How to keep your donors interested in your fundraising appeal

It’s the age-old problem: how to engage the readers of your direct-response fundraising appeal to, first, start reading and then to continue reading.

Luckily, we have some tips from Clarification blog:

  • Talk less about us (the nonprofit) and more about you (the donor).
  • Use shorter paragraphs to make copy more inviting and easier to read.
  • Don’t stop at a compelling headline or subject line. Also consider the subheads, the PS, the salutation, and other components to keep readers engaged.
  • Use a metaphor to paint a picture for your readers.
  • Use quotations but keep them short, so they’re more likely to be read.

These are all good tips.

But there’s one additional aspect to good copywriting to add to this list. It’s vital if you want to keep readers motivated, and that’s using transitions.

Transitions are invaluable if you want to keep your readers moving from one paragraph to the next like a slinky toy going down stairs.

And in linking your paragraphs together, transitions also make a piece of copy seem like a coherent, crafted whole – a good thing.

The transitions to use? There are an infinite number, limited only by your imagination. But some that are frequently used include phrases like “that’s just the beginning,” “and don’t forget this,” “and here’s the point,” “we’re not done yet,” “what does this mean to you?” and many, many others.

Using transitions is one of the best ways to help ensure that your readers take in your complete fundraising message. And that’s your best chance of moving them to give.

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Two ways to begin a fundraising appeal – from Jerry Huntsinger

In Jerry Huntsinger’s “86 Tutorials in Creating Fundraising Letters and Packages,” he makes a point about how to begin a fundraising appeal.

He makes his point with an example. It’s an appeal for a cancer charity. It begins:

“Children shouldn’t have to face the devastation of cancer and death. But they do. Each year, hundreds of children…”

It’s the standard, institutional, boilerplate blah, blah, blah. Jerry notes that where the letter actually begins is in the fifth paragraph, with this:

“Lance was diagnosed with leukemia two days before Christmas. He was 2 years old. ‘Lance was so sick that they flew us to Twin Cities for immediate treatment,’ his mother said. ‘His platelets were so low that his teeth bled through the night.’”

BAM – there you are, right in the middle of the drama. Nothing institutional about that. Nothing blah, blah, blah about that. Especially that detail about the boy’s teeth bleeding – that detail gets you.

Sure, starting an appeal with a story is a tried-and-true approach. But here’s the point. The first opening – “Children’s shouldn’t have to face …” – is basic expository prose. It’s simply explaining something. It’s simply conveying a generalization about children and cancer. It’s not trying to involve you. (It’s something you’d get from ChatGPT if you asked it to write an appeal about childhood cancer.)

The second opening – “Lance was diagnosed …” – is meant specifically to involve you. It’s telling you that this letter is about a human drama playing out right before your eyes. It’s one human being talking to another.

As Jerry says, the second opening will raise more money.

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What makes a good offer for a fundraising appeal and what makes a bad one

Why does the offer matter so much in direct mail fundraising? Let’s take a look at an appeal to find out.

This is a fundraising appeal from a military nonprofit, and in the body of the letter, the first ask is this: Please let your service members know you stand with them by sending your most generous donation you can to [charity name] today.

So that’s the call to action – to “stand with” service members. To be honest, that’s a problem. Because “stand with” is vague. It’s a generalization. It’s an abstraction. It’s up in the clouds, instead of being down-on-the-ground concrete.

The donor isn’t being asked to solve a specific problem, help a specific person, or even to fund a specific initiative of this nonprofit. But to stand with service members. That doesn’t give the donor much to go on.

The second ask in the letter doesn’t give much to go on either. It’s this: We rely on the generosity of individual Americans in supporting our military. That is why I am asking you to support our troops and their families by giving whatever you can afford to [charity name]. Your gift of $15, $25, or more will make a real difference in the life of a brave hero who is fighting for every one of us.

A couple things here. The donor shouldn’t be asked to give to a charity. Donors aren’t motivated by giving to a charity. They’re motivated by helping someone or solving a problem or righting a wrong.

But even beyond that, this ask is again general, vague, and nonspecific. The donor is asked to “support our troops,” but there’s no indication of what that means in this context or how giving a gift will accomplish it.

