Running a nonprofit organization means you need to spend time raising money. This involves outreach to both current and potential donors. How you go about it needs to be carefully considered. Most nonprofits use a donation letter to request financial and resource support.
In this article, we’ll guide you through everything you need to know about donation letters—including how to write one. Here are some quick tips:
- Use a catchy header or email subject line
- Personalize it
- Be specific about what the funds will be used for
- Explain your nonprofit’s goals regarding the funds
- Explain how the donor can make an impact
- Include a call to action
Before we deep dive into putting together the donation letter, we’ll start with some basics.
Purpose of donation letters
Donation letters are documents nonprofit organizations use to encourage their supporters to become donors and members. They typically ask for financial support but can also request goods and services—also known as “in-kind gifts.” You may have heard them referenced as appeals, fundraising letters, fundraising appeal letters or donation request letters.
Compared to other marketing materials like pamphlets, donation request letters are shorter and more simplistic. They cover a specific issue a nonprofit is trying to address while also providing information about the impact of the organization.
Corporate vs individual appeals
Fundraising letters can fall under one of two categories:
- Individual Appeals
- Corporate Appeals
Individual appeals are donation letters that are sent to individuals or families as opposed to businesses or organizations. Have you ever received a letter from the Red Cross asking for a donation? That would be an individual appeal.
Each individual appeal is personalized to a specific person or family. It will typically ask for a one-time or recurring donation to go toward general needs or a specific activity. As a whole, they are a great way to not only get more funds for your nonprofit but also supercharge your membership drive efforts.
Corporate appeals are generally sent to businesses of all sizes. Despite being sent to organizations, corporate appeals are similar in structure to individual appeals. What separates a corporate appeal from an individual appeal is not only who it targets but also what it asks for. Nonprofit organizations use corporate appeals to ask for sponsorship, in-kind gifts such as catering for an event or raffle rewards.
One example might be if you were hosting a charity event and wanted to provide a goody bag for registrants to take home. You would brainstorm a list of companies that may want to align themselves with your nonprofit and then write them a corporate sponsorship request letter asking them to sponsor your swag bags. Sponsors could have their logo printed on the side either as the sole sponsor or along with other sponsors. Sponsors might also be allowed to include a printed coupon, a gift, flyer or brochure that they would provide to stuff into the bags.
Corporate appeals generally emphasize how becoming a donor or sponsor will benefit businesses. It will specifically outline how it will help their organizational goals and outcomes. In the above example, the donation letter could explain how the bags (say you are ordering nice canvas bags) will be re-used as shopping bags, how the demographics of the attendees align with their target audience and how many registrants you expect.
Key elements of a successful donation letter
A successful donation request letter will include a number of key elements. Below, we’ve listed the elements you should include.
Catchy header or email subject line
A fundraising letter can be sent either as direct mail or as an email. Both can be effective, given they have the right header/subject line.
The header/subject line of your donation request letter is important because it’s what will entice people to open the letter. The right heading will immediately attract attention, building intrigue and desire. It will get people excited about the information the letter might include. On the other hand, a bad header/subject line will cause the letter to be ignored. You have one shot, and you don’t want to blow it. Your header/subject line is your first impression, so it needs to be really good.
So, how exactly can you create an excellent headline? It doesn’t matter if it’s direct mail or email, the best practice remains the same. Here is a general guideline to follow:
- Personalize it: Personalizing your letter will be discussed further later in this article, but when it comes to your headline, if you can, you should use the names of your recipients. This increases the chances they’ll open and read your letter. For example, if writing an email pitch for corporate sponsorship, include the name of the target business in the subject line.
- Utilize action verbs: Creating a great header/subject line is all about appealing to people’s emotions. One of the best ways to do this is to use action verbs — words like “help,” “save,” and “change.” For email subject lines, avoid words such as “free,” “now” and “click” as they — and other words — can catch your email in a spam filter.
- Create a sense of urgency: You want your subject line/header to stop your target prospects in their tracks. You want it to get their full attention. How do you do this? By creating a sense of urgency. Include a deadline that will encourage them to act immediately.
Here are some examples of subject lines that follow these guidelines:
- We only have 48 hours left to save them
- Jennifer, can you help build our new playground?
- Is _____ (name of business) ready to change the future?
- Help make the holidays special for foster kids
If you follow these best practices you’ll find your letters and emails being opened more often than not. There’s no one way to write a header/subject line. For emails, can use A/B testing in email marketing platforms like MailChimp to figure out which subject line works best out of two choices.
Greet them personally
“A person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
– Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
Personalization is one of the most powerful persuasion strategies you can implement. By acknowledging your potential prospects by their names, you are empowering them. You make them feel as though the letter was written specifically for them. It shows that you value them and will value their support.
As stated earlier, your header/subject line should be personalized. Not only that, but it’s also a good idea to use mail merge tags to sprinkle the reader’s name throughout the donation request letter.
You might not be able to get peoples’ names in all instances. If you are approaching corporate donors, it’s a good idea to call the business or search their website to find out the best person to receive donation requests. This will lessen the chance that your communication gets tossed out as junk mail. Don’t forget to ask for the correct spelling of your recipient’s name so that you don’t cause offense with misspelling. Some organizations use interns to do this list verification research to keep their prospective donor lists current. If you’re going to spend money on printing and postage, it’s not a bad idea to confirm that you have good contact information first.
Why is your organization fundraising?
