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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