Those two calls to action are in the body of the letter. Let’s take a look at the main call to action in the response device. It says: Please help strengthen our service members by keeping them connected to family, home, and country. Your tax-deductible gift to [charity name] will also provide other much-needed services to our military heroes and their families.

So, first we have “help strengthen our service members,” which is vague. Then we have “keeping them connected to family, home, and country.” Okay, that’s a hint of something. It’s good for service members to be connected to home. But how my gift would do that is not explained. Then there’s this: “…will also provide other much-needed services…” Other much-needed services? Like what?

This offer provides almost nothing for the donor to latch onto. And in doing so, it fails to answer the donor’s most basic questions. Like, How will my gift help? What will it do? What problem will it solve? Who will it help? These are the questions that must be answered for the donor before she’ll even consider giving.

In addition to that, instead of being asked to fund a small, specific part of the nonprofit’s mission, the donor is asked to fund the whole thing. That’s too big. It’s too much. Especially when that mission is something vague like keeping service members connected with family, home, and country.

In direct mail fundraising, with the exception of the list, the offer that you make to donors is probably the most important part of the whole project. In large measure, it’s the offer that determines whether the appeal soars or sinks. Less so for the writing, the graphics, the logo, the size of the envelope, and so on. Those things are important, of course. But ultimately it’s the offer that provides the motivation to give. And if that offer is vague and mushy, then you can expect the response to be too.

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What’s AI got to do with copywriting? Not much …

All the talk about AI for copywriting serves to highlight a basic misunderstanding of what copywriting is and what it isn’t.

What AI bots do is produce content. That’s not copywriting. Copywriting – whether for commercial marketing or fundraising – is NOT about producing content. If it were simply about that, then AI might have a place. But it’s not. And it doesn’t.

Copywriting is about persuasion. And because of that, it relies heavily on the rhetorical triangle. Yes, Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle.

He tells us that persuasion consists of three basic things:

Ethos – this is about the writer and his or her credibility — which is essential for your prospect to accept and believe your argument.

Pathos – this is the emotional aspect and how you tap into your prospect’s feelings.

Logos – this is the logical argument, the left-brain part.

The secret to the rhetorical triangle is how you use it. Depending on you, your purpose, and your audience, you could use just one part of the triangle (say, pathos), you could use two parts (say, pathos and ethos), or you could use all three.

Or you could use two and emphasize one over the other in your copy. You could use all three and emphasize two of the three over the third. You get the idea. Point is, there are lots of variations here.

And that IS the point. Because there are lots of variations, creativity is involved. Creativity in which of the rhetorical aspects you use in a given project. Creativity in how you choose to express ethos, pathos, or logos (lots and lots of options here). Creativity in how you put all of it together. And creativity in how you craft it into a cohesive whole.

Copywriting is made up of the many, many decisions the writer makes with regard to all this. Some of these decisions are based on education, experience, and training. Some are based on intuition. Some are based on esthetic sense. Some are done consciously and some subconsciously. All these considerations come into play and combine to make up an effective piece of copywriting.

No, copywriting isn’t about producing content. That’s because an effective piece of copywriting isn’t just content. It’s one human being who is appealing to and connecting emotionally with another human being. No bot, regardless of how sophisticated, can do that.

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The envelope teaser

The burning question in direct mail fundraising?

Should you use a teaser for the outside envelope of your next appeal, or not?

Some say the plain, blank envelope is the best ‘teaser,’ a no-teaser kind of teaser.

But if you use a blank envelope to ‘trick’ people into opening it, and if the appeal isn’t something the donor wants or cares about, and they just toss it, then what have you really gained?

That’s why the opposing camp suggests using a teaser in order to set the stage for the donor and get her interested in what the appeal is all about, so that when she opens the envelope, she’s ready for something that’s relevant and interesting.

Along those lines, there are three basic types of teasers that work.

There’s the offer teaser.

There’s the benefit teaser.

And there’s the curiosity teaser.

To get the whole story – including specific examples for each kind of teaser – visit

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8 questions to ask to get inside your donor’s head

The better you know your donor, the better your appeal is going to be. That’s obvious. The problem is your donor is probably coming from a completely different experiential background. How do you get inside that person’s head?

