website.

Year-End Direct Mail Appeal: Appearance

  • Create curiosity with a simple, plain envelope or a provocative email subject line.
  • Always include a P.S. at the end of the letter. It’s one of the most widely read parts of a letter, so use the space wisely to reinforce your ask.
  • Make your story easy to read. Use at least 12 point font. Keep paragraphs short. In print, double-space to keep lots of white space on the page.
  • Limit your stats to avoid “numbers numb.”

Year-End Appeal: Content

  • Keep your message simple. Tell a story.
  • Make it personal. Show the reader how their gift impacts the people you serve.
  • Emotions, not facts, encourage donations. Logic leads to conclusions, while emotion leads to action/contributions.
  • Write to inspire instead of educate.

Year-End Appeal: The Ask

  • Ask for a specific amount. Consider asking regular givers to increase their gift by 10 percent.
  • Don’t wait until the end of the letter to ask for a gift. Add a call to action after the first or second paragraph in addition to one at the end.
  • Segment your audience by philanthropic passion, giving level, or gift date—any attribute you can think of to make the appeal more personal. Craft the message accordingly.
  • Acknowledge SYBUNTS and LYBUNTS. Tell them you miss them and ask them to give again. Don’t ask for a specific amount—the goal is just to get them back.
  • Give lower-level donors the option of giving monthly. Monthly donors often give larger total amounts.

One last bit of advice. Before you send your letter, have someone unfamiliar with your organization read your appeal. Make sure they understand it and that it isn’t filled with insider’s jargon.     

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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