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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