Luckily, the answer comes by way of a book on screenwriting: The Protagonist’s Journey by Scott Myers. In his book, he lays out eight questions that a screenwriter needs to ask in order to understand the protagonist of the story and get into the protagonist’s head.

Here, those questions are adapted for direct response fundraising. I go into each of these questions in detail in my article in Nonprofit Pro. See it here: 8 Questions to Ask to Get Inside Your Donor’s Head (

But here’s the 50,000-foot view.

1. Who Is the Donor?

To create an effective appeal, you can’t think of your donors as a mass of people. You have to think of one person.

2. What Does the Donor Want?

Your donor gives for her own reasons, not because your charity needs funds. So your appeal has to align with what your donor wants.

3. What Does the Donor Need?

What your donor needs and what your donor wants aren’t necessarily the same thing.

4. What Is the Eventual Resolution of the Donor’s Want and Need?

The eventual resolution isn’t necessarily giving a donation, although that’s certainly part of it. 

5. What Is at Stake for the Donor?

Your donor sees that there are things at stake, both for her and for the people around her.

6. Who or What Opposes the Donor From Getting What She Wants and Needs?

Maybe she discovered a new charity that has her attention. Maybe she just doesn’t feel like giving right now.

7. What Does the Donor Fear the Most?

Sometimes what your donor fears the most is only partially related to your cause.

8. Why Does This Donor Need to Give at This Time?

There are lots of reasons your donor would decide to give to your nonprofit. It’s important to pick the best one. 

This is just a summary. To get the whole story, take a look at my full article on Nonprofit Pro at 8 Questions to Ask to Get Inside Your Donor’s Head (

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How to begin a fundraising appeal

What should come first in a fundraising appeal? It’s an important question. Maybe even the most important question. Because if you fail to capture your donor’s attention at the start, there’s not much chance she’s going read the rest of your letter or email.

So those first couple of lines had better be good. Which is why this example is so puzzling. It starts like this:

Dear Friend,

Tonight, millions of children in this country and around the world will go to bed with empty stomachs and troubled minds because they did not get enough to eat today.

But their hunger is not inevitable. It is a choice. Not their choice. Ours.

We make that choice every time we allow our nation’s leaders to decide there’s enough money to increase spending on national defense and cut taxes for corporations … but not enough for programs that reduce hunger and give children the nutrition they need to grow up healthy and reach their full potential.

As the world struggles to contain the coronavirus, those who were already hungry are suffering even more. Even before the pandemic, 1 in 3 children under age 5 suffered from malnutrition. Now, as hunger is surging around the world, even more children will die because of acute malnutrition.

Okay, that’s the setup. Up to this point, the appeal is pretty much a meditation on childhood hunger. Which is important as a topic, of course, except that this copy is certainly not you-focused. It’s not really engaging the donor. It’s describing the problem but not inviting the donor into it. Which, again, is puzzling. Because what comes next is this:

If your faith moves you to action to help people suffering from hunger, please sign and return the enclosed Citizen Petition.

It’s not clear why we moved from children going hungry to people going hungry, but leave that aside.

The question is, Why isn’t this line about the petition at the very beginning of the appeal? If your donor-involvement device is the petition – which it clearly is in this appeal – then there’s no reason to bury it under four paragraphs of text that simply describes the problem but doesn’t give the donor anything to do.

Instead, lead off with the reference to the petition, and engage the donor in a specific action right from the start. This is one way to do it.

Dear Friend,

If your faith moves you to take action to help children who are going hungry, please sign and return the Citizen Petition I’ve enclosed for you.

Here’s why.

We let our nation’s leaders decide there’s enough money to spend billions on national defense and cutting corporate taxes … but not enough to help innocent children who aren’t getting enough to eat.

This has to stop. It’s time for caring people like you to take a stand.

Because tonight children across our country will go to bed hungry. That little girl saying her prayers before bedtime – she’s going to get under the covers with her stomach growling and her eyes filling up with tears.

How can she grow up healthy like that? How can she learn in school? How can she be happy?

She can’t. Unless you help.

So please, sign the Citizen Petition I’ve enclosed for you, and return it with your gift of $20 … $25 … or even $50.

Often in appeal letters, the first several paragraphs are used just to warm up to the actual point. That pretty much never works.

It’s vital to get to the point fast. Then, there’s a much greater likelihood that your donor will absorb the essence of the message.