What is the problem your nonprofit is addressing? It’s important that you give your prospect a clear understanding of why your nonprofit — or more importantly those you serve — needs their help. When your prospect reads your donation request letter, they need to fully understand the problem at hand.
They must know who it is that needs help and what their issues are. Absolute transparency and honesty are key. If you’re helping unhoused people, describe the kinds of situations they have to deal with. Explain one person’s struggles and illustrate why they need assistance.
Use statistics to make your point. You want to create an emotional story in your reader’s head. You’re painting a picture of tragedy, pain, hardship and heartbreak. This is a real problem and they need to know it.
If you’re struggling to create a compelling story that clearly defines the problem, follow this basic formula:
- Characters: Who or what is your nonprofit organization trying to help?
- Conflict: What is the problem?
- Resolution: How can this problem be alleviated? What solutions do you provide?
If you can effectively communicate those three things, your letter should be a success. This story you create is your letter’s emotional sell. It’s the meat and potatoes that warm people up before the donation request.
This story will come after your intro within the body of the letter. Don’t add it too early or too late. You need to introduce yourself or your organization and provide time for your story to marinate before you make the ask.
Explain your nonprofit’s mission and objectives
Your donation request letter should outline your nonprofit’s goals related to this fundraiser. You must give your prospect a very clear outline of what it is you hope to accomplish. Be specific — touch upon real-world examples and case studies of your organization’s efforts. You should explain your mission and objectives early in your fundraising donation letter. Be sure to tie the goals of this particular fundraising outreach effort back into your overall mission as well. For example, “If we meet our fundraising target, we can provide 100 more underprivileged students with after school enrichment programs in the coming year.”
Explain how the donor can make an impact
Your prospect needs to know how their contributions will make an impact. If you can attach dollar amounts to outcomes, that is a compelling message. The donor can picture their money being put to good use. For example, an animal shelter might break out “fund a need” donation requests this way:
- $25 buys two weeks of dog food for one dog
- $75 sponsors one spay or neuter surgery
- $250 provides training for six shelter volunteers to provide dog walks
- $1500 sponsors two days of our mobile vet trailer visits to serve pets belonging to low-income elders
A museum could frame donations like this:
- $60 supplies art materials for one after-school workshop for low-income students
- $80 covers the cost of training for one volunteer docent
- $250 pays for a field trip for one class of elementary school students
- $2500 buys signage to help guests understand and interact with our new permanent exhibit
These types of lists build confidence in your organization’s ability to solve problems. It shows that you have done your research on costs and are responsible with the funds you have. Include testimonials from existing donors, members and/or someone you serve. This is where you can build social evidence.
You don’t want to discuss this too early in your letter. Any discussion of money should come later on. A fundraising letter is not much different than a sales letter. You need to warm people up first before you go in for the hard sell.
Include a call to action
You need to remember that you’re sending this letter for a reason — your nonprofit needs donations. This is why you should include a call to action at the end of your appeal. This is a short, direct message, detailing specifically what you want from your prospective donor.
You need a call to action because if you don’t tell people what to do, they won’t do what you want them to. So, what does a good call to action consist of? Follow these guidelines:
- Keep it short: Your call to action needs to get straight to the point.
- Use action words: Using words like “fight,” “change,” and “act” will help make your call to action compelling. It will draw your reader’s attention, encouraging them to act.
- Suggest urgency: Phrase your call to action with words like “now” and “today” to create a sense of urgency.
- Use a contrasting color or put it in a box or button: a bright, contrasting color will help your call to action stand out. Orange, red, and green are great options, but don’t stray from your brand guidelines or colors.
- Make it emotional: Appeal to your reader’s emotions — make them feel, not think.
Don’t overthink this. Make it short, snappy, and attention-grabbing. Try to implement as many of the points listed above to make your call to action as effective as possible.
The best time to send your donation letter
If you’re sending your letter as an email, take advantage of analytics tools. Your email service provider should provide information that can help you make the call. Some email metrics to watch are:
- Open tracking: This tells you when your emails are being opened and by whom.
- Open rate: This lets you know how many of your email list subscribers open your emails.
- Click-through rate: Your fundraising emails will typically have a link to a donation page. The click-through rate lets you know how many people click the link within your email.
- Deliverability: This lets you know if your emails are actually reaching your subscribers’ inboxes.
Some email marketing programs will use data technology to determine the best time to send a message. It’s a great idea to take advantage of these features to eliminate guesswork.
If you’re sending direct mail, send out your letters out at least two to three weeks before the fundraiser deadline. It is important to allow for enough time for postage and delivery. You should also consider how many letters/emails you intend to send throughout your campaign. A typical rate is three letters/emails for a thirty-day campaign. There’s a lot of wiggle room here, so experiment to discover what works best for you. It’s good to reinforce what you put out on one channel — such as email — via other channels like social media. Post attractive graphics, videos and reminders on social media throughout the fundraising campaign. Keeping potential donors updated about progress builds excitement. For example, “We have two days left in our capital campaign and have reached 90% of our goal. Help us reach 100%!”
Pay attention to how your efforts are being received. If you’re not getting adequate responses or the return on investment you desire, consider trying something different. Try sending your donation letter at a different time, or try to send more or fewer letters than before. Everyone’s optimal time and frequency will be different, so experiment until you’re happy with the results you receive. Look at data after your campaign to learn from what got more attention versus what didn’t. Make plans to incorporate what you’ve learned in your next campaign.