Getting to the point also shows donors that your messaging is important and relevant. It shows donors that you respect them and their time. And it shows donors that there’s a specific action they can take to help solve a problem.

That’s one way to move your donors from an “uh, maybe later” response to the response you want: “I need to give now!”  

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What’s wrong with thanking donors?

I just got an email with the subject line “I’m so grateful.” Let’s see what this is all about.

Turns out it’s from a rescue mission, an organization that I love and support.

Here’s the text of the email:

Dear George,

What a wonderful day! And you helped make it happen.

I cannot thank you enough for your support of our #GiveFromHomeDay.

Your generosity makes a life-changing difference for the people we serve — homeless men, women and children who are desperately in need of hope.

As we do everything we can to reach our most vulnerable neighbors, your support is what makes our work possible.

On behalf of all of us here, and especially on behalf of the families we serve, I hope you know just how appreciated you are.


Okay, an important point here. “You helped make it happen”? Uh, no, I didn’t. I have supported this organization in the past, but I didn’t give to this specific campaign. Soooo … why are they thanking me?

Are they trying to guilt me into giving now? Is that why they’re thanking me for something I didn’t do?

Or do they not know that I didn’t give? And they’re just sending the thank you out to everyone on the email list for some reason?

Either way, this email is not giving me warm fuzzies as a supporter. And that’s too bad, because this email could have been written in such a way as to thank donors who did give, present the opportunity for those who didn’t give yet to give now, and still be able to send the email out to the entire list.

But all of that notwithstanding, the bigger issue is this notion of thanking donors – reflexively and constantly – in every communication, no matter what. There’s this idea that we have to be thanking donors all the time, and that this is some kind of expression of “donor love” or donor centricity.

There’s a time and a place to thank donors – like in a thank you email sent in response to a donation, in a newsletter where you’re emphasizing positive outcomes, and so on. Because then you’re thanking donors for doing something good and positive – something, in other words, that they’d expect to be thanked for.

Acknowledging and appreciating your supporters doesn’t mean you have to begin every appeal letter or email with a thank you, or that the purpose of an appeal is to stroke the donor’s ego instead of presenting a compelling offer, or that you just send out blanket thank yous to an entire donor list for no reason.

When you do that, donors see it as the smokescreen that it so obviously is.

Plus, it’s patronizing. Most donors are people in the 60s, 70s, and beyond. They know BS when they read it. They also know it’s not endearing to be thanked for something unnecessarily.

So by thanking donors when it’s not warranted or in communications where it doesn’t fit, you’re not bringing your donors closer. You’re reinforcing the negative impression that most donor communications are just a lot of hot air that really shouldn’t be believed or taken seriously. And all that does is undermine your fundraising.

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Your fundraising appeals – too much emotion? Or not enough?

In your fundraising appeals, is it better to use facts or feelings? Logic or emotion? Before you answer, let’s take a look at an example, and you can judge based on your own reaction.

It’s an appeal from a conservation nonprofit, and it begins like this:

“You know what just staggers me?”

That’s a terrific opening – so good in fact that you naturally want to find out what comes next.

“It amazes me that a broad-tailed hummingbird can migrate over 2,000 miles between central Mexico to as far north as British Columbia, Canada, on wings that aren’t quite two-and-a-half inches long each. The bird itself is only four inches.”

It goes on in this way.

“When it’s migrating, a hummingbird’s heart can beat up to 1,260 times a minute, and those tiny wings flap 15 to 80 times a second.”

More facts follow. “With all that energy being expended, a hummingbird is generally just hours away from starvation; they need to sip flower nectar almost all the time just to survive. Now think again about the more than 2,000 miles a broad-tailed hummingbird might fly each spring…”

It continues with more information about the hummingbird, its habitat, and so on. Before long, all these facts, one after another, for five paragraphs, make you feel like you’re reading an ornithology text, and the whole approach seems to slowly run out of steam. It seems pretty clear that this appeal is focusing more on the donor’s head rather than her heart.

Maybe that’s intentional for this audience. Let’s stipulate that this appeal has mailed more than once, so it may be a control, and it may perform well.

But geez, this is for bird lovers and nature lovers. Where’s the awe? Where’s the wonder? Where’s the romance? Where’s the poetry?

By way of example, let’s take a look at some writing – a famous bit of writing – that is all wonder and romance about birds and nature. Yes, it’s poetry, and yes, it’s Tennyson, so the comparison is naturally unfair, since fundraising copy isn’t and shouldn’t be poetry, and in any case, nobody writing copy is Tennyson or even a weak imitation.

Still, it’s illuminating simply as an example of what language can do. Here it is:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

That’s the whole poem. And – wow – in just six carefully hewn lines, you can see and feel the magical and majestic nature of the eagle. You’re right there, transported to that scene, witnessing it for yourself. It’s stirring … in exactly the way that any bird lover and nature lover would appreciate. The concrete imagery conveys everything that needs to be said or can be said. There’s not a textbook fact to be found. It’s all heart.

So, which approach grabs you? Is it the facts of the first example? Or is it the imagery and emotion of the second example?

Again, let’s stipulate that fundraising copy isn’t poetry, and yet, isn’t something that stirs your emotions like this what you would want from a fundraising appeal that you receive? After all, most donors receiving an appeal like this are probably just people who love birds and nature – not scientists recording their observations in a field guide.

It’s important to meet donors where they are. We’re appealing to donors — which by definition means we’re making a deeply felt request. Deeply felt. That usually doesn’t mean a recitation of facts. It means conveying honest human emotion, because in most cases that’s where you find the connection with your donors. And, in turn, where your donors find their connection with their checkbooks.

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Why a cup of tea means better fundraising

More than you probably realize, your fundraising has a lot to do with Japanese green tea. As they say in direct mail letters, let me explain.

See, I’m a big fan of Japanese green tea. I drink it all the time, and I’m very particular about the varieties of tea I like, how it’s brewed, how it’s enjoyed, where I get it from, and on and on. It’s a whole thing.

My trusted source is a distributor on the West Coast that works with certain tea cultivars in Japan.

Over the holidays, I got an email from this provider offering a free tea canister plus a special discount with an order of $50 or more. My first thought as soon as I saw that email was “I should order some tea.” Never mind that I already had plenty on hand (I rarely let my supply dwindle), and probably wouldn’t be ordering again for several weeks. And never mind that I don’t really want or use a tea canister (the foil package the tea comes in keeps it as fresh or fresher than a canister). And yet, despite those two reasons NOT to order, my immediate reaction was to tell myself that I should place an order and do it now.

Right there, in that one simple example, is the amazing power of the offer and why it’s crucial for fundraising. The offer is the quid pro quo. It’s the “you give me this and I’ll give you that.” It’s the deal between buyer and seller. Now, this may seem purely transactional, and in one sense, it is, but it’s also so much more than that.

The offer is inherently motivating. It’s one of the surest ways to get a prospect’s interest and show that prospect what’s in it for them. The offer is the single most effective thing that has ever been devised to move someone from inertia to action (except maybe a gun to the head, which when you think about it is an offer too).

The offer is essential to all marketing, really, but it’s critical to direct response marketing.  It’s equally critical to fundraising – except that many nonprofits don’t seem to realize it.

Most fundraising appeals don’t present the donor with a specific, compelling offer. Instead, what most donors see is a general, nonspecific, mushy sort of offer that basically consists of “donate some money to ABC charity.”

Now suppose my tea vendor had sent me an email saying, in essence, “buy some tea.” My reaction would have been “uh, okay, maybe later.” But no, they didn’t do that. Instead, they made me a specific and compelling offer, and that offer is what turned a “maybe” into an “I should do this now.”

It’s the same for a nonprofit. If your offer to donors is “give to fund our mission,” your likely generating a lot of “maybes.” Many, many nonprofits do exactly this, and it’s one of the reasons that cause a lot of donor appeals to underperform, failing to raise as much money as they could do.

This is why it’s vital to think what the offer to your donors should be and how to present it in your fundraising appeals – online or offline. That’s what will motivate more donors to give and often to give more than they did before. In your fundraising appeals, the offer carries more weight than your logo, the size of the envelope, the font for the appeal letter, whether the email is long or short – any of those things. The offer is what engages your donors and motivates them to take action now. Yes, it’s that important.

And yes, I did order more tea.

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